Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Article: Fanboy's quest for Digital Cable TV enlightenment

As a “newbie” at Cable TV, I have been learning a lot stuff rather painfully. As a guy who mostly watch movies, TV shows and series at Netflix, Hulu, and the old traditional TV antenna, I haven't really been catching up with the latest trends in Cable TV and HDTV in general. So jumping in this haven't been easy, what with all the cost associated with the service and the “complexity” of having a decent digital Cable HDTV system.

As an upstart in this field, I decided to go with Comcast/XFinity and skipped AT&T mostly because I've just had enough of AT&T's internet service. Besides, other than AT&T, I can't really find any provider in my area so either AT&T or Comcast.

Note: I do not own of the images used here, if you own any of them and are offended by my use, let me know and I'll remove them.

Plunging in to the world of Cable TV has gotten me thru a roller coaster ride of new things to learn. Aside from getting a subscription, it never really ends there. If you are like me who have HDTV, you'll soon find out that the standard STB (set top box) that the provider installs is called an “SD” (Standard Definition) box . This means, no matter if you got the latest and greatest TV, you won't get 1080i from the Cable broadcast. And yes, 1080i and not 1080p, the “i” isn't a typo. As I said, I learn quite a few things, and that 1080i vs 1080p TV broadcast is one such thing, and it's all about bandwidth. I won't go into details on that so I'll skip to the issue at hand, and to the matter that leads me into reviewing this device. Is it a “failed” device, is it cool, is it what it's advertised, and what is this device really?

I. The impending issue lingers.....
The first issue that plague me, a thing that I can't set aside in my mind no matter how hard I try, is that I am only viewing SD channels. While there are HD channels, for the life of me, I can't get it displayed, and the main reason is that my STB is an SD-only box. Now I can bypass the STB and connect the cable directly to my Digital TV since my TV is digital-cable-ready, however my whole channel line up just becomes messy (i.e. I have Channel 13.1, 15.9, wth?!?) and I also lose the “TV Guide” (on-screen TV program menu that shows time, title and channel of shows). The only good thing with bypass is that I got local HD broadcast, but not even all of it since Comcast has encrypted many of the channels. As it turned out, I can only get what is called ClearQAM and unencrypted HD channels. Again, this never came as “common knowledge”, and a continuous research ensues.

A workaround seems obvious, get an HD STB. While it indeed sound obvious, being a newcomer in this has delayed me for a day before I figure out I can get one from the provider. So off to the local office provider I go and told them my issue and I got myself and HD-DVR. This will allow me to watch both ClearQAM, unencrypted AND encrypted channels which include Premium PPV (i.e. Showtime, HBO).

I am not really sure what I signed up for when I got the HD STB. All I want is HD channels, and this time, I got an STB that is called HD-DVR, and I was happy thinking I finally got what I wanted. While I know DVR means I can also record stuff, what I didn't know is that it carries a rental price, and to add insult, it is much more expensive than HD box (almost twice the price), despite the fact that I returned the SD box which was originally installed.

In my mind, there was an error with the installation, so I just need to return the SD STB, go to the store, and get a replacement HD STB without additional cost. But it wasn't the case. The SD STB is “free”, but returning it and replacing it with HD isn't free. While I did settle for an HD STB instead of the HD-DVR STB, I still get the SD STB since it has no rental fee anyway. The HD STB costs about $8.5/mo, the HD-DVR is about $17.00/mo. The cool thing about HD-DVR is that you can “pause and rewind” live TV and also “record” any show. That feature sticks to me like a glue, I just got to have that feature but at $17/mo for a single TV, that allows me to watch recorded shows on that same TV seems too much. Hence, I got two additional issues that needs resolving: get DVR feature but eliminate monthly cost.

In summary, the three issues are:
  1. Enable HD
  2. Enable DVR features
  3. Eliminate rental cost

II. The hunt begins!
Spending time after time after time for “DVR” Holy Grail costed me weeks of research. I stumbled across sites like AVSforum, Cnet Top DVRs, and various other sites. One thing that keeps popping up as best DVR is the Magnavox MDR-513H/F7 320GB, but the price tag of $299 is not for the faint of heart. There have been various times where I almost hit that “buy” button, but for the life of me, I just can't seem to make the move.

For one, the price is just too high. Staying with my current rental of $17/mo, break even comes after about 17months which makes it a little more enticing. Another is the fact that the device is just an SD DVR, and receive encrypted and other Premium channels. Without this means that an STB (HD or SD) is still needed since using the Magnavox will be just similar to bypassing the STB. So in reality, I will get a Magnavox, and if I need HD (which I really need), then I'd still be shelling out $8.50/mo for the STB. Definitely too costly to sustain.

However, the fact that reviews of this Magnavox DVR is very high, because parts can be replaced (i.e. upgrade hard drive, replace optical drive) plus decent TV tuner capability is making me really push that “buy” button. But my self-control prevails and I decided to look for a PC-based solution to my issues. I mean, from the looks and definition of the Magnavox, it is more like a PC appliance, rather than your typical electric appliance.

III. Diversionary Focus
From DVR-centric approach, my mindset chenges into more PC-enablement of capability. The hunt resulted to a few interesting results, pushing me forward to find that silver bullet. I stumbled into solutions such as Roku, Apple TV, Sony Google TV, and Western Digital Live TV. However, these things are “streamers” rather than devices with TV tuners, and hence, has no “Cable in” ports. And after a few more poking around, I ended up with TiVo and Moxi. However, TiVo has subscription fee and Moxie's price hovers above $400. They sure are alternatives to rental HD-DVRs, but they cost more than the normal STB offerings from Comcast.

Then I remember about Hauppage, I have always known about this device for a long time, but never really thought of as my primary choice. Back then, my experience with Hauppage device is for my laptop, plugging it in as a USB TV and then adding a rabbit antenna. Not the prettiest site, but it works till I get tired of grainy and snowy signals and swore never to use such contraption again. While the set up is clunky, it wasn't the deal breaker. What I really hated was the software that are bundled with it and it's probably because Windows XP (or was it Win95) wasn't really cut out for such. Because of such experience, Hauppage was lost in my memory as device for watching TV on the PC (back then, the idea was really really really cool).

IV. Right path!
And just then when I found out about Hauppage, I am once again catapulted into to another path. From researching on appliances that can record TVs (Personal DVRs), stumbling to streaming boxes (media streamer/players), learning about proprietary alternative to Cable STBs (Moxie/TiVo) and then doing a complete turnabout to PC TV.

But this isn’t smooth sailing from here, it’s far from anything like that. Hauppage reminded me to go back to my roots, what I love about, which is the PC and the technologies around it. Researching more about how to ensure I can get HD channels, record TVs, and remove rental fees has brought me to yet another learning path: CableCard. Reading and hearing about this for the first time brings me back to another new beginning. But CableCard is not bed of roses, as I slowly try to absorb most of what this technology has to offer. I even ended up at FCC website just to make sure I know my rights and how I can take advantage of this technology.

V. A door of options opens.
Armed with Cablecard crash course, I learn about new alternative that opens up for me. Hauppage’s WinTV-DCR-2650 ($149.99) device is indeed enticing, with dual tuners, enabling dual recording or recording while watching on the other tuner. And yes, TiVo and Moxi are both Cablecard capable, but they are cost-prohibitive for what I would like to achieve. And then there’s also Ceton, whose product I mistook for Comcast’s own XFinity service, the InfiniTV 4 Quad Tuner PCIe card ($299).

I would have jumped at Hauppage’s solution, for $149.99 but its USB connection has got me thinking that I can only use one PC at a time. While it’s not big deal at the time I was contemplating about it, I would really have loved if I can share it on my home network. The FAQ did mention that WinTV can be shared, but still, having to open the “host PC” just to share the device doesn’t meet my “wants and needs”.

As such, I researched more about Ceton’s offering that boasts quad tuners. With such capability, surely there’s a way to harness those 4 tuners and put them to good use. And sure enough, reading to various feedback and personal experiences from owners has gotten me interested. While Ceton’s solution does carry the same limitation as the Hauppage (i.e. needing a host PC to operate ) I am sold about this option due to the fact that I get 4 tuners! I am now left with one big concern: my HTPC has no more PCIe slots to hold the device.

This has gotten me into thinking I’ll need to build a PC to house the Ceton, but I completely discarded the idea. While I love to build a new PC, I just don’t want to set up the PC besides my TV (unless my TV is my monitor). I also wanted to use my current HTPC, with on-board Intel Graphics that’s more than enough for my HD needs. The other issue would be the cost of the device, but comparing it with other solutions to my issues and the amount of time I have already invested, I am willing to take the plunge into Ceton. That is, till I found about SiliconDust’s offering: HDHomeRun products.

VI. Light at the end of the tunnel?!
SiliconDust’s offering on HDHomeRun DUAL and HDHomeRun Prime struck me as my Philosopher’s stone(s)! A network-attached device that can stream Cable TV signals to any computer at my home network, and it comes with two tuners. The “DUAL” offering is priced at $129.99, however, it has one shortcoming: inability to play Premium Channels. I understand that CableCard’s limitation about on-demand videos, but I have long accepted that fact, and I can always use my SD STB for such anyway. The other offering the “Prime”, but the price at $499.99 is a little too much for me, but with 6 tuners, this looks to be the best offering.

Luckily, SiliconDust is preparing to launch their trimmed version of “Prime”, which only comes with 3 tuners but at similar capability and similar features. At the time, it hasn’t gone on sale, and Pre-order on NewEgg has long been depleted (darn those who ordered bulk of them). I don’t know, NewEgg seems to have policy regarding this, but “businessmen” may have found a way to circumvent it/work-around it and enabled them to just hog all the supply. Fortunately, after frequent trying to get myself the product, I was able to place a Pre-Order at Amazon. And Amazon even shipped out the product ahead of schedule, and by the 15th of September, the product has arrived at my doorsteps. And after this, the next step commences to completing the 3 issues I have been meaning to resolve. I have begun installation, but, that is reserved for another Blog Post…

VII. In Summary and “Pre” Recommendation:
A quick of recap of issues I am working on resolving:
  1. Enable HD
  2. Enable DVR features
  3. Eliminate rental cost

Pre-recommendation (disclaimer: I haven’t tested all the recommendations, except for one device with which is on-going burn-in test. This recommendation is based on my personal research and reading into what are available options for me)
  1. If you don’t like messing with PC but would like to get DVR functionality, the Magnavox MDR-513H/F7 320GB would fit the bill. Out of many similar devices I have seen and reviewed, this one is the most highly rated. You can get one at Wal Mart online, and priced around $299. From what I read, using this device is so simple, and easily upgradeable. The only issue I have about this is price. It is limited to a single TV, but for common usage of DVR, single-TV connectivity isn’t a deal breaker.
  2. If you would like to use PC as your Home Entertainment center but looking for an inexpensive solution, Hauppage WinTV-DCR-2650 looks nice, priced around $149. It comes with two digital tuners, allows watching of Premium channels, and you can install it via the most common USB cable. With DVRs costing around $15+/mo, you’d see ROI after just 10months. And yes, you can rewind, pause, and record Live TV! As with anything that requires use of “CableCard”, be prepared to spend some time with your Cable provider tech support. You can grab one at Hauppage's website.
  3. Then there’s SiliconDust HDHomeRun DUAL. This still meets the 3 issues I have, so for those who don’t have Premium Channel Subscription, this is a good deal. At $129.99, it is even cheaper than Hauppage, less technical issue to set up (lack of CableCard), and network-attached. If you are not bothered by the limitation and just want to watch basic Cable Signal (and yes, that includes local HD broadcasted channels), then this might be your choice. Note, this requires use of PC as well and decent home network. NewEgg, Amazon and other online retailers have them available and even at SiliconDust' own website.
  4. For the more adventurous, SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime, both 3 tuners and 6 tuners are good solutions. I prefer the 3-tuner version and mainly because: a) I am a newbie at this area, and b) the 6 tuner version is priced like two 3 tuners anyway so if I ever wanted to additional 6 tuners, then it's just a matter of getting two boxes. While others might argue about two power outlets being used, well, that’s really not an issue for me. As for power consumption, in case I do have two 3-tuner version, how hard could it be to turn off one box?
  5. Ceton's PCIe-based Infinity 4 solution is looking to be solid as well. At $299, the cost per tuner is cheaper than SiliconDust's offering. However, tinkering with PC hardware is needed since it needs to be installed. If you have a free PCIe slot, and is not hardware-challenge, then this is the best solution out there when thinking of price/tuner ratio.
And as of this writing, I learned that Ceton is coming out with a Quad-tuner USB-connected STB open for pre-order at $299. This would have resolve my concerns with their PCIe-based solution, but while I "heart" quad tuners, I hate having to boot up host PC. A quick price comparison (without looking into other variables), is that Ceton's quad tuner is cheaper (i.e. $299 / 4 = $74.75 per tuner) vs Silicon's triple tuner (i.e. $249 / 3 = $83). Another way to look into it is compare to DVR monthly cost to Cable provider at @ $15+/mo so Ceton's break even is around 20months, while SiliconDust is around 17months. And then there's full usage comparison with Ceton's 4 tuners (i.e. 4 DVRs @ $15ea = $60/mo) compared to Silicon's 3 tuners (i.e. 3 DVRs @ $15ea = $45/mo) and ROI is quickly reduced to 4.9mos in favor of Ceton vs 5.5mos for SiliconDust.

So whichever way you look at, whether saving $50 initial cash out-the-door, or should I (or you) save in the long term monthly usage, these two solutions are much better than what your Cable company provider is offering. Of course, argument can be done that for cable operators, if the equipment breaks, that Cable Co. replace at their own cost, less technical hassle, but really, I wouldn't be blogging if I am concerned about that :)...

That’s it for today, FanBoy out!

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