Monthly Archives: December 2007

The HD PVR conundrum

I finally gave in to geek pressure and decided to get ourselves a new TV. The gorgeous Samsung LNT4065F. 40″, LCD, 1080p. The TV’s due to arrive later this week or early next, so I thought I’d do some early research to figure out how to get the most out of it.

My current setup is a relatively ancient 27″ Sony flat-tube TV we bought as soon as we moved to Seattle back in ’04, so this is a significant upgrade in terms of screen size (27->40), technology (analog SD tube -> digital HD LCD) and most significantly, resolution (480i -> 1080p).

Our primary use of the TV is to play DVDs (thanks to BlockBuster Online and iTalkies), TV (via our trusty Series 2 Tivo and basic Comcast cable) and an XBox 360 Premium that I stood in line for 8 hours to buy on launch day.

The only HD-capable device on this list is the XBox 360 – capable of doing 1080p games and 1080i movies over component and 1080p movies over VGA. So, this one was easy – I picked up a Xbox VGA cable for cheap that I can use to get upscaled DVD playback and I’m all set of experience movies and gaming at full HD. I thought about getting the XBox HD-DVD player given the great deals we’re seeing on them this holiday season, but figured that it wasn’t wise to invest on either side of the HD format wars till there was a clear winner. Moreover, only some movies are available in HD-DVD and others are in Blu-Ray, so it didn’t make sense to confine myself to a single format till dual-format players become more common down the road.

My DVD player – a Panasonic home-theater-in-a-box from the same bygone era – doesn’t upconvert DVDs to 1080i. I figured I’ll let this one slip and keep my current DVD player, especially since it supports 480p and use the XBox for DVD playback when I really wanted upconverted video.

Cable – this one’s tricky. I don’t have digital cable , so the only HD-channels I can get right now in HD are the local channels through the TV’s built-in QAM tuner. The bigger problem for me, even if I do switch from cable to Satellite or OTA/ATSC, is how to get a PVR solution that supports HD video. The Series2 Tivo that I’ve owned for the past couple of years clearly doesn’t support HD-video of any kind. My significant other is addicted to the Tivo and would immediately disapprove of any solution that involves losing the PVR functionality (I know – I asked!).

So, my options are:

  1. HD Tivo: Luckily for me, Tivo launched it’s HD-capable Series 3 last year. More recently, they launched the scaled down and cheaper HD Tivo. This PVR supports upto 20 hours of recorded HD content from OTA or digital cable (via the CableCard). Sounds perfect, except, that it costs $249 + $12.95/mo. That puts it out of this year’s tech budget!
  2. Media Center PC: As I detailed in a series of earlier posts, I put together a killer quad core PC earlier in the year that runs Vista Ultimate and Windows Media Center. I’ve been using the XBox as a Media Center extender for a few months which works pretty well. So, all I need to do is get a TV tuner that supports HD and I should be all set, right? It turns that life is not that simple. Most HD tuners support decoding only QAM or ATSC signals – i.e. only free-to-air channels can be decoded. There are a handful of TV tuner cards that support CableCard so that digital cable channels can also be decoded, but get this – those cards are only sold integrated into a new PC!!! That’s right – you can’t just buy a CableCard capable decoder and plug it into your PC – you have to buy a cable-industry Certified PC that in their words “would absolutely be able to deliver on the wide range of things that you couldn’t predict with certainty would happen on a home-built PC“. Hmm.. we all know what means -thanks to DRM requirements, there’s no way a home-built PC can use a CableCard tuner right now! So, my HD-MCE dreams end there – even if I wanted to pay ComCast the extra $5 a month for the CableCard!
  3. Comcast’s HD-PVR: Comcast gives^H^H^H^H^H rents an HD-capable PVR (nee DVR) for the low low price of $13.95/mo. This sounds like a good option till you read reviews of the DVR and realize that it’s a piece of cr*p. I’ll pass, and wait till Comcast starts offering Tivo’s which they’ve started doing in some regions already.
  4. Do nothing: The PM in me decided to go with this option for now. As discussed above, all options have significant downsides or costs that do not align with current priorities 🙂 Therefore, I decided to do nothing for now and be content with SD cable programming and the Tivo Series 2 till such a time when the above issues are resolved. Tivo prices are sure to drop in the next few months and Comcast will probably start offering Tivo’s in the Seattle region sometime next year.

So, I’ll just wait a few months till options 1 or 3 above become viable. This is definitely the best option given current realities…

PS: The fall update for the XBox 360 introduced support for viewing Xvid/DivX streaming video. So, a 5th option, of questionable appropriateness is to download err.. place/time-shifted videos from that European site that charges € 1/month. That’s a viable option for viewing the occasionally TV show at 720p as long as € 1 < $13.95 :-)