Tag Archives: HDTV

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…

HDTV in Window Media Center Edition

So, I have a computer with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 installed, in my living room. This PC has a dual tuner Hauppauge PVR-500 TV card, and a high performance graphics card. I have recently purchased 48” widescreen TV, and the next thing on my mine was getting an HDTV signal from my cable company (Comcast) so that I can view and record high definition quality TV….

Only snag is that it cannot be done! There are lots of articles, blog posts, and forums on this discussion topic, but the consensus is that Windows XP MCE 2005 can only process HDTV from over-the-air, and not from a cable or satellite signal. The following are some of the reasons why HD-TV-Junky-Geeks are going to have to wait for HDTV quality TV in MCE:

  • Originally MCE 2005 did not support HDTV. With the release of rollout SP 1, Microsoft introduced support for over-the-air broadcasts only. OTA will only provide consumers with public stations, and in most areas not all stations carry HDTV, so it’s pretty useless.
  • Cable providers require consumers use a set-top-box to receive HDTV signals. This cable box is responsible for decoding digital HD signals from the cable line and pumping out a decoded analogue signal for HD TVs. This box also contains a tuner, so all channels changing is performed with the cable box remote, which is contrary to how MCE operates – MCE typically tunes to channels directly using one or more inbuilt tuners.
  • What about the IR Blaster? This device transmits an infrared signal to change channels on set-top-boxes, and is used by MCE when cable or satellite TV demands the use of a proprietary box. However, this doesn’t help when the set-to-box is pushing out HDTV because the signal is likely using QAM (Quadrature amplitude modulation), which involves doubling the bandwidth of the signal with phase modulation. HDTV requires much more bandwidth than conventional SDTV (single definition), and QAM enables cable and satellite providers to push the signal down the wire. MCE 2005 doesn’t support QAM.
  • What about an HDTV PCI Tuner Card with QAM support? Great, but without the support of QAM from MCE, only OTA HD is possible. These cards are usually shipped with their own software for watching HDTV in QAM, but not in MCE. Also, many premium channels are encrypted by the cable/satellite company, as well as using QAM. Decryption is managed by the set-top-box, provided by the cable/satellite company.
  • MCE 2005 requires at least one analogue signal. From what I can gather, this is required by MCE to setup the tuner configuration, but can support other HD tuners in addition.

Cable Card is supposed to solve the issues surrounding viewing of HDTV content without a set-top-box. Instead of box containing dedicated tuner, channel changing will be controlled by the inbuilt tuner in TV and DVR units, and the card will decrypt premium content and manage your communication with the cable/satellite company. TV manufactures are already starting to support Cable-Card in high end flat screen and projection HDTV units (source: http://tvaerialsmanchester.com).

The next version of MCE – part of the Vista operating system release in 2007 – will have built in support for cable card. ATI have produced a demonstration unit to accept Cable-Card and connect to MCE 2007 via USB, but it is not in production at this time. There are also rumors floating around about CableLabs – the company the produces cable cards – in that they wish to certify the hardware in which cable cards are fitted. Supposedly this is so that the company can retain a tighter grip on the consumer’s use of HDTV content and introduce DRM, which will cause a problem for those with home brew media center PCs. Time will tell.

According to Comcast support, they are offering Cable-Card now, and for a small monthly fee I as a consumer can make use of the technology. So, I just have to wait for Visa with MCE 2007 to launch in the first quarter of 2007 (assuming there are no more delays) and keep an eye on CableLabs.

Widescreen TV

I was fortunate enough to take stock of a used Mitsubishi 1080i widescreen 46″ TV, from a friend of mine leaving town this week – it looks great sitting in my front room.  I’m somewhat of a novice when it comes to high end TV, and acronyms like HDTV, DVI, HDCP mean very little to me, so to get the best out of my new purchase I had a poke around the Internet to find out how widescreen works.  Here’s what I found out…

Aspect Ratio:
Conventional TVs display a picture with aspect ratio 4:3, which simply means that the picture height is 3/4 of that of the width.  Widescreen TVs typically display an aspect ration of 16:9, where the width is much wider than that of the conventional picture.  Widescreen picture height is 9/16 of the width.

Conventional 4:3 pictures can be displayed on 16:9 TV by stretching the horizontal disproportionately or proportionately with cropping of top and bottom.  16:9 pictures can be displayed on 4:3 displays using letterboxing – reducing the width proportionately and adding black horizontal lines to the top and bottom of the picture.

The resolution of the picture displayed on a TV depicts the quality seen by the viewer, and is usually quoted in pixels.  Conventional TVs typically display a 640×480 image (4:3 aspect ratio).  Widescreen TVs can display up to 1920×1080 pixels.  Often, TV manufactures quote the resolution as 720p, 1080i, or 1080p – this is the number of vertical lines (scan lines) that can be displayed on the screen at one time.  The ‘i’ stands for ‘interlaced’ and ‘p’ for ‘progressive’,  both explained below.

Interlaced vs. Progressive:
If you imagine the number of pixels that go into a single frame of motion video, and that each pixel can have a vary number of colors, you will appreciate that even a low resolution picture (640×480) can contain a lot of data – about 307200 pixels per frame.  When broadcasting TV over the air or cable, the number of frames per second and the picture resolution will directly affect the amount of bandwidth required to air the broadcast. 

Interlacing was introduced (many years ago) to cut the bandwidth required to broadcast a TV show in half.  Interlacing works by alternating the display of odd horizontal scan lines and even horizontal scan lines for a given frame.  Since the broadcast contains half of the picture per frame, the amount of bandwidth is reduced by half.  To give the affect of full picture motion without flicker, the TV receiver displays picture frames at 50 or 60 times a second (PAL – 50Hz, NTSC – 60Hz) – faster than the human eye.

Interlacing enabled broadcasters to push TV pictures over the air and down copper cables using less bandwidth, but at a lower quality. With the introduction of DVD players and video sources that were not constrained by bandwidth, progressive scan (or non-interlaced) was introduced.  Unlike interlaced, progressive TVs display each scan line in sequence order, so the viewer sees a clearer crisper picture.  High end plasma, LCD, and some rear projection TVs support progressive scan, all others expect an interlaced signal.

High definition TV – TV broadcasters are now pushing out broadcast content in higher resolutions (and 16:9 aspect ratios) so viewers can enjoy higher quality viewing on large screen size TVs.  I was interested to find out that not all the broadcast networks push out the same HD format – typically broadcast HDTV is 720p, but some networks broadcast 1080i. Broadcast 1080p is almost unheard of because of the insane amount of bandwidth required.

DVD and Anamorphic Widescreen:
From what I can gather, standard DVD is 720×480 (NTSC) or 720×576 (PAL) at 4:3 aspect ratio or 16:9 aspect ratio using non square pixels.  Typically 16:9 widescreen is achieved on DVD using anamorphic filming – storing a vertically stretched version to make optimal use of the vertical resolution (see here for more details on anamorphic filming).  DVD players that support 16:9 can automatically adjust the width of anamorphic widescreen movies to take advantage of a 16:9 display, whereas 4:3 players will compress the vertical and add black horizontal bars.  Anamorphic typically uses a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, so even 16:9 displays will see partial black horizontal lines above and below the picture.

So, in conclusion… my widescreen DVDs look great on the new TV, 4:3 DVDs look pretty good, and conventional TV is watch able in 4:3 narrow but I could really use an HDTV signal. Unfortunately my Media Center is using a standard analogue coaxial tuner to record TV, and Comcast will only provide HDTV via a set-top box. Looks like I have to wait until cable cards become main stream.

Composite Video, S-Video and Media

I invested a chunk of this weekend messing with my home media
setup.  It all began when I became aware of a problem with the
display on my MCE PC, in the midst of Simon’s Birthday Party – I was hoping to play some background music and scrolling pictures
during the party, but the display turned a horrible shade of gray when
I switched on the media center, so had to stick with just music.

I suspected that my NVidia
graphics card in my MCE PC may have been bad (I spend a lot on it, so I was
rather bummed at the time), but it turns out that adding a multifunction switch box
to my
setup recently was the root of the problem. I added the switch box so that I
could switch audio and picture outputs from my DVD,
XBox and MCE to my TV and sub woofer system. Prior to the introduction of the switch box I
had been using the multifunction support of the TV.  Seems my
switch box does a shit bad job of converting a crystal clear s-video to a not-so-clear composite signal.

So, this evening I popped down to my friendly Best Buy
store and purchased a couple of s-video cables. I wired my DVD and MCE
direct to switch box as s-video (XBox remains composite for now), and also used the s-video output to
the TV, so the switch box is no longer converting from s-video to composite
video.  This fix has made the gray problem go away, and now I have
a much clearer picture.

Continuing on the media theme, I have been tagging and and adding album
art to my entire MP3 music collection – I’m almost done.  MCE now
displays all albums with covers, which looks pretty.  I’ve also
been using the time to populate my new IPOD with plenty more music,
which I can play in the car this week.

Talking of IPOD… I recently purchased an IPOD interface for my car, and it arrived this
week, so I installed that as well this weekend.  The cassette
adapter, which I was using to play my music in the car was
dreadful sounding in comparison to this new interface.  The
interface connects my IPOD to my car audio system via the CD changer
cable in the trunk.  So I have had to forgo the CD changer, but I
do not need it now that I have 40GB of music to choose from

TIVO will not keep my recorded TV shows…

Another good reason why Windows XP MCE is better than TIVO (you need another excuse?)…

At least,
for now, MCE will enable you to keep recorded content for as long as
you like, unlike TIVO, who subscribe to stiffing their customers with
their new policy to expire recorded copyrighted TV shows.