Monday, August 11, 2008

Why HTPC’s aren’t for Everyone… Yet – The Mystery of the Bad Hard Drive

Many people who visit my home who see my HTPC setup are wowed by the things I can do on my Television with nothing more than a remote to control things.  Things like commercial detection, archiving a show to my iPod, starting a show in one room & starting the same show in another room where you left off, watching movies stored on a single server from any TV in the house etc.  Well after seeing those great features often the question to me is “how do I get this at my house?”  In most cases, my answer is this - “it’s really very difficult to set up and maintain, so I don’t recommended to the average person.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to recommend it to everyone I know, but I also don’t want to become the tech support guy for all of these people either.  A great case in point is my recent HTPC hard drive problem.

If your cable DVR box starts having problems what do you typically do?  I know what I would do – I’d take it to the cable store and exchange it almost right away.  No cost, no troubleshooting, just a few (okay maybe more than a few) lost shows that are still on that old box.  Well what do you do when you have a HTPC?   You start with the HTPC forums, for me it’s SageTV’s forums or BeyondTV forums.  If you use Microsoft’s MCE or VMC you’ll go to the GreenButton forums.  Start listing your problem and what you’re experiencing and see what kind of feedback you get.  Then if you don’t get an obvious fix, submit a support ticket with the software maker & begin the process of elimination.

I’ve been going down this path for a few months now after having LiveTV playback crashing my HTPC.  At first it was once and a while, then it became more frequent.  My wife and daughter’s faith in the HTPC decreased every time it happened and yes, I was the “help desk” trying to assure them I was working on the issue.  After a while I started having trouble with pre-recorded shows (not livetv) also.  Recordings would be broken up into several files and when you played a show back it would just skip decent-sized chunks of a show as if they weren’t there.

Now I can be thankful this was happening during the Summer as there aren’t as many “must-see” type of shows on during this season, but my Wife and daughter were home more often during this time too so they were experiencing the HTPC breaking way more than I was and frustration was building.  We HTPC'rs often talk of WAF (wife acceptance factor) and how important that is, well my HTPC’s WAF went from 95% to probably 20% at best.  Things had to be fixed or I was going to lose the battle to a cable box DVR!

I will say that I spent some quality time with SageTV’s support e-mailing back and forth log reports, eliminating & discussing possible problems and working through the potential issues and SageTV’s support was excellent.  I received quick & more importantly, helpful responses every step of the way.  They genuinely wanted to help resolve my issue and they suffered through my lack of knowledge a few times.  The amazing thing is SageTV Support pinpointed the most likely cause was a bad hard drive which ended up being the culprit.  It’s just that I didn’t believe the hard drive was the problem.  I ran tests on it when this first started and no errors resulted which made me incorrectly discount the hard drive as an issue.
Hard Drive Error 
Well this past weekend I was messing with things and after rebooting ran a hard drive test on my recordings drive again and guess what?  Yep, my less-than-1-year-old hard drive has some major problems and it’s days are numbered.  I’m now in the process of replacing that drive with a new one once I move all of the recorded shows to the new drive.  Since it’s still under warranty, I’ll send the bad one back.

In the end all is well, but something as simple as a bad hard drive caused all of these problems.  Investigating the cause of basic playback (actually recording) problems is something the average person wouldn’t want to deal with.  They want it to just work or send it back.  That’s a big reason that DIY HTPC’s are for a niche group of enthusiasts and not the average consumer.