New HTPC – Shuttle XS35GSV3

The ASRock ION 330 HTPC had been a faultless performer for nearly three years but in late December, the combination of a hot summer, a warm amplifier underneath it and a flaky case fan caused it to cook itself, leading to it becoming prone to lock up for periods of time. I changed the hard drive, reseated cables and replaced the fan. None of this helped (EDIT: Both 320GB WD drives were faulty), It seemed to have lost the ability to control the case fan properly unless I kept it on maximum fan speed, making it intolerably noisy.

After a few attempts at fixing it I decided to replace it and was pointed to the Shuttle series of totally silent fanless PCs by work colleagues. I bought the Shuttle XS35GS V3  which promised a totally silent home theatre PC experience.

I’ve not been disappointed.

I thought I’d be adventurous and gave OpenElec a try,. This is a very optimised XBMC Linux distribution. I found I had to use a more “generic” build as there wasn’t a build for the V3 hardware. After struggling with networking and messed up graphics for a day, I decided to go back to the flexibility of the software set I’d used previously, that being: TV Scheduler Pro for TV recording, Zoom Player for playback and EventGhost for IR remote control.

I started with XP and it was “ok”, but  Zoom Player (now at version 8.5 vs. version 6 on the ION) had moved on to using the excellent LAV Video Decoders that offered GPU accellerated playback of hi-def content, something I’d achieved using MPC Video Decoder.

I really liked the quality of the LAV Decoder (DScaler is now obsolete for me) but I couldn’t get it to work with acceleration. I discovered it needed the use of the EVR Video Renderer under Windows 7, at least.

I decided to skip Windows 7 and bought an upgrade to Windows 8. Installing it went pretty smoothly, I had to “forcibly” install the drivers for the KWorld Dual DTV USB Tuner and the LinkSys Dual Band USB WiFi (the onboard WiFi of the XS35GS is 2.4G only).

Application wise, everything ran well and the much maligned start screen was a non-issue, I’ve set up buttons on my harmony remote to take me straight to Zoom Player’s navigator for either TV Recordings or my media  library. Most importantly though, GPU accelerated playback using the LAV Video Decoders and DXVA2 seemed to work.

It wasn’t until more critical viewing that we realised that *every* video played had a tear in the centre when there was horizontal motion. It was as if it was switching frames at precisely the wrong time. This started a big investigation for the cause.

The problem occured when using the EVR Renderer with either LAV Video Decoder (DXVA2 or software decoder) or the FFDShow. decoder. With the Shuttle using a Radeon 7410M, there wasn’t much choice in drivers to try as its a custom mobile chipset. The video driver did not have the usual option for VSync and I tried both RGB and YCbCr pixel formats, and setting the display framerate to match the video (something which fixes typical tearing).

I tried what drivers I could get to load on it and was at my wits end as everything else was great including smooth low CPU DXVA2 playback of 50FPS 1080P.

Then I tried a slightly older Zoom Player EXE (8.50 instead of 8.51) and the problem went away! Yet when I renamed the older EXE to the regular ‘zplayer.exe’ name, the problem came back. What the…

Looking at the Explorer options on the EXE, the cause soon became clear.

Zoom Player had been installed with the Explorer compatibility option “Disable display scaling on high DPI settings” enabled. This option helps older apps run on the new very high resolution displays.

I’m not sure why, but switching this option off caused the tearing to completely disappear. Playback is now smooth and after some colour calibration, I am very satisifed with the results.

Here is the newly installed Shuttle sitting next to my amplifier.