Access to premium HD on computers has eluded most for way to long, so as soon as we heard that it was finally possible for anyone to add a CableCARD tuner to just about any Media Center, we just knew we had to try it for ourselves, and more importantly, share with you exactly how to do it. This doesn't really require any hacking, or anything illegal for that matter -- we're not lawyers -- but it isn't cheap. The internal version of the ATI Digital Cable Tuner pictured above can be found new on eBay for about $195, or new from PC vendors like Cannon PC for just under $300. If that doesn't seem like a bad deal to you and you already have an HTPC up to the challenge, then you should join us on our journey to HD bliss by clicking through.
What you need
It should go without saying that in order for this to work you'll need a pretty new computer running either Windows Vista Premium (or higher) or Windows 7 as well as an ATI Digital Cable Tuner (DCT). The first requirement you probably already have, but the second can be a bit more difficult. Both the internal and external version of the DCT have the same functionality with the only real difference being where it is mounted. Some prefer the external since it is easier to swap out and doesn't require opening the case to install, while others will do just about anything to eliminate yet another box with a wall wart from their setup. We will warn you if you're leaning towards the internal though, it is pretty big and puts off some heat. So to accommodate the internal version you're going to need a decent size case as well as an internal USB port and free floppy power plug.
Microsoft now offers Digital Cable Advisor utility that will enable just about any computer to use a Digital Cable Tuner. If that utility fails then you might still want to use OSFRLoader, otherwise this next section is depreciated.
Prepping the system
We suggest you run through these instructions before calling your cable provider to come out and install the CableCARD, otherwise you might run into problems and then you won't be ready when they come.
The first step is to get by the requirement that has been holding us back up until now, which is that Windows will only allow you to use a DCT if your BIOS has the required OSFR table. Although unlikely, it is possible that your BIOS has the required table so first thing you want to do is download the OCUR BIOS Check Utility and find out.
Using the utility is really easy. Unzip it and double click on OCURCHECK.bat and you'll probably see the failure message "The ACPI table 'OSFR' is not present" like in the example above. If you are lucky enough to see a successful message, then skip the next section where we explain how to make any BIOS OCUR ready.
How to make any BIOS OCUR ready **this section is depreciated, see the update above**
Recently an ingenious member of The Green Button forum figured out how to make any BIOS appear to be OCUR compliant by modifying an old utility known as VistaLoader. Basically all it does is load Grub4Dos before Windows boots and change the memory where the BIOS information is stored with the "correct" information. The cool thing about this is that it is relatively easy to uninstall and makes no changes to the actual BIOS like a firmware update would -- be warned that if you have a Dell, you'll have to reactivate Windows after installing this utility. It also appears it would be resilient to any types of checks Microsoft or CableLabs might attempt to use to prevent this from working in the future. All you have to do is download the utility from here and unzip it. Then open up a Command Prompt as an Administrator in the directory where you extracted it and execute install sony and reboot. After your system boots back up, rerun OCURCHECK.bat again and now it should display "The PC BIOS is OCUR compliant" like the next image.
Installing the hardware
Now that your BIOS is up to snuff, it's time to install the tuner. If you have an external tuner, just shut down your PC, plug the power and USB in. If you have an internal you'll have to open up the case and plug it into a free PCI Express port -- which is nothing more than a mount -- then plug in the USB and power.
Setup the tuner in Windows
After you boot the computer one of the LEDs on the DCT should be solid green and if you go into device manager you should see a device called ATI TV Wonder OpenCable Receiver listed under Network -- notice it's not listed with the rest of your TV cards.
Double click on the ATI DCT and your default browser will open displaying the DCT's configuration web page. On the top right of the screen will be the firmware version, you'll want to make sure it's running the latest -- at the time of this writing that is 1.19.12 but the latest can usually be found on Windows update.
After you download the firmware updater and run the installer you'll eventually be presented with the firmware installer UI. It should find the DCT and allow you verify once again that it needs to be updated. If so, hit start and let it run.
Configuring Media Center
When you launch Windows Media Center for the first time you should be prompted to install the a tuner, if not go to Settings>TV>TV Signal>Set Up TV Signal, and follow the wizard. Along with your other tuners, the ATI DCT should be detected like in the screen shot below -- this image is from Windows 7, Vista looks a little different.
Next up you'll see the Digital Cable Tuner product activation screen. You'll need a valid product ID to get past here, but you can try the generic key we found online: 263DJ-2Y9YT-6X9G6-W28DB-697TF. (You won't need this key if you ran the new Digital Cable Advisor tool)
With any luck it should activate successfully and since you'll be running through this setup without a CableCARD the first time, you're going to see the following warning in the screen shot below. Don't worry, choose "Continue without a CableCARD" and you can still use the tuner as a clear QAM tuner until your CableCARD install. This way you know everything is going to work before the installer arrives.
Now after the wizard is complete you should see your channel lineup and be able to watch clear QAM channels. When the installer comes with the CableCARD, after plugging it in and ensuring the other LED lights up green, go back to the web page to the "Card" tab and click on the "Host ID Screen" link to get the host info -- this link is only there if a CableCARD is inserted -- this will display the details the installer needs to activate the CableCARD with the cable head-end. After the cable installer says the card is paired, go to the "IP Service" page to see if the "Auth Status" is "CP Auth Received." You can also get this information from Media Center, but we find it easier to just use the web page and then go back to Media Center and re-run TV Setup when we know the CableCARD is all set. Either way you should probably make the installer wait until after the setup wizard is complete so you can test as many channels as possible. You'd hate to let 'em go only to find out you have a signal strength issue or aren't subscribed to all the channels you expect.
When things go wrong
Troubleshooting CableCARD problems is well beyond the scope of this how to. If you can't even get the DCT installed or activated you're best best is going to be The Green Button thread where the utility was published. But odds are those steps will go smoothly and you'll have problems with your provider or the tuner itself. If that is the case, then you'll want to head over to The Custom Integrators show where they dedicated five episodes (7-11) to CableCARD tuners and how they work. Good luck and be sure to let us know how it goes.
A special thanks to Utah, Dan and Derek for all the help on this post!