Latest in Cablecard

Image credit:

Vista CableCARD Media Center PCs - what do you want to know?

Ryan Block, @ryan

So now that at least one of us here at Engadget has a fully functional Vista CableCARD home theater rig, we're ready to take on your questions. This probably isn't the kind of thing that we can do an extensive review of -- it is, after all, just the same Vista Media Center you're already used to, except with CableCARD as the video input this time -- but we're happy to do our best to field whatever queries you've got. Post 'em in comments, we'll do our best to answer them after the break!

How does it compare to a TiVo Series3?

Well, the functionality of a Vista CableCARD Media Center is obviously quite similar, since at its core it's a CableCARD DVR. But as anyone who's played with a Media Center knows, there are plenty of nice perks to Microsoft's interface (like movie guides, web browsing, Media Center plugins, interfaces for things like Vongo and MTV, etc.). Assuming the machine you're getting has some horsepower, usage is seamless and everything is zippy and looks great up on the big screen -- unlike the S3's often-wonky not-so-HD menus and occasional lag.

Of course, for this extra power you're going to pay extra cash. A Series3 can be had for as little as $500 in some cases, whereas the price on the Dell XPS 410 we tested was upwards of $3400 (including the 24-inch display). Granted, you don't have to pay monthly fees with your Media Center PC like you do with TiVo, but a couple grand for a DVR is still a spicy meatball, so be sure you can do other things with it, too.

Was it easy to set up?

Well, that depends on a lot of things -- as we learned first-hand, there are just so many variables (moving parts, if you will) with a system like this. You've got a lot of failure points between a PC with Vista, your cable company and its cable lines to your place, the CableCARD and supporting that, the ATI tuner(s), and then how all that connects to your home theater rig. Assuming all that works ok (which only one of our two machines did), then it's a cinch. Definitely doable for your average-to-technically-inclined level user. No surprise, but we still wouldn't turn this over to our moms, like we might with a TiVo.

How much can users expect the DCTs to run?

Prices, as we understand it, haven't been firmly set in stone by ATI yet. Users should be able to expect to pay in the range of $250 for a tuner unit though. We wish we had a firmer idea, but assuming worst-case scenario, that's $500 for dual tuners.

How's the Xbox 360 integration? Is there lag and skipping?

It's awesome. It looks nearly identical to the native Media Center interface, unlike previous Media Center Extender implementations. Granted, you still won't be able to use extended codecs (like DivX, XviD, etc.) on your 360, but watching live and recorded HDTV was nearly the same experience. When fast forwarding, rewinding, and changing channels there's an oh-so-slightly delay as the stream rebuffers, but honestly we probably wouldn't notice or care too much if that was our normal setup.

We tested two Xbox 360s on our home network, both connected via 100Mbps Ethernet; our PC streamed a different HD stream to each Xbox simultaneously while also recording and playing a third HD stream on its main head. For the curious, network usage peaked at about 55%, but hovered around 25-40% with both streams; CPU never jumped higher than 50% usage when working with all three HD streams.

How do you get one?

Microsoft tells us most of its OEM partners are shipping very, very soon. You can order a high performance model from Velocity or Niveus now, though.

Can't I just add a cable card tuner to my Vista box?

Sorry, no. Vista CableCARD boxes are special units certified to meet CableLabs spec; they're loaded with special firmware, and the tuners are only sold with the units. Assuming you did get your hands on a tuner, you'd still have to figure out a way to hack that firmware onto your unit. Unfortunately, unless someone comes up with something crazy we just don't see how it can be done, short of buying a new unit. Yes, we're as totally bummed about this as you are. Blame CableLABS and their obsession with DRM.

Can you record TV to an external hard drive or NAS?

As long as it's an addressable drive to Windows, you can store your media there. Just needs to be connected with something fast enough to handle the throughput, so don't use a USB 1.1 drive (duh) or a 100Mbps NAS if you're recording and streaming multiple HD streams.

If you have two DCTs are you limited to two separate channels to your xbox?

You can only tune as many live channels as you have tuners for, but you can stream as many recordings as you have horsepower / bandwidth for. So assuming three people are watching on a two-tuner setup, at least one of those streams needs to be pre-recorded, unless two people are watching the same live TV stream in different rooms.

How big are the .ms-dvr files (for, say, 30 or 60 minutes of video)?

Video filesize depends most on what the content is and at what resolution it's broadcast. Everything is recorded and stored, generally, as MPEG-2 streams -- this isn't new to Vista CableCARD boxes. As you'd imagine, programs with less visual information compress better, and programs in SD are smaller than their HD counterparts. Still, here's a general sense of what you can expect (remember, your mileage may vary):

60 minute HD: 6-10GB as recorded (can vary, depending on type of HD, etc.); we had a 6.5 and an 8.8GB 1 hour HD program, so YMMV.
30 minute HD: divide above by two.
60 minute SD: 2.5-3GB+
30 minute SD: divide above by two.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr