May 212011
 

Not everyone has the option to use or rent a DVR through their cable or satellite company. Some people have the option but don’t like the thought of having to pay an additional, monthly fee for a DVR that they won’t actually own. Yet others already have home theatre systems but don’t want to deal with the hassle and expense of CableCARD (or more accurately the reluctance of most cable companies to support CableCARD).

NOTE: This is a reprint of my 2010 article from the now-defunct Bityard.com on-line magazine.  It is reprinted here, but it might not completely reflect any updates or changes to the product since its original posting.

The Hauppauge HD PVR is a product that is meant to appeal to everyone who fits into the categories that I mention above. HD PVR is a combination hardware/software solution to allow you to record high-definition broadcasts and save them to a home theatre PC without having to worry about CableCARD or cable tuner cards. By placing the HD PVR between your cable box and your TV, it will intercept the analog video and audio signals and same them to your HTPC. {Cue the MPAA crying about closing the “analog loophole” and pushing Selectable Output Control.}

The HD PVR kit includes the following items:

  • HD PVR unit
  • Remote control with batteries (used with third party applications)
  • IR Blaster transmitter cable to control the cable or satellite box
  • 1-meter set of component cables with audio
  • USB cable
  • Power supply
  • Installation CD
  • Quick Start guide

The HD PVR is incredibly lightweight and connects to your HTPC via USB. The main connections are component (Y/Pb/Pr); however, it does support S-Video and composite inputs as well. For audio connections you can use RCA analog (stereo) or optical connections.

Control of your cable box is done with an IR “blaster”, a very small infrared transmitter that you need to mount directly in front of the IR receiver of your cable box. Whenever the channel needs to be changed, the IR blaster sends the code to your cable box. This means, however, that unlike DVRs you cannot watch one show while recording another.

The software is a suite of products from Arcsoft – TotalMedia Extreme (capturing), TotalMedia Theater (playback), and MediaConverter (transcoding). None of these are particularly difficult to use, but they’re not the newest or prettiest programs either. All of them look like they were designed in the 1990s and have a very unsophisticated feel to them. Still, they work, which is what matters.

At first I was a bit dismayed by the need for multiple products; however, I realized that because the programs are actually stand-alone programs, you can substitute or upgrade any piece with another compatible program of your choosing.

For those who might be concerned about power consumption, according to my trusty Kill A Watt the HD PVR uses a mere 6 watts of power, which is negligible compared to your HTPC, I’m sure.

 

Initial Setup

The first thing that you need to do is to configure the IR blaster for your particular cable box. In my case, I have Verizon FiOS (go ahead, be jealous) with a Motorola HD QIP6200-2 receiver. Fortunately, the IR blaster software has Verizon as one of the selectable defaults. The blaster configuration tool has a few testing options to verify that it can control your cable box.

This step exemplifies the need to know exactly where your cable box’s IR receiver is located. I spent almost an hour positioning the blaster transmitter with no results. I finally grabbed a flashlight and looked inside the mostly-opaque front of the cable box only to find that the receiver was actually on the opposite side of the LED display. After positioning the blaster transmitter over the receiver, the IR blaster was able to change the channel without a problem.

Capturing

Capturing can be done a few ways: manually through WinTV-Scheduler or automatically through the TitanTV web site. You can also capture any show by starting the recording yourself.

TitanTV is the web equivalent to the TV Guide channel that’s available through most cable providers. After entering your postal code, it prompts you to select the provider for your area. Once selected, you get a color-coded listing of the channels that are available by that provider. You can display all of the available shows or just shows based on certain criteria, such as restricting the list to HD content only. When you set a show to be recorded, TitanTV will populate WinTV-Scheduler via a browser plug-in.

By default, only that instance of the show that you select will be recorded; however, once a show is populated in WinTV-Scheduler, you can then get more granular with that entry. For example, if it’s a weekly show, you can change the entry for that show to record weekly. You can also change the start time, end time, the days on which the show should be recorded, and so forth.

Capturing is done through ArcSoft’s Capture Module, which has three presets available: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and AVCHD. Each of these functions can be tweaked to let you change certain aspects of the capture, such as bitrate and audio quality. Although these are containers for H.264, the stream and file names for PS3 and XB360 captures are optimized for that platform in case you are also sharing the HTPC to any of those consoles.

The default recording format is for the Playstation 3 – full HD (1920 x 1080) at 9 Mb/sec video and 384 Kb/sec Dolby Digital audio for a total file size of about 4.1 GB per hour. However, if you manually set the format to whatever you want in Capture Module, it retains that setting until you change it again.

The HD PVR makes it quite obvious when it’s busy recording a program, because the top of the HD PVR glows a bright blue during the recording. Because the HD PVR acts as a pass-through device, you can watch the show while it’s recording on your regular component connection instead of in a window on the HTPC.

My only real issue with the HD PVR’s recording function is that it does not take coaxial input for audio. Perhaps there is a problem with my FiOS box; but I cannot get Dolby Digital 5.1 to play over optical. It works fine over coax, though. Because the HD PVR does not have coaxial input, I was unable to capture any 5.1 audio.

Playback

Playback is done through TotalMedia Theater, which not only plays back captured video files but also plays Blu-ray and HD DVD discs as well as startard DVDs as long as you have the appropriate drive installed. TotalMedia Theatre played recorded files back beautifully. (Windows Media Player’s playback was horrendous, to put it mildly.) I don’t have a BD or HD DVD drive in my test system, so I couldn’t test that functionality; but playback of recorded HD programming looked great.

I tested some recordings for both my PS3 and 360 by copying the high-definition programs to a USB drive and plugging the drive into the respective console. The PS3 does not recognize .m2ts files as video files, so it didn’t show up under the video files listing; however, it did play the files when I drilled down into USB directory. The quality was excellent in full 1080 high-def with no skipping or playback problems.

I recorded a separate show in Xbox 360 format and copied it to a USB drive. The 360 recognized the video file without a problem; however, I needed to download a free add-on to be able to play MP4 files. The 360 playback was a bit blocky compared to the PS3. Note, however, that this could have been due to the 360’s H.264 add-on or more likely extra compression for that particular program. Regardless, the video quality was still significantly better than its standard definition counterpart.

Conversion

Unquestionably, the best way to record is in the format for the device that will be used for playback. But if conversion is needed, ArcSoft Media Converter can do that conversion. It already has several default settings for the various consoles and file types, including:

  • Xbox 360 – default setting is WMV9, 1280 x 720 WMV@8 Mbps, WMA@128Kbps
  • Playstation 3 – default setting is H.264, 1280 x 720 @ 6 Mbps, AAC@128Mbps

Media Converter also includes default settings for various Apple iPods (Classic, Touch, Nano), Sony PSP, SanDisk Sansa e200, and Philips PMC7230. All of the settings, such as audio/video bit rates and resolution, are adjustable and can be saved as the default for that particular format.

The real problem with conversion is the demanding CPU requirements, especially for HD media. Converting a 15-minute file from PS3 to XB360 formats on my dual-core AMD 5000+ took a significant amount of time with both cores at 100% utilization. When the video finished, I copied the file to a USB drive and plugged it into my 360. Because the file was converted to a WMV9 .avi file, the 360 found and played it without a problem. The video seemed to be a bit softer than its native PS3 format, but that’s because the default Xbox 360 template in Media Converter reduces the resolution to 720 lines.

For the record, I’ve used this same version of Media Converter for a few years to convert video podcasts for my Insignia MP3/video player. It’s fully multithreaded and even utilizes all six cores of my Phenom II X6 on my main PC during conversion. Although the best practice is to record TV programs directly to the format that you’ll use to play them back, if for some reason you have to convert the files, you should use an HTPC with as many cores as possible.

The Other Side

Unfortunately, my experience with the HD PVR was not all roses.

I initially installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) and connected my HTPC to my TV via HDMI. Although I could capture without a problem, TotalMedia Theatre would not start at all. The “busy” icon would appear for about half a second after double-clicking on the icon, then it would go back to a regular arrow. Personally, I think the main suspect was the 64-bit HDMI drivers for my motherboard. I decided to rebuild it with the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium and connect the HTPC via a standard VGA cable. TotalMedia Theatre then ran without a problem.

Because this problem could just as easily have been caused by the 64-bit HDMI drivers for my motherboard, to say that this is the fault of the HD PVR software would be disingenuous; however, this was a major stumbling block for me, so I feel that you need to be aware of it. The safest bet would probably be to use a stand-alone video card for HDMI output.

The single-sheet, quick start guide is ridiculously user unfriendly. The very first thing that you need to do to get any of this to work is to set up the IR blaster. No where does the quick start guide tell you this, nor is the guide laid out in a way that implies that this should be the first step.

The adhesive on the IR blaster cable is very weak and will release under any kind of pull on the cable. I ended up taping the cable to the top of my FiOS box for support and bending the cable at the corner. Only then was the adhesive enough to keep it attached to the front of the box.

Finally, the lack of coaxial input prevented me from recording 5.1 channel audio. The actual inability to do so is more the fault of my FiOS box not transmitting 5.1 over optical; however, having a coaxial input/output on the HD PVR would have been nice.

Conclusion

Even though the software that is included with the HD PVR is old (for example, the included version of Media Converter is v2.5, but v4 has been out for several months), it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. And thanks to the the independent nature of the various pieces, you can easily replace any of the included applications with compatible applications that perform the same functions.

The integration of WinTV-Scheduler with TitanTV gives a clean interface with which you can select the shows that you want to record. Just be warned that the web site has a lot of data and Javascript in it, so it could be a bit sluggish on slower HTPCs.

Although I did run into problems with the HDMI/Win 7 64-bit configuration, they could just have easily been caused by problems with the hardware overlay part of the HDMI driver. My test system has on-board HDMI; and 64-bit drivers are historically not strong points of on-board chipset manufacturers.

Because there are several free packages out there, including Windows Media Player, that can stream files out to any consoles or set-top boxes that you might have, the HD PVR can be used to feed any set-top streaming device that you might have, whether it’s a PS3, 360, or other streaming unit that can be fed from UPNP servers.

In short, the Hauppauge HD PVR is a capable device if you can’t or don’t want to deal with DVR options from your cable or satellite company.

I’ve read statements from other people who say that there are cheaper HTPC PVR methods out there, but as far as I’m concerned what matters is if the product does what you want it to do. As long as you can get past the very 1990s feel of the included software and the lack of a coaxial audio input, the HD PVR does exactly what you would expect.

Addendum

Since the time that this article was originally posted, Hauppauge has integrated the HD PVR with Windows Media Center.  I have not yet had an opportunity to explore how well this new functionality works, but I hope to be able to do so in the near future.

Hauppauge HD PVR
Suggested Retail Price: US $199
Hauppauge Computer Works, Inc.
91 Cabot Court
Hauppauge, NY 11788

Tested with

  • TV: LG 47LCDF 47″ LCD TV at 1080p
  • PC: Abit AN-M2HD, AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ @ 2.6 GHz, Windows 7 Home Premium, 4 GB RAM
  • Connection: VGA
  • Motorola HD QIP6200-2 (Verizon FiOS)