Friday, March 12, 2010

HD PVR - recording satellite HD with Windows Media Center.

Recording HD video from cable and satellite set-top boxes to a media center PC is not nearly as easy as it should be.  Digital HD signals (HDMI, DVI) are encrypted (using HDCP), so only authorized receivers can process them.  This doesn't work out so well for people (like me) who don't want to pay the cable or satellite companies a monthly fee for DVR capabilities, especially when we have a PC that can perform this function while giving us more control.  CableCARD was supposed to be the solution for us, but (a) it was not widely adopted (b) it required renting the card from the provider (and I thought part of the point was not paying them for DVR).  Of course, there are plenty of tuner cards that record non-HD content from set-top boxes and free over-the-air HD (basically, local channels).

The best solution that I came across was Hauppauge's HD PVR.  It's a small external box that converts component inputs (YPbPr) from the set-top box to H.264 video that it streams to your PC via USB 2.0.  However, this is not supported by Windows Media Center straight out of the box, and the software that comes with it is pretty terrible in comparison.  Fortunately, there is a software package called DVBLink that allows for WMC integration (for an extra $40 on top of the $200 for the HD PVR).  It basically creates virtual tuners in WMC and then streams the HD PVR output to them.  The setup process was not completely intuitive, but it wasn't too bad either.  If you can follow directions from the website, it should go alright for you (I, however, get a little impatient sometimes and make bad assumptions).  All in all, hooking up the HD PVR and setting up all the software took me somewhere around 3 hours, including time where I played around with some settings.

So here's my analysis after watching my first recording (NBC's Thursday night line-up):

Pros
  • HD satellite TV fully integrated into WMC!  This includes watching, pausing, and recording TV, along with Guide information.
  • No monthly fee for DVR service.

"Cons"
  • $240 price tag - this would take 2 years at $10/month savings to break even.  May be worth it in the end.
  • Setup is not seamless, but shouldn't be too bad for someone who has a media center PC (especially if you built it yourself).
  • Video quality maxes out at 720p or 1080i due to component inputs (note that cable/satellite HD quality doesn't go higher than this anyway).
  • External box that sits on top of the computer, as opposed to an internal card.
While it seems like there are more cons that pros, none of the "cons" are really that bad at all (hence the quotes).  I'm pleased with it so far, after only one night of use, and I think most people in a similar situation would be as well.

1 comment:

  1. I started to build my own Media center PC once. They I had visions of me putting in all kinds of work to deal with issues like these. So I turned it into a regular computer and bought an HD Tivo. I love my Tivo.

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