We all have been waiting for years to consume, record, and stream high definition premium cable content through our Windows Media Center PCs. With Windows Vista, we finally have that capability with the support of CableCARD-based tuners. It has been a long time coming – but who needs it?

Tributaries HDMI Accessories

* CableCARD support only is available from approved OEM PC vendors, which means you cannot build your own machine or use one you already have.
* RecordedTV from CableCARD only streams to Media Center Extenders, which means you cannot configure a system with multiple “back-end” Windows Media Center servers and provide access to the same RecordedTV shows from each (there currently is not a product on the market, to my knowledge, that duplicates recording requests across machines).
* We currently are limited to five active Media Center Extenders from a single machine, which limits our ability to stream premium RecordedTV content to a larger number of viewing zones.

Why bother? We have Windows Media Center under Windows Vista receiving high definition premium cable content without CableCARD. It is so simple, it makes us wonder why no one else thought of it.

I must give credit to my good friend Bill Raymond from RNS Technology Group in Glenmoore, PA, for the idea. He discovered an unknown (and undocumented) feature of Motorola Set Top Boxes (specifically the QIP6200-2 in this case – the 6416 with the DVR does not have a RF output).

http://broadband.motorola.com/business/digitalvideo/product_qip6200_settop.asp http://broadband.motorola.com/catalog/product_documents/QIP6200%20520477-001-a.pdf

Notice the RF output connector. The -2 model includes the HDMI port, also.

The RF output connection (the ‘F’ connector labeled RF out) sends out “clear QAM” (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) in addition to standard NTSC signals. QAM is the same modulation technique used by the cable companies for transmitting multiple streams of high definition video through their cable infrastructures. Most people connect the RF connector from their Set Top Box to a NTSC tuner tuned to Channel 3 or 4 (usually a VCR). However, NTSC limits the resolution to 520 interlaced lines while high definition needs to go up to 720p or 1080i.

We simply put an off-the-shelf AVerMedia AverTV Combo PCIe MCE tuner card into a Windows Vista-based PC with Windows Media Center and let Windows Update load the appropriate drivers. This tuner card supports QAM connectivity in addition to NTSC. It also supports Over The Air (OTA) ATSC, but we did not use it for this installation. We plugged in the standard USB Microsoft eHome IR Receiver as we normally would and attached the IR blaster to the Set Top Box as we would using the lousy-looking standard definition S-Video solution provided by Microsoft.

We initially assumed that Windows Media Center would use the NTSC tuner capability and require us to use Channel 3 or 4 to match the NTSC output from the Set Top Box, but much to our surprise, the standard TV setup procedure found the QAM signal and used it for the TV input without requiring any other setup. It then asked us if we had a Set Top Box, which we configured the same way we normally do. Voila! We were receiving “in the clear” high definition video unencrypted by the Set Top Box. We can record it, copy it to other machines, and stream it to any number of devices we want.

We have not tried this with other Set Top Boxes, tuners, or service providers, but this combination works. We have high-def, premium channels, IR control, and Guide Data. We have two tuners tied in with two Set Top Boxes going to Xbox 360 Extenders that also receive the high-def TV feeds. It seems like a match made in heaven.

Granted, CableCARD tuners make the configuration and control of your TV sources easier and strategically is the “right” answer, but why limit yourself if you do not have the ability to incorporate them into your current setup. We have heard that some cable providers have the ability to control what channels are sent out as QAM through the RF connector. In the FiOS installation we had, it worked great. There also is a chance that the Set Top Box manufacturer will turn this capability off at some point or that the transition mandate to separate the cable box and the encryption technology will cause this feature to go away (we doubt Microsoft will turn it off because they are trying to enhance their QAM capabilities right now).

In the mean time – CableCARD, who needs it? Go with QAM from a standard Set Top Box and save yourself a lot of trouble. This is HUGE for us. It is huger than HUGE! We now can continue to build our own Windows Media Center PCs and are not limited in our underlying architecture to only five Media Center Extenders for viewing because we can share Recorded TV across multiple machines. We feel it will change the industry and drastically reduce the complications associated with getting high definition premium cable content and wanted to get the word out.

If you have Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate, you already have the capabilities to do this without a special BIOS or Product Key. Try it out. It looks fantastic!

About the Author

Derek R. Flickinger is vice president of R & D for Interactive Homes, Inc. He provides consulting and implementation services for manufacturers and consumer electronics installation companies on new technologies, products, and strategies related to standards-based Distributed Audio, Video, Communications, and Control (DAVCC) systems for the home and consumer market spaces. Derek’s long-term goal is to be instrumental in the development and deployment of entertainment systems on space stations and space colonies.