DVR Full of Awesome

october 9, 2010

Windows Media Center


So, last week, our DVR from Dish Network broke and I said my goodbyes to a bunch of TV characters as we bid satellite TV adieu. Last Thursday, Dick from Dick's Antenna visited us and put up what looks like a rectangular BBQ grill on our chimney. Then wham, we got 69 of 75 available channels in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sure, we didn't have the extra channels like USA Network or Food Network, but locals were good enough. There was one thing missing though: DVR.

This should ring true to any parent: There are no "Appointment TV" shows, you watch when you have time (ie. when the kids are asleep). So, a DVR was sorely missed. I did some research a while back when we were already thinking about dropping Dish Network and came up with three viable OTA HDTV DVRs:
The Channel Master CM-7000PAL was actually a really nice option when I saw it. A full DVR without any recurring monthly costs like the TiVo. You pick up the $350 box, plug it in and there was a DVR. There are some limitations to the DVR though, it only uses programming information that is broadcast over-the-air, which I guess is OK. The DVR does not do name-based scheduling like a TiVo or Windows Media Center: It schedules like old skool VCRs, yea, those things that used tapes and stuff. What you did was find your show, say "Chuck" that shows on NBC on Mondays at 8pm. You set that time slot for that channel to record. The DVR records then and there only, not based on name, but based on time+channel. So, if your show moves, you will have to manually change the timer. But, here is the thing that killed the CM-7000PAL idea: It is a rebranded Dish Network DTVPal HDTV DVR. Ugh, after going through three Dish Network DVRs, I was not going to buy another one. Dish Network DVRs are terribly unreliable, especially when they get hot -- and this seems to be a constant problem with them. All of our DVRs died during the summer -- the lasted just a bit over 12 months before it died.

Since were were thinking about getting rid of satellite for the sheer fact that we wanted to save on monthly fees, the $9-20 monthly TiVo fee really wiped it from consideration.  To get the $9/mo, one has to pay for not only for the TiVo box, but also for three years of service upfront -- at the time of writing this, the total would be just $2 shy of $600. TiVo also offers a "lifetime" subscription which is an upfront cost of $399 plus the cost of the TiVo box, so almost $700. Kind of expensive. Sure, the TiVo has a lot of extras like Netflix and Amazon. But, I have a Roku box already and that provides these services.

The HTPC thing was interesting, but I did not want to add a computer next to the TV. Then a buddy (looking at you Bjornar) told me about his Windows Media Center setup that used his Xbox 360 as an extender. So, I did a bunch of research and here is how our new DVR is setup: How's it work? Awesome. Say what you might about Microsoft Windows, all I know is that Windows Media Center is full of awesome. Since Windows Media Center comes with all flavors Windows 7, I just reinstalled Windows 7 on the netbook and then installed the Silicondust software for the HDHomeRun. Windows Media Center instantly detected the tuner and got everything going with a few clicks.

The interface for Windows Media Center is really beautiful and easy to use. It is snappy, even over the network. After using the bland interface from the Dish Network DVRs for so many years, it is a nice to have something with lots of eye-candy. (See some screenshots and videos of Windows 7 Media Center here at Engadget).  The Engadget review encompasses all of thing wonder things that I have rumbling in my head about Windows Media Center.

One nice thing that I found is that all decoding and rendering of video and interface is done at the Extender -- and not done by the Windows Media Center server. That is why I am able to get away with using the low speed (and low power consumption) Atom N280 netbook as my Windows Media Center server. The other thing I found and want to note is that using "Away Mode" on the server in essence turns off the monitor and leaves the rest of the computer running 24x7. That is not very good for power saving. So, I use S3 Suspend (ie "Sleep") instead. Windows Media Center is able to wake the computer when it needs to do updates or record a show. Setting a fixed IP address and turning on Wake-on-Lan allows my Xbox 360 to wake-up the computer when I want to watch something.

With the 320GB harddrive, I am able to record 220 hours in SDTV or 33 hours in HDTV.  That is a whole lot of "good enough". The everything is running wired on a 100Mbps switch and that is more bandwidth than is needed for this setup.

The cost of this setup was significantly lower than the TiVo since there are no monthly fees and also because I had the netbook and Xbox 360 already. But, if done on the cheap, the Windows Media Center setup will still cost less than the "lifetime" TiVo package:
Anyways, we have DVR functionality again and it is fantastic.