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Last month at the CEDIA EXPO trade show in Atlanta, Microsoft made a major announcement regarding CableCARDs: the company announced that consumers would now be able to install digital cable tuners with CableCARD into their Windows 7 PCs…all by themselves.
At Last! Install Your Own CableCARD-powered TV Tuners
For those of you who don’t use TV tuners in your Windows PC, this news may have flown under your radar a bit. However, it’s actually a rather significant change to the existing rules surrounding the implementations of CableCARDs in Windows PCs.
Back in 2006 when CableCARD tuners first became available for use in home computers, the industry consortium known as CableLabs, the cable industry’s R&D group who licenses the CableCARD specification, decided that they didn’t want consumers to install such tuners on their own. Instead, only pre-approved and pre-certified computers from select OEMs would come with the appropriate tuners installed.
This was clearly a blow for “do-it-yourselfers” who were hoping they could simply upgrade their current machines to take advantage of the new CableCARDs and their related benefits. Specifically, those benefits include access to the full line-up of channels provided by your cable company – even HDTV and premium channels – assuming you have the right subscription.
Now, thanks to the newly announced series of initiatives from Microsoft and CableLabs, anyone can install these CableCARD-powered tuners into their Windows 7 PCs. You don’t have to buy a new PC with the cards already installed.
Will Your PC Support a Digital Cable Tuner with CableCARD?
To see if your PC will support the tuners, a new tool called the “Digital Cable Advisor” is being released by Microsoft which will scan your system and analyze if your computer meets the necessary requirements. If so, then you’ll be able to grab one of the CableCARD-ready tuners (like the popular ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner) and install it in your PC yourself.. Oh, and while you’re at it, you may want to grab a few more because now in Windows 7, you can install as many as four CableCARD TV tuners instead of two, which was all that was supported in Vista. With four tuners, you can record or watch four channels at the same time. That certainly beats what the cable company’s own DVR can handle! Using multiple tuners is a great solution for all the various TV conflicts that occur thanks to the major networks pitting their best programs against each other all on the same night.
To be clear, you’re not really limited to four tuners in Windows 7, you’re limited to four tuners of each type. There are actually three types of TV tuners currently available – analog tuners, digital tuners, and CableCARD tuners. So, if you’d like, you can install the other types of tuners as well in addition to your CableCARD tuners.
The Digital Cable Advisor tools will be made accessible on October 22nd from within Windows Media Center under the “Extras” menu. To use it, run the installation program to install the tool into the Extras library. (Note: This tool is for Windows 7 only.)
6 Tuners, 1 Card!
There are other ways to get more than four tuners in a Media Center PC than having to worry about the different types of tuners, though. For example, check out the upcoming Ceton Multi-Channel Cable TV Card. This new card, expected in Q1 2010, allows you to play or record up to six live channels of HDTV at once and stream live HD channels or recordings to multiple HDTVs through the home. Unfortunately, the 6-tuner card won’t be sold as a standalone product, only in PCs manufactured by certain OEMs. That’s because those OEMs license something called the “Advanced Entertainment Pack (AEP) for Windows,” a technology which allows for more than four tuners. The 6-tuner card is a solution for those systems. However, a 4-tuner and 2-tuner version of the card will both be available as standalone retail offerings early next year.
Windows 7 and SDV Support
In addition to the news about customer-installed CableCARD tuners, Microsoft also announced that you’re now able to use the CableCARD tuners with switched digital video (SDV) cable systems, a newer architecture for switching digital video which several cable companies began to use thanks to its bandwidth-saving abilities. Because of this change on the cable providers’ part, many Windows Media Center users who were previously streaming and recording video with their TV tuners were not able to receive the SDV content. Now, by using a device called a “tuning adapter” which is provided by your cable provider along with your CableCARD, you’ll be able to tune into SDV broadcasts when using Windows Media Center in Windows 7.
Your cable company will inform you if you need one of these tuning adapters when you purchase your CableCARD.
You will also need to do a firmware update for your digital cable tuner to enable SDV support. For the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner, the 1.19.12 firmware will be made available on October 22nd. The new firmware also delivers stability improvements, UPnP support, and “Copy Freely” support (see below). However, note that the SDV support only works with Windows 7, not Vista.
To install the tuning adapter, you’ll need to plug its USB port into your computer’s USB port as the following diagram shows:
Image courtesy of The Green Button
If you are using multiple TV tuner cards, you’ll need separate tuning adapters for each and separate high-speed USB ports on your PC as well.
In Windows 7, You Can Now “Copy Freely”
The final announcement was that both Microsoft and CableLabs were going to make it easier for consumers to move the recorded content off their Media Center PCs. For any digital cable TV content marked as “copy freely” (CF), you’ll be able to easily move it from your Windows 7 PC to other PCs, devices, and portable media. Whether or not a show is tagged “CF” depends on the media content’s producer, but in the past, Media Center tended to lock down all the content, whether tagged CF or not. You could then only play back the content via a Media Center PC or extender. Now that will no longer be the case.
To determine if a particular program is copy protected or not, you can view the program’s details in Media Center’s Recorded TV library. Here, you’re able to see whether or not it’s listed with the “Copy Protected” label. If not, you can move or stream the content elsewhere.
Installing a TV Tuner and Configuring Media Center
Once you have physically installed the TV tuner and associated CableCARD into your PC, you’ll need to set it up by installing the necessary drivers and configuring Windows Media Center settings. Windows 7 should automatically detect and install the appropriate drivers for you but if, for some reason, there are not Windows 7 drivers available, the Windows Vista drivers will likely do the trick.
Next, after connecting the video source to your PC, launch Media Center and go to “Live TV Setup” under the TV menu. Then choose “Set Up TV Signal” from the options provided. Here, you’ll provide additional information like your zip code and TV signal provider (like your cable company) so Media Center can download the correct program listings. You should then let Media Center automatically detect the tuner – although you can configure these settings manually, it’s much easier this way.
Configuring Your Program Guide
After the initial configuration completes, you can then set up the program guide to your liking. To do so, go to “Settings” –> “TV” –> then “Guide” in the Media Center menus. Here, can add or remove channels from displaying in the program guide, place them in the order you prefer, and sort them by name or number – whichever is more to your liking.
In Windows 7, you can also edit the individuals channels’ names and numbers. To do so, select the channel in the Program Guide and then choose “More Info.” If you’re using multiple TV tuners, one that’s copy-protected and one that’s not, you can edit the channel on each tuner to have the same number, effectively combining them. Then, under the channel’s settings, you can go to the “Edit Sources” section and change it so the non copy-protected tuner is the primary source for recording from that channel.
Windows Media Center also supports “Favorite” channels, just like most cable companies’ DVRs do today. With this feature, accessible upon right-clicking the Program Guide, you can configure lineups of channels to group favorites together. For example, you may want to have a lineup of just the major networks, just the movie channels, or just kids’ programming.
Recording TV Programs
Finally, you can configure what programs to record. The easiest way to find your favorite shows (besides browsing through the guide, that is) is to go to the “Search” option from the “TV” menu in Media Center. Here, you’re not just able to search by program title as is common with many of today’s DVRs, but you can also search by actor/actress, director, category, or even keywords.
Once you find a show or other listing you want to record, you can do so by pressing the “Record” button on your remote control (if you’re using one) or by accessing the “Details” page for the program listing (Press “OK” with the program highlighted in the guide to show the Details page. Then choose “Record”). From here, you can also choose to record the series or configure advanced options like the start and stop time, how many copies to retain and for how long, etc.
Now the fun part! After all the configurations are complete and you’ve set up which shows to record, you can simply sit back and watch TV.
You can, of course, watch live TV in Media Center and you’re even able to pause and rewind TV programs on your PC, just as you could if you were using your cable company’s DVR.
To watch your recorded programs, head over to the “Recorded TV” section of Media Center’s “TV” menu. The programs are listed by name and also display a thumbnail image for easy reference. From here, you can select the shows you want to watch, delete those you’ve seen, or copy the video to a CD or DVD.
Of course, many people still prefer to watch TV from the comfort of a sofa in their living room on a big-screen TV. That, too, is possible thanks to Media Center extenders. The Xbox 360 is a well-known and popular extender that many people already have in their homes, but there are others too, including products from HP, Linksys, D-Link, and Samsung. You can check out those other options here. No matter what extender you use, any of the programs you record via Windows Media Center will play thanks to built-in Windows Media Codec support.
Windows 7 Features Designed for Media Center
In Windows 7, a new feature of the OS called “HomeGroups” lets you connect your home’s Windows 7 PCs together for easy file and printer sharing. This feature also works with Windows Media Center content which is stored using Windows 7’s “Libraries.” With previous versions of the Windows OS, there was some confusion due to the specialized libraries set up by both Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. But in Windows 7, the operating itself has built-in Windows Explorer libraries for content like music, video, pictures, and documents. Both Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center use those built-in libraries now instead of creating their own.
You can decide what content in those libraries, if any, is to be shared with other computers on your home network (your “HomeGroup”). If you do decide to share content, however, it will show up within Windows Media Center under the appropriate menus (Picture Library, Video Library, etc.). Just looked for the “Shared” section within each menu.
In addition, under the “Recorded TV” menu, other HomeGroup computers can access the shared content recorded by your TV-tuner connected Windows Media Center PC. This is an easy way for you stream video from one PC to another, like from your home office PC to your laptop for instance. And because your Windows Media Center content is stored in the same libraries as your Windows Media Player content, you can also take advantage of Windows 7’s “Remote Media Streaming” feature to watch your Recorded TV shows from anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection. This feature isn’t turned on by default, but you can easily enable it following the instructions here.
If you find out, after running the Digital Cable Advisor, that your PC doesn’t meet the requirements for using CableCARDs, there is the possibility that you can update your system to enable digital cable support. The tool will provide you with additional information about how you can make this happen and what corrective action is needed. After updating your system, you can re-run the tool to be assured that it is now ready.
However, not all PCs, Windows 7 or otherwise, will be able to meet the requirements. If yours doesn’t, you may want to look into installing Windows Media Center plugins instead for viewing TV and movies on your PC. Although you won’t be able to stream live TV or record shows, there are a number of plugins that deliver video content from sites like Hulu, from major TV networks, from YouTube, and other popular web video destinations.
Image Credits for WMC screenshots from The Windows Experience Blog