Ask Engadget HD: How can I record premium content on my HTPC?

Ben Drawbaugh
B. Drawbaugh|03.12.08

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Ask Engadget HD: How can I record premium content on my HTPC?
ATI CableCARD tuner
Life is good if you got HD, but it's not all good. Sure, HD is great, but only if we can have it on our own terms, and unlike the analog sources before it, the powers that be are doing everything to keep us down. In the spirit of wanting things done right, our friend Justin writes in.

I'm a big DIY PC guy, and I've been looking into ways of recording HDTV on my PC for quite sometime now. The problem is, I want to record HD Streams from my local Cable Provider (Charter), or possibly switch to Dish Network's HD-only package and record those streams. Unfortunately, either of those requires either a CableCARD or proprietary tuner. I know DirecTV has one in the works (Release Date: Day and Date with Duke Nukem Forever, I hear), and that Niveus has a dual CableCARD USB 2.0 Tuner (At an ungodly $1500 price tag), but that's all I can find!

Believe us, we hear ya' Justin, but the options are slim. But while none are perfect there are a few ways to accomplish what your after.
The easiest and cheapest way to record just about everything your cable co' provides is to buy a new HTPC from a OEM like Dell or HP. Yeah, we know it sucks, but that's the way CableLabs wants it, and that's the way they get it. We don't see CableLabs eliminating this OEM only policy anytime soon either, so unless someone discovers a work around, even if you could find a stand-alone CableCARD USB tuner ($180) it wouldn't work on a DIY rig. Luckily there are a lot of OEM manufactures who've signed up with CableLabs and offer HTPCs with CableCARD tuners, but the cheapest one we know of is the Dell XPS 420 -- which can be had for just under $1100. This is a pretty good deal considering what you get, and the only thing we can say against it is that we'd rather have a case that feels at home in our HT rack.


There are two others options that may work in your area though. The first is to get an HDHomeRun. Using the latest Vista drivers, the HDHomeRun enables Vista Media Center (and others) to access clear QAM programming from your cable provider. The problem is that while all cable channels are carried via QAM, in most areas none of the channels are sent in the clear. At the very minimum you'll have access to CBS, NBC, FOX, and PBS; but most can already get these channels with an antenna. There are some very lucky people who's cable co' doesn't lock down all the channels, but unfortunately this isn't the norm. The second option available today is just as hit or miss. With the right drivers and STB from your cable co' you can record via 1394, but the problem is the same as with clear QAM. The only channels that are not protected with 5C encryption are usually the same ones sent in the clear. The other problem is that the drivers are by no means official (read not supported) and getting a cable box with a functional 1394 port will cost ya a monthly fee -- assuming you can even get one.

Looking forward, we're not sure if we'll ever see a non-OEM CableCARD tuner, but there are a few promising options around the corner. Due this quarter is the Hauppauge component capture card that will record HD from a cable box via component -- but you'll need to find a way to change the channels. IR will be the most straight forward solution, but there are other options if your STB has a functional 1394 port or RS-232. But what will probably be the best option is the DirecTV dual USB tuner -- expected to cost less than $200 and hoped for this year -- provided you can get a signal, this may be the best bet, eventually.


Got a burning question that you'd love to toss out for Engadget HD (or its readers) to take a look at? Tired of Google's blank stares when you ask for real-world experiences? Hit us up at ask at engadgethd dawt com and keep an eye on this space -- your inquiry could be next.
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