About 3 months ago, I set out to design and build a media center to go with our newly purchased LCD HDTV. The first part of the project (still a work in progress) was to allow the media center to stream content from my server (yes, the one I’m in the process of talking about in the “server” series). It turns out, unfortunately, that the Vista Media Center doesn’t play nicely with HD content in any format other than Windows Media Video. This has caused considerable frustration for me as I have tried every program out there to re-encode the HD content I already own into WMV versions.
The programs that can recognize all the various video formats I have don’t seem to work very well (or won’t convert to the required WMV-9 codec). The programs that DO convert well (including Microsoft’s own Windows Media Encoder) barely recognize any of the existing video codecs my videos are encoded in. So at this point I’m putting the already-owned video content playback project on hold. It’s a shame, too, as I found a great free program for building a database of movies for use with Vista MCE. It’s called “MyMovies2“.
So this weekend, I embarked on the next phase of the project – to allow viewing and recording of OTA (over-the-air) HD content. For this, I had to purchase an HDTV capture card for my media PC. I chose the AVerMedia TV Tuner card:
This card features both an ATSC tuner (digital) and an NTSC tuner (analog). Given that the digital transition for terrestrial television signals (broadcast TV) is scheduled to occur this February, the analog tuner will be of little use to me. But this tuner got some really good reviews on NewEgg, so I was willing to give it a shot. I am happy to report that so far the experience has been very good.
So, back to the media center project. I mentioned that I would be putting the already-owned video playback part on hold, and that this card was necessary to accomplish the next part of the media center: playback and recording of digital over-the-air TV. I installed the new tuner card in my media PC and booted into Windows. It recognized the device, but required drivers, which I was able to easily download from the manufacturer’s website.
I should also mention that I also installed a 1 TB Western Digital Green Power hard drive in the media PC as well. DVR functionality requires a place to store the data, and the 80 GB hard drive that was currently being used by the operating system was grossly inadequate for the task, especially considering that HD recording takes much more storage space than standard ‘def’ recording. The 1 TB of storage will give us 95 hours of HD recording (an insane 940 hours of SD recording) before we need to start deleting old content. I say “we” here of course, because my wife will probably end up using the DVR functionality more than I will.
Once the hardware was installed, it was time to see how well it integrated with Vista MCE. In a word? Flawlessly. The TV controls were already set up in MCE, so all I had to do was run the wizard to detect the inputs (there was only ATSC to detect), and then to scan for signal strength. As we soon found out, however, there are a lot of HD channels out there that we can’t reliably receive with our $10 antenna. So we’ll be looking for a better (and amplified) antenna in the near future to take advantage of all the available local stations (including PBS, which I was bummed to find out our current antenna can’t pick up).
So, what was the performance like once it was set up? We turned to an HD channel with good reception (ABC) and watched a few minutes of a football game that was on (which is about as much as I would normally want to watch anyway). Unlike my previous experiences with TV-on-the-PC, this was very pleasant to watch. I was half expecting the computer to freeze or at least stutter a bit, breaking the illusion of a computer-less interface. But it really performed without a hitch. I was very happy.
But we didn’t buy this $80 piece of hardware just to watch TV, as our HDTV already has an tuner. I set it to record a couple minutes of the football game and then played it back. No stutter, no frame dropping. Nothing to distinguish the recording from the live broadcast. And after living with VHS most of my life, that’s saying something.
MCE has a very nice feature of downloading a free TV Guide service that lists show times for any channels you can receive. You can select a show in the listing and either record that one show, or the entire series. We haven’t used it long enough to test how well it discerns a “series” from other television shows, but I’m betting it’s fairly accurate. You can record shows for as far in advance as the TV Guide has listings. I haven’t gone more than a week into the future with it, but with the benefit of the “series” feature, you might now have to even program your recordings very often.
One thought that might have crossed your mind as you read this article – and it crossed my mind more than once – is if this is worth all the hassle for a DVR. After all, the only thing the media PC allows us to do at this point is to record TV. And that’s what a DVR does. So what advantages are there to this device over a traditional DVR?
For starters, there’s the added functionality of a media center. You can do a lot more with this piece of hardware than just record TV. But let’s set that aside for now. How does the DVR functionality compare? Well, the TV Guide schedule is free. DVR schedule service is not. Let’s look at the cheapest DVR out there for those without Cable or DSL (that’s us). The biggest player is TiVo. The price for a one-year subscription of their cheapest option is $129. To buy a DVR with equivalent recording capability to my current setup, you’d need to purchase their $599 ultimate DVR (which can record approximately 150 hours of HD content; 50% more than my setup). The next option down, though, can only record 20 hours of HD content, so it doesn’t really even fall into the same range. That’s a total of $730 for ONE YEAR. Each additional year is another $129 after that.
How much did I spend on my entire media PC? Probably close to $400. So I have a DVR, movie player (from movies stored on our server), and DVD player all for about half what an equivalent stand-alone DVR would cost. A better investment? Certainly. But let’s go one step further. Maybe I’d like to play some hi-def Blu-Ray movies. A Blu-Ray DVD player for my media PC would cost about $90. The cheapest stand-alone Blu-Ray players out there are closer to $200. And the chipset of the motherboard in my media PC can decode Blu-Ray movies without taxing the CPU. So I could add flawless Blu-Ray DVD playback to my media PC for $90.
So my media PC is, contrary to initial perception, a very cheap way to go about building a modern media center. To have similar functionality from individual devices (Blu-Ray player, Media streaming, and DVR functionality) would cost well over $1,000. But I have build a comparable system for $400, and could add Blu-Ray for a mere $90 more. Fortunately, Microsoft managed to pull off a very polished and functional MCE in Vista. Without that central interface to pull together the various components, it wouldn’t work. Thankfully, I now have a functional and expandable media center that will meet our digital content needs for (hopefully) years to come.
Next post I will return to describing my new server, this time delving into the choice of motherboard . . .