Vista MCE and HD – At Last

Recently – I finally decided to take the plunge with Vista Media Center Edition and High Definition Cable TV…. 

I’ve been a fan of MCE for some time, and up until February this year I’d been using Vista MCE with a standard analogue cable line into a dual receiver Hauppauge tuner card and doing relatively well.  Those of you following my rants about Comcast Cable TV of Montgomery County already know that I’d sell my grandma for a time when a better, cheaper solution to cable TV was available – and that time has finally arrived (I didn’t have to sell my Grandma – besides EBay prohibits the sale of family members).

Verizon now offer FIOS TV in my area, and with a standard premium package inclusive of HDTV on offer for $42.99 a month, it didn’t take much to ditch Comcast ($68.00 a month).

I’ve been keeping a close eye over the last few months on the handful of vendors offering Cable-Labs certified Vista PC’s and decided on the purchase of a new Dell XPS 420 with dual ATI TV Wonder Cable Card Tuners.  My decision came down to the following rationale:

  • Dell offers the cheapest Cable-Card solution (at time of writing).
  • Unless I fork out over 4G for a machine; most Vista machines offering Cable-Card are inferior to the Dell XPS.
  • ATI is pretty much the only supplier of Cable-Card tuner for Vista and Dell sold me a pair for $350, unlike other vendors charging $280 a piece.
  • Dell would ship me a machine within a month.
  • Dell is a well known brand.
  • Internal tuners do not sell me because my machine sits out of the way in the basement.

Two weeks after I place my order for an XPS-420 with 1TB disk, 4G RAM and the dual tuners a new box arrived on my doorstep – ahead of schedule.

Setup of my machine was straight forward – my dell shipped with Vista Home Premium and Cable Card support and the drivers for the ATI tuners installed.  After I uninstalled the free Dell software and turned off all unnecessary services in Vista (it’s a server, so no need for Aero) I was ready for the Verizon service person to come and install Cable Card TV.

At 11am one chilly Saturday morning the Verizon guy arrived – I’d called ahead and placed the installation order for Cable-Card so he came with this expectation.  My new XPS was running in my front room, connected to an LCD monitor (so no XBOX 360 Extender to confuse the issue) and MCE running and at the cable-card configuration screen.

The Verizon engineer had never installed Cable-Card in a computer before, but I assured him it was as easy as installing for an HD-TV.  I read somewhere ahead that each cable-card pairs with it’s host tuner, so make sure you know which ATI unit is tuner #0 and tuner #1 in MCE because the engineer calls in the cable-card serial number with HQ to activate the cable signal.

After a short wait on the phone with HQ both cable-cards were activated and receiving a signal – I was then able to tune Vista to an HD channel.  During the whole process the most difficult part was downloading the correct EPG (Guide) for my area because there are several for my zone and each has a slightly different channel number line up.  With correct EPG installed and tuners configured I was able to watch and record HDTV, the only issue I had was with some of the channels in the guide not being part of my service package, which caused Vista to pause looking for the signal when I tuned to these channels.

After tipping the Verizon guy and wishing him a good day I preceded to move my XPS to it’s resting place and hook up my XBOX 360. As with my older machine, this process was a breeze, and it didn’t take long before I had HDTV on the large screen.  A tip for those hooking up a similar setup – make sure you have a nice fast network link between your XBOX and MCE, no wireless for instance, otherwise HDTV will hog the bandwidth.

The acid test with my new setup was whether my wife would have any issues when she came home.  Lisa is familiar with Vista MCE so the new faster machine scored some brownie points, and the monthly savings on the cable bill also got me a high five.  So far we’ve been doing good with the new channel line up (lots more channels) and HD content.  One quirk we found with Vista MCE is that it doesn’t automatically choose HD channels when scheduled recordings are set to “any channel” – you have to explicitly choose the HD channel otherwise Vista records from the first SDTV channel (since HD channels are higher numbering in the channel list).  An episode of “Dancing with the Stars” in HD was day and night compared to SD, and once I demonstrated the difference it didn’t take much to convince Lisa to reprogram the list of scheduled recordings.

I’ve noticed that my MCE platform is a little sluggish when recording from two HD channels and playing a recorded show simultaneously, so I would recommend a minimum 4GB RAM and a dual or quad core processor if you like uninterrupted viewing.  I’ll report back as my new toy gets more usage…

11 thoughts on “Vista MCE and HD – At Last

  1. http://

    You may want to unselect the local SD channels in your guide listing – that way MCE will just see the HD version of the channels in the guide. Also, you can set recordings to only record from a specific channel. Have fun!

  2. Pranav

    Nice work getting your wife to reporgram the scheduled recordings. The screenshot of the game looks awesome.

    1) How much did you end up paying for the new DELL?
    2) What kind of a processor is the new machine running?
    3) So if I understand correctly, you have 2 cable cards in the machine … one in each slot and each one is married to the slot?
    4) For FiosTV, did they run a coaxial from the ONT outside the house to your TV or is verizon doing some sort of a wireless connection? I know some Fios routers that I’ve worked with are equipped for TV – can you elaborate on that if a router is part of your FiosTV setup?
    5) What is the first screenshot supposed to be?
    6) What is the highest priority recording on your setup? I bet you its one of Lisa’s programs πŸ™‚

  3. Pranav

    I just remembered a MCE question … can you access recorded programs over the public internet … sort of like slingbox?

  4. robgarrett

    1) How much did you end up paying for the new DELL?

    About $2,000 – the additonal 1TB disk and 4GB of RAM pushed the baseline of $1,600 up.

    2) What kind of a processor is the new machine running?

    Intel Quad Core.

    3) So if I understand correctly, you have 2 cable cards in the machine … one in each slot and each one is married to the slot?

    2 external cable tuners, one cable card per tuner, each cable card paired with the tuner.

    4) For FiosTV, did they run a coaxial from the ONT outside the house to your TV or is verizon doing some sort of a wireless connection? I know some Fios routers that I’ve worked with are equipped for TV – can you elaborate on that if a router is part of your FiosTV setup?

    They normally run COAXIL from ONT to the end point, but in my casr they used the old COAXIL from Comcast. Router is only required if you want FIOS Internet.

    5) What is the first screenshot supposed to be?

    The two ATI TV Wonder Card Tuners.

    6) What is the highest priority recording on your setup? I bet you its one of Lisa’s programs πŸ™‚

    Erm, yes πŸ™‚

  5. robgarrett

    >I just remembered a MCE question … can you access recorded programs over the public internet … sort of like slingbox?

    Yes – I use MediaGuide 4

    R.

  6. Emad Ibrahim

    I am jealous… Now, all you need is a Windows Home Server and you got a perfect setup :)…

    How is FIOS internet? I plan to get it as soon as they have it in my area because comcast sucks…

  7. robgarrett

    Emad,
    I thought about Windows Home Server, I have a spare server so might just go for it.

    FIOS == awesome, dump Comcast as soon as you have the availability in your area.

    R.

  8. http://

    Rob, VEry nice setup indeed (and quite an informative post). I have FIOS available in my area nbow and I have never been closer to “EXIT Stage Left” (USA Cartoon slogan) I look forward to seeing this setup in action as aI come by to pickup your incredibly nice as well as generous donation to a rather needy charity (me).

  9. http://

    I like the set up but………….I’m waiting till i can use a HD cable card tuner with a machine I build ( if that ever happens ). Was wondering could you have just hooked the computer directly to your big screen HDTV and get the same result ?

    Thankx Dave

    DRY.diagnostics@gmail.com

  10. robgarrett

    David,

    “I’m waiting till i can use a HD cable card tuner with a machine I build ( if that ever happens ).”

    I wouldn’t count on it happening any time soon – Cablelabs have a stronghold on the OCCUR technology and require certified hardware to use Cable Card. As more vendors release Cable certified PCs the price will drop, but you’re current rig will likely never be cable-card ready.

    “Was wondering could you have just hooked the computer directly to your big screen HDTV and get the same result ?”

    Yes, absolutely, but since I have an XBOX 360, which does a great job of HD, why have a noisey PC in my front room πŸ˜‰

    R.

  11. http://

    Rob – I found your blog while searching the ‘net for folks that have used MCE with FiOS. I realize I’m dredging up a way old topic on your blog, but I have a couple of questions… I’m not far from you, in NoVA. I currently have FiOS TV, and am using a TiVo with 2 CableCARDs. When my TiVo service expires in Sept 09, I’m considering buying a Dell and doing the same thing you did.

    Question 1: Did you use a coax splitter for the two tuner boxes, since FiOS only comes in on one coax?

    Question 2: (You might not know this) since my CableCARDs are already in use with FiOS (through the TiVo) will I still need to go through the same installation process with VZ?

    Thanks for the great guide!

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