The ultimate single box AV setup?
April 7, 2009 11:44 AM   Subscribe

Help me set up an geeky A/V solution in my new house! Ideally, I am looking for the One Box in my house that would record cable television (preferably in HD), show live TV, and act as media server for all of my televisions and computers. Is that possible?

Right now, we have 2 televisions, one of which is a computer monitor attached to a machine running Media Center, and the other has an Xbox that can act as a Media Center extender. Its okay for now, but the problem is a lack of HD television, and that Media Center is often slow and low quality. We'll be moving to a house with a couple more screens, and I want to try to do this right, and not necessary attach a box and cable to every television. Are there any good, not insanely pricey, solutions for setting up a universal system for Live TV/PVR/Music/Movies?
posted by blahblahblah to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
A beefy install of Vista or Windows 7 Media Center plus Xbox 360's as extenders is as cheap as you'll get. You could build a decent DVR PC for $500ish and Xbox 360's can be had for as low as $150-ish

I've never had a problem with low quality or slow reponse from the 360 as an extender, the only part is that there is boot/loading process when you turn it on (20-30 sec). You could always leave them on.

The 360 has decent codec playback, and you can always use something like transcode 360 if you need more.

Also you'll have to figure out a solution that lets you record cable. I currently have two OTA HD tuners in my MCE box.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:58 AM on April 7, 2009

Sounds like you're crying out for MythTV... depends on how geeky you really are/want to be, but recent versions are very stable and well-featured. I'm using Mythbuntu 8.10 in a HTPC under the TV, recording HD and SD from a satellite feed, and will have simultaneous ability to record digital OTA when it goes live in my region in a few months. Very powerful and flexible... and the "wife acceptance factor" is steadily on the increase :)
posted by Chunder at 12:17 PM on April 7, 2009

Chunder, how are you recording HD? I've got a Hauppauge HD PVR which is working well with the latest firmware updates, though the picture quality leaves something to be desired. Essentially, it works by taking the analog 1080i signal and recompressing it in H.264, which loses a generation. I know there are ways to get at the over-the-air broadcasts, but cable channels are typically encrypted, correct?
posted by Joey Bagels at 12:24 PM on April 7, 2009

I also have mythtv and like it quite a bit. Does TV DVR Music Movies, the whole bit. Does take some work to set it up, but that is part of the fun, right? You would have to have a computer for each television you want to hook up to, with, for HD, a real proc and video, but they could be pretty striped down, even diskless, except for the backend server. As for the cable, you can only handle cable channels that are in the clear, which usually means just the basic local channels and a few others. I have heard rumors about cable boxes that have firewire or usb connectors that can be controlled by mythtv, but I don't know much about them.
posted by d4nj450n at 12:27 PM on April 7, 2009

Joey, I am hardly an expert at this sort of thing, but I am pretty sure that hd signals are sent as digital h.264 files over the cable or air, just like any other digital signal, see here. I further understand that the cable co's etc are sending it already compressed and that real videophiles use over the air broadcast where they can cause it is not compressed. I think most cable type services have some basic channels that are not encrypted. If you are intrested I am using a hdhomerun which seems good, but I am currently watching on a very small screen, so it is hard to see the quality
posted by d4nj450n at 12:37 PM on April 7, 2009

j4nj450: Digital signals are sent as MPEG2. (read the link you provided).
posted by wongcorgi at 12:56 PM on April 7, 2009

Pretty much what wongcorgi said.

What you Need
1. Home Network wired network would be better than wireless to all the points you want to receive video/music/pictures...etc

2. A server running vista media center

3. Server has one or more TV capture card (I like the avermedia 780)

4. Xbox 360 with HDMI output to act as an extender on TV's

5. You can use VLC media player to view items from server

I have my main HTPC server hooked directly to my HD set. I have a Diamond Plust 8600GTS that outputs HDMI. Great looking picture. I use xbox360 as an extender.
posted by bleucube at 1:42 PM on April 7, 2009

blahblahblah -- if you want to record premium HD cable, then you have some limited options.

Scenario 1 (Ideal) - you are served by a cable provider like RCN who do not implement 5C encryption on their cable boxes. If this is true, then you can build a cheap Windows HTPC using SageTV or BeyondTV and then connect your TV to your computer via Firewire and directly record the transportstream from your box. This was my setup from 2003 to 2006 and it was fabulous

Scenario 2 (Less Ideal and Expensive) - Buy a Cablecard certified PC (currently, the only ones available, afaik, are the Dell XPS 420 and the HP M9200t)

Scenario 3 (Standard) - buy a cheap pc and use the Hauppauge HD-PVR, which has had stability and quality issues in the past, but is the only other present format for recording premium HD cable.

I've left Scenario 1 and went for a while living without HD recording, and still used my HTPC for recording standard definition with cable. However, the HTPC, being 6+ years old now, has started exhibiting motherboard and drive controller stability problems, so I'm considering replacing it. Unfortunately, given that I am still limited between Verizon and Comcast for service, both of which encrypt their boxes, my current leaning is not to go with one box, and actually just get a Tivo Series 3 and use Tivo Desktop to offload recorded media to the media PC.

Hope this helps.
posted by bl1nk at 1:43 PM on April 7, 2009

I should also add that if premium HD is not a concern for you, and you're good with just recording local HD broadcasts (no TravelHD, HDNet, Sci-Fi HD or movie channels) then most of the above selections for cards like the Avermedia 760 or the Hauppauge WintTV-HVR series are fine. It's expanding the scope to the premium stuff that brings in the headaches.
posted by bl1nk at 1:47 PM on April 7, 2009

What? Now I gotta READ the links I provide!?? Opps, I was thinking it was the same thing but I see now that mpeg2 is H.262 not H.264. Off by two, my bad.
posted by d4nj450n at 1:48 PM on April 7, 2009

You should look at SageTV in addition to Windows Media Center. I've been using SageTV for about a year and a half, but not for HD. There's an active support community and the company seems to respond quickly to support requests.

There's a ton of add-ons if you want to get fancy, all of them customer developed. I find that the alternative UI "SageMC" to be much more logical than the default one.

They sell hardware extenders and there's also an available software extender. It all runs on Windows, Linux, and MacOSX.
posted by reddot at 7:00 PM on April 7, 2009

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