An HTPC Perspective on home theater PC technology

Ditch your cable box and rental fee to roll your own DVR!

We conducted a reader survey a few weeks ago, and one of the tech topics that received a surprising amount of interest in was HTPC coverage. You, our awesome readers, wanted to know more about the hardware and software behind them. I’ll admit that I was ardent about the prospects of talking HTPCs with you. As a relatively new entrant to that area of tech myself, I was excited to cover it, and give you more coverage on a topic you wanted to see more of!

Today we won't be talking about home theater PCs in the sense of a computer in the living room AV rack (Ryan covered that earlier this week), but rather a related technology that makes the HTPC possible: the CableCARD-equipped TV tuner.

I will forewarn you that this article is quite a bit more informal than my usual writings, especially if you only follow my PC Perspective postings. In the future, it may not be that way, but I wanted to give some backstory and some personal thoughts on the matter to illustrate how I got into rolling my own DVR and why I’m excited about it (mainly: it saves money and is very flexible).

Preface/Background

Despite my previous attempts to “cut the cord” and use only Internet-based services for television, me and my girlfriend slowly but surely made our way back to cable TV. For about a year we survived on Netflix, Hulu, and the various networks’ streaming videos on their respective websites but as the delays between a shows airing and web streaming availability increased and Netflix instant Streaming started losing content the price of cable started to look increasingly acceptable.

She was probably the first one to feel the effects of a lack of new content – especially with a newfound love for a rather odd show called True Blood. It was at some point thereafter, once she had caught up with as many seasons offered on Netflix of various shows as possible that she broke down and ordered U-Verse. U-Verse is an interesting setup of television delivery using internet protocol (IPTV). While we did have some issues at first with the Residential Gateway and signal levels, it was eventually sorted out and it was an okay setup. It offered a lot of channels – with many in HD. In the end though, after the promotional period was up, it got very expensive to stay subscribed to. Also, because it was IPTV, it was not as flexible as traditional cable as far as adding extra televisions and the DVR functionality. Further, the image quality for the HD streams, while much better than SD, was not up to par with the cable and satellite feeds I’ve seen.

Being with Comcast for Internet for about three years now, I’ve been fairly happy with it. One day I saw a promotion for currently subscribed customers for TV + Blast internet for $80, which was only about $20 more than I was paying each month for its Performance tier. After a week of hell Therefore, I decided to sign up for it. Only, I did not want to rent a Comcast box, so I went searching for alternatives.

Enter the elusive and never advertised CableCARD

It was during this search that I learned a great deal about CableCARDs and the really cool things that they enabled. Thanks to the FCC, cable television providers in the United States have to give their customers an option other than renting a cable box for a monthly fee – customers have to be able to bring their own equipment if they wish (they can still charge you for the CableCARD but at a reduced rate, and not all cable companies charge a fee for them). But what is a CableCARD? In short, it is a small card that resembles a PCMIA expansion card – a connector that can commonly be found in older laptops (think Windows XP-era). It is to be paired with a CableCARD tuner and acts as the key to decrypt the encrypted television stations in your particular subscriber package. They are added much like a customer-owned modem is, by giving the cable company some numbers on the bottom of the card that act as a unique identifier. The cable company then connects that particular card to your account and sends it a profile of what channels you are allowed to tune into.

There are some drawbacks, however. Mainly that On Demand does not work with most CableCARDS. Do note that this is actually not a CableCARD hardware issue, but a support issue on the cable company side. You could, at least in theory, get a CableCARD and tuner that could tune in On Demand content, but right now that functionality seems to be limited to some Tivos and the rental cable boxes (paradoxically some of those are actually CableCARD-equipped). It’s an unfortunate situation, but here’s hoping that it is supported in the future. Also, if you do jump into the world of CableCARDs, it is likely that you will find yourself in a situation where you know more about them than the cable installer as cable companies do not advertise them, and only a small number of employees are trained on them. Don’t be too hard on the cable tech though, it's primarily because cable companies would rather rent you a (expensive) box, and a very small number of people actually know about and need a tech to support the technology. I was lucky enough to get one of the “CableCARD guys,” on my first install, but I’ve also gotten techs that have never seen one before and it made for an interesting conversation piece as they diagnosed signal levels for the cable modem (heh). Basically, patience is key when activating your CableCARD, and I highly recommend asking around forums like DSLReports for the specific number(s) to call to get to the tier 2 techs that are familiar with CableCARDs for your specific provider when calling to activate it if you opt to do a self-install. Even then, you may run into issues. For example, something went wrong with activation on the server side at Comcast so it took a couple of hours for them to essentially unlock all of my HD channels during my install.

With that said, and I’ll quote the tech here, “once they are up and running, they’ll stay that way.” In the two or so months that I’ve had it, I’ve found that to be the case. Beyond the quirks, I am still excited about CableCARDs. They offer up a lot of possibilities, and enable some really cool stuff beyond the regular cable box, which I aim to get into over the course of HTPC Perspective articles. The fun really starts when you get into the tuners and the computer hardware and software behind them. There are a couple of companies producing CableCARD tuners, and you can find both internal, external, and even networked TV tuners (ex. PCI-E, USB, and Ethernet respectively). In terms of CableCARD tuners, the two largest names are SiliconDust and Ceton. Ceton is popular in the enthusiast community for its internal PCI-E quad tuner card – the InfiniTV 4 PCIe tuner – whereas SiliconDust is known for its network-attached HDHomeRun Prime boxes. Both have their own strengths, and can generally be found for around the same $200 price point, which can make choosing between the two difficult (you could technically use both, if you have the cash). In my case, where I have quite a few devices that I want to be able to use the tuners without leaving my desktop on, I chose the SiliconDust HDHR3-CC HDHomeRun Prime which attaches to the coax line, a power jack, and my home network (LAN).

It does have one less tuner than the Ceton card, but for me the convenience and power savings won out. Since it is network attached, any computer in the house can reach out and access any (or all) of the three tuners without depending on a home server or desktop being on (WoL may be an option there but that’s just asking for issues of availability when you’re hoping the latest episode of Breaking Bad will record). For the software side of things, I decided to use Windows Media Center as it seems to have the best support for CableCARDs and encrypted cable streams. The various Linux-based software solutions are able to tune into any copy-freely encrypted channels easily enough but there are issues with channels that cable companies flag as copy-once or copy-never (I’ll get into copy-protection in the future). Also – and this is a personal preference thing – Windows Media Center just looks nice. It has a pretty good interface that is many times faster/snappier than any cable or satellite box I’ve ever used. That’s another benefit of rolling your own DVR, is that you can say goodbye to the cable companies slow guide and terrible search!

An HTPC Perspective: Get Excited About CableCARDs and Tuners - Editorial  1And that is what this all amounts to, CableCARDs enable you to bring your own hardware to the cable TV party and roll your own DVR. That means that you are no longer stuck with the amount of storage space that your cable company believes is plenty, which may only be 500GB if you are lucky and have one of the newer HD boxes. By pairing your CC tuner to your computer(s), you can easily add all the storage you want. As an example, I have 1 TB allocated to recordings on my desktop and Katy has a 2TB external hard drive to backup all her shows (that’s a lot of True Blood and Teen mom! heh). My desktop, where I do most of my TV watching – it serves as great background noise while writing – is admittedly extreme-overkill for watching TV, but there is something to be said for having more than enough hardware to do the job rather than being stuck with whatever hardware the cable company has on the truck to give you.

You might be wondering about the big screen though, and how I get the TV to the living room. This is the area where a dedicated HTPC like the one Ryan recently put together and a good remote or wireless keyboard/mouse can really shine, and is an area that I’m interested in diving into in the future. For now, I’m actually using my Xbox 360 of all things. Using the Windows Media Extender functionality, I’m able to bring the WMC interface, the tuners for live TV, any TV recordings, and any music, photos, or videos I have saved over to the living room TV. It is not ideal because it is not as snappy as running WMC natively on a laptop or desktop, but it works well and was essentially free since I already had the Xbox 360.

If you are going the WMC Extender route, I would recommend picking up a used Xbox 360 if you do not have one and do not bother with the other extender devices as they are rather old at this point and the ebay sellers where you can find them charge a pretty penny for them. The 360 is also the best and newest extender that you will be able to find, which is unfortunate but true. Obviously, being just an extender, it does require having one of the networked computers turned on to work though – hence the desire to go full HTPC.

Another feature enabled by WMC and the networked nature of the computers is that you can easily get the multi-room DVR functionality that the television providers love to charge extra for – for free! All of the WMC computers are able to share (or not, it can be restricted if you wish) most recordings and either stream it to other computers or copy the recording over to another computer so that it can be played locally. The exception is in the case of the above-mentioned copy-protection flags. These can be a pain because they can restrict you from copying shows around the network to other computers if the TV network or cable provider has flagged the show as copy-once or copy-never. With the cable company equipment, it can sometimes get around that depending on how they have it set up, say if it pulls from the same DVR recording, but that doesn’t always work. At least then though, you can gripe to the provider about not being able to do it on its own equipment (which you are paying them extra to do whole-home DVR for)!

As you can likely gather from this (admittedly lengthy, I apologize) post, there are a lot of nuances, exceptions, and quirks when it comes to rolling your own DVR and TV tuning equipment. It also has a lot of cool benefits as well, if you have the patience and desire to work past the issues.

So, yes I’m really positive about CableCARDs and HTPCs in general. I’m not saying that it is always easy to set-up and there are some real quirks that I wish did not exist, but once it is up and running it’s a rather satisfying feeling.  There is a lot of research required if you are wanting to jump into the DIY HTPC route, especially in regards to your specific cable provider and how it works with the specific company in regards to hardware support (SDV, for example), and pricing. Unfortunately, I can only speak for my experience with Comcast in Midwest Illinois, and even within the same cable company, local regulations and offices can effect pricing so you will need to do due diligence when figuring out what it will cost (it will almost always be cheaper than renting boxes, but it’s impossible to say by how much as it will depend on your area and the provider).

It's nice to be free of Xfinity logos as much as possible

In my opinion, it is totally worth rolling your own hardware and software solution to tune in and record cable TV (and we haven’t even touched features like transcoding on the fly for mobile devices or – ahem – commercial skipping). While I am still getting hit with Comcast’s “HD Technology Fee” for $10 (even though I have no Comcast-owned equipment… sigh), I get a $2.50 credit for using a CableCARD tuner (they classify it as “customer owned equipment) and do not have to pay the approximate $16 a month for an HD DVR box – a box that would have vastly slower hardware and non-expandable storage space!

Are you excited about CableCARDs and related hardware yet? I know I am. If you cannot yet bear to cut the cord completely, I think this is the next best option!

Now that we’ve talked (a lot) about the hardware and the interesting things it can do, let’s take a visual look at some hardware! On the next page, we’ll take a quick visual tour of a CableCARD and the HDHomeRun Prime TV tuner. SiliconDust isn't the only game in town though, there are plenty of other good tuners out there. The HDHR Prime was just the one that worked the best for my specific setup. Which ones do you use in your HTPCs?

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