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Cutting the Cord Part 3: Building your HTPC - OS Install and Tuning

Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: Microsoft

Tweaking Windows 7 for Media Center - Part 1

Now that you have Windows up and running, Media Center won’t magically start and wash away your cable or satellite bill.  We need to set up Media Center for that, but before we do that, there are various tweaks and settings we need to configure within Windows itself to streamline it for 24x7 Media service.  I will walk through everything I do to a new Windows install on my HTPC’s to pave the way for Media Center.

 The first thing to do is to get the latest drivers for all your hardware.  Don’t waste your time installing the drivers that came on the CD included with your motherboard.  That driver CD has likely been sitting in that motherboard box for months and there are surely more recent drivers available.

My Experience:  If you have access to another computer, you will at least need to grab the drivers for the LAN/Ethernet port on your motherboard if Windows 7 did not recognize it by default.  Without the LAN/Ethernet driver, you can’t get your HTPC online to get any of the other drivers.  What I usually do is as I’m building my HTPC, I’ll go out and grab all the most recent motherboard/hardware drivers I’ll need on another machine and throw them on a USB key.  Then when I’ve finished installing Windows on the HTPC, I can pop the USB key in and update all the important drivers in one go.  Even if Windows does recognize and install drivers for your components, it’s still worth going out to see if there’s anything more recent from the vendor as the Windows drivers are often just built to get basic functionality out of a device and the vendor specific drivers are better.

The primary components you want to download and install the latest drivers for are:

  • System/Chipset Drivers
  • Audio Drivers
  • LAN/Ethernet Drivers
  • Video Card Drivers
  • TV Tuner Card Drivers

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My Experience: In the case of the MSI FM2-A75MA-E35 I am using, I was able to grab just about all of the drivers I needed directly from MSI’s website.  Because the A6-5400K includes an integrated GPU, the System/Chipset drivers contained the drivers for both the chipset and GPU.  MSI’s site also had the LAN and Audio drivers and the only one I needed to go hunting for elsewhere was for the AverMedia Tuner cards.

Once you have all your drivers up to date, open up your Device Manager by doing the following:

  • Press the Windows Key + the R key at the same time to open up the Run Box
  • Type ‘devmgmt.msc’ without the quotes and hit enter or press OK.

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Check Device Manager and see if any devices are showing errors or are listed as “Unknown Device”.  If you do see any errors or issues, hunt down what component is having the problem and download/install the correct drivers.

Now that you’ve double checked that all your hardware is squared away, the next thing to deal with is protecting your HTPC from virus’ or malware.  While it’s not as likely you run into virus’ or malware streaming audio/video and television, I personally never run a Windows machine without some type of AV/Malware protection.  There are a variety of options out there, but you can’t beat Microsoft Security Essentials for a cheap (free) and easy way to protect your Windows machine.

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Once your Antivirus/Malware protection is installed, you will want to grab any new patches for the Windows itself from Windows Update.  You can get to Windows Update through the Control Panel.

  • Click on the Start Button and then choose “Control Panel” in the right hand bar.
  • Click on the “System and Security” heading.
  • A few groups down you’ll see the “Windows Update” category.  Click on the “Check for updates” link.
  • Once Windows finishes checking for updates, it will show you any Important or Optional updates your system needs.  Select them and Click on “OK”, the “Install Updates” to start installing them.

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Windows Update will download and install the selected patches, possibly rebooting a few times in the process.  As some patches may need to be installed prior to other patches, you should run through this process a few times until you no longer see any patches available.

With that, our Windows install is patched and secure, so now we can jump into some tweaks and settings that will ensure we get the best Windows Media Center experience.  Since recording television shows is very time dependent, we want to make sure that the system time is correct and stays way or we run the risk of recordings starting too early or too late.  To check and configure the time do the following:

  • Click on the Time/Date that shows up in the bottom right hand corner of your desktop.  Then click on the “Change Date and Time Settings…” link.
  • If your time or date is not correct, hit the “Change date and time...” button and make the appropriate corrections.  Do the same for your Time Zone, hitting “the “Change time zone…” button to update it if necessary.
  • Next, click on the “Internet Time” tab at the top and press the “Change Settings” button.  By default the time server will be set to ‘time.windows.com’.  Ensure the check box to synchronize with an Internet time server is checked.  Personally, I prefer to choose one of the nist.gov time servers as opposed to the windows.com server.  Click on the drop down arrow and select one of the other time servers.  Hit the “Update Now” button and then hit “OK” and your time settings should be all set.

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Next, I like to disable the Aero interface for Windows as it simply uses up extra system resources to change the look of the Windows UI.  Since we won’t be dealing with the UI in Media Center we can get rid of Aero.

  • Right click anywhere on the Desktop and choose “Personalize”
  • Scroll down through the available themes and choose the “Windows 7 Basic.”  This will update your theme to the non-Aero Windows Basic theme and you can then close the window.

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You are likely not going to want to leave a keyboard and mouse connected to your HTPC which would make logging into the machine a bit of a hassle any time the machine restarts.  There’s a simple way to set Windows to automatically login every time we boot up.

  • Press the Windows Key + the R key at the same time to open up the Run Box.
  • In the Run Box type ‘netplwiz’ without the quotes and hit enter or press OK.
  • Uncheck the box that says, “Users must enter a user name and password to use this computer.” and press OK.
  • Windows will prompt you for the User name and Password you want to use to automatically log on with.  Use the user name and password you setup during the installation and press OK.
  • Windows should automatically login now any time the machine is restarted.

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Anytime we delete a TV show or other files on the HTPC, there’s probably not much chance we want to recover them.  Windows blocks out a set amount of space on your hard drive by default to store any files that are deleted so they can be recovered.  For an HTPC, there’s no real reason to block out all that space, so we can disable or at least shrink the amount of space used for storing deleted files. 

  • On the desktop, right click on the Recycle Bin and choose “Properties”
  • Click on your C: drive and either disable the Recycle Bin completely by selecting “Don’t move files to the Recycle Bin.  Remove files immediately when deleted” or choose “Custom size” and lower the value to free up some space.
  • You can do the same for any other drives you have in the system as well if you want to free up the space that’s blocked out by default.

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Windows has a service called “UAC” that stands for User Account Control.  UAC was introduced in Windows Vista and was Microsoft’s attempt to improve security by warning users when they are doing something that could make changes to the operating system.  We really don’t need UAC in Media Center and it’s best to disable it so we don’t get any UAC popups that we can’t easily deal with without a mouse and keyboard.  To disable UAC, do the following:

  • Click on the Start Button and then choose “Control Panel” in the right hand bar.
  • In the top right hand corner of the Control Panel you will see a search bar.  Type ‘UAC’ into the search bar without the quotes and you should see “Change User Account Control settings” pop up in the Action Center.  Click on that link.
  • Move the slider bar on the left side down to “Never notify”, Click OK and then Click Yes when it asks you if you are sure you want to do that.

 

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December 7, 2012 | 11:38 AM - Posted by YTech2 (not verified)

Thanks for showing the Win7 Install process. I tend to miss this portion because I am so used to older WinOS where it takes hours to install. Then I usually go for coffee, etc.

Thanks for the note about the Activation Key :) Will remember that in the event a components choose to be defective.

Nice note about auto-login. I was wondering about a feature like this to use the computer as a wake-up alarm system, etc. Is there a feature like this available on Windows XP?

Nice Guide :)

December 7, 2012 | 12:13 PM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Yeah, there's actually the capability to autologin in Windows XP as well, just takes a little bit of registry hacking.

Check out the MS KB article on how to do it: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/315231

December 7, 2012 | 11:41 AM - Posted by KTL

I didn't set the SATA controller to AHCI mode during setup and left it at IDE mode, would switching to AHCI mode now require a reinstall?

December 7, 2012 | 12:10 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Let me point you to our MOST POPULAR forums thread ever: 

http://forums.pcper.com/showthread.php?444831-HOWTO-enable-AHCI-mode-aft...

December 7, 2012 | 12:13 PM - Posted by Chris M (not verified)

No it doesn't but you do have to go through some steps before you make the switch over.

http://www.neowin.net/forum/topic/987378-how-to-switch-from-ide-to-ahci-...

Those are the instructions I ended up using when I had to do it.

December 8, 2012 | 02:49 PM - Posted by KTL

Thanks for the information (to both), I was able to switch to AHCI from IDE and W7 home premium was able to boot up properly, recognize the drives (HDD & ODD), install the drivers, and restart.

December 7, 2012 | 05:36 PM - Posted by allen (not verified)

Where's the linux love?

December 7, 2012 | 10:43 PM - Posted by Jason Nevins (not verified)

Hope you mention the gory codecs details next.. i've been using Shark007's set which has been awesome so hopefully that's still the way to go? shark007.net then of course you have to have mediabrowser.tv then your HDMI with audio via AMD video card. Then you have your Steam Big Picture Mode and you're SET.

December 8, 2012 | 07:27 AM - Posted by Chris Barbere

Hmm, what kind of codec issues are you running into?  There's only thing I install to get MKV's working, otherwise I just run with what's out of the box.  99% of what we watch video wise is avi, mpg or mkv.

December 8, 2012 | 09:57 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I see you covered making sure your system time stays up to date. That's pretty darn important when you are recording TV shows on a set schedule. For my HTPC I don't rely on Windows to get it right so I use a 3rd party app that syncs every hour.
http://www.thinkman.com/dimension4/

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