Monday, May 17, 2010

HTPC Build Part 2 – Testing a PC TV Tuner and Windows Media Center

This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing about an HTPC (Home Theatre PC) build that I recently completed.  To see a list of all posts in this series, click here.

Having gotten free HDTV via my DIY antenna working nicely, I decided to purchase a TV tuner and try it out with my existing PC running Windows 7 (and therefore also Windows Media Center), before making the full investment in a complete set of parts for a new HTPC.

I found a a pretty good overview video from Microsoft describing what it takes to hook a TV tuner card up to a PC.  Doing this on a PC running Windows 7 enables the ability to be able to watch live broadcast TV on the PC monitor.  It also enables Windows to record broadcast TV like a TiVo or similar DVR device – with no monthly fee!  (There are some free software packages for Linux that have similar functionality, but Windows is my preferred OS, so I decided to go with Microsoft’s software solution.)

HVR-850 After doing some research, I decided to purchase an HVR-850 USB-connection PC TV tuner by Hauppauge.  This tuner is compatible with over-the-air HDTV (ATSC) signals, and is certified to work with Windows 7.  I paid about US $55 for mine (and as of the time of this writing, it’s going for $55 shipped on Amazon).  (Note: This model isn’t compatible with some other types of TV signals such as “Clear QAM” from a set-top cable box; for that, you’d need a higher-end tuner part like the HVR-950.)

Unfortunately, the HVR-850 unit that I received was DOA. I plugged it in to my PC, and Windows 7 recognized the device right away, no driver install needed.  However, upon connecting the HVR-850 via the standard coax cable connection to my antenna and then scanning for over-the-air channels in Windows Media Center, the device wouldn’t find any channels.  I fiddled with the HVR-850 for quite a while, but just couldn’t get it to work.  Finally I had the idea to hook my old NES up to the HVR-850.  The output from the NES was just barely visible on the computer screen through heavy static/snow, and the music from the game was also just barely audible through heavy static/snow as well.  Therefore I concluded that the HVR-850 was “working” in that it was in fact sending some TV signal to the PC; it was just working very poorly!  Apparently I just had gotten a bad HVR-850 unit.

I contacted Hauppauge tech support, and they agreed based on my reported observed behavior that my HVR-850 was probably bad, and to RMA the unit under the warranty.  I got my replacement HVR-850 several days later, and this time, it worked like a charm!  Windows 7 once again recognized the part right away, and I was able to successfully watch live TV on my PC of the same TV channels that I could get on my regular TV.

I tested the DVR functionality of Windows Media Center (WMC) for a couple of weeks, and that worked great as well.  As with the TiVo I’d used previously, it was easy to select a set of shows to record, and have them record automatically.

A cool feature of Windows Media Center is that while watching a program, you can easily drag the current time index of the show back and forth using the mouse, and while doing so, WMC gives you a picture-in-picture indication of what is at the target location.  This makes it really easy to jump to a particular point of a show, and to quickly skip commercials.  It’s nice that Windows Media Center supports control of the software via either a mouse, or via a TV remote control.

At this point, I had effectively turned my primary PC into a fully-functional DVR, for just the $55 incremental purchase of the PC TV tuner above and beyond the cost of the PC hardware and software that I already owned.  Not bad!  However, while watching TV sitting in my office chair at my desk is okay, watching TV on my actual television while sitting on my couch in my living room would be much better!  So, having proven that the Windows 7 DVR software in Windows Media Center and the HVR-850 TV Tuner worked well, I decided to proceed with the next step of going ahead and actually assembling an HTPC for my living room.

Part 3 in this series will cover my attempt to save some money on parts by trying to turn my old 2004 desktop PC into an HTPC.

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