TV on your Media Center PC: a 30-second primer

A reader sent me an interesting question via e-mail last week, one that I get at least once a month. I thought it would be worth answering here so that others could benefit. Here’s the question:

I have a new Media Center desktop PC from HP with an HDMI port. If I get a high def converter box from Comcast, will I be able to watch and record in high def from my PC?

Good question, and unfortunately, the answer is no. The problem is that high-definition cable signals are encrypted, and there’s no easy way to get the signal from the box to your PC. Here’s a breakdown of options for residents of the United States:

Over-the-air (OTA) high-definition broadcasts
With a good antenna and a relatively inexpensive tuner, you can record any OTA broadcast in full quality. You can save it on your PC, edit it, and copy it to another PC or device. This works for any broadcast signal, with no cable subscription required. I have two digital tuners here, and the quality is superb.

Cable or satellite signals via converter box
Either of these options requires a converter box, which is keyed to your subscriber ID and is encrypted. You can send output from an S-Video connector to a TV tuner in your PC, but the output will be standard-definition. You also have to connect your infrared remote to the input on the converter box so the the Media Center can change channels for you. If you are happy with SD, then this option works fine. The only device that I am aware of that can take output from an HD source and use it in a Media Center is the Hauppauge HD PVR. It takes the output from the component output on your converter box and saves it as high-definition H.264 recordings. Personally, I find this option way too complicated, but if you want to investigate, try this article from GeekTonic and this very long discussion thread at The Green Button.

For cable customers only, you have the option of using one or more digital cable tuners (DCTs) that can be internal or external (USB). This is the solution I use. The cable goes directly from your wall outlet to the tuner and does not use a cable converter box. Instead, the cable company supplies a card that plugs into the tuner and does the work of identifying you as a subscriber and decrypting the incoming signal. You rent the CableCARD (typically for a buck or two a month), and it must be installed and configured by the cable company.

The CableCARD solution works great once you get it set up. I have three CableCARD tuners here, and they allow me to record any standard or high-definition signal on my Media Center. I can view the recorded programs on a Media Center extender over my network or watch them on the PC where they were recorded. Windows Vista supports CableCARD tuners. Windows 7 does a much better job.

However, there are some restrictions you should be aware of:

  • Currently, CableCARD tuners can only be sold with a new PC that has been certified by CableLabs and is specially modified with a BIOS that supports the devices. You need a special product key to activate the tuner. This restriction is about to be lifted so that you’ll be able to buy a DCT and install it on a system you build or buy. According to Microsoft, that change is coming very soon. You can read some details about the change here.
  • Currently, all programs recorded via CableCARD are copy-protected. That’s true even of broadcast programs that would be completely unrestricted if you recorded them over the air. The copy protection is due to be relaxed soon, with a firmware update to existing tuners. But again, this change has not happened yet.
  • CableCARD devices are tied to a particular PC. That will continue to be true even after the recent changes take effect. When you set up a CableCARD tuner, the cable company takes a unique ID from your PC and from the CableCARD and “pairs” them. If you want to move a CableCARD tuner to a new PC, you have to get the cable company to come out and replace the card and set up a new pairing. And at that point any recordings you made on the old PC will not play back on the new one.

A company called Ceton is promising to offer a new multi-tuner CableCARD device soon, at prices to be determined. When that happens, I’ll certainly be testing it and writing about it here. Don’t get too excited, though. This device was “coming soon” way back in March 2008!

Meanwhile, satellite subscribers are still in limbo. DirecTV once had a Media Center tuner under development, but the project is officially dead. There are conflicting rumors of a Dish TV tuner, including a report last month that it was killed and a report that it was sighted at CEDIA (a professional tradeshow) earlier this month. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Got questions? Ask away in the comments.

10 thoughts on “TV on your Media Center PC: a 30-second primer

  1. I think that I understand the HD comments. My question is basic. If I buy a computer with TV card, do you then need to “split” the cable to receive TV signal and internet separately? I have Comcast.

  2. Yes, indeed. In fact, I have my cable split four ways, to feed three digital tuners and one analog tuner. If I had a cable modem I would need to split off a fifth connector.

    Having high-quality splitters is super-important, as each split has the potential to degrade the signal.

  3. There’s one other option. For many cable customers (but not all), some of the channels are broadcast in digital form but not encrypted. This is referred to as Clear QAM and does not require a CableCARD. I’m a Comcast customer in the Denver area and am able to record all of the major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, etc.) in high definition using Windows Media Center and a Silicon Dust HDHomeRun tuner. See their web site for more information including a list of available channels by zip code.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I deliberately avoided mentioning Clear QAM because it is so hit and miss. Even in areas where it works, it can be changed at any time by the cable provider. The quality of the OTA signal is almost always better as well.

  4. Ed,

    This is off topic, but slightly related. If this isn’t the place for this question, feel free to delete this comment. No hard feelings.

    I just purchased a 46″ LCD Sony Bravia to go with my HTPC connected via DVI-HDMI. The HTPC won’t get past the BIOS screen. After that, I just get a blank screen and nothing else. I have to connect a DVI-DVI monitor to boot the PC and then switch monitors. I combed and posted on The Green Button forums, but no one has a good fix. I know it’s all related to the ‘handshake’ that occurs between the PC and television. DVI Doctor did not fix the issue. I run an Nvidia 8600GT from Gigabyte and have updated all the drivers. I will go to Windows 7 on Day 1. Should I keep working on this thing or just stay with my temporary solution (switching monitors when necessary) until 10/22 when I go get 7? I figured there is a 50-50 chance 7 will either fix my problem or bring it back. Thoughts?

    Again, feel free to bounce this comment. I know it is kind of off topic.

    Thank you.


    1. Jamie, I pointed this fact out in the post here: “This restriction is about to be lifted so that you’ll be able to buy a DCT and install it on a system you build or buy.” I also linked to my post at ZDNet which covers the same news as the post you linked.

      The restriction is NOT yet officially lifted and will not be until consumers can download the tool from Microsoft that allows one to install a CableCARD tuner without activating it.

  5. Is recording even necessary? There are plenty of Internet TV options. You can watch many shows at your convenience without recording. However, if I want to save a show to watch offline, I will need a Flash recorder. Then what do you recommend?

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