I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few weeks, but only now have finally gotten around to it. I should start with some history of my experiences with Windows Media Center.
My first Media Center PC was home-built using Windows Media Center Edition 2004 using a Dell desktop computer and a Hauppauge analog tuner card that was connected to Time Warner Cable in the Cincinnati suburb that we lived in at the time. This system was later upgraded to Media Center Edition 2005 and a dual-tuner Hauppauge analog tuner was installed. This system became my platform for testing Windows Vista and began running the first Public Beta of Vista and later was weekly reinstalled with the current Daily Build of Vista as we moved closer to RTM. After the RTM build was installed, this system also became my test platform for pre-release builds of SP1 and later SP2. Once the public builds of Windows 7 were released, the system continued its function as my test platform running public builds of that as well.
Throughout this entire time, my Media Center box has been physically located in my home office. Shortly after I began running the beta builds of Windows Vista, I obtained an XBox 360 and began using it as an extender for Media Center. This allowed my son to watch the recorded episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder on the TV downstairs instead of in my office. Its native ability to function as an extender for Media Center was the primary reason I purchased the XBox 360. Once I began using the XBox as an extender, I began running the Media Center machine headless (ie. without a keyboard or monitor).
The system continued in its configuration as we moved home to the Seattle area and connected the Media Center PC via Comcast cable. When Comcast stopped broadcasting their signals for the Extended Basic channels in analog, I made 2 changes to my configuration. The first change was that the original single-tuner Hauppauge card was brought out of storage and connected with an IR Blaster to the Comcast Digital Tuning Adapter so that I could continue to tune all of the Extended Basic channels in their analog format within Media Center. The second addition was a SilconDust HDHomeRun dual-tuner device so that I could record the ClearQAM signals for the local HD channels. I also added a 1.5TB hard drive that I had acquired online at a Black Friday sale.
For the most part, the system has served me well. Except for the new hard drive, the computer is over 6 years old and performs its duties well. Its only limitation that I have experienced with it was unable to record multiple Extended Basic channels because I had no more single-tuner Analog Tuners and no more IR Blasters. This led to missed recordings of some shows due to schedule conflicts. It also only had 2GB of RAM and a single-core Hyper-threaded CPU. While it performed its function well, it did not have enough power to do any transcoding when I was testing out MyMovies.
My concept of what a Media Center system could do improved greatly when Ceton Corporation announced that they were in development of what would become known as the InfiniTV product line. These cards utilize a single CableCARD m-card to decrypt the signals for multiple tuners. The current cards have 4 tuners on a single card. The card utilizes a PCI-e slot to connect to the PC and is automatically detected as a CableCARD tuner by Media Center once it and its drivers are installed. I placed my pre-order for the InfiniTV 4 and anxiously awaited their release and the shipment to arrive. When the card arrived last month, I found myself needing to leave the card sitting unopened in its box for about a week. This delay was due to me traveling for work to customer sites, and that my current Media Center system pre-dated PCI-e slots and another piece of hardware was going to need to be repurposed as my new Media Center PC. I had previously purchased a Quad-Core HP desktop with 4GB of RAM which I decided to rebuild. I installed another of the 1.5TB hard drives that I had previously purchased and hadn’t installed anywhere yet to provide me storage space for the recordings.
I performed a clean install of the x64 edition of Windows 7 Ultimate onto the system. I then installed the Ceton card and its drivers. While out running errands the next day, I went to the local Comcast Customer Service Center and picked up the M-Card CableCARD and brought it home. I inserted the card and powered up the system. I opened the Ceton configuration utility and called Comcast with the information for the system so that the card could be paired. This process took about 5-minutes to complete. Once the configuration utilities showed the card properly paired with Comcast, I opened Media Center, ran the Digital Cable Advisor, and began the TV Setup wizard. It automatically detected the Ceton as 4 CableCARD Tuners and downloaded the guide data for my area. I spent a few minutes disabling the channels that I do not subscribe to, and began watching TV channels from the Extended Basic lineup that I subscribe to. Much to my surprise, in addition to being able to tune the SD versions of the channels, I was also able to tune their HD versions as well.
I disconnected my XBox 360 from the previous Media Center system and paired it with the new one. I am now able to watch the HD streams of all of the Extended Basic channels downstairs on my 47” LCD TV using the XBox 360 as an extender. I also record the HD versions of the shows I watch and stream them to the TV via the XBox as well. Since the channels I receive are not premium content, the signal is sent with the Copy Freely bit set, so the recordings are not protected and I can also copy them to my laptop to view while I am traveling. It has been nice watching the Star Wars: The Clone Wars (and everything else) in HD. I now use my XBox 360 as a Set-Top-Box for watching Live TV as well (and honestly, I prefer the guide in Media Center over the one in the Comcast STP anyhow).
Overall, I am EXTREMELY SATISFIED with my Ceton InfiniTV 4 and Windows 7’s Media Center. For anyone with Digital Cable or FIOS, the Ceton card is something you should be considering. The ability to leverage a Ceton card is what will keep me on Cable vs. Satellite. I am seriously thinking about returning my current STB as it is no longer being used on the main TV as well as the DTAs used elsewhere around the house and replacing them with XBox 360’s. The new Kinect bundle could replace the 360 on the downstairs TV and allow me to move the current XBox upstairs for that TV.
The only remaining steps for me to complete is to decommission the previous Media Center PC and install the HDHomeRun drivers on the new one so that it can leverage those two tuners for the ClearQAM HD signals freeing up the Ceton’s tuners for the other channels.