DirecTV's HD tuner set to debut with Windows 7?

DirecTV's HD tuner for Media Center PCs, first announced at CES three years ago, has achieved the same notoriety as Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness monster. The occasional sighting is always enshrouded in fog and mystery, and no one has ever reported spotting one of these mythical creatures in the wild. But while poking around in the pre-beta build of Windows 7, I found a signed driver for this device. Does this discovery mean this mythical creature will make its debut with Windows 7 next year?

Way back at CES 2006, DirecTV announced that it was working with Microsoft to produce a tuner that would connect directly to a Media Center PC. The result would be the ability, in theory, to capture all of DirecTV’s satellite programming, including HD, and then view and manage it with the Media Center interface.

In nearly three full years since then, the DirecTV tuner has achieved the same notoriety as Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness monster. The occasional sighting is always enshrouded in fog and mystery. In January 2008, a product brochure appeared, and some people got invitations to test the new HDPC-20. But no one ever reported spotting one of these mythical creatures in the wild. In fact, as recently as September I had pretty much written the whole project off:

DirecTV "announced" its plans to support Media Center at CES in January 2006. It was pure vaporware. And DirecTV never announced the HDPC-20. A third party leaked scans of a product brochure, and some folks on the Fiji beta got paperwork that mentioned that name.

All on paper, no actual tests.

So imagine my surprise when I found a signed driver for this device in the pre-beta build of Windows 7 distributed at PDC. Here, see for yourself:

Drivers for DirecTV HDPC-20 tuner are in beta builds of Windows 7

It’s the latest piece of evidence that suggests maybe this long-delayed device will actually appear sometime next year.

DirecTV support was supposed to have been included in the Windows Media Center TV Pack (previously codenamed “Fiji”). But when Microsoft shipped the TV Pack, Product Marketing Manager Ben Reed formally acknowledged that the update “does not include native support for subscription-based satellite tuners or the H.264 video standard.” Indeed, when I just looked at the driver store for a Vista machine with the TV Pack installed, I found no trace of this driver. Someone at Microsoft decided that this code deserves to be included in Windows 7.

When Microsoft announced that neither of these features would be included with the TV Pack, cynics figured that both were dead. One commenter, in fact, was adamant that this was Evil Microsoft up to its old tricks:

H.264 has been a codified standard for years. MS didn't put in support for it because it isn't WMV. Period.

But those missing features were apparently just delayed, not abandoned. As Microsoft’s Charlie Owen noted last week in his excellent guided tour of the new Windows 7 Media Center:

H.264 playback is now supported out of the box with Windows 7 -- including on Media Center Extenders – both standalone hardware implementations AND on the XBox 360 when in Extender mode.

H.264 support is a prerequisite for full satellite support, both here in the U.S. and overseas. The presence of a signed driver in this beta build suggests that DirecTV'shardware is ready to go – or at least ready to test. That’s excellent news for digital media enthusiasts looking for an alternative to CableCARD tuners, which have a well-deserved reputation for being flaky and expensive.

Satellite subscribers outside the United States have even more to look forward to, I suspect. Most of the work that went into the TV Pack was specifically designed to improve support for technologies that were neglected in previous Media Center releases: ISDB-T and BML in Japan; DVB-S, DVB-T, and MHEG-5 in Europe.

Microsoft has announced plans to release an official beta of Windows 7 "early next year." I expect Microsoft to make a big splash with Windows 7 at next year's Consumer Electronics Show. Will DirecTV finally make up for its embarrassingly premature announcement by unveiling its HDPC-20 tuner there? Stay tuned...


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