A first hand look at SDV and Copy Freely support in Windows 7 Media Center

ATI Digital Cable Tuner

If you have a ATI Digital Cable Tuner connected to your Windows Media Center then you've been waiting a long time for a firmware update. In fact, although updates were released fairly steadily during the first year of the product's life, the last update (1.17.1) was dated April 30th 2008. But this long delay has been particularly painful because this is the first update since CableLabs relaxed the DRM requirements last Summer -- it's also the very same update Microsoft has been touting since CEDIA 2008. So what took so long? We'd like to know, but one thing is for sure, CableLabs sure took its time in the approval process as the date on the firmware is May 1st 2009! Better late then never, so while you wait for the public release click through to find out what all the fuss is about.

What's new in firmware 1.19.12?
The first of two improvements is the fact that if the cable provider marks a program as Copy Freely, then there is NO DRM on your recording. And secondly support was added for Cisco and Motorola Tuning Adapters -- requires Windows 7, but does add support for channels delivered via SDV. The first one applies to everyone and will be a big deal for most, but if SDV has been eating through your HD offerings, then both couldn't get here fast enough.

DCT configuration webpage

Copy Freely vs Copy Once
Unlike TiVo or any other CableCARD device up until now, if you recorded your favorite HD show with an ATI Digital Cable Tuner in Windows Media Center, it was all locked down. This meant that if you had to reinstall Windows, the recordings were useless. This meant if you wanted to watch a show on another PC, you couldn't. This meant you couldn't convert the recording and play recordings on your iPod. And finally this meant you couldn't even use something like Show Analyzer to scan the show for commercials so that they could be skipped automatically. So yeah, it sucked. The good news is that after you install this update, going forward any show that has a Copy Control Information (CCI) byte of Copy Freely, will be free from just about any restriction. This is just like HD TiVos that have TiVoToGo and Multi-Room Viewing for two years, and it's about time. The bad news is that if something is marked anything else, like Copy Once, then you're still out of luck, and you can't even make the one copy that the name implies.

Recorded show metadata that isn't protected

In our experience this update works as advertised, sometimes. We say sometimes because like any TiVo owner will tell you, it depends on your provider. While FiOS marks almost everything Copy Freely, Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable don't, in fact the only thing in the clear on some networks are the over-the-air broadcast networks. What is even more confusing is this can vary market by market, so just because TWC in your market marks everything Copy Once doesn't mean TWC in the next town over will. So it really does depend on your provider, but why? We asked a few in the industry and the bottom line is that it depends on the terms of the contract with the content holders. As to why TWC would agree to this while FiOS doesn't, who really knows. But if you live somewhere with real cable competition it might be worth looking into.

MC Recorded TV show details of a show that is copy protected

With the new firmware applied, this all works behind the scene from a user's perspective -- in fact you'd be hard pressed to tell which shows were and weren't free of DRM until you try to play it on another machine, or you dig into the recording's details. You can also go into the DCT's web configuration page and check the DRM tab for Encryption Status, but that isn't something most will ever do.

Configuration page of an encrypted channel

We have to admit that while we never really felt like the DRM was that inhibiting, we find that just the knowledge that we're free to enjoy the shows we recorded however we want is very refreshing. So far we've yet to convert even one show for our iPod, but just knowing we can is a pretty cool feeling -- and skipping commercials automatically is of course really sweet.

Tuning Adapter and Switch Digital Video
This new feature is once again only useful depending on your provider. So for a provider like FiOS who doesn't use SDV, it is useless, but for those that deploy almost all of their HD channels via SDV, this can be a life saver.

Cisco Tuning Adapter

The way this works is that you request a Tuning Adapter (TA) from your cable provider and connect it to a free USB port on your Media Center -- this can of course be a USB hub. The device is also connected to the coax cable -- there is an RF coax pass through, although we'd recommend you skip it and use a high quality splitter -- and then activated by your cable company. From here, Windows 7 Media Center and your Digital Cable Tuner do the rest -- this does require 7 because there is extra code to help the two devices find each other. What the TA actually does is talk upstream on behalf of the tuner. So to break it down -- a channel delivered via SDV is only broadcast when someone is actually watching it, so the tuner has to have some way to let the headend know someone wants to watch said channel and then wait to learn which frequency will be used. Then in turn, the TA notifies the tuner which frequency is being used and the rest happens as normal. The good news is that it does work, the bad news is that a TA can be as big as a set-top-box and requires its own power. This issue gets worse as you add tuners too because a Cisco TA can only handle two tuners. So if you did happen to have a new Ceton quad CableCARD tuner, you'd need two -- we are told that Motorola TAs can handle all four, so lucky for those people. ATI Digital Cable Tuner owners aren't as lucky though, so if you have two DCTs, you'll need two TAs.

Cisco Tuning Adapter in Device Manager

As you might imagine our experience with the Tuning Adapter wasn't as easy or seamless. First we had to find someone at our local Bright House Network office that actually knew what it was -- thanks Bill! Then once the trucked rolled to the house and installed it, we found out that there was a $4 per month charge for a device that only enabled access to eight HD channels that we didn't even realize we were missing -- so yeah, nothing we couldn't live without. To top it off, the Cisco TA is pretty big (pictured above) and doesn't power on automatically -- in other words if you don't have it plugged into a UPS, when the power comes back on you have to turn it back on manually before your scheduled recordings will succeed. Speaking of not working, when things don't work you really have no idea why, basically you are presented with a black screen as if the channel didn't exist. We're not sure why Microsoft couldn't add a nice "this channel can't be found, maybe you need a Tuning Adapter or call your provider," but whatever at least it works.

Tuning Adapter info on DCT webpage

The bottom line is it's all good
Ultimately these two new additions are pretty big in the world of premium HD recordings on a Windows Media Center, and we wouldn't hesitate to install it -- whenever it's finally released. It is one of the best updates we've received via firmware in recent memory -- at least in regards to our home theater. We believe that there are people who've been waiting for these before jumping into a PC Digital Cable Tuner. So considering this news and the lack of an OEM requirement that is coming, Digital Cable Tuners for Media Center should become much more popular. Just as soon as they come down in price that is.

It should be noted that the firmware isn't publicly available yet, but we're told it'll show up on Windows Update when it's available.