Using the H971 as an HTCP
Our Gigabyte H971 system arrived loaded with Windows Vista Premium Home installed on it which also comes with Media Center. We're not here to judge whether or not MCE is a good product for your HTPC needs but while it could be improved, we are pretty happy with it and it works very well with the H971.
Since the system included an ATI Theater 550 TV card, you are able to watch and record live TV using the H971. After a just a couple minutes of effortless setup, we had our cable TV running through the system. There was hardly any interaction required - we just told MCE what type of system we were using along with the type of TV and speaker system and it applied all the required settings itself. Once it was completed, we were present with good quality TV reception and HDMI was doing its job with audio being played not just through our Logitech computer speakers hooked up via optical port but also through the HDTV speakers, since HDMI is also able to carry audio signals and not just video.
If you have an Internet connection hooked up to the system, you can even setup the EPG (electronic program guide) which downloads information about your local TV provider service and gives you updated information about the show you are watching and what is coming up. Even though it was in Chinese since I am based in Taiwan, for a first time user of such a feature, it's quite impressive - save some trees and stop buying your copy of TV Weekly. Our only dislike with MCE is the fact that it doesn't automatically re-produce standard 4:3 TV into widescreen but with some playing around I'm sure most modern TV's will be able to take care of that with the right settings enabled.
The included infrared keyboard and remote control make it very easy to navigate to different channels or different parts of the Vista operating system. From the remote control you can open and close MCE, channel volume and channels, operate DVD playback and so on. The keyboard takes at least a half an hour to get use to but once you've gotten the hang of it with its sometimes tricky mouse and buttons, it works fine but I wouldn't like to use it to operate Vista as a work PC on a daily basis. Of course, if you don't like the included keyboard or remote control, you can also buy other types of these products and they'll work just fine with the H971 unit.
We've left the best till last and that is of course talking about HD-DVD playback, the next-generation standard for high definition movies. Using the unbeatable $200 USD Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive from Microsoft, we hooked it up to one of the USB 2.0 ports on the back of the H971 and Windows Vista detected it without any issues. To play HD-DVD movies on a Windows based computer, you need DVD playback software that supports HD-DVD (or Blu-ray if you want to go down that road) such as CyberLink's PowerDVD HD-DVD edition which they were friendly enough to supply us a copy of. You can buy a copy from their website for around $100 USD.
Once you've installed the software, simply put a HD-DVD movie into the drive and playback begins as it would a normal standard definition DVD player. The reason it's working is that the H971 fully supports HDCP and that is a requirement for software HD-DVD players. If they detect any part of the system does not meet HDCP requirements, it will kill playback after just a few seconds. We asked CyberLink direct for clarification and they had this to say;
TweakTown Question - I've been reading a lot lately that HD-DVD and Blu-ray movies will not come with Image Constraint Token (ICT) / HDCP enforced (reduce movie resolution if no HDCP found) for many years. However, when I try playing The Bourne Supremacy on a test system without a HDCP graphics card (GeForce 7900GS), PowerDVD starts the movie for a few seconds and then stops and gives an error about content protection. So, are some HD movies already coming out with ICT enabled or is it just a bug with the early version of PowerDVD 6.5? Or is there some way around this to make the movies play even without HDCP?
CyberLink Response - No, the HDCP is a must. In AACS compliant rule, if the content specifies ICT and the output has no HDCP, player can down scale the picture and play it. If the content doesn't specify ICT and the output has no HDCP, the player has to stop playback.
All up we are very happy with the H971's ability to work as a home entertainment system, it passes with flying colors. Not only will you be able to use it as a HTPC that will be quite future-proof but you'll be able to surf Internet on a bigger screen and play most modern games albeit at a lower resolution since the GeForce 7600GS isn't a powerhouse.