Media Center PCs, Big Monitors, DVRs, and CableCARDs

So every once in a while I try to justify the purchase of a 30″ widescreen monitor that I don’t really need. Since there appears to be an inevitable housing shakeup here at CTHQ-OC1, I have to deal with a possible loss of home theater. That seems reason enough to justify spending $1,300 on a new monitor/TV. I could move the PC to my bedroom and have a private home theater. But how to power it?

I’d seen some cheap Windows XP and Vista Media Center PCs, so that seemed reasonable. The last thing I really need is another computer, since I just bought one. It’s fast with a great case and a 500W power supply – why not upgrade this one?

Because it’s impossible! Thank you, Microsoft and CableLabs!

Ok, some clarification. You can add an HD tuner and capture card. It will capture over-the-air signals (antenna) and basic cable. But they can’t do digital cable, so no HBO or any channel over 100. Frankly, I don’t really watch stuff above channel 100, but I do watch HBO2.

It’s at this point things go downhill. To watch digital cable, you need a digital cable tuner (DCT). In it you place a CableCARD you get from your cable company. Then you can watch and record most of the channels you now get with your set top box. I’ll explain “most” later.

This exists in the form of the ATI TV Wonder™ Digital Cable Tuner. This comes as an internal card or external peripheral and integrates with Vista Media Center. It runs about $250 either way. However, it can only be attached to PCs certified by CableLabs. This is from an agreement with Microsoft, and requires the system builder to add extra firmware to support DRM.

As you might imagine, this severely limits your choices, mainly to major vendors like Dell, Gateway, and HP. Even then, it is a bear to find them. Dell had it available on the XPS 410. When that was replaced with the XPS 420, the option went away – from all their machines. [Insert 420 joke here.] HP has it on some series like the m9000t and d4995t. Sony has it on the XL3. You’ll see a common theme across vendors, though: it’s only available on their most powerful – and expensive – machines. Makes sense since they have to certify the damn things. The other reason is common in sales: you have to make that extra $500 for two tuners seem reasonable, and it won’t until you’re spending a lot for the PC itself. Wait, did I say two tuners? Ah yes, I did.

Because it gets worse. There are 3 types of CableCARDs:

  • SCard, aka single stream card
    It’s a CableCARD 1.0 spec card that can only decode one channel of TV at a time.
  • MCard, aka MS-Card, aka multiple stream card
    Also CableCARD 1.0, but can decode up to 6 channels of television at a time
  • CableCARD 2.0
    Pretty much mythical at this point, but will offer “interactive” features. More on this later.

Of course, the TV Wonder DCT appears to only support SCards3. This means if you want to record 2 channels at the same time, like my Time Warner-provided Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD can do, you need to buy 2 DCTs and rent 2 CableCards from your cable company.

At $500+ on tuners, I’m starting to consider the Tivo HD:

  • Records 2 digital cable streams at once and works with an MCard
  • Programmable from the Internet
  • Integrates with your PC
    • watch Tivo’d stuff on your PC
    • play PC vids and music on your Tivo
  • Works with Rhapsody
  • Only costs $300 (plus monthly fees)

But it gets worser. Another thing I can do with my set top box is watch video on demand (VOD) channels. TW gives you many free VOD channels like NBC, Cartoon Network, HBO, BBC America, etc. This is really great when the DVR misses something, or there’s nothing on TV because of, let’s say, a writer’s strike.

Unfortunately, that’s only possible with CableCARD 2.0, which nobody currently supports, not even Tivo. So once again, my $10/month Time Warner DVR seems to be the logical choice.

But it gets worserer. The 30″ displays have the following inputs: DVI-D and… that’s it! To my knowledge, no DVR has DVI-D output, so you can’t add one. And only the 27″ (1920 x 1200) displays accept component, HDMI, etc. A friend suggested Slingbox, but while it can input HD signals, it does not stream anything of high def quality.

[Edit: Ignore the following paragraph and read DoubleDeuce’s comments on HDMI and the 8300HD.]
BTW, the 8300HD does have HDMI output. However, it assumes you’ll be using HMDI for both video and audio, so it cuts off the normal digital audio output4. Therefore, if you connect it to a monitor via HDMI, you get no sound or analog sound – your choice! So you either have to connect via component if your monitor supports that, or use this as an excuse to buy a receiver with HDMI switching.

In conclusion, here are your options as I see them:

Big screen, little channels

  • 30″ LCD
  • existing PC with a graphics card capable of 2560 x 1600
  • HD tuner card like the ATI 6505
  • indoor HD antenna
  • basic cable
  • forget about digital cable, VOD, HBO, etc.

Big and expensive

  • 30″ LCD
  • new HTPC with dual DCTs and CableCARDs
  • indoor HD antenna
  • digital cable and any premium channels you want
  • forget about VOD, PPV, etc.
  • almost certainly stuck with Vista!

Size doesn’t matter

  • 27″ or smaller LCD with HDMI or component inputs
  • HD DVR
  • digital cable and any premium channels you want
  • forget about VOD, PPV, etc. (if you’re getting a Tivo)
  • extra monthly fees for TV listings (again, if you’re getting a Tivo)

Size REALLY matters – buy a friggin’ TV

  1. Agent Assassin is relocating for a long term mission in El Segundo, leaving me to find a new place or new housemate []
  2. Although there’s precious little worth watching right now []
  3. I’m starting to think the S stands for Shitty []
  4. Thanks to Agent Doubledeuce for this info. Hopefully a firmware patch has corrected this, but I’m not aware of one. []
  5. A feature length article could be written just on OTA and QAM tuner cards. Perhaps I’ll have to write that next. []

10 thoughts on “Media Center PCs, Big Monitors, DVRs, and CableCARDs”

  1. I don’t think capture cards are the way to go. As you know, I have the lowly 24″, but I settle for the non-HDCP, non-Digital component cables. But this lets me watch TV (i.e. – the Ducks game) and blog/surf/play all at the same time. Just keep the Scientific Atlanta, and run component to the monitor. This also benefits me as I don’t have to have my 45db PC on while I watch TV.

    If you have to have digital, plug the firewire into your PC. Anything I can record on the DVR that isn’t copy protected I can capture digitally via firewire and watch/burn/rip it later. From normal distance, and viewing circumstances, you can’t really tell the difference between the component and the firewire on the Dell/Samsung 24″ anyways.

    The 30″ would be nice, but to play games without massive scaling, I’d need to spend $500 on dual 8800GT graphics cards. I play at the 20″ res now (1680 x 1050) and scale it to the 24″ res (1920 x 1200). It looks great for most games, although text suffers a tiny bit, so RPGs might suck.

    If you decide to save money on capture and graphics cards by going with the 24″, then you can easily justify buying a new 52″ Aquos LCD for the living room. Win-win.

  2. I forgot, they did fix that problem with the audio on the 8300HD. You can use HDMI and optical audio (or stereo for that matter, yuk!) at the same time. We have HDMI with optical audio running in the front room because someone cheaped out on the non HDMI receiver.

  3. Thanks! As always, for your views are appreciated. The more I think about it, the more a TV makes sense for my situation. I generally don’t play games, but I think you’d need to scale for just about any game on a 30″ monitor. It probably wouldn’t look too bad, though, considering the ridiculous native resolution.

    You think direct view LCDs look better than rear projection DLP? I haven’t looked in ages, but I wasn’t thrilled with the graininess or screen door effect they seemed to have.

  4. That’s what I’m here for.

    Yes, I do think direct-view LCDs look better than rear-projection DLPs. They have done wonders with the dynamic LED back-lighting, 1080p resolution, 120Hz, and low response times. The NTSC ratings are in the 90% range now. The biggest advantage is that you get exactly the signal that you pay for, no overscan, no bendy edges, no added softness of the projection screen, and more importantly a wall-mount option.

    As if you didn’t know this…you have to really pay attention to your screen size vs viewing distance to really get the right TV for the room and to get the full benefit of 1080p over 720p.

  5. I favor the direct view monitors as well. I love my CRT RPTV (for sale if anyone wants one) but I always seem to favor the direct view plasma or LCD in the stores.

    I just bought a 50″ Panasonic Plasma to replace the RPTV (did I mention it’s for sale?). The Plasmas still have better black levels and overall picture quality than LCD and for larger displays are still a bit cheaper than LCD. LCD isnt too shabby though. The newer displays look pretty good depending on the display model you get. The 120 Hz displays look promising.

    For screen sizes less than 50″ you can skip the 1080p and save some cash. Few humans would be able to tell the difference between 1080p and 720p at proper viewing distances. Especially given the fact that most people dont have a 1080p source. Right now 1080p is being used as mostly marketing hype to justify higher prices. 50″ displays seem to be the cutoff and there doesnt seem to be a consensus on whether or not 1080p is a benefit. Some say yes and some say no.

  6. I’ve always been old school. I still like CRT monitors over your garden variety LCDs. I know many guys who are mesmerized by the plasma/LCD form factor, but it’s held no sway over me. I figure I got space, I just want the best picture. And it now sounds like LCD/plasmas have that now.

    As for 1080p, I fell in love with that after seeing the Sony SXRD. Couldn’t believe how close you could get to it and it still looked good.

    I found two good calculators:

    For viewing distances:

    For monitor sizes (which are 16:10, not 16:9 like a TV):

    Using both, I found that a 24″ monitor (16:10) gives a THX recommended viewing distance of 2.6 feet. For a 50″ LCD/plasma (16:9) , it’s 5.6 feet. 57″ == 7.5′. And our friend’s 70″ monstrosity has an optimal viewing distance of 7.8′ – probably what he’s using.

    Overall, it seems you need a bigger screen, or shorter viewing distance, than you might think.

  7. The SXRD is very nice, and has been getting great performance reviews. Only thing is, you have to put your money in Sony, which I know you don’t like to do. I wouldn’t hate you if you did, but I would like a demo of whatever your final setup is. We are still debating our 2nd living room TV. We’ll be shopping the after xmas sales.

    FYI – Triple SLI is out for the 8800 gtx/ultra if you are interested in gaming full res on a 24 or 30″.

  8. Yes, I do avoid Sony like the plague. For a while I thought their displays might be safe, then my brother’s Trinitron monitor went out on him. If I ever bought an SXRD/Bravia, I’d definitely get the extended warranty.

    I have no idea when/if I’ll return to gaming, but my current mobo only has one 16x PCIE slot, so triple SLI would require a new one. My silent 7300GT can do 1920×1200, so I’m OK for up to 27″.

    I checked out several monitors on Newegg and Dell, and it was hard to find something that fit my needs. Part of the problem seems to be getting a “1:1 mode” so the 1920 x 1080 HD shows up letterboxed – and not stretched – on the 1920 x 1200 native monitor. It appears that the Samsung 245T, which supports 1080p through HDMI, has a Size setting that allows you to select 16:9 so there’s no scaling or cropping (see However, it isn’t listed in the manual, and I’ve contacted Samsung for clarification.

    If I was playing movies off a hard drive, or a built-in HD-DVD or Blu-ray, I think I’d have a lot more options by letting the OS and graphics card handle the display. But since I need to plug in my 8300HD and have it play without stretching or cropping, the 245T appears to be the only monitor available to me. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time looking at the pro monitors from NEC or Eizo.

  9. Sometimes I hate being informed. I own the Samsung 244T, which doesn’t have HDMI. I’ll have to check to see if it supports any kind of 1:1 mode (since it supports HD via component) because I was planning on using it as a TV. I wish I was a better procrastinator so I would own the 245T instead.

    I am not sure what game would require triple SLI to run on 24″ monitors. I ran Oblivion on my Dual SLI 8800 GTS at full everything and it had fps to spare. Even with 16x antialiasing, which is heavenly.

  10. I have the Dell 24, which is a Samsung panel, but the video modes seem to be handled by Dell. Mine has a 1:1 mode, stretch, and aspect. I leave it on aspect, then set my 8300HD to output only 480i and 1080i modes. I would set 720p, but I just don’t watch sports. This way I get my 4:3 content in native 480i with black bars on the sides, and the 1080i content in 16:9 with black bars on the top and bottom. I am running component, which you have to anyways if you want to do PIP, and also to save yourself the cost of a DVI or HDMI switcher.

    Assassin, that would be Crysis.

    Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth:
    “Crysis is not playable at high resolutions with all the special effects turned unless your PC has NVIDIA 3-way SLI technology.”

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