Windows Media Center meets cable TV in HD

Windows Media Center meets cable TV in HD

Summary: Six months ago, after years of waiting, I finally had a chance to switch my Media Center setup over to a fully digital, cable-compatible, high-definition configuration. How has it worked out? Let's just say you'd have to pry the Media Center remote from my cold dead fingers. In this post and the acccompanying image gallery, I show you how I assembled this system and how well it's working. I also tackle the question of whether this type of system is right for you.


Six months ago, after years of waiting, I finally had a chance to switch my Media Center setup over to a fully digital, cable-compatible, high-definition configuration. How has it worked out? Let's just say you'd have to pry the Media Center remote from my cold dead fingers.

My previous Media Center system was a small form factor Dell C521 that I profiled last summer. It served its purpose well, but it suffered from one crucial weakness: it couldn't record high-definition programming over premium channels like HBO and ESPN. As a result, I had to keep the DVR I leased from DirecTV and switch between the two systems depending on what I wanted to watch or listen to. Not elegant.

So last fall, I talked to a contact at Dell and arranged to purchase a custom-built system that would work with CableCARD technology and permit me to consolidate everything in one box. In this post and the accompanying image gallery, I'll show you this system has evolved over the past six months.

See the full Media Center CableCARD gallery

See the full Media Center/CableCARD image gallery

I'll also show you how well the system is working today. Yesterday, I tried to push the system to the max to see how it held up. Using the two digital cable tuners and one over-the-air ATSC tuner, I began recording three high-definition broadcasts simultaneously: a college basketball game on the local CBS affiliate (over the air), an episode of MTV Unplugged (with the Black Crowes) on MusicHD, a premium cable channel, and NBC Nightly News, on the cable company's feed of our local NBC affiliate.

Recording three HD signals at once in Vista Media Center

With all three signals being recorded simultaneously, I tuned in the basketball game on a 24-inch 1080p monitor in my office, went to the living room and began watching the news on the big-screen 1080i Sony TV over a Media Center extender, and went to the bedroom to tune into the Black Crowes on a 42-inch 1080p TV. Everything worked perfectly, with no audio or video glitches in any of the programs. You can see the real-time performance here:

Measuring performance of this Media Center under stress

In fact, it's rare that we push the system to that extent, and its reliability has been superb once we got past some initial glitches. (When I checked earlier this week, its Reliability rating was a perfect 10.)

Page 2: How this system evolved -->

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I put this system into service on October 7. (I can tell because the Windows Vista Performance and Reliability monitor keeps detailed records of every change in its software configuration.) That same week, I plugged in the two external ATI digital cable tuners (also known as OpenCable Unidirectional Receivers, or OCURs) and arranged with the local Comcast office to have a CableCARD delivered and installed for each tuner. Over the next two weeks, I got to know most of the Comcast reps in our part of the world, as it took four or five trips (and a complete replacement set of CableCARDs) to get everything working. Major props to the folks at Comcast, by the way, who have been a delight to work with for the past six months.

By October 20, both CableCARD devices were getting good solid signals, as measured by Comcast's technicians. However, the picture I was seeing wasn't perfect. I noticed glitches in video and audio on several HD channels. Those problems resolved themselves over the next month, thanks to a firmware update for the cable tuners, some Vista patches delivered via Windows Update, and a new driver for the NVidia card.

Between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we began using the system full time, mostly via Xbox 360s in the living room and bedroom, which we used as Media Center extenders. Shortly after Christmas, I swapped those noisy, hot consoles for a pair of small, fanless (and blissfully quiet) Linksys DMA2100 extenders, which have been working perfectly since then.

All this time, I continued to keep my DirecTV subscription active, with the satellite DVR recording in the background. On Super Bowl Sunday, I realized that we hadn't watched anything from the satellite box in nearly two months, so I canceled DirecTV's service and shipped back their DVR. That was two months ago, and I have no regrets today. Last month, I added an AverMedia USB tuner and connected it to our rooftop antenna, giving us a third tuner as a source for excellent over-the-air hi-def programming.

Over the holidays, Dell began selling its XPS 420 system (the successor to the model I'm using here) with Windows Vista and Digital Cable support standard on every one. Aroound New Year's, in fact, Dell was selling this system with 3 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive, and a quad-core processor for $800, with each digital tuner available for $180 apiece. Those prices have climbed a bit, but if you shop carefully you can get pretty close to that bargain price. If I were to start with that box and Vista SP1 today, I am certain I wouldn't have the hassles I experienced back in the fall, because current shipping builds incorporate all the patches and drivers that I had to install incrementally.

Would I recommend this setup for the average consumer? Not yet. It's definitely good enough for the determined hobbyist, but prices need to come down and the form factor needs to get smaller for more mainstream acceptance. The Dell is a mini-tower machine, and the tuners are fairly large and clunky. I have them installed under a workbench in my office, where they fit just fine. As you can see from this picture (external hard drive and two tuners on the right), the whole setup is far from small.

With external tuners and a tower PC, this system is too big for the living room

This configuration would work in a larger house with a separate equipment closet for a home theater, but it would never work in a living room or a smaller house. Some high-end system makers, including S1 Digital and Niveus Media, turn out elegant living-room-ready machines with internal tuners, but their price tags are still too high for my budget.

Page 3: The trouble with CableCARD -->

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The other factor you must consider if you're thinking of building a system like this is the CableCARD architecture itself. It has more than a few drawbacks, especially if you demand lots of flexibility in a media setup:

  • DIY builders aren't allowed. The only way to get a PC-based system that will work with digital cable in high-def is to buy a CableCARD ready system from a major OEM. The Digital Cable support requires a separate product key and a special version of Windows, which is not available to small system builders and hobbyists.
  • Expect initial setup hassles. Unless you live in Redmond or Austin, it's likely that your cable company has seen few of these setups. And the CableCARD devices themselves can be flaky, to put it charitably. If you can find a knowledgeable contact at the cable company, you'll have a much better shot at getting issues resolved quickly.
  • You'll have to deal with DRM. Every TV signal that comes out of a digital cable tuner is protected with Digital Rights Management, a requirement imposed by Cable Labs. That means you can play back recorded programs locally or on a Media Center Extender (including an Xbox 360). But you can't watch those programs on other computers, you can't edit or transcode the files that hold those recordings, and you can't sync your recorded TV with portable devices.

In theory, by the end of this year every system in Dell's consumer lineup (and virtually every system from every major OEM) should be capable of meeting the Digital Cable-ready specs. By this fall, I hope we see a lot more choices (and even lower prices) for those systems.

Topics: Dell, Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Telcos, Windows

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  • Bitrate numbers?

    Can you post the bitrate/codec that the recorded HD shows playback at? The data-rate would be an important factor for some of us as lower bitrates = less quality.

  • Video bit rate

    This is DVR-MS format, which uses Windows Media codecs. A typical bit rate as shown in the properties dialog box for a recorded file is 159498kbps at 59 frames per second.
    Ed Bott
    • Huh?

      Can you find something more definitive? This:

      >>>properties dialog box for a recorded file is 159498kbps at 59 frames per second<<<

      Doesn't help much. That makes it look like the file plays back at 159mbps - which can't be right. By WM codecs I'm assuming VC-1?

      • Sorry

        To best of my knowledge, that's the raw recorded format. I'm told that DVR-MS is MPEG2 in an ASF wrapper.

        FWIW, when I stream an OTA HD program to an extender (1080i), I see network throughput of roughly 2.4 megabytes (not megabits) per second. I'll see if I can get a moredefinitive answer.
        Ed Bott
  • still on DirecTV

    I've built an HTPC with everything but cablecard -waiting for DirecTV to come out with their version, hopefully this summer.

    I think you'll see a lot more Media Center systems when DTV does. Vista's Media Center is a godsend, with high-def downloads (TVTonic), tons of internet channels, great stuff. I'm with you, no one can take it away from me.
  • What about IR receivers or serial connections to a cable box?

    Is that possible with Vista's WMC? Because I'd rather have that than a CableCard anyway.
    Michael Kelly
    • Yes, but SD only

      You can't get premium HD out of a set-top box and into Media Center. So if you're OK with just SD, go for it. I had that configuration running for years, but really can't go back from HD.
      Ed Bott
      • OnDemand fun...

        I haven't done it recently, since I don't have HBO at this time, but when I did, HBO OD, along the other premiums OD channels, were unencrypted while their broadcast counterparts were encrypted. This meant that I could "rip" movies using a 1394 connection between my Moto 3416 DVR and my Mac in MPEG2 TS format by playing the VOD copy of the movie or show.

        Ed, if you have a premium channel and want to try this out, get a comcast DVR or HD box just to see if this still works. You'll just need to look up "record TV via FireWire (or 1394) in Windows" in Google for a complete how-to.
    • That is possible but the only ....

      ... capture method is low definition. TV capture cards use sVideo for input from the cable box. If you want HD you must use the Cablecard box.
    • HD from cable is possible

      Getting HD off of your cable box is possible over the firewire port. I record HD (non-premium) from my Motorola box to my Vista Media Center and use firewire to change the channels so I do not need the IR blaster.

      Google firestb, it was designed for XP MEC but it runs on Vista IF you disable the UAC. Vista seems to not like multiple processes reading the same memory mapped files.

      Unfortunately it seems the development of this awesome program has stopped but it does work with a few tweaks.
      • On some boxes, with some systems, with much hassle

        This system is very much dependent on the hardware your cable company supplies you and how it configures its services at the head end. And it's simply a way to pull content off a cable company's set top box, which means your experience of scheduling, recording, and playing recorded content uses their invariably crappy interface and requires a monthly fee and is not easily expandable or extendable. It certainly doesn't meet my minimal bar for usability, and it gets about a zero on the Spousal Acceptance Factor metric.
        Ed Bott
        • No cable box user interface for me

          agreed that it does not work with "every" piece of hardware out there. But then I can't think of anything that does.

          Scheduling, recording, and playing is all done through Vista Media Center Interface. I do not have to touch the horrid excuse for an interface that is on the cable box.

          Granted I still pay for the rent on the cable box, but isn't there a monthly fee for the cable card?

          Regardless the end result is a file on the hard drive just like normal and it is all done through the Media Center interface and my wife and 12 yr old daughter handle it just fine.
        • Where are we now?

          Ed - It has been about a year since this thread started - what do you know of for the latest on getting HD into a PC for a HTPC system? I will be moving into a new house shortly, and am trying to make some decisions on whether to even bother with trying to get HD via my local cable dudes (Charter). I have a Dell Studio that I could just buy a tuner card for and get basic cable, or ....

          • Options haven't really changed

            Over-the-air HD via ATSC tuner, CableCARD tuners for premium cable. The one addition to the mix is the Hauppauge HD-PVR:

            I haven't tested that one but several people I know speak highly of it.
            Ed Bott
  • Cost/benefit

    While I find this very cool and interesting, I am not sure that it is worth the cost. My HD-DVR is a no cost part of my satellite connection, so how is setting up a computer dedicated to run 24/7/365 as a media center going to cost me less? Where are the benefits?

    Spending months tweaking a cablecard vs. having it work from day 1 doesn't sound very satisfying either. Plus the HD-DVR uses less electricity than the devices you used for the Media Center and that will likely be available over the next 5 years.

    I can extract HD video off the HD-DVR and record it to DVD, so I don't need a media center PC to do that.

    I understand that you have many video sources but most of us will have little need for that, and where I live there are no stations that are capable of broadcasting HD beyond 1 mile from their towers. Although, that may change sometime before I die.

    Perhaps as time goes by, this will make more sense financially. Right now, it seems to be not worth the time or cost.
    • HD Satellite DVRs are not ...

      ... free on DirecTV or Dish. You must buy them and then pay a monthly fee for the DVR functionality. For you to extract the recorded video from the PC and burn it to DVD you have to have a PC so you cannot call that free either. The difference in the two is the cost difference between the Cablecard Tuner and the HD DVR. Pretty much a wash as I see it except there is no monthly fee for MCE.
  • RE: Windows Media Center meets cable TV in HD

    GREAT story, I emailed the editor of PC World a year ago requesting articles to be written more often on this subject and about the hardware needed. He was kind enough to respond to me that he was forwarding my request to his staff but I have yet to read an article that answered my questions as directly as yours did. Bravo!! I have been recording OTA HD for some time now on my PC but didn't have a clue how to get the HD content from my Time Warner Digital Cable box. Now I know that I will have to be content with my Over the Air HD setup until I can purchase a new PC. I usually build my own, so I'm not too keen on a Dell or some such, but I'm in no hurry. I live a mere 15 miles from a tower farm that that broadcasts all of the networks at 100% signal. I'd pay more for hardware or software I can incorporate myself though...but I guess the Michael Dell's of this world want my cash enough to not allow me that option. Anyway, GREAT ARTICLE!!!!!
    • It is not Michael Dell ...

      ... keeping you from doing it. It is a requirement of the cable consortium and MPAA. They are protecting the content.
      • The Movie Industry Moguls

        to be unspecific, the movie industry wants the $$$/dollars, I can't say that I can blame them...but i do like to build my own, not everyone has the cash or expendable income to just go out and buy a over the counter PC. Mine are both nice but my parts were bought incrementally over time with cash squirreled away from birthday and Christmas money, along with what I could scrape together from EBay sales...and most of my parts have been budget parts purchased from Fry's, which sells tech that is on the way out in bulk for cheap. Even my outdoor rooftop antenna I use for HD was salvaged from an old house. So from my perspective, to get the hardware necessary to do what has been detailed in this article benefits the big retail vendors like Michael Dell who have a quasi-monopoly on that hardware granted to them by the cable consortium and MPAA to protect their content.
        • Windows required

          Note that you must be using Windows. OSX or linux are not supported.

          Big Content thinks it is protecting itself by limiting HD DVR access to themselves and a few licensed companies. What they are instead doing is creating a culture where folks like myself, who aren't interested in obtaining content illegally, encounter so many roadblocks to legal content they are faced with the choice of getting it illegally or not at all. I was disappointed to discover that having bought a new 1080p television for a few thousand dollars that I couldn't make full use of it because I have a Mac Mini plugged into it rather than a Dell. We watch more movies now because 480p television isn't so great on our new TV. The HD cable box pops up a message when we try to view HD content through the Mac that we need to downgrade the signal or use HDCP compliant hardware (AKA: cable company hardware).

          So, back to my point (after demonstrating that yes, I am frustrated by all this), I am far more open to the idea of using bittorrent or similar to get my content and am currently just plain watching less commercial television. As long as the system doesn't include me, it'll be easier for me to go outside the system to get my content.

          I simply will not use Windows. If my choice is use Windows or use bittorrent, I'm going to torrent.