My Media Center gets a perfect 10

About three months ago, I set up a Dell XPS 410 with two CableCARD tuners as my primary Media Center machine. It took a few weeks to get everything working properly, with most of the issues being related to my cable signal. By November, though, everything was working perfectly, and for the past two months it has been rock-solid. How reliable?

Here’s the System Stability Chart, as snapped yesterday.


That one red X was the Media Center Extender software (Mcrmgr.exe) having to be restarted. I had a few of those errors when I was using an Xbox 360 in December, but have had no repeats since installing the Extender update package (KB938126).

I’ll be sharing a much more in-depth look at this setup shortly, and I’m also unboxing a Linksys DMA 2200 extender today (the one with built-in DVD drive). Meanwhile, if you have questions about CableCARD, Vista Media Center, Dell’s XPS line, or anything else that might fit in this review, feel free to ask in the comments here.

16 thoughts on “My Media Center gets a perfect 10

  1. Mine is pretty stable too, so I’ll have to look at my reliability numbers and see what they say. I’m guessing I’m also around the 10.00 mark.

    However, one thing that continues to annoy me (and my wife) is that Vista’s sleep mode doesn’t work properly. This is a relatively new system (HP Pavilion s7620n) and sometimes it wakes up right away, while other times it seems like it’s waking from hibernate mode and takes 10 minutes to come back from sleep. HP doesn’t bother to update drivers or the system BIOS, so I’m out of luck there. I also occasionally lose wireless connectivity to my server and am forced to reboot, but that only happens once or twice per month.

    I’m hoping SP1 fixes the sleep problem, because MC works pretty well otherwise.

  2. Ed,

    Long time reader, and I finally have a question you might be able to answer. The ATI CableCard USB device is only available through OEMs or on eBay, but do you know of any restriction in a random Dell that might prohibit it from working as normal? Are there systems that carry a BIOS value that somehow indicate the computer is CableLabs-certified? ATI mentions the system you have, among others, in a list specifically known to ship with the device but I’d like to order one on eBay and have some modicum of confidence that it will work with a high-performance machine that just happens not to be on ATI’s list.

  3. Jay, I’ll cover this in much more detail, but basically you must have a machine with a Digital Cable Ready version of Windows and a separate product key to activate the digital tuner. The only way to get these components is by ordering them from an OEM. Lately Dell has been selling the XPS 420 with a Quad core CPU, 3GB RAM and a 320GB drive for about $800. All XPS 420s are DCT-ready, so you can order the ATI tuner later and it should work.

    Edited to add: If you buy a Dell XPS 420 today, the only OS options available are Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, both with Digital Cable Support. If you previously purchased an XPS 420 and it did not include Digital Cable Support in the original configuration, you cannot retroactively add it, at least not under any current Dell program. And when I’ve talked to official sources at Dell, they acknowledge that it is unlikely they will offer Digital Cable Support after the fact. The moral of the story is, if you want Digital Cable Support, order it with a new PC and make sure it’s included when you purchase the PC. The tuners are sold and shipped separately, but they are worthless unless the computer has a DCT-capable BIOS and the correct version of Windows with a DCT product key.

  4. Since it’s basically an appliance that is barely even looked at once it’s setup, wouldn’t you expect a high score? I wouldn’t expect any less from XP, Linux, whatever.

  5. Rick, there’s a very vocal “Vista sucks” crowd that seems to think that Vista on its very own is unstable, slow, bug-ridden, and prone to crashing. I submit this as Exhibit A that they are wrong.

    And although I do indeed treat the machine as an appliance, it’s not correct to say “is barely even looked at.” I use it to watch live and recorded TV, I download music files to it from Amazon MP3 and eMusic, I sync up subscriptions with Yahoo Music, and I occasionally use it for web browsing. This machine is working pretty much around the clock and feeds two (soon to be three) extenders. So it gets plenty of exercise.

  6. Do you power this machine down at night or does it run 24/7?

    One feature I wish Vista MCE had was the ability to power up/down at pre-set times and then stay awake if there was a program to be recorded.

    Say, turn yourself off at 11:30 pm and back on at 6:15 am? However, go ahead and stay awake if there is a show to record at 2:00 am, but shut yourself off when the recording is done.

  7. This machine runs 24/7. I record a lot of movies from premium channels in the middle of the night. Also, because it serves extenders, it has to be available on the network on demand.

    This reminds me that I should probably write about Away Mode one of these days… You don’t know what Away Mode is? That’s why I should write about it. 😉

  8. Your 420 is doing much better than mine! Mine’s sitting at 5.65 and has been near there for awhile. It’s also my development machine so perhaps I’m pushing it as well as running a lot of off the beaten path applications but it seems explorer crashes at least a few times a week, along with mmc.exe and mcrmgr.exe. It also seems to churn the disk a lot even when I’m only doing light text editing, not sure if SearchIndexer is freaking out or if something else is going on. I do notice the Zune software hitting the offline cache folder a lot, the weird C:\windows\CSC, folder and I have no idea why it would be trying to do that.

    Are you running the pre-installed OS or did you wipe and reinstall? SP1? I did a reinstall and perhaps I missed some needed driver.

    A few questions that you might know…

    Is there a way to exclude a certain type of folder from the indexer? I use subversion for source control and I have a ton of hidden .svn folders I’d like to tell indexer never to bother going into yet it still seems to. I have them all over so I don’t want to do them one by one but instead “exclude all .svn folders”.
    Anyway to know exactly what is behind a “svchost” process? I notice svchost hitting a lot of my files but I can’t tell exactly what program or what actual service.
    Even more random, know of any way to add a folder to the upper-right side of the start menu, “in the black” so speak? I never use the Games folder but I’d love to have the Downloads folder there instead.

    grin thought I’d bug ya while I might have your attention 🙂

  9. I recently converted an MCE 2005 box to Vista Home Premium. All in all, it’s working pretty well. However, the one feature I was hoping for, and don’t find, is sorting pictures by tags and by rating.

    All my pictures (>20,000 of them) are stored on a LAN server to which the MediaCenter has full access. All pictures are tagged and rated, But the MediaCenter only picks up tags from pictures stored locally, and no ratings at all. Big bummer.

  10. Ed,

    That’s really sad to hear, especially since it sounds like the only thing keeping a powerful Vista MCE machine from using DCT is a product key. Do you know why this has to be obtained from an OEM and they won’t just sell the item? With the requirement of the CableCard from the service provider, I can’t see why they think allowing this to be used on any random system would weaken their content/service protections. It’s really disappointing to think that I just blew a lot of money on a good machine and ended up having the one thing I wanted to do be impossible. I look forward to your post on the topic, it sounds like I have more to learn than I thought.

  11. Any chance of you posting your 420 specs that you customized it with from the Dell site? I’m especially intersted in how your HDD’s are arranged and whether you have a dedicated drive for OS/Software and other drives for content.

  12. Matt, I actually have an XPS 410, custom configured by Dell. The layout is very similar to the 420, though, and I will gladly explain how I have it configured, because that would be very applicable to a 420.

  13. That’s amazing that you got it up to 10.00!! I’ve only been able to get mine up to 9.5 or so, and now hovers around 8.5 because IE and FF crash occasionally… not to mention that on at least three occasions I’ve checked my reliability report and as soon as I hit the X button to exit, I get a “Program not responding” error… very frustrating! Although I imagine I may have gotten to 10.00 had I not checked the reliability report… ironic…

  14. I’m just wondering what type of cable signal problems you had. I ‘m running a Velocity Micro system with two ATi DCT boxes. When recording a premium channel (HBO, Showtime Etc.) It plays video just fine. but while thats recording and you switch to another Permium channel it tunes it in for a second but then freezes. All the standard channels tune in just fine. I had the cable techs out and they are not much help becuase they have no knowledge of MCE. I’ve tried all different kinds of splitters, boosters and attenuators tring to adjust the signal strength but no luck. Any insight would be a great.

  15. I’ve been using two media centers for a while. One was a refurb cheapie that I use with hdhomerun. works very well.
    The 2nd one if a hp 8000 series with a external ati digital cable card tuner. When the machine comes out of sleep mode the channels from the tuner are not available right away. There is a patch from ms to supposedly fix this but when I try to install it it says “does not apply to this machine”. The patch nr is 927084.
    I’m guessing if I leave the machine on 24/7 I won’t have this issue. Seems a waste since the machine is just wasting energy when it’s not being used for watching or recording tv. (which is probably 95% of the time in this case if not more)

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