So I built an HTPC just over a month ago and it’s been rough going.  Overall, I’ve figured out how to get it (and mostly keep it) working, but it seems like many of the issues I’ve faced are all due to buggy ATI software and drivers.  It’s aggravating, and you’d think that they’d have it down by now.  I’ve sent in about four support tickets today to see if they have any suggestions (but, based on how their software runs, I’m expecting canned and unhelpful responses).  We’ll see if they can surprise me.

Here’s a quick run down of the issues I’m seeing:

Issue 1

The latest driver on ATI’s website for my TV tuners (I have two TV Wonder HD 650 cards) does not work properly–each TV tuner card has one standard def and one high def tuner (for a total of 4 tuners).  I can only use one tuner on each card at a time with the latest drivers.  With an older version of the driver released for Windows Vista, I can use all 4 tuners at once.

You’d think newer drivers that are actually for the operating system your using would work better, not worse….

See this link for some others that have seen this issue.

Issue 2

With the latest Catalyst 11.5 drivers, the LCD scaling option reverts to the default 8% setting each time I turn on my HDTV.  I’d assume most people connecting an HDTV via HDMI would want 1:1 pixel mapping by default.  Why ATI has chosen to leave me with a letterboxed image by default doesn’t make any sense to me.  In addition, when I set overscaling to 0% (for 1:1 pixel mapping), the setting doesn’t “hold”–each time I turn on my TV, the setting is back at 8%.

Again, an older driver works better–the Catalyst 11.4 drivers work fine for me here, remembering my scaling setting.

(This issue seems to be somewhat widespread, spanning many versions of Catalyst drivers.  See here and here for related examples.  This post on the AMD support forums really explains things well.  No response to fix the issue, though…)

Issue 3

Each time I turn on my HDTV, the default audio output is changed from my speakers to the HDMI output.  I thought this might be a Windows 7 issue, but from what I’ve read online, the issue is probably a result of a Realtek driver switching the default audio output automatically (ATI uses Realtek chips for their HDMI audio output).

Also confirming that this is not a Windows 7 issue is my experience on my desktop–if I set my USB headset as the default audio device, Windows will switch back to the USB headset each time I plug it in.  If I have it plugged in, however, and switch to my speakers as the default audio device, Windows does not switch the default audio device to the headphones if I unplug them and plug them back in.

(A Google search will reveal that this is a common issue.  I would just disable the HDMI output, but Flash Player doesn’t seem to respect my choice of default audio playback device, so if I disable the HDMI output, I’ll not be able to hear any audio when using Flash Player.)

Issue 4

Sometimes when I turn on the TV, the screen resolution is set to 1024 x 768 and it does not automatically revert back to 1920 x 1080.  This could be a Windows 7 option, but with using an HDTV as a display, you’d think Microsoft or ATI would have this figured out.  Most of the time it does switch back to 1920 x 1080, but it’s annoying when it doesn’t.  Minimizing and restoring Media Center gets the resolution back to normal.

In my mind, the resolution should never switch to 1024 x 768 in the first place (which seems to happen when I turn the TV off).  If I connect to the computer via LogMeIn, I’ll see it switch from 1024 x 768 to 1920 x 1080 upon logging in.  (Weird, since the TV is turned off when I do that…).

My guess as for why the resolution changes is something about HDCP and some requirement to disable a high-res output when the HDCP connection is broken.  If so, this is yet another instance where content protection hurts consumers.

(This, too, is a common issue.  Most solutions point to buying an additional piece of hardware to make the computer think the TV is still turned on.  I fail to see why I should be required to buy another device to make the graphics chip do what it’s supposed to do on its own.)

Issue 5

This next issue is the worst issue, and I’ve had this happen to me twice now.  I’ll turn on the TV and the resolution will be set to 1024 x 768 with Media Center running.  In addition, the LCD scaling option will be set to the default of 8% (which doesn’t usually happen since I’m usually running the older Catalyst 11.4 drivers which don’t exhibit this issue).  I’ll minimize Media Center and the screen resolution will go back to 1920 x 1080, but the scaling is still messed up.  It’s at this point that I’ll notice that the mouse cursor is no longer fluid on the screen, but kinda hops around as I move the mouse (not really bad, but I can definitely notice that it’s laggy).  It’s at this point that I know that the video playback is going to be messed up, too.  When I attempt to playback video, the video skips and looks horrible.

When this happens, I’ve tried upgrading the video driver as well as uninstalling all ATI software and reinstalling–nothing resolves the issue.  What’s funny is that after I uninstall the ATI drivers and software, everything looks okay (fluid cursor and good media playback) until I reinstall the driver.  I’m sure I’m not benefiting from GPU accelerated MPEG decoding at this point, and running without a driver almost defeats the purpose of even having a sophisticated graphics chip.  In the end, running without a driver is not a viable choice for two reasons: 1) I need to adjust the LCD scaling option to 0% for 1:1 pixel mapping, and 2) Windows will automatically install a driver via Windows Update and the issues will return.

To fix this I’ve done two things: 1) Restored the system from a backup, and the second time: 2) Restored the system using System Restore.  So I’m guessing it’s some sort of ATI registry issue.

(I can’t find anyone else with this issue online…)

Issue 6

When I allow the ATI External Events Utility service to run on the computer, the Windows Event Viewer will fill with thousands of warning events related to the HDCP connection being disconnected (I think that’s what it is).  This not only pollutes my Event Viewer, making other important entries hard to find, it seems to crash Windows Explorer.  Perhaps Windows Explorer crashing is something else entirely, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was somehow related.

(See here for some additional discussion on this issue.)

In Summary

So that’s pretty much it. One more thing that I’ve been less than impressed with are the “AMD Game Forums”, AMD’s support forums for their graphics cards. The forum name sounds more like it’s a gamer’s lounge and not a support forum and the gamer theme holds, with new users being classified as “n00b”s. What a great way to tell your customers that you think they’re awesome….

You’d think that using an AMD processor, AMD northbridge and southbridge chipsets, TV tuner, and graphics chipset with the latest Microsoft operating system and the latest drivers straight from ATI’s website would be a recipe for success. Unfortunately, it’s not so straightforward.  If anyone asks me about building an HTPC, I’ll warn them to stay away from anything with the ATI logo on it–the small bugs simply make what should be a seamless experience a nightmare.