Saturday, September 24, 2011

Article: SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime Review

I. Introduction
Just a couple of months ago, I am completely oblivious of the modern Digital Cable TV world. While I have subscribed, on and off, cable and satellite or dish TV, those experiences are years gone by and with comparably old and dated technology. I have mostly getting my fix of “TV” using a traditional “rooftop antenna” and for the most part, I am using streaming content over the web for just about anything video related. My “News” are either from radio, or from Facebook, or the intermittent pop up alert from CNN on my tablet. Boy, have I missed a lot. But now that I finally decided to upgrade my internet from AT&T DSL to Comcast Cable, it comes with a big bonus: digital cable TV.

Transition was never easy, (you can read my experience on my previous blog post), but luckily, it turned out to be lots of fun to peek and poke around this technology. Digital Cable TV / PC TV has matured greatly and has become more stable and interesting over the years, specially with software integration to Windows Media Center and the certification of Cable-card technology. Manufacturers like Ceton and SiliconDust became familiar to me as I try to immerse myself into the technology. Old school like me only remembers old brands like Hauppage and kworld. Hauppage has, interestingly, similar offering like SiliconDust and Ceton. However, kworld is missing in Cable-card development.

Ceton has InfiniTV 4, Hauppage carries WinTV-DCR-2650, and SiliconDust goes with HDHomeRun Prime 3-tuner and 6-tuner flavors. Out of the offerings out there, I opted to give SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime's 3-tuner (HDHR3CC) a go mainly because it is a “Network-Attached Digital Cable TV” tuner. I made a quick table of comparison of the four:

CetonInfiniTV 441x PCIe $299
SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime HDHR3CC3 1x Ethernet$249
SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime HDHR6CC6 2x Ethernet$499
HauppageWinTV-DCR-265021x USB 2.0$149

II. Out of the Box
The box securely protected the HDHomeRun Premium HDHR3CC unit, with plastic protection and enough space to ensure the device reach the destination in perfect condition. It comes bundled with RG6 Coaxial cable, power supply, an installation CD and quick start manual.

The HDHR3CC comes only in one color: black. It is very light and designed to be installed laying flat. I would have liked it if it can be installed vertically, but due to the very light weight of the box, combined with heavy coax cable, it can only be safely placed in a horizontal manner.

The front of HDHR3CC has five LED lights, two on the left, and three on the right. The leftmost LED is for Ethernet status, green means connected and red means disconnected. The second LED to the LED is for Cable-card status. On the right, each LED correspond to each tuner, namely Tuner0, Tuner1, and Tuner2. If a tuner is being used, it turns on and turns off if not being used.

The rear is where the power input cord is located, along with the M-Card (Cable-card) slot, USB port, Ethernet port and Cable-in port. The Ethernet supports both 100Mbps and 1000Mbps speed and locks in the Ethernet cable I use comfortably. The USB port is only for an optional SDV Tuner device. The Cable-in is the physical link between your home to your Cable TV provider. The M-Card slot is a little stiff and does not come with an eject button. The Cable-card is actually a PCMCIA card, so the M-Card slot of the device is the same except, it is missing that “clicking” feeling when inserting the Cable-card into the M-Card. In the past, before USB reigned supreme, PCMCIA card is used for many devices, from being an Ethernet Card, Modem Card, Flash storage and more. This day, it seems that it only survives as a Cable-card

III. Set up and Installation
The HDHR3CC is light and can easily be placed anywhere on your A/V cabinet. Since it doesn't require a remote, it can stashed away from sight or just leave it sitting on top of a flat surface. It doesn't need to by physically connected to the PC but it can be done, if anyone opted to. However, it has no screw holes and can not be wall-mounted. Note however that the device has no physical on/off button, so in case you need to reboot it, the old way of plug-in/out is needed.
Software installation is also straightforward. Just download the latest software from SiliconDust's website to make sure it is the latest version. After this SiliconDust's software is installed and configured, everything happens on Windows Media Center.

I have broken down the installation of this device in more detail below (Windows only step):
  1. Physical Installation – insert the Cable-card, with the name/label facing up. Connect the Ethernet cable to the network port, and plug it to your switch, hub, or router. Connect the coax cable from your wall outlet directly to the HDHR3CC, without any intermediate device in between. Ensure you have as little cable splitter as possible when connecting the coax cable. If needed, and you expect weak signal, get a signal booster. At this point, power up the device.
  2. Software Installation – after the physical connectivity is done, download and install the latest software from SiliconDust. The file is lightweight and should be easy to download quickly. Install the software accordingly.
    1. On the “Location” tab, select United States and then enter your Zip Code
    2. On the “Application” tab, make sure Windows Media Center and HDHomeRun QuckTV are selected
    3. On the “Tuners” tab, make all three tuners as Cable-card
    4. On the “Cable card” tab, hit “scan” for each tuner. You may uncheck channels that you don't subscribed.
    5. Finally, hit “Apply” and wait for the software to complete.
  3. Cable card Activation – a call to provider is needed to activate the Cable-card Some cable providers may offer a self-activation process thru web so just check with your provider. To be able to activate the card, follow these steps.
    1. If you haven't done so, open HDHomeRun Config. On the “Device” tab, click on the “Device Web page” link. This should resemble the IP address of the device. This will open up the web based interface of HDHR3CC.
    2. Once on the web page, click on “Status Menu”. Make sure all of these items shows “success”: Card Authentication, Card OOB Lock, Card Activation. If “Card Activation” is the only one not showing success, then you're ready to call your provider to have the card activated. In my experience, “Card Authentication” does not show “success” if the Cable-card itself it not working properly, i.e. not properly inserted or faulty, but of course, it can also signify faulty HDHR i.e. faulty connector or corrupted firmware. But most of the time, this is only about the Cable-card itself. The Card OOB Lock can signify a faulty cable, loose cable connectivity, weak signal from provider, and/or faulty Cable-in port. For this, make sure the coax cable is properly connected to the wall and use a high-quality cable. If needed, use a signal amplifier.
    3. After verifying the physical connectivity is good i.e. both Card Authentication and Card OOB Lock shows success then go to the main screen (i.e. hit back on the web page browser) and then click on “Cable-card Menu” then click on “Cable-card/Host ID Screen”. It is important to note these three: Cable card ID, Host ID, and Cable-card Serial Number. Most of the time, you will only need the first two, just to be more comprehensive, take note of the serial number as well. Give your cable provider a call, tell them you are going to pair your cable card. If agent ask if it's a TiVo, just say yes, so as not to waste too much time explaining what the device is.
    4. The agent may require some time to activate the card. Prepare to spend enough time for this part. Mine never activated till 1hr after my call. And it took me 7days, 8+ calls, two tech visits before I ended up with a knowledgeable agent and knows what I am talking about. Keep checking the summary page on the web page to see if the card becomes active. You'll know it's active once you see “success”.
  4. Optional: QuickTV Verification –Even without the Cable-card being activated, using QuickTV software already enable watching digital cable TV. But without Cable-card activation, only the ClearQAM signals can be seen. Premium Channels such as HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and the likes requires Cable-card activation and many other HD channels. Just browse thru the non-Premium channels and check out the shows. If everything is working, you'll be watching these channels quickly and easily.
  5. Windows Media Center Preparation and Activation – if you are not sure if your Windows Media Center is ready, then just run this on the command prompt:
    c:\windows\ehome\mcupdate.exe -u” (without the quotes)
    Make sure you enable admin/elevated privilege. Also make sure that you have the latest stable build of video card driver. After this, follow the following steps:
    1. Open up Windows Media Center and on the main screen, go the Extras Gallery
    2. Select Digital Cable Advisor, download it and then install
    3. Follow the prompts, for your Digital CableTV installation
    4. After all is said and done, and you have selected your area, you may now go back to the main WMC screen and select “TV”, then “Live TV”
IV. Test Set Up, and Methodology
For the purpose of testing, two laptops and one HTPC will be used. All of these are running Windows 7 Ultimate Edition. All three will be connected via wired network 100Mbps, on Cisco Valet M10 Wireless router. The HDHR3CC will be run using the latest stable firmware 20110830 and latest beta build 20110920beta1.

To be considered successful, all three machines will be used and the device should be accurate, functional and stable.
  • Accurate means TV guide must be up to date and correct, recording starts and end at the assigned time, and recording should record the correct show (s). The device should also be able to display the right show on the right channel compared to STB.
  • Functional means that the device should be able to play TV and allow premium channel shows, channel change will be snappy, and can be detected by both WMC and QuickTV
  • Stable means the device should work within the full burn-in test and supporting and supported software works without glitch. The burn-in test will be conducted to run 12hrs of continuous “Watch” for all three tuners with 3 machines, while 24hr recording will be done on a single machine with all three tuners. All recording and watch should show low number of minor issues (slight pixelation, missing caption, etc.) or should have no major errors (stopped recording and/or skipped recording, missed recording).
    • While the 24hr “recording” can already be considered “watching”, the additional 12hr is to ensure that the device can run a full 36hrs of continuous use. It would have been good to run a full 36hrs of recording instead, but the lack of storage prohibited me from executing such.
The test machines have the following configuration:
  • Laptop A: Intel Core 2 Duo T7250 (2.0Ghz), 2.0GB RAM, 111GB SATA HD, Intel i965 (GMA X3100), Win7 Ultimate 32bit SP1
  • Laptop B: Intel Core Duo T2300 (1.66Ghz), 1.5GB RAM, 50GB IDE HD, Intel i945 (GMA 950), Win7 Ultimate 64bit SP1
  • HTPC: Intel Core 2 Duo T5550 (1.83Ghz), 2.0GB RAM, 1000GB SATA HD, Intel GMA 4500, Win7 Ultimate 64bit SP1
None of them is “latest” by today's standard, specially Laptop B which is showing its age already. All of them have McAfee Anti-virus v15 (Build 15.0.291) running in the background since they are the day-to-day machines at home. This reflects the typical usage scenario of many users, i.e. not building a clean system just to run HDHomeRun. While this provides many challenges, it also brings the set up closer and mimic the integration of HDHomeRun to existing tech ecosystem at home.

The router has the following configuration:
Cisco M10 Valet Router 2.4Ghz-only, with 4-port FastEthernet. Configured as broadband router. No QoS configured.

Connectivity is configured as follows:
  • WAN Port: Connected to Cable Modem Ethernet Port
  • LAN Port1: Connected to Laptop A, Auto-Negotiation, Full Duplex, 100Mbps
  • LAN Port2: Connected to Laptop B, Auto-Negotiation, Full Duplex, 100Mbps
  • LAN Port3: Connected to HTPC, Auto-Negotiation, Full Duplex, 100Mbps
  • LAN Port4: Connected to HDHR3CC, 100Mbps
V. Performance
Below is the performance score for the device.
FirmwareTV GuideRecord: StartRecord: StopCorrect Show RecordingCoorect Show vs STB
20110830 PassFailFailFailPass

For Accuracy, recording of shows using the latest stable firmware has resulted to missed recording and hence, all related recording metric shows failed. Amazingly, the latest beta firmware seems to have fixed it.

FirmwareClearQAMPremiumChannel ChangeDetection
20110830 PassPassPassFail

This time around, it's a mixed bag. While the beta has improved detection of the device, it failed to play Premium Channels using QuickTV. However, Premium Channels play just fine using WMC. This is a bummer since Windows does not allow multiple instance of WMC hence the only way to have some sort of “PiP” is to run multiple shows on the same PC. For the production firmware, QuickTV plays all channels that I subscribe with but with beta, I can't play Premium Channels.

Detection of TV tuner on the network has been improved significantly on the beta firmware, but WMC still sometimes failed to locate the device. For example, running WMC and then quitting it and then shutting down the machine. Boot up the same device and launch WMC, and it cant find the device unless a “rescan” is done using the HDHomeRun Config utility.

I also notice one thing that is really good with beta firmware. With production firmware, the tuner seems to be always locked up and being used even after the PC has closed the WMC or QuickTV application. However, with beta firmware, releasing the tuner as soon as the video player exits is quick and snappy.

FirmwareMinor IssuesMajor Issues12Hr Watch [3tuners]24Hr Record [3tuners]

With stability, the “Major Issue” referred is the missed recording due to a tuner failing on the production firmware, the LED on one of the tuner suddenly turned off. I tried to keep trying for about a few times and gave up. This also resulted to a failing score on the 24Hr simultaneous recording. As for the beta firmware, I can't run multiple instances of Premium Channels anymore.

For both firmware, HD quality and audio quality are both great, capturing shows in full 1080i, with complete close captioning. With the beta firmware, recording has really been a breeze and concluded the recording with flying colors.

VI. Other Observations, Experiences and Concerns
Watching on wireless environment
On my own personal testing, the device performs really well on wired network. With wireless connectivity however, I am only able to sustain two HD channels successfully. On wired network, sustained peak bandwidth for 2seconds is 45Mbps for all three tuners, with each tuner hogging anywhere from 7Mbps to 18Mbps. Assuming 15Mbps is the continuous average bandwidth, a good wireless N network of at least 105Mbps should be good enough. My 54Mbps wireless on my laptop can barely keep up.

I haven't been able to isolate the issue to the router or to the client, but there will always be one disconnection and it's any of my two wireless laptop and never on my wired desktop. With lack of time, I haven't run any network analysis protocol, but I have seen my 54Mbps wireless usage is going as high as 30% which correspond to the 15Mbps average sustained bandwidth and I'm guessing that the HDHR3CC is too sensitive with latency and losing “keep alive” functionality leading to lost communication between device and PC.

Watching SD show however, yield positive experience. The wireless connectivity allows SD viewing on both laptop, and been tested for 4hrs. Average sustained bandwidth for all 3 tuners running 3 SD is only 15Mbps or 5Mbps for each tuner. At 5Mbps, the “G” wireless is able to handle it quite nicely.

Again, the issue could be bandwidth related, client related, driver related, or even router related.

Gigabit Wired Network
Lacking enough time to test further, and due to lack of equipment, Fast Ethernet is the only way that has been tested to enable sustained and simultaneous watching and recording of HD channels. If Fast Ethernet has enabled me to complete all tests flawlessly, then the Gigabit connectivity shouldn't be posing any severe performance issue.

Cablecard Activation
This is the toughest issue I have surmounted so far. Calling the 800 customer service from Comcast has been terrible, but the 877 number has been awesome. Comcast even send out two knowledgeable techs at home. The techs has been amazed at the device, and took pictures. The techs helped sending enabling Premium Channels unknowingly, yep, unknowingly.

During the initial Cablecard activation, on the date I noticed that my card has been activated already, two on-site techs arrived. Prior to their visit just a couple of hours earlier, I have been in contact with Comcast's Lv2 Tech from New Jersey (I am from Florida) who has been helping me activate my card. It turned out that there was something wrong on the database, and when that was fixed, the Lv2 Tech has activated my Cablecard. However, my Premium Channels aren't working and not showing on QuickTV. But I was willing to let it go.

Then, these two onsite techs walked by, saying they have been sent by Lv2 tech (thank you Comcast) just to verify if everything is fine on my side. They double checked the cable, signals, and everything. They even have extra Cablecard that is known and tested to be working just to be sure. They have seen my issues, and called back in the local office to send me “cold hits”. QuickTV still isn't showing Premium Channels but they can see “EMMs” being sent and acknowledge by my Cablecard. They advised me that they are not aware of the issue, which is fully understandable, considering it's a new device for which they haven't seen any yet. The techs advised me that they will be letting their manager know about this device, and will provide their agents the script and steps to have the device activated. This is to ensure that future calls will be dealt with properly and to arm their team with knowledge on the device.

And then when I tried to watch Premium Channel, I saw on the screen that Digital Cablecard needs to be activated. I have already done this before, but I just decided to do it again. And wolah, there it is, all my Premium Channels are up and running.

Multiple TV Shows on one PC
HD channels can really pull out a lot of CPU resources. While 3 SD channels running on one PC all at the same time is doable, it is still putting some strain on the laptop. With HD channels, my laptops often froze and choke. However, newer CPUs such as Core i3 (and higher) should be able to handle them quite easily. Considering I am only using onboard old Intel graphics, newer Intel graphics should be able to play all 3 HD streams easily.

Windows Media Player
For some reason, when I turn off my TV, WMC also stops working. For example, during my early “watch” test, I just want the PC running, but since I am not watching the show, I wanted to turn off the TV. However, I noticed that whenever I turned on the TV, WMC will say that it is restarting. So it would seem that WMC is closing whenever my TV shuts off. I haven't research on why this happens, but it might be related to DRM (i.e. all devices must be secured to be able to play contents).

Configuring three tuners on all PCs on WMC
It seems that the best way to configure and set up WMC on multiple PC is to ensure that no tuner is in use during installation. I noticed that if a tuner or two is in use, at the time of WMC configuration, WMC can only detect the “unused” TV tuner (i.e. if tuner 0 and 2 are being used, only tuner 1 is configured). So only one tuner is tied up to WMC at the time of set up. So when the time comes that even if there are 2 available tuners (i.e. tuner 1 and tuner 2 are available), but that particular tuner is being used (tuner 1 is being used by a different machine), then WMC can't find that tuner. So, if all three tuners are in use and you are setting up a another WMC for the tuner, then you won't be able to detect any of the tuners.

IP Address Change of HDHR
This is a big concern for HDHR. Note that this device works on DHCP, and there is no way to assign an IP address to this device statically. While that may not be an issue, in and of itself, note that WMC seems to tie up “Digital Cablecard Activation” with the IP address of the device. In the event that the device changes IP, you'll have to redo the whole reconfiguration and reactivate of Digital Cable services (this means Premium Channels) on WMC. There is no need to call Cable Co., but it's a pain to set up it again. The quick fix of course, is to make sure HDHR is getting the same IP every time it requests for one and once it gets the same IP, then there is no need to redo any configuration. A solution for this can be any of the following:
  1. Enable HDHR to have static IP addressing feature , requires a firmware update
  2. Ensure your router has DHCP reservation capability, requires a router or DHCP server feature
  3. Change IP lease time of your DHCP to “forever”, i.e. the host devices always gets the same IP address every time
Update 09/24/2011:
nickk of SiliconDust advised that HDHR shouldn't pose any issue if it indeed changed IP. HDHR is using uPnP to announce IP address change, and WMC tracks HDHR through UUID. However, as my own test shows, WMC failed to detect any tuners as soon as IP address has been changed.
Time stamp logging
I may really be getting annoyed with all the issues I am getting so maybe I just don't how how to get HDHR's timestamp be the same as my home machines. For some reason, it is delayed by about 8hrs. If it is getting timestamp on my router, then it should be correct but right now, the logging is completely off the mark.

Update 09/24/2011:
nickk of SiliconDust advised that HDHR is pulling timestamp from CableCo. and there is no feature to set this manually.

Control of show
There is no way to stop the show using a web interface or even using the HDHomeRun Config utility. While there is a “Stop” button, it is always grayed out. The only way the “Stop” button works is when “View” is clicked, followed by “Override”. Other than this, that stop button is fairly useless. Would have been good to make it work, and also have some security so that kids can not mess with that control. Preferably, this should also be doable on web console.

Web Console Security
Come on, while I understand that most info on the web console are mainly status and logs, I still prefer if a password can be added. It gives me a sense of security. While there might be no security hole right now, but who knows, maybe someone or something can find a way to use it as some sort of spamming zombie bot. While the idea of having it compromised seems absurd (i.e. the only way to compromise it is if the home network has already been compromised), an additional layer of security wouldn't hurt.

Parental Controls
It seems that the only way to do it is by unchecking those channels on the HDHomeRun Setup utility. It would been better if this can be done, again, on the web console. A simple time-of-day security and limitation will be nice as well, in addition to the typical channel block.

VII. Missed Opportunities

I honestly believed that SiliconDust is missing a lot of opportunities to improve their product. Despite the fact that they have a long time to polish the product since they have started announcement of Pre-Order (was that 4months ago?), they probably have this in development far longer than that. I think these features would have really made a good impression:
  • Decent App for Android and iOS Devices. While there is an El Gato iPad 2 App, the feedback on the App is so bad, it probably never took off. If SiliconDust made their own software, which should be logical since they developed the hardware, then they could have raked in more $$$ for their app.
  • Improved Web Console. As it is now, the web console is just for just a bunch of status and a log. Wouldn't it be nice if recording can be scheduled thru the web, reboot the device if it is stuck, and start/stop channels?
  • Centrally managed recording. Thru web console, once recording is set, the device can trigger recording to start when the time comes. It can even send wake-on-lan signal to PC when the time comes. Or, the device can send scripts to WMC (or a PC agent can pull in from device) to enable recording of shows properly.
  • Quad Tuner. For some reason, SiliconDust can only enable 3 tuners. It is evident on their HDHR3CC (3-tuner, 1-CableCard) and HDHR6CC (6-tuner, 2-CableCard). Ceton, however, can utilize four tuners per CableCard as is apparent with their InfiniTV 4 (I assume 4 means 4 tuners). SiliconDust is better than Hauppage though when it comes to utilizing CableCard since Hauppage can only do two tuners. With four tuners, SiliconDust will come much cheaper per tuner than Ceton ($62.25/tuner vs $74.75/tuner). With 3 tuners, SiliconDust is more expensive per tuner than Ceton ($83 vs $74.75). With such comparison, I'd say this is a very good price comparison.
VIII. Conclusion
The device has been fun to use, when it works. However, it lacks many features and still got many quirks. I like the idea that SiliconDust has been spewing out beta firmware, however, the issues I encountered prevented me from recommending this device.

I am very excited with this device when I got this from Amazon, but all that seems to be fading away. I have to wait 5 days to get the device to work, and activated, and firmware is still in beta. The QuickTV software is nice, but lacks captioning and recording, and instead, HDHR relies on WMC for recording. The config utility is flaky, while I uncheck channels, these channels still appear on WMC and QuickTV.

The biggest letdown for me however, is the stability. If I have to always start/close WMC and rescan just to have the tuners re detected, then it is going to be a pain for the kids. Lack of parental controls, IP addressing issue, all added up to my frustration.

However, if you are looking for device that lets you watch, rewind, and record and willing to live with the quirks, then this device fits the role. But if you are like me who just sometimes wants their device to work whenever it's needed, then maybe wait for a bit till SiliconDust comes out with stable firmware or look elsewhere for an alternative solution.

The good thing though, whether you stick with this device or with others, you'll be removing that stupid ugly looking set top box, and saving you rental fee on the long run.

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