Bill and I are both upgrading our computer desktops soon to 27” iMacs. I already have a decent desktop (Windows machine) and I’d thought that when we got around to upgrading I’d use my current desktop as a supercharged DVR/Media Center. I’d been a fan of the Windows Media Center for years, though in recent years when the digital transition rendered the TV card in my machine useless, inertia kept me from jumping through any hoops I’d need to keep the TV card working.
But for the past year or so I’d been thinking when we upgraded, I’d get a Ceton four tuner card and slap it in the current desktop, get a CableCard from Comcast and hook the desktop up directly to my TV. For years I’d considered going with an in-computer tuner with a CableCard, but until Ceton came along with its four tuner from one multistream CableCard, it wasn’t really practical.
I Hate IR Blasters
The reason I was so enamored with the CableCard approach has nothing to do with CableCards and everything to do with not wanting to have to have a set top box hooked up to my Computer that required an IR blaster to change the channels on the set top box. I had years long experience with TiVo in the late 1990s and early 2000s which soured me on having any kind of an IR blaster. Because sometimes when it was supposed to “record channel 228 at 8pm” it recorded channel 22 at 8pm or channel 28 at 8pm. Mostly it worked, but when it didn’t…so annoying! CableCards eliminate the need for any set top box or any IR blasting. There is a big downside though.
Current CableCard technology does NOT support On Demand, and even with a four Tuner DVR and practically unlimited storage, I’m not ready to give up On Demand. It’s way too convenient. Also, while I still don’t yet get BBC America in HD, Doctor Who does show up in HD in the On Demand. Instead, I downgraded my Comcast HD DVR to just a regular Comcast HD set top box without the DVR, and I’ll use that for On Demand.
The Ceton InfitiTV 4
This is the card I slapped into my old Windows desktop. It’s not cheap at $399, but on the other hand a TiVo Premiere XL costs $300 with either a $20/mo monthly service fee for the program guide or a $500 lifetime program guide subscription. Media Center doesn’t charge anything for the program guide and while we can speculate on how long that Microsoft subsidy will last, it has lasted at least 7 years so far. I’m not saying the TiVo is a bad deal, but if you have a decent spare desktop with 3TB of storage already lying around, I like the Ceton option better.
Factoring out the 2 hours it took me to realize that Ceton and Norton’s security suite don’t play nicely together, installation was a breeze that took about 10 minutes. I could’ve jumped through all kinds of hoops to get Norton to play nicely with the Ceton card, but instead uninstalled Norton (which Comcast provides with its broadband package) and installed Microsoft Security Essentials (free for Windows users) which plays nicely with the Ceton card by default.
Once I’d bypassed Norton, the setup was a breeze, and Media Center was ready to go within minutes. The card works exactly as advertised. I can record four HD programs at the same time. Or I can record three HD programs at the same time and still be able to channel surf. It just works.
Another Benefit: Extra Time Compression
I love time shifting, and I love time compression even more. I don’t skip the commercials because I hate them, I skip them to save the time they take. But one of the things I like about Media Center is that its first fast-forward setting is about 1.3X and audio is not disabled in this mode. Some Blu ray and DVD players do this too (my PS3 does), and for all I know TiVo does at this point. My Comcast DVR didn't.
Sure, the pitch is higher, but it’s much closer to normal than to Alvin and the Chipmunks, and for most things it is very watchable. There are some exceptions, but with the amount of TV I wind up watching, particularly for daily favorites like Pardon the Interruption, it’s nice to shave out the commercial time and 30% extra. Note: I have found it doesn’t work so well with Around the Horn. The panelists mostly talk so fast to begin with that speeding them up by 30% makes them very hard to understand. No problem with Wilbon and Kornheiser though.
Harmony and Me, Pretty Good Company
It’d been a while since I’d had a decent universal remote control (just inertia, mostly) but at the same time I ordered the Ceton card, I ordered a Logitech Harmony One universal remote. I’m extremely happy with it. Sure, I like replacing several remotes, and I like that I can hit a button and have everything working at once, but mostly I find it’s just a well-designed and easy to use remote. After programing in the IR device to control the Media Center, finding the right buttons for automatic 30 second skip forward and 6 second skip backwards was easy.
Plus, I never really figured out how to program the 6 second rewind well for the Comcast DVR's remote. But before downgrading to no DVR with Comcast, I used the Harmony One to control my Comcast DVR for a for a few days and it automatically programmed the 30 second skip and 6 second rewind, and its buttons for that make way more sense than anything I could do on Comcast's remote.
I don't honestly use the color touch screen much, but the backlit buttons come in handy when you're watching TV in the dark (they don't come on unless the remote is moved).
The charge lasts surprisingly long (I've gone over a week between recharges)
The Only Thing Left to Upgrade is My TV
My 61" Samsung DLP is nearly 8 years old. Last year the lamp blew out and I was worried it was something bigger, but it was just a lamp and the replacement is going strong. I don't care about an of the 3D tech, and I don't need Internet connectivity since I can use that through the gaming consoles. I am quite enamored with the LED technology and a new TV would have better inputs (the Samsung's inputs are pretty finicky), but the Samsung still works fine, and I'm happy with the picture quality. I could see going at least another year with the Samsung unless the LED tech in the 27" iMac is so good that it causes me to not be able to stand not having an LED TV.