My experiences with Ubuntu 11.10 64-bit and XBMC v11.0 Eden Beta 3

Almost a week ago I finally got around to posting about the Ubuntu 10.04 32-bit and XBMC 10.1 Dharma machine that I put together. Yesterday I moved I finally got around to moving it to some new hardware and replicating some of my efforts. I wish I had taken a nap instead.

The old machine was an aging Asus P5E-VM HDMI sporting a dual core 3.0 Ghz processor with 4 GB DDR2 800Mhz ram, and a new GeForce 440 w/ 1gb that I picked up when I realized that the onboard Intel video card would always stutter during 1080p playback. It worked nearly flawlessly once I took the time to tweak settings, and get everything just the way that I wanted it to be. My biggest complaints were that I was running analog sound from the onboard card to the TV and the video output was over a standard VGA cable. You see I wanted to use HDMI for two reasons. 1. to reduce cord clutter. 2. Because the way my TV remote toggles between HDMI inputs is better than when I have to toggle between antenna and VGA port. It also makes sense to me that the simpler it is, the easier it will be for other people to use.

A friend and colleague gave me his old computer internals when he upgraded recently. I was originally going to use this for building my HTPC but was being cheap and didn’t want to pick up a video card if I didn’t have to. The parts are an Asus Maximus II Forumla motherboard sporting an Intel Core 2 quad 3.0 Ghz processor, 8 GB DDR2 1200Mhz ram, and a pci-e x1 [supremeFX X-Fi audio card] surround sound card that came with the board. Really it’s an old gaming mobo but who would complain? Not this guy that’s for sure.

So I made myself a checklist, made myself a back up, and shut the machine down. Carried it to my work bench (note: I do not have a work bench really, its just part of my computer desk that I routinely use for working on other computers. Maybe I should setup a work bench at some point.) I noted what sata ports all the drives were plugged into, disconnected everything and put the motherboard into the case. I re-attached all the power cords, the sata cords, etc. Fired it up and through the Ubuntu 11.10 64-bit disk I had burned into the DVD drive and installed 11.10 for the first time ever. I have been leery about upgrading because of the jump to Unity. Pretty much everything is worth a try at least once.

Installation went smoothly [although I must say I really prefer some of the older Linux installers that gave you a little more control over the default packages]. I did not experience any hardware or driver issues and must congratulate Ubuntu on their ease of installation. It even installed NVidia drivers albeit older ones (280.xx current its 295.xx). Once the OS was installed I had to use mdadm to re-assemble my 2TB raid5 array which was painless. Then I made it mount at boot also trivial once I figured out how to open a damn terminal window. For the sake of being thorough there are two relatively easy ways to open a Terminal in the newer Ubuntu you can either ctrl + alt + T, or you can use the Dash icon and type in “terminal”. If you are not familiar with the new Unity you should check it out. With that said I am not a fan of Unity at this time. Why? Good question and one that I aim to answer later in this article.

So with the installation and general setup done I got cracking on installing the new XBMC v11 Eden Beta 3. This installation was also easy. Then I restored my configuration, and got to work migrating some of the other applications I use and their configs. Once I was done a few minutes later I fired up XBMC. Everything seemed to be working fine. So I brought the PC back upstairs to my TV and plugged it in using HDMI instead of the analog sound and VGA cable and turned it on. The resolution was a little lower than planned so I changed it. I fired up XBMC for the second time and started testing. Low and behold there was no sound. After playing with settings for a few minutes sound was working over HDMI and 720p playing when I noticed that it was a bit… laggy with some minor tearing. So I upgraded the NVidia drivers with apt and TV shows were happy once again. Now came the real test, 1080p playback. This was hellish. It was worse than the 720p was before the driver update! So I went through settings in XBMC and checked NVidia’s site for newer drivers and the end result was nothing useful.

Nearly an hour later after pouring through the settings in the NVidia Control panel, and Unity’s video/screen options I gave up and started looking at it from a different point of view. Being new to Unity I was not familiar that there was also a Unity 2d which is a lower resource version of Unity designed for weaker and older systems. Once I found it I switched to it and noticed a dramatic difference in video playback quality, yet it was still far from perfect. Finally I decided to log into my HTPC utilizing xbmc as the windows GUI. This sacrifices the ability to drop out of XBMC to the desktop, but viola! Seamless 1080p video play back! My guess is that the overhead of Unity adds was the issue.

Time to enjoy some video right? Wrong. I’m not sure why but everything in my media library tells me that it is no longer available and asks me if I would like to remove it from the library. That’s just plain bizarre. All the files are there. Recently added works. Going into Video and trying to start things that way works. What the >censored