Installing a Vista CableCARD Media Center PC (part 1): Fiasco!

How many people does it take to install a Vista CableCARD-enabled Media Center PC?

The answer is six. Or at least it would be six if the installation had actually been successful.

Here's the backstory: Just like a lot of you out there, we've been lusting after a CableCARD-enabled Media Center PC for years (or at least it seems like years). So ever since the first Vista betas became available we've been hassling Microsoft to hook us up with a CableCARD-enabled Media Center to test out. We figured at the very least we'd be able to get our hands on one right after Vista launched, but there were numerous delays because of CableLabs' requirement that they be able to certify every CableCARD-enabled device and some apparent technical issues with getting Digital Cable Tuners to work properly. [The funny thing is that from a technical standpoint getting a Media Center PC to handle digital cable isn't all that complicated; it's the cable industry's obsession with DRMing and locking down digital cable streams that messes everything up. And we got to see first-hand just how screwed up things can get when you make it more difficult than it needs to be for different components to work together.]

Anyway, a few weeks ago we finally got the word that they were ready to send us a review unit – but that they wanted to fly a team of people out from Redmond (and bringing along a team of Time Warner Cable techs) to get us all set up. Normally we'd balk and just tell 'em what we tell everyone else – namely, that we're pretty damn good with gadgets and can set this stuff up ourselves – but the prospect of having a small army of people in our tiny NYC apartment just to set up one PC was too good to pass up.

What follows is a minute-by-minute account of how what should have been a 15-minute install job turned into a multi-day fiasco that has yet to be resolved.

Day One

1pm – Craig Cincotta and Joe Chauvin from Microsoft and Janet Argentin from Waggner Edstrom show up. Craig hauls up a HUGE Dell box containing an XPS 410. It's tower-style, which isn't ideal -- we'd prefer something a little more home theater-style, but we'll live. The CableCARD tuners are external -- it's the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner you've probably seen pics of -- but what really cracks Ryan and me up is when we spot the XPS 410's internal 3.5-inch floppy drive. Old school!

1:05pm - Two Time Warner Cable technicians, one of them a foreman, show up. They're serious about this!

1:09pm - It's sorta weird having this many people setting something up in my tiny apartment. Joe is setting up the PC, Craig is setting up an LCD monitor they brought along (making it the 7th external LCD in fewer than 600 sq. ft), a Time Warner Cable guy is testing the coax coming into the apartment.

1:14pm – First problem arises! There's no integrated WiFi in the XPS 410, so we'll have to run Ethernet across the room. No biggie.

1:24pm - A third TWC cable guy just showed up! Not sure what he's come over to do, but from the questions he's asking it seems mainly like he heard there was a Vista CableCARD install going on and decided to swing by.

1:30pm - The main TWC tech just checked the cable signal coming into the apt and isn't happy with it.

1:32pm - He's poking around in the junction box now.

1:34pm - Problem no. 2! The XPS 410 isn't recognizing the external tuner (which connects over USB).

1:38pm - Craig and Joe figured out the PC was set to some proxy settings for the Microsoft campus in Redmond. Not something the average user would have to deal with.

1:40pm - Doesn't look like the PC -- which MSFT got about 7 weeks ago -- has the latest drivers installed.

1:43pm - Turns out the drivers are on the PC, now they're power-cycling the DCT (Digital Cable Tuner) to see if that solves the problem.

1:44pm – Rebooting the XPS 410, hopefully that'll work, but either way they're gonna swap the DCT out for another one. They think maybe it got damaged in shipping (something inside it is rattling around when we shake it).

1:46pm - Almost done rebooting!

1:47pm - Great success! The tuner is recognized!

1:48pm - Downloading some info from the internet, then scanning for the digital cable signal. Vista says this should take up to five minutes.

1:50pm - Still scanning.

1:51pm - It worked. Just running through some basic stuff like setting up the EPG, picking my cable provider, etc.

1:52pm - Downloading the EPG right now.

1:54pm - Just finished downloading the EPG.

1:55pm - Live TV!

1:56pm - TWC guy just schooled us – the PC is actually showing us the unencrypted analog cable feed, we still have to set up all the CableCARD stuff. Looks like this is gonna take a little longer than expected.

1:59pm - TWC guy is calling into HQ. Not sure why he's calling, hopefully not for backup.

2:02pm - He's calling in with the Host ID, which is the serial number for the DCT so he can pair it with the CableCARDs.

2:06pm - Digital feed isn't happening quite yet, they're running some diagnostics on the tuner.

2:10pm - Running through setup again to see if it's picking up the digital feed. That means re-downloading the EPG, etc.

2:15pm - It's working! Full high-def and everything.

2:16pm – Ouch, there are some serious problems with the picture. There's this stuttering on all HD channels, it's like the signal keeps breaking up.

2:18pm - The TWC techs are trying to figure out what's wrong, they think that the cable signal going to DCT might be too weak.

2:20pm - They're comparing it with the signal going into my current Scientific Atlanta HD-DVR. I've got no love for that box, but at least there's no problem with viewing HD channels.

2:24pm - They're not sure if the stuttering is a tuner issue or a video playback issue with the XPS 410.

2:31pm - TWC guys is doing something with the coaxial jack and fiddling with my old HD-DVR.

2:34pm - Still getting the stuttering.

2:42pm - Ok, Plan B. Craig and Joe want to set up my Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender, which will hopefully let us isolate whether it really is a problem with the DCT or a video playback issue with the XPS 410.

2:45pm - Well, the good news: setting up the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender was a snap. The bad news: still getting that same stuttering, which means there's either a problem with the DCT and/or the signal coming into the building.

2:53pm - Two of the TWC techs are up on the roof checking the signal coming into the building.

2:59pm - They ran some new cable from the roof directly into my apartment through my window.

3:00pm - Just hit the two hour mark! Not sure when this'll be sorted but I've cancelled all my appointments for the rest of the day.

3:07pm - They're still not sure what the problem is. The third tech is on the phone with HQ. They want to do another CableCARD diagnostic.

3:14pm - They've decided to try another CableCARD.

3:21pm – They're updating the firmware on the new CableCARD.

3:28pm - Still waiting!

3:31pm - New CableCARD firmware just finished updating.

3:33pm - Picture is back up. Let's see how good it is!

3:34pm - Still stuttering! WTF?!

3:45pm - It looks like it's not going to happen today. They're not sure if it's an issue with the video card, the DCT, or the signal coming into the building. They're going to get a 3rd DCT and try and again later.

3:58pm - They're packing stuff up, gonna try again another day. Three hours and no functioning Media Center PC!

Day Two

12:33pm – The Microsofties are back! My apartment seemed strangely empty without them.

12:35pm - They had the Mothership (AKA Redmond) run some diagnostic stuff last night, they're still not sure what exactly is causing the problem, but they've brought over a fresh DCT and are going to try again. Fingers crossed!

12:37pm - The new DCT is installed, but they're gonna try everything without the CableCARD and see how it handles clear QAM (basically unencrypted digital cable).

12:47pm - Still running through the initial setup.

12:59pm - Set up, now they're looking for an HD channel to test out.

1:03pm - No glitches with an HD channel in clear QAM. That means it's not the cable signal coming into the apartment or a problem with the PC itself.

1:10pm - Ok, gonna try it with CableCARD now.

1:15pm - On the phone with TWC again.

1:20pm - Still trying to get the CableCARD paired with the DCT. The TWC tech support person on the other end of the line doesn't seem to understand what it is we want, Joe has to repeat himself several times.

1:27pm - TWC says they'll have to "call us back." Usually that means "We're never calling you back."

1:40pm - No call back from TWC yet, trying other ways to get that CableCARD set up.

1:45pm - Still waiting!

1:52pm - The Microsofties have to take off for the airport, so they're packing up to go.

1:54pm - Joe's Blackjack rings. It's TWC, could this actually be happening?

2:03pm - We'll see, still on the phone trying to get the CableCARD set up.

2:05pm - Ok, got a signal! Better than yesterday, but still some issues stuttering. Team Microsoft is heading out, but as they were leaving three TWC techs showed up to re-do all the wiring coming into my building. It's funny how when I call TWC it takes six days to get anyone to show up, but when Microsoft wants something they send six people out immediately. It's as if Microsoft is some kind of powerful entity capable of getting other people to do what it wants!

4:35pm – After about two-and-a-half hours the TWC techs finally finish whatever it was they were doing on the roof. I reboot the XPS 410 and hope for the best.

4:39pm – Still stuttering! I better go and do some work or something.


It's several days later. The damn thing still isn't working, and no one at Microsoft or Time Warner Cable knows why. I feel really sorry for anyone trying to set this up on their own -- and really jealous that Ryan's install went so smoothly. My original plan had been to buy a CableCARD-enabled Media Center PC after the loaner period for the XPS 410 expired, but after this whole experience I have this bad feeling that I'm going to be stuck with my crappy Sci-Atlanta box for a little while longer.