MCE Television and LaCie Big Disk Problems

Well this weekend I attempted to rehook a television signal back into my MCE machine and I was reminded that television indeed may be the biggest thing still holding Media Center back. The issue really boils down to two things. 1. Really poor television quality and 2. Incredibly complex set up.

These two things, in my opinion, hang around MCE’s neck like a gut wrenched albatross.

Let’s examine the two issues.

1. Poor television quality. Now maybe I’m just incredibly spoiled and forgot how bad MCE television quality is after spending the last few months watching all of my high def television on my DirecTV TiVo. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than this. One of the things that has perplexed me with MCE from day one is that there is a huge amount of signal degradation. Last night I tried connecting my new DirecTV satellite box directly to my plasma and it looked adequate. Not great, but adequate. When I connect it to the MCE box on the other hand the picture looks washed out, muddy, etc.

A while back someone once suggested to me that the compression technology that MCE uses is inferior to the TiVo compression technology which was the reason why it looks so bad.

On the other hand, for the most part I’m less concerned with the image quality of this machine because I’m using it for things where image quality is less of a concern — making .mp3s and making DVDs for the kids. Still, I don’t know how I spent two years watching something so poor and so terrible.

2. The complexity of set up. Ok, so I should know better. I pride myself on staying on top of MCE technology but there I was at 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night on the phone with HP Tech support for a little over an hour. I could not get the television signal to come in at all under the TV signal settings in MCE. I kept getting the famous, “the required video files are missing or corrupt” error message. The tech kept walking me through the basic things while I goggled away trying to figure it out myself. Finally after about an hour the tech asked if he could call me back tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the evening. He needed to escalate the issue and do more research. Fine I said, and continued my quest to fix it myself.

In the back of my mind I remembered something about a MPEG decoder and finally after more searching I remembered that I needed to download and install a new DVD decoder. Ok, so I should have known better — but, geez, so should the HP tech. Anyways, I download the 30 day trial decoder from Nvidia and everything was fine. My wife of course was not happy with me as she had to sit there without television in the living room for the four hours that I dealt with this.

I still can’t believe that Microsoft did not include some kind of free DVD decoder with the 2005 upgrade — or at least hit me with an error message that said, “hey idiot, you need a DVD decoder,” instead of the very random, “the required video files are missing or corrupt.” By choosing to cheap out on the DVD decoder they add to the aggravation and decrease the WAF (wife acceptance factor) immeasurably.

Everything is fine now but it reminded me why so many people hate computers and why there still may be quite a bit of hesitancy for people to move them into their living rooms. I barely have the patience to deal with issues like installing a new DVD decoder, uninstalling corrupted drivers and reinstalling new drivers, going to websites and downloading patches etc. And although I’m nowhere near the PC expert that I should be, there are a hell of a lot of people who know a lot less about PCs than I do. I can only imagine the fear of moving a PC into their living room and dealing with these complexities.

In his year end prediction, Biggest Flop of 2005: The Media Center PC, Phillip Swan took a lot of flak for predicting that people do not want PCs as Media Centers. “Consumers see the Media Center PC, whether it’s from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard or Gateway, as just another personal computer — and a more expensive one at that with prices running more than $1,000. Although the Media Center is supposed to be an entertainment device (it enables you to watch TV on your PC and transfer music and photos to your TV), the vast majority of Americans will never — I will repeat that — never think of the PC as an entertainment device. The PC is for work and the TV is for relaxation. End of story.”

Now I hope that Phillip is wrong. However, perhaps the historical complexity of install, maintenance, etc. really has instilled in people a fear of moving a PC into their living room. Certainly not including something like a free DVD decoder with an upgrade — or at least making sure your HP techs recognize this problem early on — doesn’t help the situation.

My TiVo on the other hand has always been amazingly simple. Plug it in. It works. No problem, ever.

My other problem has to do with the LaCie Big Disk that I was bragging about yesterday. The one connected to the MCE machine is working fine and shows are already recording to it. The one for my home office though is behaving terribly. I cannot copy a bunch of .mp3 files over to it. It starts the copy job and each time ends up coming up with an error about not being able to find the file or path. I have to turn the LaCie drive off, turn it back on in order to use it again at all and I get the same problem each and every time I begin the large copy job.

I have always been disappointed with these USB 2 external drives. The Maxtors frequently give me I/O device errors when I try and copy large batches of .mp3 files, but this performance from LaCie is the worst yet.

Of course the problem could also reside in Windows Explorer somewhere as well. I’d love it if someone could point me to some kind of better file/copy utility or somehow come up with some suggestions on this one.

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17 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    For as much aggravation as it caused you, Microsoft has very good reasons for not including a DVD decoder with MCE 2005. DVD decoders are not free, they’re licensed (MPEG2 is a proprietary algorithm). Most DVD drives come with a DVD decoder of some sort (usually bundled in with a software player like WinDVD or PowerDVD). Suppose Microsoft were to bundle a DVD decoder with MCE 2005. This means that the average consumer purchasing a MCE computer at Best Buy will end up paying double for a DVD decoder – once for the one bundled with the DVD drive and once for the one bundled with MCE. Rather than unnecessarily push the price of MCE up (estimate $20, which would be a ~15% increase), Microsoft chooses to let its OEM’s decide when and how to include a DVD decoder. It’s a logical choice that saves you money.

    In any case, if you bought an HP machine, you should have had a DVD decoder installed already, so I’m not sure how you got into a state where you didn’t. In fact, all of the “issues” you describe are really points that regular consumers shouldn’t be dealing with. Codecs and drivers should be installed once at the factory; patches should be delivered via Automatic Updates. Remember that most users don’t do things like upgrade their OS, install a new video card, etc., so as long as the computer was set up correctly at the factory, they will have a simple set up-and-enjoy experience.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Yes, I can see the logic there but still, my point is that with my TiVo I’d never have to even think twice about installing a DVD decoder. I would have gladly paid $200 to have the four hours that I spent on this issue back and willingly, happily, and enthusiastically paid an extra $20 in the price.

    As to why I did not have a DVD decoder installed, this remains a mystery. But the type of mystery that one has with PCs yet not with other devices like TiVos. I did use this PC prior to the 2005 upgrade and the television worked fine. After the upgrade, however, it seems like it was gone. Whether this was due to the MCE 2005 requiring a new or updated decoder or whether the upgrade process somehow deleted my old one I cannot say.

    One simple idea might be that if MCE was missing a DVD decoder that a message indicating this more specifically be generated by the application or at least the HP techs be made aware of this as a troubleshooting issues.

    Although my issues should not be experienced by “average” consumers, unfortunately with the complexity of the PC if my issues are not encountered, others will be. Just read the various help boards, TGB, etc. and they are full of every day ordinary MCE users having problems with their set ups. Not that these problems can’t get resolved, but until 90% of these problems get eliminated entirely it’s a hard case to make that setting up and maintaining an MCE system is easy.

    The upgrade process with the HP supplied upgrade was really horrible and difficult and confusing for me — I’m sure it was also for others as well.

    The only upgrades that I’ve done to my machine were the OS upgrades (which everyone would do) developed by Microsoft and I did install a gigabit network card which works fine and a new fiber optic soundcard which also works fine. Other than these, everything on the PC is original.

  3. Charlie Owen says:

    Sorry you had these problems Thomas — I hate to hear stories like this. A few notes that may help you or your readers…

    Thomas Hawk –> A while back someone once suggested to me that the compression technology that MCE uses is inferior to the TiVO compression technology which was the reason why it looks so bad.

    All of the encoding of the content for DirectTV is done at the ‘head end’ with *very, very* expensive equipment. Essentially, you are downloading a file from the satellite and decoding it on your DirectTV set top box for display on your HDTV.

    All of the encoding of the content for Media Center is done on the Media Center PC with consumer quality equipment (some of which is really good and some of which is only so – so). Another Analog –> Digital conversion is introduced with the use of digital cable / satellite sources which *could* be the source of your degraded quality.

    For example…

    DirectTV = Source –> Encode to Digital –> Download to Set Top Box –> Decode to Analog –> Out To Display

    Media Center with DirectTV = Source –> Encode to Digital –> Download to Set Top Box –> Decode to Analog –> Out to Media Center –> Encode to Digital –> Spool out to hard disk (equivalent to Download) –> Decode to Analog –> Out to Display

    I have digital cable at home which is roughly analogous to DirecTV in the channels above 99 — my experience with Media Center is *nearly* as good as the feed directly off the set top box. I would rate my visual acuity as above average — I can see macro blocking in commercial DVDs at times. Most of my neighbors can’t tell the difference.

    I would be interested to hear more about your setup in the hopes we can figure out why the picture seems to be so much worse.

    Things in this area are improving, like the already released ATSC tuner integration for Media Center which alleviates the additional analog –> digital conversion — stay tuned.

    In regards to the complexity of the setup — you are right — sometimes it seems like we have returned to the bad ole IRQ setting days, does it not. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t make Media Center a standalone SKU of the operating system at first — the setup hurdles were simply too great with the level of third party hardware / software (TV tuner card / MPEG2 decoder) integration.

    A couple of follow up questions…

    Are you using DirectTiVO or DirectTV –> Standalone TiVO?
    Did you upgrade a fully working Media Center PC or perform a clean install of the operating system?

    Charlie Owen
    http://blogs.msdn.com/charlieo

  4. Anonymous says:

    Regarding LaCie:

    It’s junk. Stay away from it. I thought it was neato stuff before I received some of their products. I have 2 of the d2 500gb drives and a big disk 1000gb and an ethernet disk. The d2 and big disk both have problems with the firewire and usb interfaces acting oddly (frequent drive errors, frequently needing to recycle power, windows having problems detecting, etc.). The etnernet disk is another story (it’s a disaster).

    I have also had one of the d2 and the big disk go back to LaCie for service. They use crappy Maxtor drives and I expect to have problems with the other devices. (I guess that when the warranty runs out, I will need to replace the drives with something reliable—i.e. not Maxtor).

    I use alot of drive space for all of the video editing and experimental data I need to store. I have a bunch of other drives from Western Digital that are also USB/Firewire. These have worked just fine. They just work without all of the LaCie/Maxtor problems.

    For the past year or so I have been very happy with the stuff from wiebetech. You can also get their stuff without the drives and put your own drives in them. In particular I have had very good success with the ComboG B portable enclosures. You can put a little 2.5″ drive in it and go. Many of the 2.5″ drives can take a beating, and the ComboGB can talk USB and Firewire. This is great for a portable solution.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    Charlie,

    Thanks for the insightful post and I’m delighted that someone from Microsoft would take an interest. I think you are right on with the problem. The path, “Media Center with DirectTV = Source –> Encode to Digital –> Download to Set Top Box –> Decode to Analog –> Out to Media Center –> Encode to Digital –> Spool out to hard disk (equivalent to Download) –> Decode to Analog –> Out to Display” indeed is a different one than a direct connection from the satellite box and I’m sure that in there somewhere is where my problem is.

    Part of my problem may be that I’m still using first generation hardware. I’m still using the HP 873N that I purchased back in October 2002 — stock as shipped back then with the exception of an upgrade to the soundcard to get a fiber optic out. I have the original emuzed tuner, the original nvidia video graphics card, etc. I’d be interested in hearing if you thought switching any of these out would make a significant difference. I’d love to write about it if it did.

    Although I have a DirectTV HDTV TiVo, this unit is input has no interaction with my MCE machine. I have a new Hughes box that was installed yesterday that is dedicated to the MCE machine. There is no standalone TiVo in the picture on this set up.

    On this machine I did upgrade a fully working Media Center PC, the HP Pavillion 873N. It has been upgraded with each succesive MCE upgrade as released by Microsoft. The upgrade did not take this time and I had to do a clean reinstall and upgrade with HP. The upgrade process was difficult but what I feel is a poorer picture quality has remained constant from 2002.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have had seven Lacie external disk go bad on me over the past 2 years. This is about 1/3 of all the Lacie disks I have purchased and includes ALL their big, bigger, and bigger extreme models. They have NO SUPPORT options for disk out of warranty – even at extra cost. Fortunately, all but 2 of my drives went bad while under warranty. I am avoiding them from now on.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I too have had lots of i/o problems with my Lacie d2 Big Disk 500gb drives. Just got off the phone with Lacie support, and they claim that many of these problems are due to a bad .sys file in WinXP, which can be fixed/updated by following the directions in Microsoft KnowledgeBase article #885222. I’ve just done the downloade, install, and reboot, and am now running a SAS job on my Lacie drive. So far, so good.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The d2 drives suck,

    I have the LaCie 500gb D2 Extreme 7200rpm HD and it continued to drop the firewire connection until it crashed, I restored all the data, formated the drive and only to have it drop the firewire connections again.

    This went on for weeks going back and fourth with Lacie tech support untill it just stop working, the blue LED and drive just stopped mid day, mid project.

    it didn’t just stop mounting on the disktop, I couldn’t even get the drive to power up!!!! DEAD

    I would not put anything on value on LaCie drives

  9. Anonymous says:

    I have to agree and I have to say few words about LaCie

    STAY AWAY from any FireWire drives from LaCie
    AS FAR AS YOU COULD. I don’t know a person
    In our field who didn’t have the WORST experience
    with those junks drives.

    My example:
    I have three 500 gigs (Big Disk) and five 250 gigs drives
    and over a period of two years four of them died in the first year.

    The fifth one – still under warranty,
    yet what is it to me if the data (400 gigs) were lost?
    It was my LaCie backup drive of another LaCie drive.

    How many backups drive we should have?
    One BUT NOT FROM LaCie – stay away from it!

  10. Anonymous says:

    My experience with LaCie drives is that they are totally unreliable. I have had four, and all four have failed. Why, you ask, do I have four? Three were purchased within a year after the first one, an old 10G, failed. Then the 80, the 250, and the 500 all failed terribly. They failed particularly in relation to my working on, or transferring, large video files. They go down unexpectedly and even seem to fail in “stages” with the first clue being that you can get them recognized with DiskWarrior or OSX Utilities & recover some data. But it’s a losing game. I will never buy another LaCie product. I am a university professor and a longtime Mac user (20+ years) and am just disgusted with LaCie’s advice that I should accept hard drive failure as a fact of life and get over it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You might want to try using robocopy a commandline utility. It works much better than the Windows Explorer copy.

    Regarding LaCie Drives:

    I am also having problem with large copy jobs to both of my 1000GB triple interface drives. Each of them end up getting delay write errors and then eventually corrupt. Sometimes I’m able to restart the drive and have it recognized again, sometimes it takes a full reboot. Several times it has gotten so bad that I’ve had to use iRecovery to pull the data of the corrupt drives.

    I’ve tried reformatting the drives (both quick and full) without any better results. The problems seem to occur regardless if the drives are connect through their USB 2.0, Firewire 400 or 800 ports.

    I just contacted support and they promised to send me a link to a bad sector scan utility. I don’t have much confidence that this will solve the problem.

    Anyone able to get their LaCie drives to operate reliably once they have started to act up?

  12. dan says:

    I’ve had a lacie big disk 500 for about 9 months. it started acting up within about 4 or 5 months, but I kept thinking it was something other than the drive. so I move the drive around to other computers and it had the same problem. fortunatly, it was under warranty. lacie sent me a replacement (after 2 weeks of emails telling me that it wasn’t the drive). the new disk they sent won’t even do a full format, but I can get it to do a quick format, but it has write delay problems. Lacie again gives me all kinds of useless advice indicating that it was a tested drive that they shipped to me. I use 5 other external drives (from 160-250GB) and none have problems. I’ve moved this drive around to 3 computers and the problems persist. this was my first and last lacie product I will ever make.

  13. Martyn says:

    Here in the UK I have had six big disk drives. I purchased 3, one after the other a few months apart.

    I lost the first drive which cost me £904 to have a data recovery service save the data.

    My back ups went within days.

    All three were eventually replaced under warranty.

    All the replacements have now gone down.

    I have just contacted customer support who refuse to give me another drive.

    They say they sold it to DABs over 2 years a go. Even though I purchased it less than 2 years ago.

    I will never buy from LaCie ever again.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Not on the subject of LaCie, but MCE. I am using Vista Ultimate for my Media Center. Coming from my set top box (digital cable) I get poor quality. I found a document on Google I think from Comcast Cable saying that they recommend an amplifier installed with the MCE when using digital cable. I have setup my cable without digital to the MCE and the picture was great. I was wondering if anyone else has heard this or tried it and what were the results?

  15. Anonymous says:

    RE Lacie Big Disk:
    I have two fairly new
    (new, and 2 months old) big disk d2 1TB drives with triple interface. The
    USB2 interface works fine, but
    I’ve been testing the FW400 and FW800
    interfaces, on two computers and mutiple different FW ports, and they are consistently extremely slow, about
    4x slower than the USB 2 interface, with
    FW400 and FW800 about same speed, whereas a new WD 1TB triple interface 1TB Mybook works fine,
    with FW400 and FW800 behaving
    as expected…(800 is 2x fast as
    400, and 400 is similar to USB 2)…my conclusion is something
    must be generally wrong with
    Lacie Firewire interface, since
    its the same poor performance on
    drive bought couple months a part

  16. ok. try this:
    1) unplug all cables
    2) plug the power cable
    3) wait the blue light stop blinking
    4) plug the cable on PC
    5) Plug the cable on your disk. That easy!!!

    I did this because in brazil is not so easy to get money back or send it to USA to get fixed.
    I have PC and Mac. Mac is fine with that, never had problem. PC i solved it this way. It usually hapens when you turn off the disk in a wrong way.

    Hope to be helpfull!!!

    GODBLESS!!!

  17. Anonymous says:

    “RE Lacie Big Disk:
    I have two fairly new
    (new, and 2 months old) big disk d2 1TB drives with triple interface. The
    USB2 interface works fine, but
    I’ve been testing the FW400 and FW800
    interfaces, on two computers and mutiple different FW ports, and they are consistently extremely slow, about
    4x slower than the USB 2 interface, with
    FW400 and FW800 about same speed, whereas a new WD 1TB triple interface 1TB Mybook works fine,
    with FW400 and FW800 behaving
    as expected…(800 is 2x fast as
    400, and 400 is similar to USB 2)…my conclusion is something
    must be generally wrong with
    Lacie Firewire interface, since
    its the same poor performance on
    drive bought couple months a part”

    I agree the firewire is slow on the Lacie