The Road to HD: QAM to the rescue?

About a year ago I predicted that I’d have an HDTV system in 2007 and specifically that I’d watch Super Bowl XLII in high-def.  I didn’t quite make it, but I am finally getting close.

For most people this would be as simple as buying a high-def television and plugging in a cable TV feed via coax.  But for me it is not, and not only because I need to agonize for months about which specific TV to buy.  The key is that I’ve become dependent on DVR functionality, and forced to choose between DVR and SD or non-DVR and HD, I opt without hesitation for the former.  Not only that, but I want a DVR head unit that isn’t noisy when it’s not in use (most have a hard disk fan that runs 24×7).  I also have a strong preference for a server-based recording system (as opposed to each unit recording separately) and don’t want to deal with a satellite dish-based system.

With all of these constraints, the plan worked out roughly as follows:

  1. Start with a Windows Media Center PC and an Xbox 360 (to serve as the Media Center Extender).
  2. Upgrade the home network equipment to Windows Vista-compatible hardware.
  3. Upgrade the Media Center PC to Vista Ultimate.
  4. Install a Vista-compatible OCUR HD tuner card in the Media Center PC.
  5. Get a CableCARD for the tuner from my cable provider.
  6. Buy an HDTV and connect it to the Xbox 360.

As is turns out, the big flaw in this plan is that, even though I had deliberately bought a Vista-ready PC in late 2006 to prepare for this, OCUR is supported only on PCs that are "Windows Vista Digital Cable compatible".  This designation requires special rights-management support on the motherboard, so I’d have to buy a fairly expensive PC to support this, even though I have a nearly new PC bought expressly for this purpose.  On principle alone I don’t want to do this.

Another factor is that I’m now running Windows Home Server on my old home computer and have been very satisfied by it.  I’ve also had occasional annoyances with my Media Center PC, most of which revolve around the need to restart my computer while a program is recording or being watched.  Put these two together and conclude that I want to have one server computer that runs 24×7, has loads of disk space and the network bandwidth to serve up its content, and almost never needs to be restarted due to application issues.  So barring unforeseen circumstances I’d rather wait until there’s a Home Server product that can also record and share TV programs and then invest in one new computer to do both.

So for now I need a plan B.  That plan is now based on a product called HDHomeRun, which will enable me to record unencrypted HD broadcasts (QAM) on my Media Center PC.  The new plan is:

  1. Start with a Windows Media Center PC and an Xbox 360 (to serve as the Media Center Extender).
  2. Upgrade the home network equipment to Windows Vista-compatible hardware.
  3. Upgrade the Media Center PC to Vista Ultimate.
  4. Buy an HDTV with a QAM tuner and confirm that my cable provider transmits unencrypted HD signals for at least the local TV channels.
  5. Buy and install an HDHomeRun.

Step 1 was completed in 2006. Step 2 was completed last summer.  Step 4 was completed last weekend.  I’ve been putting off step 3 for months but may get a chance to do it this weekend.  I don’t have a specific schedule for step 5 but it’s a safe bet it will happen before next football season starts.

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6 responses to “The Road to HD: QAM to the rescue?

  1. I couldn\’t agree more with you that SD+DVR >>>>> HD+non-DVR.
     
    I also much prefer the server-based DVR architecture that Windows Media Center enables.
     
    The OCUR situation is indeed a real hassle.  I look forward to hearing how your QAM experiments work out.  I have dabbled with that some in the past, but always concluded that the ecosystem was too immature for this to be viable.
     
    I understand that one potentially significant downside of QAM is that none of the "extra" cable channels are available on it.  I believe that only the over-the-air channels are available on QAM–no ESPN, Discovery Channel, History Channel, OLN, etc.
     
    Unfortunately, DRM is really impeding progress in the HD problem space in the industry.

  2. I spent a few weekends putting a large antenna in my attic and then running coax down to my Windows Vista Ultimate computer.  It does a good job of picking up the local HD channels, so these are recorded in HD and I can watch them on my Xbox 360.
     
    Back when I got this all set up, the over-the-air HD signal was too flaky for this to be a reliable setup.  So I broke down and got the DirecTV HD DVR.  It works great, but it is a little loud, even when "off".
     
    Now, however, the over-the-air HD signals seem better.  I heard that broadcasters are starting to increase the power as they move towards digial-only in 2009, but I don\’t know if that is it.  Anyway, since the over-the-air signal has less compression than the satellite feed it looks better, so I usually watch local shows through my Xbox 360 streamed from Vista.
     
    My wife just wonders why TV is so complicated now.

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