Windows Media Center meets cable TV in HD

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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 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.

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:

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.

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