XP to Windows 7 for Netflix and Hulu

I have an older computer hooked up to a monitor that I use for watching Netflix, Hulu, and any other media I have.  For reference, we’re talking about a 2.2GHz single-core Athlon, 1gb ram (single stick), old PATA/IDE HDD, and GeForce 6600 non-GT.

I’ve been using Windows XP for years, but Netflix and Hulu are plagued with screen tearing.  The underlying problem is that the refresh rate of Netflix/Hulu differs from my monitor refresh rate.  So sometimes the monitor refreshes in the middle of a Netflix/Hulu refresh.  In other words, the top part of the image is the new frame and the bottom part is the old frame, so you see a sort of line, especially with horizontal movement.

The solution is vertical sync (vsync), which forces the refresh rates to play nicely together.  I haven’t been able to figure out how to enable vsync for that though.  Finally, I came across a post saying that vsync in Silverlight (for Netflix) simply isn’t possible under Windows XP but that Vista and 7 don’t have the issue.

So I went through the process of setting up Windows 7, which took a bit of work due to the hardware. Unfortunately, I still had screen tearing until I came across a forum post that suggested turning on all visual features in the control panel (via System, then Advanced on the sidebar, then Performance).  This fixed tearing in Netflix and Hulu completely.  I’m sure you don’t need all of them enabled, but it’s unclear which one does the trick (I later found that it’s “Enable desktop composition”)

In my testing, I made an evaluation error by choosing Battlestar Galactica on Netflix, which I’ve watched before, but not on Netflix.  Funny enough, the decoding is substantially more intense than any other HD stream I’ve encountered on Netflix.  So I spent some time trying to optimize my Windows 7 installation. Unfortunately, due to the mistake, I can’t compare a fresh Windows 7 install to Windows XP; I tweaked the system a bit before I realized BSG was the problem.  In my defense, I’ve never seen an HD stream on Netflix that was so demanding.  In any case, I did some testing that I felt I should document.

Netflix

I compared Windows Media Center (WMC) and Chrome for running Netflix with the movie “Ip Man”.  First, I have to say that Windows Media Center has a gorgeous user interface.  The only downside is that the user interface doesn’t display the Netflix stream quality (SD/HD).  I watched for a while with both programs and found that there was a little stuttering with WMC but Chrome had none or almost none.  It was an excellent experience compared to Netflix under Windows XP.

It seems like WMC is just using IE or something so I’m curious why there’s any difference at all – both have Silverlight do all the real work.

Hulu

I compared Hulu Desktop and Chrome with the same content.  I found that Hulu Desktop was pretty laggy, though the interface was nice.  My system doesn’t meet the listed system requirements anyway, but I figured the 2gb ram requirement had to be an exaggeration.  In any case, Chrome was much better and eliminated most of the stuttering.

The thing I really have to wonder is why Hulu struggles to play 480p when I can play 720p from other types of media.  Also it’s sad, but without screen tearing I noticed that the inverse telecine (to undo 3:2 pulldown) was pretty poor on the stream.  Maybe other streams are better.

Other

Windows 7 is excellent so far, though it uses more memory than I’d like.  The redesigned start menu, taskbar, and control panel are excellent.  The display setup/optimization was also very nice.  The built-in gamma adjustment helpers in Windows 7 and OS X improve the color/brightness/etc substantially.

My main remaining problem is some audio popping in Pandora, which is probably a driver issue.  (Edit:  It’s not just Pandora, there is some occasional popping in Netflix or Media Player Classic – Home Cinema.  A quick look suggests that the onboard sound is so old that the manufacturer didn’t make Win7 drivers)

Note:  I realize this isn’t really research, but I couldn’t find this information anywhere, so I thought I’d post it and possibly save someone else the trouble.

Addendum

I found drivers for my motherboard, but there wasn’t a Windows 7 one, so I used the Vista drivers.  The installer program didn’t work, but I could have Windows search the folder for drivers.  Unfortunately, this didn’t fix the audio popping at all.  There are two side-story notes.  Firstly, Newegg is heavenly – they’ve stored not just my transaction history since my first purchase, but they’ve retained the product pages for everything I’ve ever bought (which is the easy way to identify the motherboard, southbridge chip, etc).  Secondly, Windows driver search is vastly improved from the old days – it recursively searches the specified directory tree rather non-recursively.

Also, I can’t tell if Netflix is slower on HD streams or not.  Zooms and pans feel uneven (i.e., not a smooth motion).  I tried disabling Windows 7 visual features and realized that maybe the unevenness was present under XP also, but I might not have noticed cause of tearing.  This was while watching The Office, season 6, which I previously hadn’t watched before.  I started thinking and realized any number of things could be going on.  There was a new version of Silverlight that I hadn’t installed until this process, which could be related. Netflix now has a subtitle button (hopefully I can watch subbed movies with foreign dialogue).  So it could be the case that things are slower under XP but I might not know it.

Also, I narrowed down the setting that fixed tearing – “Enable desktop composition”.  As far as I can tell, it’s the one related to Aero, so it allows things like a prettier taskbar and previews of the application windows from the taskbar (Aero peek I think it’s called).

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