I began writing this post back in April, and haven’t gotten around to finishing it until just now. This chronicles the saga of my new home entertainment system.
After months of preparations, planning, payments, and patiently waiting for a backordered component to arrive, I have my new condo-wide DVR replacement installed and working.
As a baseline, before this I had an HD DVR from Comcast in the living room and a standard-def set-top-box in the bedroom. Basically that meant we could only watch recorded TV in the living room (or pause live TV, or set new recordings there), and the bedroom could only display the standard-def channels (I was unwilling to pay the extra $8/month or so for Comcast to give us a HD box). Also, the living room DVR was constantly filling up due to its limited capacity, and because it only had two tuners we were frequently annoyed by being forced to change channels when we shouldn’t have had to, such as when one recording was ending and another was beginning but there was the tiniest bit of overlap.
The end result of the new system is, in my opinion, well worth it, in spite of the hefty price tag. Here is a rundown of what I have now compared to what I had before:
- High-definition TV simultaneously for both the living room and the bedroom.
- A centralized DVR that’s accessible from the living room and bedroom, so that recordings are set and shared on a common guide between both rooms (and we can do things like pause a show in one room and resume it in the other).
- A sleek, high-def interface that is far sexier than Comcast’s boilerplate standard-def interface, with no space in the guide wasted by ads, or any of those new, annoying popup ads that have been appearing during commercials.
- Ability to watch/record up to four simultaneous channels between the two rooms. (Comcast DVR handled only 2 streams.)
- Ability to skip commercials automatically on recorded TV. (It’s hit-and-miss technology but effective for the most part, and awesome when it works.)
- A drive that can hold about 180 hours of HD television, and over 4 times that amount standard-def. (Comcast DVR held about 20 hours of HD.)
- As far as Comcast is concerned, it’s only a single outlet with zero hardware rental fees.
- Only major downside is no access to On Demand, Comcast’s interactive TV service.
Comparison with other options:
- Multiple Comcast DVRs: High-def DVRs for both rooms would have been hella expensive, and we wouldn’t have been able to share recordings between the two rooms, switch what room we were watching TV in, etc. Only real plus is that this includes On Demand for quick access to a rotating library of shows and movies. Cost: about $32/month.
- Multiple TiVos: Even more expensive (either in monthly fees or in lifetime purchase, as well as the cost of renting a second CableCARD/outlet fee from Comcast), and I’d have the same two-tuner limit as the current DVR. It would be possible to transfer TV shows between them, but inconvenient to do so, without the same shared guide prinicple. No On Demand. Cost: $600 + about $42/month, or $800 + about $12/month.
- Moxi: This is a lot closer to what I was looking for in terms of functionality and very nearly won, although for the price and the target demographic (nerds like myself) I really felt it should have offered more. The fact that it runs Netflix only if you have a separate server running 24/7, for example, is a big cop-out, and I was sceptical about their “Emmy-award winning” guide that online reviews have not been as kind to. At the end of the day I decided I didn’t want to pay that kind of money just to be locked into another vendor platform. No On Demand. Cost: $800, no monthly fee.
In the end I decided to go whole-hog and roll my own system, building my own computer (first time!) from the ground up. I purchased the Ceton 4-stream tuner card, which was expensive at $400 but would save me from ever having to pay CableCARD rental or additional outlet fees since it could handle 4 streams in a single card.
The Ceton card had certain other implications: I would have to build a Windows machine and use Windows Media Center as my DVR software, since (at the time of this writing) that is the only compatible option. I had no qualms about this based upon everything I read online, though: other options such as XBMC, MythTV, etc. are all great for hobbyists and tinkerers who want to be free of the shackles of Windows, etc. but for someone who just wants a great user experience without all the heavy lifting, WMC is the way to go, and what I would recommend in a heartbeat to anyone else looking for a similar solution.
The setup with such systems is that you have a main computer somewhere that acts as the centralized TV processor and DVR, and then one or more Extenders anywhere else in the home you want to access the TV and DVR. The Extender is like a dumb terminal that has everything streamed to it from over the network, including the guide and live television. So in my case it would be main HTPC in the living room, and Extender in the bedroom. At the time of this writing, most Extenders that are compatible with WMC have been discontinued and do not receive much in the way of support or updates except for one: the XBox 360.
This became the greatest source of concern, because the XBox 360 is a closed platform. If I didn’t like something about how the DVR or remote control in the living room worked it should be easy enough to tweak the remote control’s settings in Windows. That wouldn’t be possible on the XBox 360: there are fewer remotes to choose from, and however they function out of the box would basically be what I was stuck with. I didn’t want a user experience that felt inferior to what I could get with the Comcast remote control. For example, the Comcast remote could skip ahead 30 seconds with the press of a button (although I had to go online to figure out how to enable it). Would the XBox 360 remote have a similar feature? If not, there probably wasn’t a way I would be able to configure it to have one. Online discussion forums seemed woefully neglectful when it came to this kind of subject, but I will address it later in this post.
Here’s the rundown of what I purchased initially (approximate prices):
- Silverstone SG02 MicroATX chassis – $75 – This seemed like the best compromise between footprint, elegance and features for what I wanted to build. I decided I wanted 2 external 5.25″ bays for both an IR receiver/display and a CD drive, and 2 internal 3.5″ bays so I could have both a huge hard drive to record TV on and a small solid-state drive for the operating system to run super-fast.
- 3 SilenX 80mm fans – $36 – To replace and augment the existing single fan in the chassis. I probably did not need all three of these, but at the price point I figured it didn’t hurt and was better than the cost of running too hot.
- Intel Core i3 550 3.2 GHz processor – $125 – This seemed the best bang-for-the-buck at the time, low power-consumption without requiring a separate graphics card. A DVR HTPC doesn’t need a lot of processing power (Ceton requires 2.0 GHz and recommends 2.7 GHz): at most it is decompressing a single stream to display on the TV; the other ones are either getting written directly to the hard drive or streamed to the extender without any additional processing required. I may occasionally use it for things like playing old games in emulation as well, but 3.2 GHz is still plenty for that kind of thing.
- ASRock H55M/USB3 motherboard – $89 – I don’t know a lot about motherboards so I basically went by reviews on Newegg while making sure it matched my space requirements (MicroATX form factor), supported the CPU I had selected, and had an HDMI-out port for the television. No complaints so far.
- 4GB of RAM in 2x 2GB sticks – $45 – Details aren’t really important here; I just went by price and reviews on Newegg.
- Zumax 400W power supply – $25 – I picked this off the shelf from Fry’s after the OCZ 500W modular power supply I ordered was defective (made a churning noise). 500W was overkill but I wanted the modular feature to reduce the wiring in my device… it turned out that this was really unnecessary and the space savings were minimal at best. Even 400W is still overkill for this kind of system, but the price was right and it had SATA cables for two out of three of my drives (for the third I used an adapter that came with it).
- Antec VERIS Multimedia Station Elite – $61 – This nifty little piece of hardware goes into one of the 5.25″ bays in the case and acts as both an infrared receiver for the remote and fancy LED display that you would expect to see on a device like this. There are not a lot of competitors to this product, which made it an easy choice. It comes with a super-cool looking remote that turned out to be insufficient (explained later). If I didn’t care about having a display on the front of the case I could have purchased a remote that had a USB infrared receiver, although that would have broken the appliance-like nature of this computer.
- 60GB OCZ solid-state drive – $115 – This was a splurge, but having a small SSD for the operating system means shorter boot times (even though the intent is to leave the device on 24/7), less heat, noise and power-consumption.
- Hitachi 2TB 7K200 7200 RPM drive – $120 – 2 terrabytes to hold enough recorded TV that I will hopefully never again have to think about how much space is on it or whether I want to record standard-def instead of high-def. Performance is important on these drives, especially if you’re recording multiple shows, so 7200 RPM is recommended over 5400 RPM or the variable-speed “green” drives that are popular. I could have gotten away with 1 TB or 1.5 TB and been fine, but the cost increase to 2 TB was marginal enough that it seemed worthwhile.
- ASUS Blu-Ray burner with LightScribe – $100 – Definitely another splurge as I already have a Blu-Ray player, but I figured it would be neat to be able to burn BluRays (and LightScribe sounds very cool to me). I went through two similar-featured but less-expensive LG burners that were both defective before deciding it wasn’t worth the heartache, and waited until this model was on sale. Steer clear of LG optical drives! This seems to be one area of technology where you truly get what you pay for.
- Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound – $6 – While this CPU was in very little danger of running hot, I’d seen from the reviews that the default cooling compound wasn’t very effective and figured that for $6 it was better safe than sorry.
- Ceton 4-Tuner PC Card – $425 – The expensive but magical little device that would make everything possible. Note that ever since these became more widely supplied the price has dropped to around $300.
- Windows 7 Home Premium operating system – $100 – I actually got this at a substantial discount from the price I’ve listed here through a friend that works at Microsoft, although I won’t list the price here. All versions of Windows 7 includes Windows Media Center, the software that powers the DVR.
- XBox 360 S 4GB – $200 – As with Windows, I was able to get this at a discount from the price I’ve listed. This is the Extender for the bedroom. Didn’t bother with the hard drive (don’t need it; don’t want the noise from it).
In addition to this, I’ve purchased the following:
- Logitech Harmony 300i remote – $40 – It turns out that the remote included with the Antec VERIS, while good for operating a computer, is not so simple or straightforward for operating a DVR. The Logitech remote is pretty inexpensive, feels great and isn’t too complicated.
- Universal Media Remote for the XBox 360 – $20. I’m not crazy about this remote but Elizabeth likes it and it gets the job done. There are a few other options out there as well, but they look to be hit-and-miss.
- Logitech diNovo Mini Keyboard – $80 – It’s impractical to run a device like this entirely in the absence of a keyboard and mouse. The diNovo Mini is sleek and stylish and gets the job done without the constant presence of a full-sized keyboard/mouse cramping the living room. Note that these are normally $150 but every now and then Logitech puts up some heavily discounted “dented box” stock on their website. The VisionTek Candyboard is a popular, less-expensive alternative. (A USB keyboard and mouse are still necessary during the initial installation phase.)
All-in cost: about $1,400, no monthly equipment fees (from Comcast, TiVo or anyone).
One thing you might notice is that I don’t mention any wireless networking components. Last year I wired my condo up with Ethernet cables to all major parts of it, and I am now running a Gigabit network enabling extremely fast communication between devices. Wired is really the best way to go with this sort of setup to make it reliable as possible. You can go wireless as well, and you sort of take your chances with the consistency of the signal strength, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.
It took me several hours to assemble everything. Parts of it were trickier than others… for example, you have to put a scary amount of pressure on the CPU case lever to secure it to the motherboard. I’d also never applied thermal compound to a CPU before, and there are far too many different opinions and videos out there as to how you should do so. Cable management in the relatively small chassis is also a real hassle… I can’t imagine how I would have managed a Mini-ITX chassis had I opted for the super-small form factor.
At the end of the day I was able to get Windows 7 installed and everything working pretty smoothly. The system has exceeded my expectations in most regards, and delivered on all of its promises. We get full HDTV and DVR capabilities in the bedroom as though we had our own set-top box in there. The Windows Media Center software is far more sexy than anything else out there… it looks and feels great. There are a few issues:
- Unsurprisingly, things crash from time-to-time. It’s not perfect. Some of this may be due to elements like the commercial-skipping software that runs in the background; it’s possible that a vanilla installation of Windows 7 without any of the bonus features wouldn’t have these problems.
- Speaking of commercial skipping: the software to do this comes in several parts and is fairly complicated to install and set up. It’s great when it works and annoying as hell when it doesn’t. It can be toggled on and off with the channel up/down buttons, though, on both the main HTPC and the XBox extender.
- The Media Center great and reliable at performing its built-in functions, but extensions tend to be hit-and-miss. For example, we can watch Netflix and Hulu with PlayOn software (another $60 for a lifetime license), but the Media Center integration options tend to be buggy. Sometimes (although infrequently) it will just crash, and you need to restart Media Center.
- Likewise, I’ve used the main PC to play old Super Nintendo games with an emulator and my Playstation 3 controller. But the Media Center integration is buggy and problematic, especially when it comes to audio. You might be able to get by with a remote control alone if all you are doing is watching TV, but if you’re doing other things like gaming or using premium video services you really do need a keyboard/mouse on hand.
- There are a couple of issues that arise out of the power-saving features. For example, if the system goes to sleep and wakes up, audio through the HDMI connection stops working until I play a live or recorded TV show. This is acceptable most of the time, but annoying if I’m trying to do something like Netflix or gaming.
- Similarly, the hard drive has a power/disk-saving feature that, whenever it goes to sleep, causes it to take a good ten seconds or so to start watching TV or a recording again while it is spinning up. This and the audio issue could probably be fixed if I just disabled all power-saving features, but I am reluctant to do so.
None of these details are enough to make me regret my purchase. Having the centralized, networked system with dumb terminals is great… especially as a software engineer, it’s bothered me how antiquated Comcast and TiVo are… this is how a modern system should be.