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…