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An HTPC Perspective: Get Excited About CableCARDs and Tuners

Author: Tim Verry
Manufacturer: SiliconDust

Just Delivered: SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime HDHR3-CC Tuner

 

Just Delivered is a section of PC Perspective where we share some of the goodies that pass through our labs that may or may not see a review, but are pretty cool none the less.

One of the more popular CableCARD tuners, and the one I ended up choosing, is the SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime HDHR3-CC. For $200, I got a shiny box with the tuner, a coax cable, Ethernet cable, power adapter, install CD, and quick start guide inside.

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The tuner itself is a matte black design with plenty of circular ventilation holes on the bottom and top to keep the components cooled. The HDHomeRun logo is etched into the top of the case, but otherwise it is a fairly simple design. The front of the networked tuner has five green LEDs that indicate power and CableCARD status on the left and three LEDS on the right that indicate which of the three total tuners are currently in use.

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The back of the tuner holds the various ports needed to get this thing connected to the network. When looking at the back (front facing away from you), from left to right is the coaxial cable input, SDV port, Gigabit Ethernet port, power jack, and the CableCARD slot.

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I think most of those ports are self-explanatory, but SDV may need a quick explanation. Although it resembles a USB port, you cannot actually plug in USB devices and have them work. Rather, it is a little adapter that communicates with the cable network to request channels from the cable company. You see, SDV stands for Switched Digital Video and is a technology that some cable television operators use to deliver more channels using less bandwidth. In a traditional cable setup, all of the channels are constantly being delivered over coax to all the homes in the neighborhood whether anyone is watching that TV channel or not. On the other hand, SDV only delivers channels that at least one house is watching. This frees up a great deal of bandwidth since it is very unlikely that every house would be tuning into (and thus requesting) every channel the cable company offered. This “extra” bandwidth can then be used to supplement available internet bandwidth, for example.

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Installation is fairly straightforward. You insert the CableCARD then connect it to an active coax outlet, power, and the network.  You then download a small piece of software from SiliconDust (I’d advise not using the CD as it is rather outdated at this point) and install it on your PC. Once installed and configured using the utility’s step-by-step guide, the tuners will show up as available when you go into your media center software. In my case, I used Windows Media Center. After the CableCARD was activated, I went through the TV setup wizard and was in business. It may sound complicated, but it was surprisingly easy as the guides walk you through all the necessary steps.

Build quality feels really good. Although made of plastic, the case doesn’t flex much (not that you would be doing that to it anyway, right?) and it seems like it could survive a good-sized drop without issue. Even better, it looks like Amazon is now selling it for $149 while the Ceton InfiniTV 4 card is still $199 making it a bit easier to deal with the loss of a fourth tuner should you go with the HDHomeRun Prime instead.

You can see more photos of the device and packaging below. If you have any questions and/or suggestions on what you would like to see covered as far as HTPC tech, let us know in the comments below!

What tuners are you using to watch and record cable TV? Do you rely on WMC or have you had success with a Linux-based solution?

All Images courtesy Tim Verry. Used with permission.

Additional photos of the HDHomeRun Prime tuner

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Additional photos of the HDHR3-CC box

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July 27, 2012 | 09:46 PM - Posted by mAxius

i love this and i wouldn't mind seeing an HTPC build on the leader board. Also have you tried reaching out to different cable providers and their stances on cable cards and will the setup work on their cable systems. id really like to know what companies are all in on the cable card and its forthcoming successor AllVid

source http://www.americancable.org/node/2229

July 27, 2012 | 10:32 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

Hehe so a cableCARD Decoder like we have for adds... but for cablecards? :) If there's enough interest, I wouldn't be opposed to the idea.. it could be a good resource. The difficult part would be pricing info as that can vary so widely. But as far as what is supported, seven yes/no, and stuff like thatcould probably be done. We'd prolly need user input on how friendly the various companies actually are regarding cable cards as we don't have access to every us provider to test for ourselves :).

Re: Allvid. I'm not too familiar with the it but I've come across a few mentions of it. Will definitely read more about it though asap.

July 28, 2012 | 12:20 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

AllVid isn't forthcoming... It's already dead.

July 28, 2012 | 12:15 AM - Posted by dreamer77dd

This was a great article but ended to short.
i want to learn so much more.
i wish their was benchmarks and reviews, etc.
I love to go more in depth with this topic.
i am very happy that your wrote about this topic and hope it continues.

July 28, 2012 | 12:20 AM - Posted by Tim Verry

heh, definitely :) I'd like to keep doing HTPC stuff as I find it really interesting!

July 28, 2012 | 12:18 PM - Posted by Jingles (not verified)

I would love to see more coverage of HTPCs and HTPC gear.

Over here in Aus our cable (HFC) network is atrocious, there are only a few providers (who mostly just resell Foxtel) and it only covers about 2 - 2.5 million homes, i.e. only a small percentage of our population in a few major cities. Most people watch TV broadcast OTA using a set top box or built in TV tuner in their TVs.

I use HDTV tuner cards in my HTPCs for recording TV. My favorite HDTV tuner cards are from DigitalNow, I have used a few of their DNTV Dual Hybrid (7164) PCIe tuners in a couple of HTPCs I have built and they are awesome. They just work unlike some other HDTV tuner cards I have tried.

I'm getting ready to build my third HTPC in an uber swanky A-Tech fabrication 2800HP case. A-Tech used to build suspension systems and shock absorbers for high performance off-road racing vehicles.

There are plenty of other awesome HTPC case makers (that aren't main stream names like Lian Li, Silverstone, BitFenix etc...) like A-Tech Fabrication, HFX, Streacom, Some Japanese company called ASK-TECH, Moneual, Origen AE (I have used their S16V case for my current HTPC), Wesena and probably others.

July 28, 2012 | 12:53 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Hi there, thanks for the comment.

That's cool that OTA is widespread, though do they offer many channels? It seems like the US is a bit better as far as availability but people here are generally stuck with a single cable provider to "choose" from for TV. There is always satelite or something like U-Verse/FIOS if you are lucky but for the most part it is expensive cable vs expensive satelite unless you live in a very large urban area. Satelite/IPV is much less fun because there is no cablecard equivalent :(. At least with cable you can avoid using their modems and tuners, and the rental fees that go along with them hehe. OTA is another good option for getting really good HD of the major networks if you can get it though, and its free! :D

Nice, four tuners per card, and those do look like some nice HTPC cases :).

July 28, 2012 | 10:52 PM - Posted by Jingles (not verified)

Until just recently we only had 6 OTA channels, now we have 19 channels here in Melbourne some states/cities have a few more or less channels. The government is turning off the old analogue TV signal and switching to digital, as part of the switch Freeview was setup (a free digital television service) to deliver more TV channels.
Because digital broadcasting is more efficient broadcasters can broadcast more channels in the same space which means we get more channels for free, YAAY!

I'm going to use that quad tuner card in my new HTPC build because it has DAB+ A.K.A Digital radio which is a fairly new thing here, oh yeah and because it has four tuners :)

You could probably still record Satelite/IPV TV if you used a capture card, something like Avermedia's DarkCrystal HD Capture SDK II or similar. Although it might not be as elegant or easy to get up and running. I dare say there would be some compromises and trade offs that would need to be made.

July 31, 2012 | 01:10 AM - Posted by Tim Verry

Ah nice, more free channels are always good! :)

Yeah, I bet that you're right. As the poster below mentioned, it is possible to use a capture card and a IR blaster along with some software, but it's not the most elegant solution. Also, you're limited to one tuner and are dependent on being able to get a rented box with component outputs, which are going to get increasingly hard to find–at least in the US.

July 28, 2012 | 12:24 PM - Posted by Bill (not verified)

I was hoping to see an article more geared towards the growing number of people like me, that is those that have ditched cable/satellite tv completely. I really do need to check into making an htpc rather than pay Tivo their high $14 a month fee. Actually, I think it would be a GREAT idea for an article for PCPer. A complete step by step guide including all the hardware and software needed to build a nice HTPC for recording ota tv and running Netflix/Amazon/Hulu on. I think you guys might be amazed the interest there would be in that.

July 28, 2012 | 12:41 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

You have my respect, I wasn't able to stay away from cable :). How is Netflix Instant these days as far as content, have they updated the TV catalog in a while? As far as OTA, according to antennaweb I live in a terrible area as far as getting OTA HD. And because I live in an apartment, i don't think I'd be allowed to install the large antenna necessary to pick up many stations ;) hehe.

Anyway, it can definitely be done as far as running some low power hardware to record and playback OTA and web streams smoothly. The HTPC that Ryan built earlier this week would be overkill but in that size of a case you could definitely pack a bunch of storage for DVR'ing :D.

It is an interesting idea for an article, maybe if there is enough interest :).

July 28, 2012 | 01:50 PM - Posted by Bill (not verified)

I got rid of Netflix a while back and I use Amazon Prime now for my movies and tv shows. The selection is better than Netflix on some shows and worse than Netflix on others. They both have their pluses and minuses, but overall I still think Amazon Prime is the better deal.

As far as no cable/sat goes, I really haven't missed it much. I don't watch any sports though so that helps a lot! Any tv shows I used to watch I buy off of Amazon.

July 28, 2012 | 09:07 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Ah okay, I totally blanked on buying TV episodes on Amazon. I was thinking more of the free Prime selection :p. Do you find that buying just the shows you want to watch is much cheaper than paying a monthly cable fee? Just curious as we looked into that but with all the shows Katy watched, it would have cost a lot for all her seasons :P haha.

July 28, 2012 | 12:47 PM - Posted by Allen (not verified)

Excellent article. I have an HTPC with Ceton internal card and I'm very happy with it. We use 3 XBox 360s as extenders and it works great. Since I travel for a living, it's also easy to grab shows to watch on flights.

Since I'm on the road Monday through Friday most weeks, I was a little concerned about reliability (wife and 2 kids who aren't as tech savy) but once set up, the system for me has been bullet proof. My wife is pleased with 2 TB of storage so she can record to her heart's content and the kids now complain if they have to watch commercials. Between adding as much storage as you want and the ability to skip commercials, I'd strongly recommend this approach to anyone that has any technical inclination at all.

Occassionally we need more than 4 tuners so I'm going to be adding a second Ceton card in the near future.

I'm looking forward to more HTPC articles in the future.

July 28, 2012 | 03:11 PM - Posted by JimT (not verified)

Good article.

I jumped on the cablecard bandwagon about a year ago, and bought a Ceton internal 4-tuner card. to use with Windows 7 Media Center. Comcast supplies digital cable input to the cablecard. My experience has been generally posative, but there still remain a few problems. Sometimes a recording will be skipped with an error message "No signal on channel". Also sometimes I get a "subscription required" message on channels that that require no special subscription beyond paying for expanded digital cable. Sometimes the message appears in the middle of a recorded show, or while watching live TV. Letting it run for a few minutes will normally clear up the error condition, and the show will resume.

The bad news seems to be that Microsoft is largely abandoning Media Center. Rumor have appeared on several forums I read, that Media center on Windows 8 is essentially unchanged from that on Windows 7, no improvements or major bug fixes. Another frequent rumor is that Microsoft has dissolved the Media Center Development team, and reassigned employees to other projects.

With this in mind, I would be cautious about sinking much money into a HTPC project until more is known about Microsoft's future intentions.

July 28, 2012 | 07:33 PM - Posted by MrKing (not verified)

It's possible they are switching gears on Media Center. The only thing that makes me think otherwise is that they're charging a premium fee for it on Windows 8. If they were just going to close up shop, I see little reason to make it a premium offering. It would make more sense for them to just trot it out as a freebie.

Either way if Microsoft bows out a 3rd likely open option will step up to the plate for HTCP supporters to rally around.

July 28, 2012 | 08:01 PM - Posted by JimT (not verified)

I hope they are just regrouping, but I fear that Microsoft has decided the HTPC market is too small too offer much profit potential.

I have read that the additional cost for Media Center under Windows 8 is mostly for licensing of various codecs necessary to run media center. I believe That Microsoft is just passing those costs through to users, rather than continuing to absorb them as part of Windows. This may enable Microsoft to reduce the cost of Windows 8.

July 28, 2012 | 08:09 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I wouldn't be so sure about that. Microsoft is about the only player right now that is able to negotiate the deals to allow encrypted channels to be picked up by a cablecard. Several of the big names in the HTPC space don't have cablecard support and a few of them aren't going to get it because they are no longer in production. Even if you're using WMC you can only stream your recordings to another box, but cannot copy them as they are DRM protected. On top of that, if a provider doesn't want you to be able to record a show, they can use a copy never flag. (Making your tuner card esentially useless)

Everytime I see an article like this I'm hoping that someone has actually found an alternative to WMC that actually works well. The only way to get a real solution working is to record the output from a set top box to your media center.

July 28, 2012 | 08:37 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

I've looked but thus far have had little success in finding a viable alternative to WMC :(.

I'm kind of surprised that certain clever people have not found a way to get around the copy protection flags.. especially the stupid copy-never one on a expanded cable channel... not even a premium one like HBO or On Demand... I think it was a movie on FX iirc -.-

I do hope that Microsoft at least keeps WMC around in its current state with bug/security fixes even if they don't continue feature-development. It's the best/pretty much only game in town.

July 28, 2012 | 08:44 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

PS:

"The only way to get a real solution working is to record the output from a set top box to your media center."

Yeah, it does seem like that while people using utorrent+RSS feeds can do whatever they want with the files :(. Considering -- at least in the US -- it's illegal (afaik) to break the HDCP protection to record the HDMI output and they have closed the "analog loophole" to record HD from component... you may as well just use utorrent and RSS feeds for the TV shows you want to actually watch. Both illegal, so you may as well go for convenience. Yeah, I'm a bit jaded at DRM ;). Note that I'm not actually advising you to break the law here, just being a bit sarcastic / realizing that DRM really sucks for paying customers while people pirating for free have it made. Also, IANAL :)

Last I read as far as recording video under fair use was that people are supposed to set up a camera in front of the television and record it that way. You might be able to make a case for yourself there, and I doubt that MAFIAA would actually take you to court as they woudl be too scared of losing and setting precedent, but that's an awfully cludgy setup to be able to DVR shows your essentially paying for with your monthly cable subscription. Time-shifting should be allowed (not directly covered by fair use doctrine :-( ) You'd also have to not record the entire show for it to be fair use, though there is no set guideline on how much exactly you /could/ record ;).

July 29, 2012 | 12:55 PM - Posted by JackNF (not verified)

Options do exist for grabbing analog HD video from component sources, my Hauppauge Colossus capture board works fine with WMC nabbing the analog HD feed from my cable box. The analog hole will only be closed when they stop shipping cable boxes with analog outputs, which I admit may happen eventually but hasn't happened yet.

July 29, 2012 | 01:38 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Ah nice :) you still need a cable box though which does suck. How do you handle channel changing, an IR emitter? Have you found a way to automate recordings? That would be cool to hear about :)

July 30, 2012 | 12:42 PM - Posted by JackNF (not verified)

Yes, it comes with an IR blaster that you attach to the front of your box. It works fine, although if you switch boxes a couple of times the adhesive wears off and I'm currently stuck using a bit of tape to hold it on. Clunky for sure, but it gets the job done.

The plugin software Hauppauge provides allows you to mimic a "Digital Cable" connection in WMC which means it works just the same as if you had a Ceton card set up but with only one tuner, and everything it records just happens to be completely unencrypted (it's just stuck in MS's proprietary WTV container, but with the right software you can remux to TS/MP4/MKV/whatever easily enough for editing and archiving).

Unfortunately the WMC plugin software is limited to one such device per computer, so no dumping several into one machine and having a stack of cable boxes to all use in WMC.

July 31, 2012 | 01:12 AM - Posted by Tim Verry

That's an interesting workaround :). Yeah, the new WMC format seems to be easily transcoded into more friendly formats with some software. I haven't done that myself yet but it's good to know it's available.

That sucks that you're limited to one tuner but at least you can do whatever you want with the recordings :).

July 29, 2012 | 02:15 PM - Posted by Shambles (not verified)

As an HTPC owner the entire purpose of my machine is to eliminate any and all connections to cable subscription providers. While everyone is looking for different things, I personally have no use for cable cards. I do end up losing the ability to watch some sports but the benefit of not exposing myself to the 95% of trash that is 'TV' is well worth the price. The best part of my HTPC for me was cutting the cord.

Now if google would roll out internet in my area I could cut off all ties to the terrible telecoms in my area altogether :P

July 29, 2012 | 02:26 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

What services do you use with your HTPC to get media? Good on you for cutting the cord, btw.

July 29, 2012 | 03:22 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I kinda think MS would rather you have an xbox attached to your TV instead of a WMC.

im not sure why media center PCs never took off... media center is slick, i use it everyday.

July 29, 2012 | 06:03 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Probably :P They should improve the performance of WMC on the Xbox then :). Disabling transistions helps but it's still not nearly as fast as a PC running WMC is, not sure if it's because of the Xbox's hardware or the software though.. I'm guessing the former.

July 30, 2012 | 09:03 AM - Posted by Reade B (not verified)

From some of the extender forums:

1. Reduce the number of channels in the guide to improve performance... and putting the guide on an SSD (on the WMC pc) helps too..

2. Channel tuning performance is tied to the HD Homerun.. can't do much about that.. that I've heard.

July 30, 2012 | 09:04 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Hmm it's mostly moving around the guide and say, moving around the interface from movies tv, music, that is sluggish. It is running on an SSD, but I may have to try limiting the number of channels to see if that helps.

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