Nearly a year ago, I got pretty excited about the Silicon HDHomeRun Prime that was coming to market. It came with the promise of ending cable box rental fees... fees that have totaled over $2000 in the last years that I've enjoyed the wonders of DVR.
Here's how it works. You buy a SiliconDust HD HomeRun Prime and hook it up to a computer running Windows 7, and ask your cable company for a CabeleCard. Put the CableCard in the Prime, configure some software in Windows Media Center and connect the HDMI out from the computer to your television and enjoy a DVR with the ability to record three shows for nothing. That's nothing if your cable company gives you a CableCard for free as Comcast does for me. Other companies charge a small fee, but it's much less than renting the full HD cable box. To make it all look nice, I suggest you find a Dell ZinoHD on Ebay or Craigslist. Dell discontinued it, so it may be tough to find. If you have difficulties, you can find alternatives searching for Home theater PC a HTPC.
You might want to add a remote like the one I have - it is great except for the glaring lack of a previous channel button for flipping between two sporting events. (You can't see me, but I'm shaking my fist in mock rage - except it's not entirely mock.)
Having used this set-up for 6 months, I feel it is time to review it from a practical perspective rather than a theoretical one. It's great if it saves money, but if it's a hassle is really worth it? Let's start with the bad news first:
Unless you have someone in your family who is fairly good technology, it's not the best idea for a primary television. At the core of the system is a Windows computer. Even though they are more reliable nowadays, it is a complex system and complex systems lose reliability. About once a week, I wake up to a television with no sound. This is easily fixed by killing the Windows Media Center process and restarting it, something that takes about a 30 seconds. However, with a cable box you don't have this issue. About a half dozen times I've got stuck with a black screen. The only way out of it was to ctrl+alt+del, open up the Task Manager and kill the process. It's easy when you know what to expect of it. These minor technical issues and the fact that if your computer crashes you lose your TV (though we have a couple of Windows 7 laptops that could get us up and watching in a couple of minutes in a catastrophe), are key reasons why it isn't for everyone yet.
With the bad out of the way, let's get to the good. With three tuners we can record three shows at a time or watch one live while recording two more. My wife likes her talent/reality shows and I like sitcoms, so we often have a need to record a few shows in a competitive time slot. Comcast's box was limited to recoding two at a time or watching one and taping one. Comcast's box was limited to a 500GB hard drive that filled up very quickly with a dozen HDTV shows. I have a 1TB hard drive with Windows Media Center and it seems to be much better at compressing them as I have a dozens of HDTV shows and movies. I have the whole season of American Idol and those are 2 hours each. With Comcast, I had to DVR everything in standard definition, but with Windows Media Center, everything is HD. I haven't watched standard definition in months.
Besides the hardware advantages of having a full computer power my television, there are software advantages as well. The Windows Media Center guide is extremely fast in scrolling through program. Having a full computer gives me quick access to Netflix, HBOGo, MLB.TV, and Amazon Instant play. The MLB.TV subscription is $60 cheaper than the one through the cable company and I can watch it on a smartphone or while traveling.
Finally, I can use the "record to DVD button" and archive anything that I want for the future. (Note: this may be restricted for some shows and channels, HBO ones come to mind.) In theory, I should be able to access my shows on the road like Slingbox allows, through a free program called Remote Potato. While it works for most people, I seem to be in the minority where the program crashes. It's disappointing, but for extra functionality it isn't bad.
In the end, I think the minor technical glitches are well worth the upgrade in functionality. The price savings help, but it will be a few years before the whole set-up is paid for (I went with a more expensive $500+ computer in addition to the Silicon HD hardware). From a pure pricing perspective, this solution isn't a quick win for your wallet.
My expectation is that over time a company will realize the opportunity here and offer a pitch to consumers to offer them this increased functionality without the glitches at a price that will save them money over the long-haul. Such a company will be able to worm its way to millions of consumers' living rooms effectively creating a platform similar to how the iPod revolutionized Apple. The device's ubiquity could allow it to make direct deals with content providers effectively cutting out the cable companies...
... but that's a whole different article for another day.
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