We don't review many HTPC tuners around here because honestly they usually aren't that interesting; you plug them in and they either work or they don't, what else is there to really say about 'em? But every so often something totally different comes our way, something that does get us excited. The first HDHomeRun was one of those and the new InfiniTV 4 from Ceton easily qualifies. We mean who wouldn't get excited about being able to record 4 HD shows at once and from any channel you want? This is especially true when you consider how difficult it's been for HTPC fans to record premium content until now. Well it seems that for HD loving HTPC fans, your time has finally come, now anyone can build there own DVR that can do things that no other DVR can -- when the tuner starts shipping in May that is.
The InfiniTV 4 works exactly like you'd expect; you pop open the case and drop it into a free PCI-E 1x (or higher) slot, load a simple driver, call your cable company and ask them to bring a multi-stream CableCARD (S-cards do exist but are rare at this point) and connect the coax cable. In fact the hardest part will probably be convincing your cable company that your PC can accept the card -- we suggest that you tell the nice gent on the phone that you have a TiVo. You can then run TV Setup in Media Center without a card and watch clear QAM, or just wait until your appointment and save yourself from running the wizard twice. At some point during the install three sets of numbers will show up on the screen, your friendly cable installer calls 'em in, and with any luck you'll be enjoying the same HD goodness as those with a leased set-top box can -- other than video on demand anyways.
Our experience was actually even simpler because we already had an internal ATI Digital Cable Tuner installed, so we pulled the CableCARD out of it and dropped it into the InfiniTV 4. The internal ATI card install was actually more difficult because it relies on an internal USB connector and a wire for power. On the other hand, like many PCI-E cards, the InfiniTV 4 is bus powered (about 14 watts were told with all the tuners running) so you really do just pop it in. Luckily our provider, FiOS TV, doesn't pair the CableCARD to the tuner, so we literally just pop'd it in and ran TV Setup -- even if it did have to re-pair the card, we bet we'd be able to convince a tech support person to do it over the phone.
The InfiniTV 4 is exactly the size of a low profile PCI-E card, so it should fit in any small form factor PC that claims to support the standard.
The tuner includes both a low profile and standard PCI face plate, and to accommodate the small size it uses a standard SMB coax connector and also includes a small SMB to F-female coax cable.
This dongle actually feels very solid slipping on and we didn't notice any signal drop; in fact it was kind of nice because it was much more flexible than most coax cables. One problem we almost had is that the CableCARD will go in backwards, luckily we didn't bend any pins before we discovered our mistake.
If you've ever setup TV tuners in Windows 7 Media Center, you know the rest. There's basically a wizard where you select your cable provider and then later you can select which channels you get. Unlike a leased set-top box, you can hide the channels you don't get from the guide and even renumber them, so you know, channel 8 is channel 8 instead of 508 or whatever -- an added bonus is search results only include shows you can actually watch. Four tuners might not be enough for you -- it isn't for us -- so we added a dual ATSC tuner to the mix. You can even set tuner priorities per channel, which works great for combining CableCARD tuners with clear QAM because you can set the clear QAM tuner to a higher priority on the select few channels that are sent in the clear. This ensures a tuner is always available for the encrypted channels. This might sound difficult, but it's really pretty simple and only has to be done once.
How well it works
In use the InfiniTV 4 is like any other good HTPC tuner, it just works. There really isn't anything more fascinating to share about it, but we can say that in the short time we had to evaluate the card, we only had one problem. We were seeing macroblocking on just five channels, come to find out our FiOS MoCA router was causing interference. A few online searches reveled that it is actually a pretty common issue with other 3rd party CableCARD devices. The helpful Ceton support crew really came though and discovered that MoCA traffic on channel 1150Mhz was the culprit. We just disabled the MoCA LAN interface since we don't use it, but you can also use a different MoCA channel or install a low pass filter. The good news is that with this little fix in place all the channels looked perfect and we didn't have any problems recording six HD shows at once (two with an HDHomeRun) and playing back four. Our XPS 420's dedicated 1TB drive managed to keep up, the MC interface did slow down a bit, but no frames or pixels were dropped.
The card shows up like a Gig NIC to Windows.
Changing channels is as fast as any other Media Center tuner we've used, which is faster than some DVRs, but not as fast as an TiVo HD. We have to say we couldn't believe how great it felt to look at our scheduled recordings for the next two weeks and not see a single conflict. And the only good thing about having a problem is that it gave us a chance to dig around the diagnostic information -- most of which can be accessed via Media Center's 10-foot interface or via the tuner's web interface. Information like signal-to-noise ratio, signal level, temperature (ours ran about 53-58 C) and even what CCI flag is set on a particular program, are all really useful. There is even a verbose log file that was greek to us, but came in very handy when we emailed it to Ceton to get to the bottom of our issue -- it was also great to see how responsive and supportive the Ceton techies are.
The InfiniTV 4 is written to the latest CableLabs specs which means it supports SDV via Tuning Adapters and honors all Copy Control Information. If you're lucky your provider marks everything Copy Freely so you'll be able to play recordings on any Windows 7 PC in the house, or even convert them to playback on just about anything under the sun. Copy Freely (0x00) really means the recordings are DRM free. This obviously gives you a more flexible solution and allows you to use a PC as an extender or automatically skip commercials with a little help from DVRMSToolBox and ShowAnalyzer. Sadly some providers mark everything Copy Once (0x01) which means the content is pretty much locked down. This really comes down to which provider you use and what contracts they have with the content creators. In the end the InfiniTV 4 just does what it's told, and although we hate DRM, it is pretty cool to think that this device can decrypt four HD shows at once and re-encrypt them with PlayReady DRM in real time.
Notice the CCI is set to Copy Freely 0x00 and the next is so you can look at each of the four tuners.
We didn't have time to test with another provider and since FiOS doesn't use SDV, we didn't get to test how it works with a Tuning Adapter. When the tuner ships in May we expect to have more time to play so we have more tests planned. Basically a Tuning Adapter looks like a regular cable set-top box with a USB port and has an RF pass through. If you have a Motorola TA, one will do, but if it is a Cisco, you'll need two of 'em -- you can use a splitter instead of the RF pass through as all the data to the PC is sent via USB. These boxes are nothing but trouble for TiVo owners and when we tested the ATI CableCARD tuner, our luck wasn't much better. The good news is the FCC recognizes that they don't work and already has plans to require an alternative based on IP, which will hopefully be deployed by this Fall.
Another thing we didn't get to test was the network bridging support. Since the InfiniTV 4 shows up like a gig NIC in Windows, we were able to bridge it with the NIC connected to our network. And although we were able to access the card's web interface from another PC, we didn't have another Windows 7 PC to try and record with. This feature probably won't be used by many because the current DRI spec(PDF) from CableLabs requires that all four of the InfiniTV's tuners be paired to the same Media Center PC (REQ214). This spec was written for single tuner cards and we reached out to CableLabs about changing it. Evidently there are some piracy concerns, of which we think are silly, but CableLabs seemed open to reviewing the requirement. We're told that it'll take three to six months for the required change review process to be completed, so there's no way it'll be changed in time for this card's release. Ceton does tell us that if/when the spec is changed, a firmware update could/will be released that'll allow you to pair each tuner with a different PC.
One thing that Jeremy Hammer of Ceton Corp recently said on our podcast that rings true here is that "what we try to do is design around the limitations that are set" and some of those limitations are pretty lame. For one, Ceton originally designed it with six tuners (M-Cards limit) but the consumer version of Media Center is limited to four or each type (so 4 ATSC, 4 QAM, 4 NTSC, etc). Another limitation is Windows Media Center is that only CableLabs certified software can use the tuner -- that might change by this Fall. The only limitation that is not imposed by others, is the lack of an analog tuner. Now we can't say we've ever used the analog tuner in the ATI Digital Cable Tuner, but if you live somewhere where there's still analog, you'll have to pick up a dedicated analog tuner.
At $400 the price of the InfiniTV 4 isn't for everyone and while $100 a tuner is still a third of the price of the ATI version, it is going to be too rich for many. Ceton is working on other versions with the next being the InfiniTV EX2, (dual tuner USB). There's no word on price or availability yet, but $250 is the announced price of the competition, so it'd be a pretty safe bet. Although it's a lot of money, CableCARD tuners cost a lot to make and aren't to be confused with clear QAM or ATSC tuners. Although the InfiniTV can also support these signals, a CableCARD tuner requires lots of extra electronics and an $80k CableLabs certification process. But even when compared to the competition the price is still competitive as the new TiVo Premier only features two tuners and will still run ya $700 with lifetime service -- Media Center's guide data is free. Besides, you don't buy a TiVo or a Media Center PC because you're trying to save money, you do it because life is too short to use a crappy DVR.
What it really comes down to is that we love the InfiniTV 4. It works as advertised and really makes Windows 7 Media Center the best DVR there is (for cable subscribers). Whether you already have an ATI CableCARD tuner, or you're thinking of switching over from an TiVo HD, we think this is a great upgrade. We think that this will be the device that makes Media Center become the DVR of choice for those who demand the best.
We feel confident saying this based on only a few weeks of use and we admit that there are many other scenarios to consider. So of course the InfiniTV 4 and Media Center might not be right for everyone. We hope to get our hands on the card again after it ships so we can put it through some more in-depth testing. One test we can't wait to do is to see if we can get a TiVo owner to switch. The plan is to get a TiVo loving Engadget editor to pick up a $300 PC from a big box store, slap an InfiniTV 4 in and put it head to head with the TiVo Premier. So while there's lots of testing left to be done, we're going to go ahead and call this one right now. The InfiniTV 4 is awesome and a gadget that we will have a hard time giving back while we wait for the general release.