My computer sucks.
July 11, 2008 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Just how beefy does my media center PC need to be?!

I recently built a media center PC from some spare parts I had laying around... It's got an Athlon X2 3800+, 1GB of RAM, and a Western Digital 10,000 RPM SATA drive, and it's running Windows Vista Ultimate. I know that 1GB of RAM is kind of light these days, and that the AMD 3800+ is nothing compared to the new Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs, but it's still a pretty passable rig. I figured it would be fine for its intended purposes.

Except, I have a bunch of high resolution (720p and 1080p) video files in MKV format and apparently this machine is not up to the task of playing these files... Playback usually starts off ok, but if there's any sort of action or "busy" scenes with lots of cuts, things start to stutter and stall and while audio usually continues unimpeded, video ends up cutting out for whole minutes at a time.

I've tried both VLC and Windows Media Player.

Apparently, my system is just not up to snuff, and I'm ok with that. But what kind of horsepower do I need under the hood to make sure this stuff will play? Let's set the bar high - like, 8GB 1080p MKV file high...
posted by trinkatot to Technology (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: It also occurs to me that perhaps I have been trying to use the wrong tool. Some things I've read suggest that VLC is just piss poor at this kind of playback, and Windows Media Player is.. well, Windows Media Player.

posted by trinkatot at 4:43 PM on July 11, 2008

Best answer: What kind of video card do you have? Most of them can do some sort of acceleration of H.264 and VC-1 codecs. Nvidia has PureVideo and AMD has Avivo. Maybe just upgrading your video card drivers and making sure you use a player/codec combination that can use the acceleration is all you need.

If your video card is pretty old, you might want to look into CoreAVC, which is much faster than the other software H.264 codecs out there. It costs $15, but that's a lot less than a new CPU or fancy video card.
posted by zsazsa at 4:51 PM on July 11, 2008

Processor and HD are fine. Bump RAM up to 4GB.

What kind of video card? Do you have dedicated video or using the onboard GPU? If the latter, get a dedicated modern video card.

I use Media Player Classic which is extremely lightweight. It handles .mkv very well.
posted by junesix at 4:53 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks guys!

I have a "decent" card - it's an Nvida 8600GTS (PCI-X). This.. PureVideo is intriguing to me.

So, what you're saying is PureVideo can leverage the GPU on the card to accelerate the video? Interesting!
posted by trinkatot at 4:55 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: PureVideo: "NVIDIA® PureVideo™ Decoder software, a plug-in for Microsoft® Windows® Media Player and Media Center Edition, delivers smooth MPEG2 video and unmatched color fidelity when watching DVDs, videos, and TV programs on your PC."

So, do these MKV files use MPEG2? Will this actually help me, because if it will I will gladly put out the dough.
posted by trinkatot at 4:57 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: Ah-ha. MKV is just a wrapper, so obviously any number of things can be contained therein. This is a ball of wax and a half.
posted by trinkatot at 5:02 PM on July 11, 2008

Usually H.264/MP4 so no it wouldn't be of much use.
posted by junesix at 5:02 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: BUT! Software likes this apparently uses the PureVideo HD capability of my graphics card, which should accelerate H.264 and MPEG4.

Maybe it's as simple as that!
posted by trinkatot at 5:07 PM on July 11, 2008

MKV will almost all be H.264/MPEG4, not MPEG2.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:08 PM on July 11, 2008

My understanding from other boards is that the GPU acceleration only works if you are decoding a physical blu-ray, or you go through a complex series of steps and filters. I have not tried it myself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:09 PM on July 11, 2008

Best answer: Yeah, it looks like you've gotta pay up to get a player or codec that can use PureVideo to accelerate H.264, but they look pretty expensive. You may be better off paying the $15 for CoreAVC, which is a Directshow filter that works with Windows Media Player or other players like Media Player Classic. Give the trial a shot to see if it fixes your problem.
posted by zsazsa at 5:11 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: Alternatively, I think Xenophobe is on the right track - if I were to take the MKV file and convert it to a Blu-Ray .ISO, I could conceivably mount it and play it back using some of the software already discussed.

That sounds like a pain. I'll play with CoreAVC, among other things. Thanks for all the info!
posted by trinkatot at 5:16 PM on July 11, 2008

Install mplayer. Add the line "lavdopts=fast=1:skiploopfilter=nonref:threads=2" to the mplayer configuration file (on linux this is ~/.mplayer/config, i don't have a clue about windows). This is what enabled me to playback 1080P on my Athlon X2 3600+.
posted by PueExMachina at 5:23 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: I just downloaded the trial for CoreAVC and installed it. I was not actually sure it was working - as it's just a codec, I'm always somewhat confused when I start to play the file in Media Player as to if it's actually working or.. not, if that makes sense.

(Remember the stone that keeps tigers away? :)

Anyway, Holy Crap. I threw the worst thing I could think of at it, and it played back like a total champ. I am so happy right now. This has been annoying me for at least a week now.

I will look at MPlayer, too.

posted by trinkatot at 5:28 PM on July 11, 2008

Haali Media Splitter worked for me and has the advantage of being free.
posted by xchmp at 5:47 PM on July 11, 2008

1 GB memory with Vista is not just "kinda light", it's pretty much unacceptable. Bump it up to at least 2GB if possible.
posted by DarkForest at 5:56 PM on July 11, 2008

Interestingly, the CoreAVC installer installs Haali Media Splitter by default. I'm still not clear on what it does, but whatever.

Vista seems to idle at about 65 - 70% physical memory usage. I know, it's awful. I'll get more!
posted by kbanas at 6:03 PM on July 11, 2008

Response by poster: Er, heh - my boyfriend forgot to log out of the desktop! Oops.
posted by trinkatot at 6:08 PM on July 11, 2008

Interestingly, the CoreAVC installer installs Haali Media Splitter by default. I'm still not clear on what it does, but whatever.

It allows the video and audio streams within a MKV/MP4/MPEG-PS/MPEG-TS/AVI stream to be sent to the appropriate decoders. Windows doesn't have a native MKV/MP4 splitter installed.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:32 PM on July 11, 2008

N'thing bumping your RAM to 2GB or 4GB. 1GB is barely enough for Vista to run well with your grandma's tasks, and it's painfully low for what you're trying to do. I know this is a bit different from your situation, but my MacBook only came with 1GB of RAM originally, and I was disappointed that it couldn't play back H.264 HD video very well. When I bumped up the RAM to 2, and later 3, GB, I was thoroughly impressed with the improvement in playing back these files.
posted by joshrholloway at 6:03 AM on July 12, 2008

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