Tag Archives: digital cable

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. []

TiVo vs. Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD

Some of you might already be thinking, “This is a no-brainer.” Of course, you might have different answers. I was pretty die hard TiVo before I switched, so I thought I’d give a rundown of the pros and cons of each.

My setup:
+ TiVo Series 1 (but I’ll comment on DIRECTV HD TiVo)
+ Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD
+ Toshiba 57″ HDTV (thanks to Agent Assassin)
+ Time Warner Digital Cable
+ Automator remote by Universal Remote Control

The first issue was cable vs. satellite. Without going into that whole personal battle, it came to this:

+ HD TiVo, but it costs $500
+ No local channels without an antenna; I rent a house, so no aerial, and indoors mostly suck
+ Need DSL for broadband internet, already have cable modem
+ Can get crappy reception when it rains
+ Cost for HD DVR + service + HBO: $500 + $54/mo. (with contract)

TimeWarner Cable:
+ Charging me for an extra tuner, and a we’re-renting-you-an-extra-tuner fee! (Yeah, they’re jerks.)
+ Cable modem is a better deal than DSL, and no changes
+ Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD for $10/mo. So it’ll be over 4 years before I spend on it what the HD TiVo would have cost me (and it was $1,000 when I made my decision).
+ Get local channels, except for UPN and the WB. It’s TimeWARNER, and they don’t carry WARNER Brothers on HD? What’s the conspiracy, man?
+ Cost for HD DVR + service + HBO: $68/mo.

Ok, here’s the comparison:

Series 1 TiVo:
+ Way friendlier interface, but you knew that
+ TV listing data for a week or so out; the 8300HD prefetches only 2-3 days, makes you manually scroll out for more data, and caps at about a week.
+ Can select a TV show (Season Pass) and see all the upcoming showings, on all channels
+ Shows you what it’s not recording due to repeats
+ Better search feature, more options (by actor, director, just show movies, etc.)
+ If you’re willing to hack the box, or pay someone to, you can add more/bigger hard drives for more recording time. Do that to your rental unit, and they will literally kill you.

DIRECTV HD TiVo Advantages:
+ Can record TWO shows simultaneously, in HD
+ 30 hours of HD storage (vs. 20 for the Explorer)
+ Records digital audio
+ HDMI interface

Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD Advantages:
+ Can record TWO shows simultaneously, in HD (which HD TiVo will do, Series)
+ Records digital audio
+ HDMI interface
+ Interface responds much faster than TiVo (at least Series 1, maybe 2 is a lot faster. It better be.)
+ Compared to standard TiVos with cable, doesn’t need an extra tuner for HD viewing (where a standard definition (SD) tuner goes to the TiVo, and an HD one goes directly to the TV and surround system).

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the 8300HD, as I had heard awful things about the previous cable co. DVRs. The interface/features still leave me wanting, but it has more TiVo functionality than I was expecting. That said, now that the HD TiVo is only $500, it’s a tougher decision for those making it now. I’d probably be more displeased if I was switching from a Series 2, which allows you to manage you TiVo from the web.