Tag Archives: dct

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 Wonderâ„¢ 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. []