Lagging Behind the Joneses

I don't know how I manage it, but I seem to continually find myself trailing behind in this ever-changing world of digital technology. After the problems of a few weeks ago with a failed Media Center box (which, it seems, can't be fixed) I've finally got the new replacement machine up and running. We've been magically transported from the gray and disappointing confines of Media Center 2005 into the vibrant and exciting new world of Vista Media Center - just a month before Windows 7 is released. I suppose our only hope of actually catching up with O/S releases will be if next door's toddler happens to shove a slice of buttered toast into the DVD drive so we need to buy another new one.

But I must say, the new box is rather nice. It's basically a Shuttle system specially configured by an outfit called I.US to run as a fully capable Media Center. There's a twin digital TV tuner and some software to help Media Center go to sleep and wake up again, a Blu-Ray drive (though Media Center can't show Blu-Ray disks so you have to use the alternative player they provide for them), and a nice wireless keyboard. It came with a suitcase full of extra cables and stuff, and a natty USB wireless network dongle (though we are mainly hard-wired in our house). It looks pretty and, nicest of all, is extremely quiet. Yet it runs Vista and Media Center well, with few indications of performance issues.

And one bonus is that I finally figured out (with some help from other people's blog posts) how to get rid of the annoying auto-login problem with my wife's Vista laptop. Since I set it up, it's been refusing to do auto-login with a "wrong password" error, despite me fiddling endlessly with the limited settings in the Vista account management dialogs. But I had to resolve the problem so I could get an account to auto-login on new Media Center box. The I.US people do a full setup of the O/S, including registering it and running a series of tests such as copying and burning a DVD, tuning the TV cards, and configuring stuff like updates, UAC, and Media Center options.

They create a single admin account with no password, so the system automatically logs on. However, if you want to interact with other machines on a Server 2008 domain (even though you can't actually join the domain), you are stuffed because domain policy prevents the use of blank passwords. Rather than change this behavior, or risk breaking something by changing the default account password, I created a second account on the Media Center box with the same credentials as a user account on the domain so that I can do backups and access the media storage folders on the network that have "Everyone" permission. As I discovered, if you create a mapped drive using a different set of credentials from the logged on user, it conveniently forgets to use them when it tries to map the drive at logon. Most annoying.

I guess it's another indication of how Vista hides stuff and tries to make things too easy in that you have to go through a convoluted process to get an account to auto-logon when there is more than one, or when it has a password. It involves a command line option to open a hidden wizard, and some unintuitive setting and clearing of checkboxes and selecting stuff in a grayed out list box. For details, see Automatic logon at startup in vista. It seems that this process prepares the account for auto-logon by updating the same section of Windows registry as you used in XP to make this work, but it stores the password somewhere safe rather than as text in the registry. Interestingly, after configuring it, you can't just do a "Switch User" and log on with that account. You have to reboot, but then it all seems to just work.

One hang-up was the fact that the home-grown custom photo screensaver we've used in Media Center 2005 doesn't work in Vista. However, there is a nice photo screensaver in Vista with lots of clever display options. Except on the new box, the screensaver settings dialog said that my graphics card "does not support themes". So I could only use the nasty basic version. A few forum posts revealed that the video card needs to support "Vertex Shader 2.0", but that didn't bear any resemblance to the meaningless gobbledygook options in the Nvidia control panel.

However, it turns out that Vista also requires a performance index of higher than three, yet it doesn't actually do a check - it relies on the results of a previous calibration by the "Is My Computer Any Good" wizard in Control Panel. When I opened that, it revealed that my whizz-bang super-fast (and rather expensive) new box scored just 1.0. However, after running it again I got 4.8 - maybe I even qualify for a place in the "my computer's faster than yours" forums now. And, back in the screensaver properties dialog, I've got a choice of any theme I like! Didn't anyone think that this would happen when they were designing it? I suppose it does make sense in some way, but why not provide a link to run the wizard, or at least a note to explain the consequences of this behavior. The help file doesn't suggest running the wizard until you click through three pages. It mainly thinks I should just go out and buy a better video card.

Strangely enough, this "didn't anybody think this was going to happen" scenario also kind of coincided with a newspaper report I was reading this week. It seems that, here in Britain, we are "the swine flu capital of Europe" with over 10,000 new cases occurring every day. The men who supposedly run the country took immediate steps to limit our suffering by setting up a "swine line" call center with 3,000 staff. Of course, none are doctors so they work from a script to determine if the caller has swine flu. Helpfully, they published the symptoms in the script in all the national newspapers and in leaflets sent to every household. If you think you've got it, you call them, answer the questions, and they give you a code number that your "flu buddy" can to take to one of the special "swine flu centers" to get your dose of Tamiflu and a no-questions-asked sick note for a week off work.

Turns out, as you'd probably expect, that most of the people using it are just looking for a free week off work. In fact, the peaks in the graph of "new infections" neatly coincided with the weeks when the weather was nice. I hear that seaside resorts and amusement parks are all reporting record takings this season, so probably there's only seven people in England that actually have flu. However, according to "a Government spokesperson", the "skivers" will have "a real problem" when the flu does its usual trick of reappearing in the autumn, and they really do catch it. Though I suspect it will be their co-workers and the people they share the bus and train with that will actually have the real problem...

But at least we'll be able to watch TV now when we're stuck home with our Tamiflu tablets, hot lemon drinks, and (for medicinal reasons obviously) a few whisky chasers.