9/11/07 edit: BEFORE YOU UPGRADE, read this post with a big grain of salt and check later posts to learn what happens 30 days after you upgrade!
12/13/07 edit: READ PAGE 7 of this thread to learn an incredibly easy way to get 1080P on an XL3 (or possibly other computers running 7600 series NVidai cards)
Hi folks, been fooling around with my XL3 and have quite a bit to report. As an aside, if anyone else had a dead keyboard (but OK mousepad) let me know as I found no hit on this so it might be isolated*. BTW I can tell you that the little Sony keyboard is NOT Bluetooth, at least not a normal flavor.
*edit UPDATE: After spending two hours on the phone with Sony CA and having three techs and a manager go through the exact same sequence of steps, they sent me a new keyboard free. Good thing because Sony's website lists it as over $400 retail!
**edit SECOND UPDATE: That keyboard died too, replaced it with a competitor, described later in the thread.
SO, had loads-o-fun with Cablevision convincing them unit needed a cablecard and that they needed to install it; my 1 hour+ phone adventure included a supervisor who told me they didn't provide them but I could get one at Radio Shack, and another who said a CableCard was a device that lets me hook a notebook up to a network cable (um, PCMCIA, anyone?). When the tech arrived he gave the card to me to install, and took lots of pictures of me doing it with his cell phone. For which I paid $60.
First note: don't expect your cablecard to work immediately; it has to load up with info on your channels. Therefore digital channels begin to become available sporatically over the course of a half-hour or so. Interestingly, HD channels were available immediately - the tech says that always happens when he is provisioning HDTVs. Picture looked horrible at 1080i.
I'm a tinkerer, but I practice safe tinkering, and that means backup. Partition Commander 8 wouldn't boot at all, the driver for the bootable CD bombed when faced with a SATA Blu-ray. Acronis's version booted and recognized the RAID, but doesn't allow duplicate partitions on a single drive and wouldn't recognize an external USB drive, so back to Staples it went, exchanged for PC 10: "Works with Windows Vista!" said the label, but the fine print said "via free download." In any event, it recognized my USB drive but flaty refused to notice anything inside the XL3; whether due to SATA, RAID, or both, I never learned, because I then upgarded my two-day-old computer to Ultimate (as soon as I made a backup DVD set through the Vaio utility).
Upgrading Vista through Microsoft's Upgrade Anywhere feature could be a genuinely painless experience, but sure enough, there are bugs. After giving my credit card number and downloading a small file, a familiar installation dialog opened: "Installation in progress, follow the on-screen prompts." Problem is, there weren't any. After a few minutes I rebooted (CTRL-ALT-DELETE: serving the PC community since 1985) only to get back to the same apparent hang. This time I let it run for an hour with no "prompt" appearing; but I noticed an explorer window had also opened, and one of the files displayed was enticingly called "setup." I double-clicked on it and away it went - the installation routine had failed to auto-execute! The rest was fairly painless, and here's the big big big news: as soon as the final reboot, the system was running 1080p@60Hz, with no downloading from NVidia required! Fonts look great, and Aero runs smoothly.
And now I was able to do a full system backup (from within Windows, which is a pretty neat trick) through Control Panel|Backup. (It's not really an image like in Partition Commander or Norton Ghost, and you can exclude files, but it's close enough.) To verify that it worked, I booted from the emergency Vaio DVDs (which, for reasons beyond my comprehension, cannot be a dual-layer DVD, much less a Blu-Ray); I re-created a minimum installation, and then - using the same DVD - used the Microsoft restore utility to copy files back off my USB drive to the hard drive. WARNING: while it might be possible to completely kill all the Sony stuff off the hard drive and do a truely clean restore, and I may try this someday, bear in mind that everything is running off a RAID striped disk pair...so it may also be true that by killing the little 6GB Sony partition you lose the ability to boot Vista at all. So make that recovery set with the Vaio utility first!
So far, so good, right? Too bad I had no TV tuner now.
It's partly my fault. In Windows 9X/200X, if a piece of hardware simply won't work, delete its driver in Add/Remove Programs, reboot, and when Windows notices the hardware you can load the driver anew. Uh, that's not quite how it works in Vista. A lot of familiar hardware is treated in unexpected ways; in this case, the ATI OCUR card is actually handled as a network card (which, if it had a two-way cablecard in it, it technically would be). Deleting the driver because I couldn't get it to be recognized in Media Center (even though it showed in Control Panel just fine) turned out to be a really bad idea; this is not a driver you can just pick up off some street corner...no dice at ATI or Sony, and of course no CDs with a big fat .CAB library to hunt around in. So, it was time for another restore and try again - if I hadn't made the backup and recovery DVDs, I would have been absolutely hosed. After a lot of reboots, and attempts to re-install the ATI firmware upgrade (not a device driver, mind you, but firmware flash) from Sony's web site, it finally took. And here's a note that's been mentioned in other threads here: first thing you want to do, it's obliterate User Access monitoring (instructions are elsewhere, but basically you deactivate it in msconfig). This I-wanna-be-Unix feature is seriously not ready for prime-time, as attempting to run the downloaded ATI firmware file kept giving me a "Folder name not valid" error no matter what folder I put it in or how I named the file itself. Once I disabled User Access blocking, it worked, and on the second or third try it actually flashed the card, which at least meant it had found something to flash.
Note: an errata sheet included with my XL3 warned that it could take up to two minutes for the ATI card to initialize. Use that as a minimum, not maximum, figure, especially during initial installation.
edit UPDATE: Newer firmware on Sony's web site promises to speed this up, but beware - if it screws things up, restoring a backup won't help you because it's what's in the card's EPROM, not what's on your hard drive.
So, off into Media Center - which had incidentally forgotten everything I taught it in Home Premium, except oddly enough what TV shows to record - only to be asked for an activation code. No, it's not the Windows activation code, but it's close, literally: it's the digital cable activation code that's on the back of the VL3, just to the right of the usual Microsoft Genuine Windows code. My 3.2mm high code included something that might have been either a "G" or a "6" and a "B' or an "8," but it eventually worked (tip: you can enter the code with or without dashes, and don't worry about whether or not to include the extra characters at the bottom of the label - once you enter the correct number of characters, the input field helpfully greys out).
Finally I hit the dreaded "No audio installed" error, which has been mentioned in this thread BUT although it is technically true that you want to install the Intel chipset drivers first, they're not actually CALLED Intel chipset drivers on Sony; instead, install the lastest update for "SigmaTel," reboot, and start rockin'.
1. I dump everything to network, and that's a challenge because a) Vista drivers for my Netgear storage center don't exist yet, so I'm having to use my old XP MCE machine as a network share (netgear-to-old PC-to-XL3 works fine receiving recorded TV; how it'll fare recording HD back through that path remains to be seen***); and b) Vista handles networking significantly different than any prior version of Windows. Remember how starting with Windows ME you had to rename your network from WORKGROUP to MSHOME? Well, at least with Ultimate, you'll be naming it back again. It's much easier to rename your existing network WORKGROUP than to try to convince Vista to accept MSHOME, because Vista doesn't seem to have a "network setup wizard" in the classical sense. It's not bad or nonfunctional, just different and, well, obtuse. Of course, you may have some special router setup that makes it difficult to change your workgroup name, so YMMV.
***7/29/07 Update: actually this is "officially" impossible; Media Center never did let you record to a network share, and Vista doesn't even let you use a network share as a watched folder (but you can do essentially the same thing - for watching only, mind you - through the new Vista "Pictures and Videos" feature, which will let you watch a share). I was unaware of this in XP, since my Netgear box showed up as a local drive. There is an article on TheGreenButton giving detailed registry hacks to work around this, but I think I'll just wait for the Netgear SC101 drivers, thanks...
***second Update: new Netgear drivers allow the SC101 to work flawlessly as a netwqork drive under Vista, but recording shows directly to network introduces a strange corruption, explained later in this thread.
2. Sound sometimes comes out of my surround sound and sometimes my monitor via HDMI and sometimes both; it depends on what channel I'm watching. Windows itself sends everything to both. I don't think this was the behavior in Vista Home but I didn't take notes on it. The audio itself is set to go to both (this is an Intel setting; there's actually no option to send sound through HDMI at all in the audio dialogs within Media Center).
3. Sony continues to load ever-increasing amounts of crap on their machines, but with the XL3, it's approaching critical mass: one additional trial version will surely make the machine implode into a black hole. The one possibly useful item in the vast sea of Sony-branded and Sony-partnered stuff (how DO you get that damned AOL searchbar out of IE7, anyway?) is Sony's IE front-end designed for use with the remote control. Kinda superfluous on its own, it could be exactly what owners of Netgear (and possible XB360?) media center extenders need. (Media Center extenders include a utility to remotely control the main Media Center PC, but trying to surf the web using a media center remote on a remote desktop mirroring regular IE is agony). If that works I'll post an update.
4. I planned on installing a duplicate cable tuner (my Happaugue analog-only) to see what happens - it would be nice to be able to watch one thing, even if analog, while recording something else but I can't imagine how Media Center would actually handle this intelligently - would a pop-up say "SELECT A TUNER: The channel you have selected can be recorded by Media Center in (o) clean digital or (o) crappy analog"? If a recording conflict occured, would a Resolution dialog appear asking which show to record in poor quality? If not, then how would it know which tuner to use for which recording? Not a problem if there were two tuners with identical capabilities, but I seriously doubt Media Center's programmers thought about this - especially with no dual-capability CableCards.
At least not yet. In my area, anyway.
Or that anyone at the cable company knows about.
Looking forward to whoever first posts the registry hacks to get rid of all the extra entries that now appear inside the Media Center menus...