Adventures in creating a Windows 7 HTPC – Part 2

In my previous post, I described the requirements and purchasing decisions around a new Windows Media Center based PC, running Windows 7, and acting as a no-touch appliance. When I left off, I had purchased an HP s5100z PC and added an HD 4350 Video board. The box happily booted Vista Home Basic. At this point it was still underneath my desk and using one of my existing desktop monitors, rather than connected to the TV just yet. Let’s pick up the thread and see what happened next.

The first step was to get Windows 7 Ultimate installed. Initially I tried to be clever and install just the Home Premium edition. After all, the goal is to use it as a DVR/Media center, and nothing in this scenario obviously calls out for the extra features and corresponding additional resource usage of Ultimate, right? Unfortunately, Home Premium doesn’t support the Remote Desktop Connection feature. For any non-trivial administrative work on the box, I plan to just remote desktop to it. That’s a requirement that I’d previously forgotten. Thus, Ultimate it is. Foiled!

Next is to install the baseline software. For me, that starts with antivirus/antimalware. Luckily, I had the Microsoft Security Essentials Beta available. Next up was the Windows Home Server Connector software. It gives me the ability to make a machine backup image at any point. I’m running the WHS Power Pack 3 beta on my Home Server, which has extra Media Center awareness built in. I purposefully didn’t put any non-essential software such as Adobe Acrobat Reader on the box. I want to keep the Windows Update (and similar updaters from 3rd parties) to a minimum.

Before going too far, I wanted to ensure basic DVR functionality worked. I love my HDHomerun tuner, as it has ClearQAM support, and lives on my network. Thus, it can be used by any PC in the house, as long as the HDHomerun tuner driver is installed. Downloading the latest August updates from was a snap, and I fired up Media Center. It readily found the two HDHomerun tuners, scanned for channels, and found ~35 channels. My local Comcast actually has more than these channels, but they need to be added manually. That’s a painful task that can wait for later. I briefly tried to cheat and copy my channel listings and recording schedule over from my previous Media Center box, but ran into some issues. There are some threads on on this, but I wasn’t successful. Regardless, the key point though is that basic DVR functionality is in place.

With most of the software that I needed installed, I then removed all non-essential Windows features using the Control Panel “Programs and Features” page. In particular, “Turn Windows features on or off.” I have no need for games, internet printing, and other assorted items on a Media Center box. So away it goes. Sure, I might not have accomplished that much by doing this, but it made me feel like I was configuring a machine for a very specific role, just like you’d do in Windows Server 2008 and R2.

In keeping with the dumb, simple appliance goal, I didn’t want Media Center running as me, with whatever administrative rights were given to my account when I initially set up the first logon account for the box. As such, I created a new account. Call it “MediaCenterLogon” for the purposes of this discussion. MediaCenterLogon has no admin privileges, and no password. We’ll see why shortly.

 At this point, the system is functional. However, there’s more tweaking to be done to make it seamless. For starters, when the box booted, it gave me a logon screen. That’s not good for the spouse satisfaction index. Plus, who wants to hunt down the keyboard every time the machine has to reboot for some reason? So how do you make the MediaCenterLogon account log on automatically? The trick is to use the netplwiz applet. (Just type the name into the Start Menu edit control.) Because MediaCenterLogon has no password, you can check the option to enable auto logon. See here for details.

The box was starting to feel a little more comfortable. Up to this point, I hadn’t really mucked with Media Center, other than to make sure the tuners worked. I next installed the Windows Media Center Connector software (conveniently located in the Start menu.) Having done this, Media Center has a new top level menu item for “Windows Home Server”. From there, you can configure the TV archive, which I set up to automatically copy all recorded TV to the “Recorded TV” share on the Window Home Server box. The box comes with a 320GB hard drive, but that’s not gonna cut it. That’s why I have Windows Home Server!

Closing in on the end goal, I plugged in my old Microsoft eHome remote IR receiver from my previous media center box. Windows picked it up immediately and found the drivers automatically. My old Media Center keyboard worked perfectly the first time. (Well, after inserting a fresh set of batteries.). There was one comic moment when I was randomly pushing buttons and my wife’s laptop sprung to life. I had no idea that it had a Media Center capable IR receiver as well.

So that’s all for this time around. The box is up and (on the surface) running the way I’d like it to. However, there are still a few more hoops to make it truly the ideal experience. Join me next time when I talk about some of the unexpected behaviors and how I worked around them. Remember from part 1 where I talked about low power consumption and sleep? Oh yes, we’ll be talking about that, my very confused Xbox 360, and a few other things.