Replacing the ATI Radeon 5450 with an NVidia GT 430

So I had reached the end of my rope with the MSI ATI Radeon card on a couple fronts. I had HDMI bitstreaming working with Arcsoft TMT (as long as AnyDVD was running), and I could even put up with the flaky Catalyst UI and drivers. But I was stymied trying to get the refresh rate set to 23.976, which the Kuro PRO-141FD will execute a 3:3 pulldown for picture perfect Blu-Ray playback at 71.928.   Given the cost of the graphics card vs the 60″ plasma, it was time to make a change.

So with $75 of Amazon coupons burning a hole in my pocket, I decided to give the Zotac NVidia GT430 a shot. Since it goes in the HTPC next to the TV, silent cooling was a must.   Gaming performance is a non-issue for me, and since the Kuro isn’t getting replaced anytime soon, 3D video support wasn’t important either, though the Arcsoft BD & 3D assistant gave the card a thumbs up on all accounts.

Upon opening the package, the Zotac NVidia card looks much bigger than the MSI ATI with the giant heat sink, but both cards take up two slots in the machine.  The Zotac actually has two brackets, which make it a nice secure installation. Also, the Zotac has an DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort connections, while the MSI had VGA, DVI and HDMI. What a difference 9 months makes.

MSI ATI Radeon HD5450
MSI ATI Radeon HD5450
Zotac ZONE GeForce GT430
Zotac ZONE GeForce GT430

Installation was painless, it was time to download the NVidia drivers. A couple things impressed me right off the bat:

  • Clean install option – The NVidia drivers will blow away all previous NVidia registry settings and configuration when checking this box.   Very nice when you’ve mucked around with one too many registry hacks.
  • No “crap-ware” in install.   Thank you, I don’t need a 2 week trial to LOTR online…
  • Windows performance index:   ATI 5450: 4.9,  NVidia 430: 6.7!   Very impressive for a fanless card still less than $100.

So the next thing to try was getting to 1920x1080p@23.976.     First of all, the NVidia Control Panel was so much easier to navigate than even the ATI Catalyst Beta (the old ATI UI was horrid.  The latest is bearable).   From there, getting to 23Hz couldn’t of been easier.     Although it’s not listed in the defaults, click Custom, and 23p, as well as 59p, are at the top of the list.

No need to dig into the “Create Custom Resolution” dialog (but I wish the ATI UI had that!)

So that was too easy. Hmm… what about my other Blu-Ray playback issues? While I’ve had HD bitstreaming working with the ATI card for a while, I’ve had two other problems with the Arcsoft TMT software. First off, for some reason the TMT player refuses to play ANY BD disc. No explanation given, and all the HDCP tests come out fine. This started happening with their 3.0.1-170 release, and continues through 5.0.1.87. The only fix I’ve found is to install Slysoft AnyDVD .   Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t the ATI card in this case, and I still need AnyDVD to watch BD.    Not the end of the world since I already own it, but a little disappointing since the software has questionable DMCA legal status in the US.  (BTW: If you haven’t figured it out by now, do NOT use your HTPC as your sole Blu-Ray player, unless you want to spend twice the money for twice the headaches.)

The second problem I’ve encountered with TMT is during BD playback (with bitstreaming) the audio will get out of sync if I decide to pause, rew or fastfwd.   Fairly irritating.   Luckily, Arcsoft has created a hotfix for ATI cards if you encounter this problem, and that seemed to work, though I needed to re-apply it on the latest  version.    Now for the Nvidia… Change refresh rate to 23.967, pop in the Inception BD, press play and wait for the DTS-HD MSTR display on the SC-07…   DTS!?!?!   WTF!!!!!   Arrrggghhh!!!   After getting this far, I’m no longer bitstreaming the uncompressed HD audio track!

OK.  Off to Arcsoft Forums to see if anyone else is experiencing this.     Found one guy from back in Dec, but it’s not clear he knows what he’s doing….    Post my problem…. Next day check the forum (no email subscription!?).  Hmm… it seems Arcsoft has only certified the 260.99 driver, while I had downloaded 266.58.    Back to the NVidia site, archived drivers, 260.99, download.    Remove 266, install 260 (with the clean install option), reboot, play BD…. WHOOO HOOO!!! DTS-HD MSTR is back!    AND no problem with pause, ff, rew, etc all at true 1080p24!

So one thing I noticed is the 260 “Clean Install” check box didn’t do such a great job.   Even though I had removed the old driver and rebooted before installing, I was still prompted by numerous “Newer File Exists” messages during the install.  Furthermore more, the nice list of resolutions you see above all showed up blank with the older driver, but Windows Monitor properties still said I had 59Hz and 23Hz available .      I should probably go back to a restore point prior to installing 266 and then install the 260 version again but it’s working the way I want, so I’m not sweating it for now.   I may just wait for Arcsoft to support the 266 drivers, and then upgrade again.

So while not perfect, the NVidia still wins the day.     Time to not touch it if it ain’t broke.   We’ll see how long that lasts!  🙂

Hulu update and quick Media Center Studio fix

I just received a comment on an old Hulu/AutoHotKey fix I had done sometime ago to get a better resolution for Hulu streaming.    Seeing this, it occurred to me that since then, Microsoft made some changes that broke Media Center Studio.   Searching the  Australian Media Center Community (which has a couple interesting projects you won’t find on TGB) there are a number of work-arounds suggested, but I found this one the easiest to implement:

Edit C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\eHome\Packages\MCEClientUX\dSM\StartResources.dll with a binary editor (gvim) and replace these two references to dSM:

xmlns:Movies = “data://dSM!SM.Movies.xml”
xmlns:TV = “data://dSM!SM.TV.xml”

with

xmlns:Movies = “data://ehres!SM.Movies.xml”
xmlns:TV = “data://ehres!SM.TV.xml”


This should work fine until Microsoft update replaces the DLL, then you just need to make the change again. If editing a binary file is a little too much for you, you’re welcome to try my modified version, though your mileage may vary.   If Windows Update changes the file, shoot me a note and I’ll update the DLL on my site.

Finally, the reader was also nice enough to include two Hulu images to use for creating the icons.

Jumbo Frames, iSCSI and Disabling Nagle

So the new project (which I get to spend about 15 minutes a week on) has been to remove the mechanical harddisk from my HTPC and have it run completely silently off the SSD.   The first stage was purchasing the ReadyNAS NV+.  2TB drives have dropped below $100 so a NAS device with 1Gb networking was the no brainer solution.

Given I have two ATI CableCARD tuners (which BTW are no longer being made or supported by ATI), I needed to make sure the network and NAS had enough bandwidth and performance to write two simultaneous HD streams, while reading a third.  Now in theory, with a 1Gb network, you should be able to get roughly 100MB thoughput, unfortunately the real world doesn’t work that way.

My initial testing using Lan Speed Test (more on that later) showed I was getting around 24MBps writes and 45MBps reads.  (Remember big Bs are Bytes and little bs are bits.  8 bits to a byte)  So looking at my Comcast HD recordings, it turns out Fox is broadcasting 1920×1080 MPEG2 at around 14Mbps.   This isn’t that bad.  Note that DirectTV uses MPEG4 at around 5Mbps.  Since mp4 delivers better quality at lower bit rates,  the DirectTV advertisements aren’t lying when they say the picture is better.   For comparison, a typical DVD is MPEG2 @ 9.8Mbs and a BlueRay is MPEG4 at 40Mbps.   So if you haven’t figured it out yet, HD can really mean anything you want.

But the answer is if you want to record 2 HD TV channels from Comcast, you need about 2MBps per stream, or really just 4MBs, but you definitely want to have some head room, and there’s also the need to play DVD images back from the drive

I was hoping to get a little better than 25% of maximum throughput so started looking for solutions.    The first thing I poked at was the Nagle’s algorithm attributes.    This basically tells the TCP stack to gather all the small requests in to one big one before sending.     Turns out gamers want to disable this feature to make sure every keystroke/click is sent the moment they enter it, and not let things batch up on the network card.    For media streaming, you want the opposite behavior, but you’re rarely sending small data packets anyways.    But just for kicks, I set the following registry settings

HKLM/SYSTEM/CurrentControlSet/services/Tcpip/Parameters/Interfaces/{nicid}/

GlobalMaxTcpWindowSize = 0x01400000 (DWORD)
TcpWindowSize = 0x01400000 (DWORD)
Tcp1323Opts = 3 (DWORD)
SackOpts = 1 (DWORD)
TcpAckFrequency = 4 (DWORD)
TcpDelAckTicks = 2 (DWORD)

And ran this command:

C:\ netsh interface tcp set global rss=disabled chimney=disabled autotuninglevel=disabled congestionprovider=none

Mostly from recommendations from this iSCSI site (more on that below):

Basically I’m saying the opposite.   Package up as many small bits as possible into larger ones to avoid the overhead.  Difficult to measure the differences here, but I’m recording them here for myself in case I run into problems.   Though, it turns out there is another TCP feature along the same lines that does help with streaming media and was much more noticeable.

I had already done all the cache optimizations possible on the ReadyNAS, and configured it for Raid 0 since I really don’t need redundancy for recorded TV shows and I’m using Amazon S3 for offsite backup as described here.   One of the features I found on the ReadyNAS was support for TCP Jumbo Frames.   So it turns out the standards the Internet still runs on today were defined over 30 years ago.   Given the reliability of Ethernet at the time, the designers decided that 1500 bytes was the largest amount of data to be communicated in each packet so if the receiver didn’t get the packet, the resend wouldn’t be so large.    In today’s home gigabit switched networks, collisions and data corruption are almost unheard of.  So rather than waste all the CPU & interrupt time splitting and joining small packets, you just build one big one.   This is also a bit more efficient because each packet also requires header and footer  information describing where it should be delivered to.   Unfortunately, because everyone has to follow a standard, the largest the Jumbo Frame packet goes to is 9K, but that’s still almost a 4x increase in the data delivered with the same header and footer used for the original frame size.

So I started looking at the configuration for the on-board network adapter on my Intel P35.  No Jumbo Frame option, but this I found this note:

Note: The Intel PRO/1000 PL Network Connection supports jumbo frames in Microsoft* Windows* operating systems only when Intel® PROSet for Windows Device Manager is installed.

Cool!  So Installed Intel ProWin and still couldn’t find the JF option.   Do a little more research and find this:

The following gigabit LAN components included with Intel® Desktop Boards do not support jumbo frames:

  • Intel® 82566DM Gigabit Ethernet Controller
  • Intel® 82566DC Gigabit Ethernet Controller

Eeeekk! My motherboard chipset doesn’t support jumbo frames!    So it was off to Amazon to see how much a 1Gb PCIe Network card with JF support would set me back.    Since 1GB is not longer the bleeding edge (they now have 10Gb NIC over Cat6),  this Startect card was just under $25.    This also allowed me to do some real world performance testing between the two use Lan Speed Test:

HW

Intel 82566DC

StarTech ST1000SPEX

SMB Read MB/s

48.05

45.8

SMB Write MB/s

24.28

33.43

So I’m pleased with the 30% speed improvement on write.   I read somewhere that JFs aren’t used for reads, hence there wasn’t any significant difference there.    So I’m all set right?   Oops, wait a minute.   It turns out that Windows Media Center won’t record to a network drive.    This is part of the DRM associated with CableCARD, which I’ve ranted about before.   It turns out the new ATI BIOS relaxed OCUR standards addressed most my CableCARD concerns.  This left two possible solutions:

  1. Record to the SSD and use DVRMSToolbox to move the recordings to the NAS (after commercial detection)
  2. Use iSCSI rather than SMB (Microsoft File Sharing)

Once again, going back to 30 years, there were a couple competing standards for attaching disk drives to computers.    Once of these was called SCSI and was championed by Apple and Sun (as well as many others).    SCSI had a bit high level command structure and some interesting chaining features that are similar to today’s USB features.   PCs meanwhile were using IDE interfaces which have evolved in their own direction.    Fast forward 30 years, and have these network cables which are now as fast as those big thick SCSI cables, so why not send the SCSI protocol over that?   Now you have iSCSI.

So the cool part is, you use iSCSI, and Windows thinks the drive is a local SCSI drive, not a remote NAS drive.     Of course, since I bought the cheaper ReadyNAS NV+ rather than the latest and greatest ReadyNAS Ultra, iSCSI support was not yet built in.   Enter the OpenSource world to the rescue.    Since the ReadyNAS NV+ is basically a little Sparc machine running Linux, Stephan at http://whocares.de/ ported the Linux iSCSI Target daemon.    If you go this route, be sure to check out his support page which was a little tricky to find.    In short, the original directions pointed you to the wrong config file, as I explain here:

Downloaded and installed 1.4.20.2. After following the instructions verbatim, I realized my target was not being created and spent a lot of time searching the net for the cause of this message:
iscsi_trgt: iscsi_target_create(131) The length of the target name is zero

I finally came back here and read all the comments. The problem the whole time was ietd.conf needs to be /etc/ietd, not /etc like the instructions say. 🙁

Hopefully google will find this comment for the next guy who comes along.

I mention a couple other quirks on the support page, but the above is the only one that matters.   So back to performance testing via Lan Speed Test:

Protocol

iSCSI

SMB

Read MB/s

21.05

45.8

Write MB/s

191.28

33.43

Whoa, check that out!    More than 6x improvement in write performance!    In fact, it now writes almost twice as fast as the theoretical network maximum… umm… wait-a-second….   That’s probably not right…

A little more investigation showed that because Windows considers it a SCSI drive, there’s lots of local caching going on which was fooling Lan Speed Test.    Using Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test (which also won’t work on a network drive), write speeds were around 14MB/s.    So the freeware implementation of iSCSI leaves a bit to be desired performance wise.    There may be some other things you could do via direct device access and later versions of iSCSI, but I decided to go back to the DVRMSToolbox solution.

So I’m actually pretty happy with the current solution where I record to a temporary directory on the SSD and then move the file over to the NAS.   This also allows the Dragon Global Showanalyzer to work on the files locally rather than scanning them over the network.

HW

Intel 82566DC

StarTech ST1000SPEX

SMB Read MB/s

48.05

45.8

SMBWrite MB/s

24.28

33.43

Improved Commerical Skip

Many thanks to Spockers at the Dragon Global forms for posting his ShowAnalyzer global.conf file.    Commercial skipping is now much improved and no longer being confused by the odd opening scenes in Damages and Fringe.   Seems the tuning effort is a continuous process and if I get anymore info, I’ll post it here.

More 7MC and Video Streaming

So I finally carved some time out after the 11PM feeding to do some more Media Center upgrades.    Following a tip from this 7MC config page, I installed the Adobe Flash 10.1 Beta to address a flash performance problem I was noticing.  This, plus the ATI Catalyst 10.1 drivers did the trick.  I now suspect it was a driver problem all along, since the release notes call out a problem dropping frames in Flash. Now Hulu playback is pretty much flawless.

I also took the opportunity to upgrade to DVRMS Toolbox 1.2.2.0, along with the latest DTBAdd-in for Windows 7 and ShowAnalyzer. The latest DBTAdd-in has a fix for the null MediaExperience bug which I was forcing me to restart Media Center in order to get commercial skip working.      I’m hoping the upgrade to ShowAnalyzer will improve the over-aggressive commercial removal when watching Fringe.   But it’s been almost perfect on all the other shows.

I’ve also recently begun to play with Handbrake for converting videos for streaming from Amazon S3. And when I want to stream my favorite shows I’ve been using the best iptv provider.  Converted a whole set of Girls basketball games from a tournament in Wisconsin. These were raw captures from a Canon GL2 which even though it’s only an SD video camera, still runs around $2K. I ended up encoding them 3 different times: 1600kbps@30fps, 800kbps@15fps, 400kbps@15fps, all mpeg4/H.264.   It turns out the average Internet connection in Wisconsin isn’t quite the same as Comcast in San Francisco.   I was very impressed at how good the 400kbps videos looked.   The page is a mix of all three, so you can see the difference yourself.   Also, I need to plug Flowplayer which made the integration with S3 a painless cut & paste operation.

Funny thing is that DVRMSToolkit can do all the things Handbrake does, but the UI’s are designed for vastly different purposes.

Finally, the home theater consulting and installation work is beginning to pick up.   On the list of things to do is tossing up a gallery of my installations.