“The Future of DVD” Panel and Happy Hour

Posted in Home Theater at 5:39 pm by mike

Join EFF in San Francisco Monday for Discussion on Hollywood vs. Consumers’ Rights

Please join the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) for a panel discussion on “The Future of DVD” at the Varnish Gallery in San Francisco on Monday, November 9, at 5:30pm.

Panelists include Kaleidescape CEO Michael Malcolm, RealNetworks Vice President and General Counsel Bill Way, and EFF Senior Staff Attorney Fred von Lohmann. “The Future of DVD” will examine the legal battles over DVD rentals, ripping, backups, home media servers, and portable media players. These questions surrounding RealDVD, Kaleidescape, and Redbox underscore the continuing struggle between Hollywood, consumers, and innovators over the future of the DVD.

“The Future of DVD” panel is free and open to the public, and includes a hosted bar sponsored by RealNetworks.  For more information or to RSVP please email events@eff.org.

“The Future of DVD” Panel and Happy Hour

Monday, November 9
5:30pm to …

Varnish Gallery
77 Natoma St.
San Francisco, CA


HTPC Config Posted

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 10:26 pm by mike

I’m now keeping a running page of the HTPC configuration.    This is mostly for my own reference so I can remember what I’ve done and I’ll be keeping it up to date as things change.


Windows 7 Installation – Part 1

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 8:48 am by mike

OK, my first hiccup while installing the SSD drive was not having an extra SATA cable!   Solved for $10 (probably $9 more than I needed to spend) with a quick trip to Radio Shack on my wife’s scooter.   Decided to time the installation since I got to figure the SSD will make a significant difference.

Total installation time for Windows 7 Ultimate: 17 miinutes, 30 seconds.   Subtract at least a minute for my typing and pauses.

Unfortunately, it took me twice that time to put the machine back together and get all the cables reconnected.    Digital Cable connectors can be quite problematic at times.

Step #2.   Download latest ATI Catalyst software for the video card.  Windows Update automatically found something, but it didn’t install the full ATI Catalyst system.

That’s as far as I got yesterday.  Family responsibilities cut into my fun and I needed to switch back to Vista to record shows during prime-time.   Copying over the channel and recording settings is going to be the most time consuming part of the project.


Windows 7 Party Pack Arrived

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 3:46 pm by mike

So for no good reason at all, Microsoft sent me a complimentary copy of Windows Ultimate along with a box of party swag (streamers, toys, coupons, bags, etc..). I was actually going to hold off on the upgrade of my HTPC (which is pretty happily running Vista), but with Microsoft’s encouragement, I broke down and used my Amazon coupons to buy a 128G SSD drive.   Went with the CORSAIR P128 after reading this review.   I’ve decided to do a fresh install rather than an upgrade, this way I can simply switch back to booting Vista off the old 1TB drive.   Eventually, I plan to hang that drive off of Buffalo NAS and silencing the HTPC completely, but that will be another project.    In anycase, given that the rebuild of the media center is non-trivial, I’m taking the week off to do the reinstall before the party bond with my new son.

Finally, I’m going to track the whole process here for my own reference, since it’s helpful to know exactly what drivers and software I installed when, and why.    Makes a great reference for my HTPC consulting work.

BTW: Yahoo has upgraded WordPress for me which at first brush looks pretty nice.   I still need to figure out how to leverage FB or Yahoo identity management, so people don’t have to create their own accounts to comment on my site.   If you know how to do this, please drop me a pointer.


Comcast Digital Transition

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 9:28 pm by mike

So it seems Comcast has finally turned off the analog signals for the extended basic channels in San Francisco as I alluded to here.   Since it took over 3 months from the actual announcement, it gave me plenty of time to crawl all the forums and websites to understand exactly what happens from here.    Futhermore, a couple new news items popped up in the meantime which clarified what Comcast and other cable operators are doing.

So I’m currently running Microsoft Media Center on Vista, and I actually don’t experience all the horrid Vista stories you slash.dot readers may be accustomed to.   That said, there still are a number of quirks, but keeping an eye on thegreenbutton W7 posts, I haven’t been convinced that Windows 7 Media Center is going to be much better.

No More Analog Channels

So as Comcast started turning off the analog channels, I started seeing complaints from Media Center as it could no longer record shows on those channels.    Running a channel scan didn’t pick up any of the new channels, which I thought was odd since I knew the digital broadcasts of the extended basic channels are not encrypted (yet).    It turns out that Comcast sets a privacy flag on those channels which VMC respects and thus doesn’t automatically tune the channel.  (Thanks John) Instead, you have to go through a fairly cumbersome process of adding the channel by hand, editing the listing of the channel to merge it with the old analog channel in the guide, and then edit the sources of the channel and disable the analog signal (which is just static at this point).

For those of you who simply bought a TV with a digital tuner, connected your cable to it and found all the channels you paid for the same way your old analog set worked, that should still work, assuming your TV ignores the privacy flag.   If not, I’m told the digital TV tuners provide a similar mechanism to enter the digital channel number.    Unfortunately, Comcast and the other cable providers have received an FCC waiver to encrypt these channels as well.   So eventually everyone will need to either have a full set-top-box, a DTA converter, or a CableCARD compatible tuner.

So it’s unclear when Comcast will start encrypting those channels.   In order to do so, they will need to either replace or upload new firmware to the DTA’s currently distributed to customers.   Supposedly, these devices are designed to be updated in the field,  but I suspect that’s easier said than done, so we may have the unencrypted channels for some time.    That said, the current situation does allow Basic Cable subscribers to get Extended Basic without paying for it, but to do this you need to be pretty savvy (or read this blog, and who does that?).

Tuning Digital Channels

So how do you find the digital channel numbers for the clear QAM extended basic channels that VMC or your TV won’t scan by default?    Well first there’s the hard way.   It turns the new DTA’s deployed by Comcast have a simple diagnostic mode which will tell you the actual frequency and program number the current channel is broadcasting on.  Once you have the frequency, you can either do some math, or look it up on Wikipedia to find the channel number.

Or, you can simply go to SiliconDust, enter your zip code and find a complete listing there.   Make sure you choose the right line up.   After tuning a couple channel using the first method, going to SiliconDust is simply cheating.     SiliconDust is the maker of the HDHomeRun which is a combined DVR/media server solution.  Unfortunately, the value of this product will be greatly reduced when Comcast starts encrypting the extended basic channels.   It will still be able to record all the local broadcast channels, but that’s going to be a much more limited set than what they have today.   I suppose they can always offer a CableCARD version of the product, but their current customer base is probably going to be very unhappy.

Just Install the Damn CableCARD!

So not only would all these headaches go away if I just picked up a couple CableCARDs from Comcast, but I’d also be able to record a slew of new HD channels my VMC box currently doesn’t see.     The problem here is that the current CableCARD firmware incorrectly adds DRM to all recordings, even when not specified by the broadcaster.   This means everything recorded on the HTPC must stay there.   This means my daughter can’t watch Sesame Street on the laptop while I watch football, which is unacceptable.   The DRM also disables the commercial skip capabilities provided by programs such as ShowAnalyzer.  Futhermore, who has time to actually watch the shows when you’re spending so much time hacking the system?  In any case, the CableLabs OCUR (OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver) spec has finally been updated to remove this requirement.    But in order for this to work, a firmware update from ATI is required for the DCT.  I’m hopeful, but I’ve heard this story before.

Update 06.07.2010

So before ATI killed the card, they did release the firmware update.   I’m now happily running Windows 7 with 2 ATI tuners, both with a CableCARD and no DRM.   I’m happily watching on my laptop and skipping commercials.


Concurrent Remote Desktop for Media Center (Vista & W7)

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 9:53 pm by mike

Awfully handy to be able to do administrative work while the wife is watching Law and Order.    Not the most kosher thing WRT Microsoft licensing, but they aren’t sending out C&D letters, and you can find this info on TheGreenButton as well.

I installed the piratebay bittorrent which fixed terminal services after I manually hosed termserv, but this TCP-Z version really did the trick.


Vista Media Center DRM woes

Posted in Home Theater at 3:52 am by mike

So prior to switching to VMC, I was using a Replay 5000 to record TV shows, along with a very cool Java program called DVArchive which would download the TV’s to my PC.   I’d then copy them to a portable drive and watch them on my train ride home using VLC.    I was assuming I could do the same with recordings from VMC, but unfortunately I found that life was not that simple.

CableCARD fun

Now when I started this project, I knew I wanted digital capture cards rather than analog (which the Replay 4000 is using) primary to get better quality.    The high-end digital capture cards are now all CableCARD ready, which I thought I would need to capture a digital signal.   It turns out there are a couple things you should know about CableCARDs:

  1. If you’re not interested in recording HBO or any other premium channels you DO NOT need a CableCARD.   Comcast currently broadcasts about 80 channels in analog signal which the ATI DCT will pick up just fine.    Comcast is currently threating to stop broadcasting these channels and convert everything to digital.   Still waiting for that to happen and see what the DCT can pick up once that’s complete.
  2. Once a CableCARD is installed, ALL RECORDED CONTENT WILL BE ENCRYPTED!   That means that any show recorded through the CableCARD will only play back on the PC which recorded it.   Quite a bummer for the mobile solution.
  3. Comcast charges $8 for the first card, and $3 for the next one, so multiple DCTs in the same box don’t kill you, but it will add up after a couple years…

So currently, I don’t have any CableCARDs installed, I receive 80 analog channels and 15 digital HD channels.  The broadcast format for those channels is called Clear QAM since they are not encrypted. I believe they match what’s freely broadcast in the area.   Unfortunately, there’s more DRM hiding in the mix.

Microsoft’s new WTV Format

It turns out that both analog and digital broadcasts can include a “copy protection bit” which also prevents the recording from being watched on another PC.    Here’s where things get interesting.   This copy protection bit was ignored by VMC until TV Pack 2008 was released.    With this update, files are now recorded in WTV format rather than the DVR-MS format which was previously used (this is the default for Windows 7 MC as well).   So not only are many of the recordings copy protected, but all the slick plugin utilities such as ShowAnalyzer and Comskip only understand the DVR-MS format.   Even though Windows 7 includes a wtv2dvrms converter, and one is available with the DVRMSToolbox, neither will work on copy protected or CableCARD encrypted files.

So far the shows I’ve found to have the copy protection bit have been somewhat random.   House, Southland and Breaking Bad (all from different networks) have been consistently protected, while other HD shows have not.

So what now?

So luckily, I didn’t sell my Replay TV yet, so I can still get all the offline shows I want there.    If Comcast does turn off all analog signals, which they are threating to do, then I’ll need to set up their free DTA with an IR blaster.    I could replicate this same setup on my VMC, but then why have the digital capture cards in the first place?    The interesting question is whether Comcast will encrypt all digital channels when they finally turn off analog or will channels 35-80 be broadcast in Clear QAM?   Check out number 31 on this FAQ which implies they will.   You can see more of my rant on thegreenbutton along with some comments from Fred Von Loman of the EFF.

The bottom line is, no one at Comcast can give a straight answer, so we just won’t know until it happens.   I’m sure I’ll be back ranting at that time.



Home Theater Upgrade

Posted in Home Theater at 8:44 pm by mike

This February I decided to take on the Home Theater upgrade project.    I installed the 60″ Pioneer Elite Pro-140 Monitor (fantastic) along with Elite SC-07 (somewhat disappointing) in time for the Superbowl.    Then I added a Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater™ Entertainment System with Vista Media Center (Duo E8500, 4G, 2 ATI DCTs, BD Burner).    Between setting all this up, pulling all the wiring through the walls, and mucking with VMC plugins and extras, it’s no wonder I haven’t had time to write anything up until now.    So now that I’m sitting at my mother-in-law’s in Vegas, borrowing wireless from the neighbor, I figured I’d outline the topics I’d like to cover in future posts in the hope that I can save someone else some time and money.   Here are the summaries:

I’m not 100% happy with the SC-07 and had planned to write a searing review.   Lately, I’m growing to like the sound, but the Home Media function on mine is completely broken, and I just don’t want to tear it out right now to take it into the dealer, since I can listen to Internet Radio via the VMC box.  I eventually will before my warranty is up with the hope something good will come out of it.  The bottom line is you can probably get more bang-for-the-buck with the equivalent Denon.   Check out the review at Audioholics.  On the otherhand, now that the price has dropped to $1099, it might be worth reconsidering.   Still waiting to find that great 7.1 movie soundtrack to work the whole system.

Can’t say enough about this Plasma monitor.   The picture is amazing, and I believe it’s basically the best 60″ picture money can buy right now (for < 10K anyways).  Of course, Pioneer has stopped production.   You may be able to find better value Plasmas out there, but don’t believe any of the LCD BS about glare vs blacks.   There is no noticeable glare problem with this screen and you’re going to get a better picture on plasma with no LCD speed artifacts.  Note I purchased both the monitor and receiver together from Gear4Less on EBay.  Very happy with their delivery, price and customer service.

Price/performance, Velocity Micro is by far the leader in Media Center PCs.   Their support team was very good even though I ran into some pretty obsure issues.   There are a couple things I think they could do to improve the product without vastly increasing the price.

These guys are just unbeatable when it comes to quality and price.   There’s nothing I hate more than having to go to Best Buy and fork out $30 for a 15ft ethernet cable.  A 100ft CAT 6 cable at Monoprice will set you back $10.   I ended up buying some HDMI cables at Tarten, because Monoprice was out of the lengths I wanted.  Monoprice also has speaker stands, wall plates and wall mounts.   Check them for anything before buying elsewhere.

After being a ReplayTV user for years, I was pretty impressed with VMC.   Vista is bearable on a machine this fast, and you MUST have TV Pack 2008 to deal with digital broadcasts in a sane manner.  It’s now a free update from MS, so it’s not that hard to find.   Also, I’m hearing very good things about Windows 7 Media Center, which should have everything built in.   That said, this has been by far the largest timesink battling the DCT cards and DRM issues.   I’ll be covering those in detail in a later post, along with the gory details of adding commercial skip capabilities.    The one thing to know now is you DO NOT need CableCards to recieve 90% of your cable channels.   You only need it if you want to record HBO or other premium channels, and if you do install the CableCard, ALL of your content will be encrypted and only playable on that PC.

That seems like a good starter post for now.  I’m sure I’ll never get around to covering everything I want here.


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