Monday, January 17, 2011

Choosing a Video Codec Setup for Windows Media Center

11:20 AM |

Choosing the right codec setup for your Windows 7 Media Center build can be tricky. Should you stick with the built-in Microsoft decoders or get something a little more tweak-able? Even the built-in decoders need some help playing a number of file formats available, including the most popular format among enthusiasts, MKV. How do we choose which route to go while installing our Media Center setups for the first time (or after having trouble with an already setup machine)? First we’ll have to take a look at what we want from our setups.

The first question is do we need DXVA (hardware acceleration) or why would we need to use hardware acceleration? Hardware acceleration in the form of DXVA requires the proper hardware, a recent video card with sufficient power, and takes the load off of the CPU when decoding video files. With modern video formats reaching enormous resolutions some older CPUs have trouble processing them without severely crippling the frame rate, the addition of a more recent video card to an aging machine can clear this up with DXVA however and save an older box from the recycling bin.

Microsoft’s built-in decoders are perfect for DXVA acceleration and require only the installation of a good splitter to play most video file types. The problem with using Microsoft’s built-in decoders for playing back your video files is the almost complete lack of support for subtitles of any kind. In fact this is a problem you’re likely to find across any DXVA enabled decoder. Most cannot decode and display subtitles while still retaining DXVA capability.

If subtitles aren’t a problem, however, we advocate a minimalist approach to everything here at Hack7MC and encourage using the built-in decoders since video quality across any set of decoders is unlikely to vary much if at all. To play most video files using the built-in decoders you’ll only need to install a good splitter and we suggest either Haali’s splitter or Gabest’s splitter which you can download for x86 systems here and x64 systems here. Install the Gabest splitter package by extracting the files to the root C:\ drive and running the gabest_enable.cmd file as administrator (right-click -> run as administrator).

To display MKV files inside the Media Center movie library you’ll also need to install one of the available registry entries for either x86 systems or x64 systems.
If you’ve got a system capable of handling all the resolution video you plan on throwing at it and you do need subtitles with your video playback, and most users will considering foreign dialog usually present in a few movies in everyone’s collection, we’ll need to install a subtitle renderer. This will make DXVA playback no longer possible, however.

Installing a capable subtitle rendered is fairly simple using one of the packages we’ve put together. Download the VSFilter package for either x86 systems or x64 systems and extract the file to the root C:\ drive. Then right click the vsfilter_enable.cmd file and select Run as Administrator. A dialog should appear and confirm successful installation.
If you need even more control over your video playback than simply being able to watch your video and read subtitles it’s likely time to move away from the built-in Microsoft decoders and look for a more complex solution. One of the best available decoders available is FFDShow Tryouts. This set of decoders allows for decoding most any video type and includes a large array of options for tweaking the video output.

To install FFDShow Tryouts select the latest version available for x86 systems or x64 systems for download and install them to the Media Center machine. Once installed the filter can be tweaked quite a bit by launching the decoder options from the ffdshow start menu entry. To get the FFDShow decoders to override the built-in Microsoft decoders requires some extra work, however.

You will also need to use the Windows 7 Filter Tweaker to select the FFDShow filters for each video type you’d like to use FFDShow to decode. Simply download and run the Filter Tweaker and select FFDShow for each of the applicable video formats. In some extreme cases you may also need to disable the Microsoft decoders completely but generally restarting Media Center or the machine will be all that is required after using the Filter Tweaker tool.
If you aren’t comfortable making these installations and using programs to make changes to the heart of your system you may prefer to go with an all in one solution to video playback. The most recommended all in one solution for Media Center users is Shark007’s complete codec package.
Shark007’s package will install a large number of options and decoders to choose from as well as a simplified control panel from which you can select and configure each decoder. Download the x86 package as well as the x64 package if you’ve got a 64-bit machine and you’ll be all set to play virtually anything.

No matter which solution you decide to go with, Microsoft, FFDShow or Shark’s we hope you’ll continue reading with us here at Hack7MC as we continue to bring you even more how-tos and guide to Windows 7 Media Center this fall!

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