My experience with the DVR dates back to the ReplayTV days, in fact the ReplayTV 5000 series still holds the title as my favorite DVR. With features like automatic commercial skip and Internet show sharing, the ReplayTV was ahead of it’s time in the DVR space. Unfortunately, it was these same features that caused content provides to sue the parent company SONICblue, into oblivion. As the number of HD offerings by my cable company increased, my ReplayTVs became a little long in the tooth, and I switched to TiVo for all my DVR needs. While TiVo makes a fantastic product, one which I still recommend to all my friends and family who are looking for simple DVR beyond what the cable company can offer, the value I was getting for my monthly fees started to diminish. The three TiVo Premieres I have a home come with a total monthly fee of almost $50, and while the Premiere hardware is great, the TiVo software has almost stagnated in my opinion. The HD menu upgrade was only halfway done, with a number of screens in the menu system still stuck in SD, streaming apps like NetFlix are still a version 1.0 product, and the Amazon application does not offer Prime Instant Streaming. While TiVo continues to address a lot of these areas through software updates, they’re not moving fast enough to justify my monthly expense. As I ventured out to ultimately replace the TiVos, I spent a lot of time researching my options. You’ll find my my final configuration and justifications below. Keep in mind, this setup works for me, but I am in no way saying it’s the best. Keep that in mind.
As I looked to architect my next DVR experience, I really wanted something along the lines of AT&T U-Verse, a main central DVR and a number of “dumb” boxes that would just stream the recorded or live content off the main system. The main reason for this is to allow for centralized management of the recorded of content. One thing the ReplayTV did very well (and TiVo still does not) was recording conflict resolution. When I had multiple ReplayTVs, if I tried to schedule a show to record when the tuners were already recording other shows, it would offer to schedule that recording on a free ReplayTV in the house. Very slick. A centralized DVR with a good number of tuners would almost emulate this behavior. While I evaluated the major players in this area like Beyond TV and MythTV, I ultimately decided on Windows Media Center for one reason: CableCard support. Say what you will about CableCards and DRM (I am not a fan either), but at the end of the day I wanted the ability to record any channel I receive, and Media Center was the only option that offered CableCard support and Extender support. I’ve also been supporting Windows environments for over 15 years now, and since I would need to support this setup remotely at times, I opted to stay within my comfort level. One more thing to note, there is no monthly fee for the Guide Data in Media Center. To act as my central DVR, I have a Dell 8300 desktop PC with enough storage and horsepower to take on the task. With the DVR software decided, it was time to move onto the tuners.
To say the number of PC TV Tuners that support CableCard is sparse is an understatement. Basically the field boils down to two major contenders, Ceton and SiliconDust. Let me start by saying both companies make great products, and the feature sets are pretty much on par with one another. Ceton’s InfintiTV Quad CableCard tuner comes in two flavors, an internal PCI-E card and external USB. The PCI-E device was a non-starter for me, I wanted more than 4 tuners, and my desktop does not have enough slots to accommodate this. I tested the USB tuner, and ultimately it worked very well, but in the end I went with the SiliconDust offering, here’s why. SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun Prime CableCard tuners come in 2 varieties, a 3 tuner and a 6 tuner model. The big difference with the HDHomeRun Prime is these are network tuners. Basically, you insert the CableCard, plug in a network cable to the gigabit interface, and plug in the power cord. I opted for two of the 3 tuner Prime models (more on why in a second), and once I installed the HDHomeRun software on my desktop PC, it detected the 6 tuners and set them up for use in Windows Media Center. The cable outlets in my house are no where near where I wanted to hide the PC, and a number of bedrooms do not have cable outlets. Since I do have Ethernet cabling available, I could put the tuners in one room, the PC in another, and still have access to the tuners in Media Center over the network. The other “wow” factor was I could install the HDHomeRun software on any PC in my house, and instantly have access to those network tuners. Let’s say I wanted to watch TV on my laptop outside on the patio, by installing the driver software and configuring Media Center on my laptop, I could do just that, over wireless. If you don’t want to configure Media Center just to watch TV occasionally, the HDHomeRun software also comes with a Quick Tune application, and you can also use VLC. The fact that there is also an unofficial iPad app that allows access to the tuners was icing on the cake. The HDHomeRun software will help you activate your CableCard with your provider. Since Verizon FiOS ties a CableCard to an account and not a device, I was able to just pull the cards out of my TiVos, insert into the HDHomeRuns and they were up and running without a call to tech support. The fact that I only get 6 tuners with two Primes versus 8 tunes with two InfiniTVs was offset by the network functionality and the flexibility it brings.
I also mentioned SiliconDust makes a 6 tuner version of the Prime, I can’t recommend it at this time. The 6 tuner box is basically two 3 tuners in a single chassis. I assume they did this because the 3 tuner box already had CableLabs certification, and by just putting two together, they avoid having to re-certify. The 6 tuner box is more expensive than just buying two 3 tuners, and you still need two CableCards, two Tuning Adapters (if your provider requires them), and two network cables. The only advantage is the 6 tuner only needs one power cable, that’s it. Save your money and buy two 3 tuners instead.
As I mentioned above, I wanted a centralized DVR with streaming boxes at each of the TVs in my house, something Media Center does very well through the use of Extenders. I do not want a full PC connected to my main TV for a number of reasons, but mostly because that would not pass the Wife Approval Factor (WAF), and really that’s the only factor that matters. As a side note, if you do not have a CableCard requirement like I do, both Beyond TV and MytvTV have their own Extender ability, and both are great solutions as well. While there used to be a number of Media Center Extenders on the market from companies like Linksys and HP, today there is basically just one offering, the Xbox 360. Fortunately, as an avid gamer, I already have one Xbox 360 in the house, connected to the main TV. This Xbox now does double duty not only a game console, but the may way we consume live and recorded TV in our living room. Since I also ripped our DVD collection, we now also use Media Center and its Extenders to watch these in any room of the house. I set the Xbox to boot directly to Media Center when powered on (again, WAF), and we can stream live TV and anything we record in Media Center to this box. With the money I made from selling two of the TiVos already, I picked up a second Xbox 360 4GB edition for the bedroom, which now serves as a “cable box” in that room, and I get another game console. I mentioned above none of the other bedrooms in this house have a cable outlet. Instead of running wires, I can now drop Extenders in each of these rooms and stream TV over the network. I tested the on the 5GHz spectrum, and it is more than adequate to handle the HD video. I don’t want to keep buying Xboxes every time I want to put a TV in a room, and fortunately Ceton (maker of the InfiniTV) is answering the call. Their website lists an upcoming product called the Ceton Echo, which appears to be a new, small form factor, Media Center Extender. No pricing is listed just yet, and the availability is still listed as “Coming in 2012,” but based on the specs and description, this could be my next extender.
Note: It’s worth noting that TiVo is supposedly working on an extender type system for their DVR they’re calling TiVo Preview. This box was originally geared towards Cable Company deals, but they are releasing a version for the home market as well.
Media Center Add-Ons
There are a few pieces of software I have purchased to enhance my Media Center experience that I feel I should mentioned here.
Microsoft is notorious for artificial limitations in their software, and Media Center is no different. For some reason, Media Center only supports a max of four tuners, and I mentioned above I currently have 6 available, and would really like to use them. Luckily, the Internet has answered the call, and a program called Tuner Salad can increase that limit from 4 to 12. The program is dead simple to use, simply chose your location and hit the “Increase tuner limit” button, and you can now use 12 tuners in Media Center. You’ll have to re-run the TV setup to pickup any tuners over 4. Tuner Salad is forced donation-ware, they require a $5 payment to download the software, but it’s the best $5 you can spend for what the program does.
My Channel Logos
The same company that makes Tuner Salad also has another great piece of software called My Channel Logos. As you can probably guess from the name, this software allows you to add the channel logos to the Media Center Guide. The application can automatically download logos for well known channels, and offers the ability to upload custom logos as well. You can also use this software to tweak the number of rows in the Guide, as well as change some of the Guide display options. My Channel Logos is force donation-ware as well, but well worth the little as $3 they ask for.
One thing TiVo did exceptionally well was remote scheduling via the tivo.com site. After logging in, I could see my available DVRs, what they were scheduled to record, and even schedule new recordings using the web guide. Remote Potato brings these features and more to Windows Media Center. Simply download the free server from remotepotato.com, setup a username and password, and you can access all the Media Center functionality from any web browser in the world.
Beyond just browsing the Guide and scheduling recordings, Remote Potato allows you to stream your recorded content through a web browser, delete recordings, and even offers a remote control interface for Media Center.
On top of web browser management, thanks to an open API there are a number of mobile apps for the three major platforms that offer Remote Potato functionality on the go.
Video ReDo is not a Media Center extension, but rather a very capable, and somewhat easy to use, video editing solution. Video ReDo has the ability to open the recorded TV files (.wtv) from Media Center, and offers a number of editing features, such as commercial removal, cut and delete scenes, and re-encode the file to another format. I use this quite a bit when I want to bring TV shows on my iPad for offline viewing.
The Wrap Up
This setup may seem a little daunting at first, and yes, it is not as easy up front as plugging in a TiVo, but the flexibility it offers is far beyond what TiVo can do today. Media Center seems to be ignored by the Microsoft Marketing Department, which is a shame considering the almost Apple-esque ecosystem they have built up around the platform. While I would never in my right mind recommend this setup to say my parents, if you have a technical flair and do want complete control of your home entertainment setup, it’s worth jumping into.