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Adventures with HTPC

Pete Brown - 07 May 2007

Over the weekend, I seriously looked into what I could do to have a centralized media server in the house and a HTPC setup in the TV room. It turns out, it's a lot more difficult to get a good experience than you would think. Ideally I'd like a full solution that gives me:

  • TV everywhere, including on-demand (currently have this with Comcast). Only viewing one channel at a time across the whole houe is fine for now. 
  • Video on demand (currently have with Comcast)
  • PVR
  • Audio everywhere from ripped CDs and MP3s
  • Streaming radio stations (already have this)
  • DVD movies at the main TV
  • Shared calendars and messaging
  • Dashboard in the kitchen including weather, "bulletin board" messaging, etc. (I can build this myself in WPF if the interfaces are there and the functionality doesn't exist elsewhere)
  • Recipe access in the kitchen
  • Internet access everywhere (I already have this with my wired 100mbit and wireless network, and the 15mbs Verizon FIOS connection)

Nice to haves include:

  • Phone voice mail integrated into the whole system
  • Games at the main TV

I already have a number of servers (this site is running on one), and am in the process of converting them over to racks. The media center functionality I'd like to add looks like this (the IR is a reality based on current conditions, read on):

I spent a while looking at the Media Center features with Vista. That simply wasn't flexible enough, especially when it came to setting up a centralized server to stream the content to the other rooms. At least until Ben gets older, we won't watch TV in more than one room at a time, but I'd like the flexibility of watching in one place, but any place, without having to scatter set top boxes all over the house. I'd eventually like to have integrated phone messaging, message board, weather, calendar, etc. available from various computers around the house in a slick dashboard.

The first real stumbling block was with the centralized streaming. Microsoft Media Center doesn't do that, but the open source .NET project MediaPortal does, and looks very impressive with its full set of features, including a separate streaming/content server.

The next stumbling block, and a potentially fatal one at that, is access to digital cable. Unlike Europe where the DVB-x standards are well understood and open to implementation from a variety of vendors, the US loosely follows the Cable Card standard. The current implementation, Cable Card 1.0, doesn't support two-way communication. Unfortunately that means you can't use two-way features like video on-demand. That's a deal killer for us, as the main thing we watch on TV is the free on-demand anime. If the Anime Network would stream decent video online, or be available via something like NetFlix, that would work. I also considered Microsoft XBox Live, but they don't have much TV content yet, and don't really list what they do have in a way that lets you check it out before shelling out for an XBox 360 (we have the old one, and it is a dud, so we didn't bother with the 360)

The next version of the Cable Card standard (2.0), which has been in dispute for some time now while the companies try to sort out the implementation, supports the bi-directional communication. That solves the on-demand video problem. Unfortunately, and this is a huge issue, CableLabs requires certification of any boxes which will use the CableCard to ensure they correctly follow DRM. That destroys any hope of small mom and pops or people like me creating custom HTPCs. Currently it isn't just a matter of an external PC-connected device being certified; the whole path from cable to display needs the certification.

I also considered going strictly with on-line / Internet TV. That's just not there yet. The free stuff that is out there doesn't have what we want and has terrible quality. Some other potentially free stuff like Joost is as yet unknown. The pay services such as NetFlix, which do offer on-demand, don't have much selection yet as the service is brand new. We have the bandwidth to support good internet TV, but the sources aren't there. Verizon FIOS offers IP TV which is basically DirectTV (or Dish, I forget which). That suffers from the same set top box requirements, though.

The other option is to use an IR Blaster on the media server to send IR commands to the set top box and simply use the video/audio outputs on the set top box and feed those into the streaming server. This allows you to have the server in another room, and have the set top box co-located with it. The server simulates the remote control and changes channels, selects options etc. While that works, it's not an ideal solution as you get stuck with the UI from the set top box, and get none of the richer capabilities you can get with direct digital integration. The channel changing overlays, menus and other bits from the set top box will be what are visible on the screen. You also lose any ability to record one show while watching another, do PiP etc. Nevertheless, if I end up going the media server route, this is likely the way I'll have to go due to where the US is in this technology.

Every time I turn around, it looks like DRM and the MDCA is getting in the way of legally doing things the way I want to. In this case, it's the whole Cable Card bit. It gets tiring. If those were getting in the way of illegal activities only, that would be great. They're not. I'm willing to pay a reasonable amount for the flexibility I want, but I don't want to be stuck with another commercial closed appliance when building PCs and servers is something I like to do.

posted by Pete Brown on Monday, May 7, 2007
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2 comments for “Adventures with HTPC”

  1. Len Raysays:
    <p>Pete,</p><p>Interesting post - by the way, I am pretty sure that Verizon is deploying RF video (analog, digital, and HD) with a IP overlay.  They don't use an RF return (its IP), which is why Verizon and service providers who are deploying IP are trying to fight the cable card requirements (based on MSO DOCIS RF transport) - they are filling for exemptions.</p><p>By the way, I work in the FTTH space and if you can get video over a FTTH network I would jump on that as it doesn't get any better than fiber.</p><p>Len</p>
  2. Jamessays:
    IPTV is a pretty cool invention. Have you managed to have a good look at all the cool internet tv sites out there? i reckon my favourite so far is www.viewmy.tv check it out, i think you'll really like it!


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