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Six Months with a Windows Media Center DVR (No Cable Equipment Rental Fees! Woohoo!)

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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.

Posted on May 11, 2012.

This post deals with: ... and focuses on:

Spending

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9 Responses to “Six Months with a Windows Media Center DVR (No Cable Equipment Rental Fees! Woohoo!)”

  1. Steve says:

    Based partially on your earlier posts, I have been pursuing a WMC-based DVR as well. Unfortunately, I started the project with an used computer I got free from work, which wasn’t even worth what I paid for it. I have slowly been replacing components hoping to make it finally run without crashing, but at some point I’m going to get stuck when I reach the video card. Our TV is even older than the computer and doesn’t have HDMI input. And I am loathe to replace a perfectly good TV just because my media center doesn’t support it. :P

    • Lazy Man says:

      Steve,

      You earn some major frugal points with that post. Fortunately, the price of new televisions keep dropping, so when that TV goes, you’ll be able to get something pretty good for not a lot of money.

  2. Steve says:

    LM,
    Yes, that is one of the reasons I don’t want to replace a working TV. Every year I wait, new TV’s get bigger, cheaper, and use less energy while having brighter colors and blacker blacks!

  3. […] Man Lazy Man and Money Six Months with a Windows Media Center DVR (No Cable Equipment Rental Fees! Woohoo!) Interesting review of a Windows-based recording system: “Nearly a year ago, I got pretty […]

  4. Gary says:

    There is an exciting new home media/DVR product for 2012 called the Ceton Q: http://cetoncorp.com/products/ceton_q/

    Its a 6 tuner HD DVR, internet tv and blue-ray player all in one. Pricing not set. Individual control apps are being developed for the major phone/tablet systems including apple and android. Check out the video! I have no affiliation with this company. My fear is that the price point will be excessive.

    I’m not totally cutting the cable yet, but working towards that goal. OTA hdtv, the cheapest solution, is not practical from my rural location so internet tv was my next best option.

    For my future media center I setup a powerline 500 network (LAN = local area network) which works great. I got a great deal, 2 plugin adapters for $50 so I bought 2 sets giving me “wired” networking through the electric lines in 4 locations. After plugging in the 4 adapters, they linked and presto!.. a network is born. To maximize network speeds for HDTV/video, I upgraded my basic router with a refurbished gigabit wireless N router from Amazon. Otherwise I would have been limited to fast ethernet speeds which is inadequate for HD recording or playback. So an ethernet cable ties my pc to the router, then another goes to a powerline adapter, putting my P4 desktop pc on my new LAN.

    Next, I bought a refurbished ROKU through WOOT and tied into my ethernet to a powerline adapter in a different room. ROKU is good, but its a step back extended cable. To get the most from ROKU, one needs to pay for Netflix, Huluplus or Amazon Prime. My wifi from the wireless N allows me to research and setup private channels or pay channels in that room. Scratch one cable box!

    Next, after talking with a computer guy, I bought a gigibit switch and set it up adjacent to our main tv and cable dvr box. This allows me to setup my own decoder box and dvr when I am ready.

    So I am looking at both Linux and Windows for a media center pc. Linux requires much less hardware, but I’m not familiar with it and there can be issues with a lack of drivers. Without local tech support, it may not be viable.

    On the other hand, a fast power hungry advanced Windows 7 pc with an upgraded graphics card easily cost $500 or more. Its hard to justify that expense.

    • Lazy Man says:

      That is exciting, but the pricing not set is fairly scary. I tried Ceton’s USB CableCard DVR and it didn’t work for me. They couldn’t troubleshoot it asked me to just send it back. The system that I set up with a Dell Zino (sadly, discontinued) and an HD HomeRun Prime does the trick for me. It clearly doesn’t look as slick though. If you can find a used one, you can probably stay under $500. That’s around the price I paid and it is a quad-core AMD processor with I think 6GB or 8GB of memory.

      I’d like to see what is powering the Ceton Q under the hood. It looks to be a Windows Media Center for software and a 2TB hard drive, but I’d like to know what it has for a processor, expansion ports, and how locked down it is. You can watch MLB.TV on in Windows Media Center, so I need the ability to just pull up a web browser and use it like a regular computer. If it does all that, then it duplicates my set-up (my Dell Zino has a Blu-Ray).

      There are iOS and Android apps like Couch Potato for controlling and watching it separately, but it doesn’t work on my system. I don’t know if it’s just buggy software or if my system has something unexpected, but there’s no helpful support for it.

      Good job getting the most of the Roku. Are you paying for the Prime, HuluPlus, and Netflix each month, because that’s something like $20-25 right?

      • Gary says:

        For now, I’m using Amazon Prime because we already had it. Its a great place to buy many different things. I just watched MI3 via the ROKU and Amazon Prime. I will go for Netflix with a 1 month trial when I feel a need. Bloomberg is espescially good via the internet since they give you an option for bandwidth. The quirks are paying for some access, and ads for others.

        At present the frontrunner for my DVR is what you chose, Homerun Prime, but I’m still researching other options and the ideal pc. I’d like to get that new WIFI 802.11ac and USB 3.0 on my new computer, but the cost may deter me. I really don’t like Windows 8, so I’ll have to move before Windows 7 is discarded by Microsoft.

  5. Gary says:

    Well, I’ve taken the next step by ordering the Silicone Dust HDHR3. I could not resist jumping on this for under $140. Now I’m looking into cable cards since I’m not getting rid of Brighthouse Networks, just creating my own DVR.

    It will cost $3/mo to rent a Scientific Atlanta/Cisco cablecard M-card. I can buy one on Ebay but wonder if I’ll have trouble getting activation and I don’t want to buy one thats “hot”. The SDV tuning adapter I’ll also need is free. After that I’ll need a duo or quad core Windows 7 pc @2.2ghz or faster with 4gb ram minimum, hdmi and about a 500gb hdd.

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