Four years ago Microsoft introduced Windows XP Media Center Edition, a special edition of the popular OS that featured a Microsoft-designed "10 foot UI" for use in a TV setting. Originally only available to OEMs, the first iteration of MCE showed promise as an elegant and fast DVR, much better than anything prior on the PC and even better than set-top DVRs. The problems of course could not be ignored; MCE systems ran for at least $1500, compared to much lower rental costs from your cable company or lower ownership costs from companies like TiVo and ReplayTV. Then there was the issue of stability; despite Microsoft's best attempts to control hardware and drivers used in MCE systems, they were still prone to crashes and performance issues just like any normal XP machine. In many ways, the performance and stability issues were worse under MCE because the software was so much more stressful than normal applications under XP and the impact was far greater; your PC crashing may make you lose that document you were working on for several hours, but if it made you miss an episode of 24, there would be hell to pay.

Windows XP Media Center Edition: Original Edition  

Despite the problems, MCE gained traction, and near the end of its time the majority of systems sold in retail were pre-loaded with MCE instead of Windows XP Home or Professional. With each subsequent version, MCE got better and better, there were fewer crashes, performance got better (mostly due to faster hardware out at the time), and the overall package grew more polished. Unfortunately, as MCE matured, it also grew more useless. While MCE was being updated, the HD revolution also took place, with more and more cable providers offering HD content. At the peak of MCE's development, it lacked any HDTV support; effectively, the most powerful DVR on the market could only let you watch analog TV.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005: Updated, but too little, too late  

If MCE was out during the late 90s, it wouldn't have been a problem, but when MCE 2005 made its debut with no more than OTA HDTV support, it was clear that MCE had lost its potential. You could easily get an HD-DVR from cable companies and for a lot less money than a dedicated media center PC. As HDTVs grew in popularity, being able to watch little more than standard definition on your brand spanking new media center PC was more than embarrassing; it was the wrong DVR decision.

Digital cable became the norm, and with it the power shifted back to the cable box. If you wanted digital cable, you needed a cable box, and if you needed a cable box anyways you might as well just get the HD-DVR cable box from your provider rather than fumbling with an MCE setup that could only give you OTA HD channels. The advent of CableCARD offered an alternative for those who really didn't want a cable box but were willing to give up on demand services and a robust channel guide. However, the PC was no where to be seen as consumer electronics companies embraced and worked around these changes that were happening to mainstream cable.

Part of the problem was that the PC was seen as a device that couldn't be trusted. The provider supplied set-top box is the ideal piece of equipment from a content provider's standpoint. If it's compromised, simply send an update down to it to plug the hole; the cable company controls everything about the system; it's closed and it's trustworthy. There are ways to get content off of the box, but by no means is it easy; there's very little chance that deploying a bunch of HD-DVR set-top boxes is going to result in HD shows being streamed directly from them to users across the globe using torrents or P2P services. Set-top boxes are safe, secure, and give content providers that warm fuzzy feeling inside.

The PC on the other hand, especially running Windows XP, was a pirate's playground. There was no concept of a trusted path for content to flow through - after all the OS was many years old before any of this was a major concern. Although work had been done on bringing digital cable and CableCARD support to the PC during the Windows XP timeframe, the content providers weren't satisfied with what the OS could offer and the development was stalled until Vista.

Vista changed everything; it was chock full of DRM and was secure enough to make just about everyone confident that high definition content could be stored on it without being easily compromised. While it's far too early to determine if that holds true over the coming years of Vista's existence, the important part is that it's enough today. At CES 2006 ATI demonstrated what had the potential to become one of the biggest features of Vista, the first working Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) for a PC running the upcoming OS.

ATI's first OCUR demo: CES January 2006

We were impressed by OCUR, as it had the potential to make media center valid and useful once more. The downside was that we had to wait; we saw the first demo of OCUR at CES in January 2006, and we were told that it wouldn't be released until Vista was available to the public. At CES in January 2007 ATI, now owned by AMD, introduced the final product: the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner (DCT). Once again we had to play the waiting game, as Vista was not yet out and no one had committed to a ship date for systems equipped with the newly named OCUR.

ATI's second OCUR demo: CES January 2007  

Vista's launch came and went, and there was no sign of OCUR anywhere. We spoke with AMD on many occasions asking for the status of review samples but were told little more than that they are coming. Finally, a little over a month after Vista's public launch, we received a visit from Dell. In their possession were two external ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuners; OCUR had finally arrived, Vista's media center was on the brink of being saved, and today is a preview of what is soon to come.

ATI's TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner up and running at AnandTech: April 2007

The Requirements
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  • n7 - Wednesday, April 4, 2007 - link

    I am amazed at how restricted this is.

    I was looking forward to the day when i could get a tuner capable of high def support to add to my PC.

    And now i see that the once again, the consumers are basically getting royally ******.

    I'm incredibly disapppointed.

    Thanx very much for this article though...does an excellent job of showing just how retarded DRM has become...
  • Cygni - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Thank you for this article Anand. When you first reviewed Vista, i asked for a review of its MCE component, to which you replied such an article was comming. I was beginning to think you forgot about writing that article! :D

    I am in the shrinking majority of non HDTV owners. I have a 32in Sony CRT TV that ive had for at least 10 years. Its still one of the best looking TV's around, in my opinion. I use MCE to function as a recorder so that I dont have to pay a monthly fee to anyone. I feel thats ridiculous. I bought a $50 ATI TV card and with MCE, can do everything a TIVO can, AND save money, AND burn what programing i want and give it to who i want.

    I have one big question i wanted to ask, however. Did you try Vista Media Centers multi screen performance? I use Svideo to connect my TV and computer, and i enjoy working on one screen while having MCE going in the other. However, MCE 2k5's performance in this situation is pretty bad, and the MCE team itself admitted that they hadnt thought of this scenario.
  • feraltoad - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    So let me get this straight the ONLY people that really want OCUR (people with media center PCs) will be the ones that can't get it? WTH! Bad enough you need HDCP monitors and Video cards, but even when you do upgrade everything it still won't be enough until you buy a ready made box (and if you have a HTPC that is used as a Media PC then it is probably DIY). So the people that this things is going to marketed to will be people that 1)Have no idea it exists 2)Don't/Won't want it 3)Apparently will be better served to pay $10 a month to rent something that will "just work". I have a MCE2005 pc, and it looks pretty obvious which way the wind is blowing: HD-DVR here I come.

    Also, besides a rant I had a question. What if you have ONE HDCP compliant monitor(HDTV) and one non HDCP LCD (that doesn't merit replacement yet). Will it still work and let you play the content on the TV? Or will the non hdcp monitor "break" the compliance and thus the functionality.
  • thestain - Wednesday, April 4, 2007 - link

    AMD's kissing Microsofts rear is a recipe for an american made disaster.

    Is there no hardware company that is willing to give customers ownership of the hardware they buy anymore??

    AMD/Daamit would do better getting the cpus and gpus out that have been delayed and delayed.. or nVidia and Intel will destroy AMD.
  • Wolfpup - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    That wasn't mentioned in the article. In two years I'll have to get some sort of ATSC replacement for my NTSC-only S2 Tivo.

    Also-is this for real that you can't burn real DVDs with this setup? I presume that means you can't even copy files to another computer to watch (only stream them to a 360)?

    In that case this doesn't work for me. Hope there are more ATSC solutions available by the time I need them...
  • Smilin - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Your #1 mistake was activating the card on a different device first. This caused you major problems. The mating of the card to a particular device is not a time-warner only thing. Had you not made this pretty dumb move you wouldn't have had Dell, ATI and Time Warner dancing around like monkeys for so many days.

    The problem switching between SD and HD is most likely a server issue at the cable company. Unfortunately "that guy" who is smart enough to fix it is so far up the food chain you'll never reach him through the mass of standard techs.

    How do I know this? Go check out the Support forums over at Tivo. The problems are everywhere. The series 3 has dual cable cards and guess what? Cable companies give it fits. In every case the cable company will push back and say it's a problem with your device. In every case this turns out not to be true.

    I ran into many of the issues you are seeing with my Series 3 Tivo. After like 4 cable cards, 5 trips from techs, pulling my hair until I was bald I finally got "the guy" who said it was merely a server issue on their end. No problems since.
  • mwales - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    So as a Kubuntu Linux user, on a PC built from parts, and "soon to be owner" of a PS3, I feel a little left out of the party. Seriously, the amount of restrictions for a system to do this is ridiculous and makes me want to vomit.

    I happen to have a Windows XP running Beyond TV DVR software (it's NTSC only unfortunately). But I'm able to share my media folder and access it from Windows PCs, Linux PCs, and even both XBox systems when they run XBox Media Center. It works FANTASTIC! Even my wife can stream content and watch it on an XBox without any issues or help. Once I get a Creative Vision M, I can easily move my non-DRM files unencumbered to my portable video player. I'm also able to burn DVDs of shows I really enjoyed so I can watch them later on my DVD/DivX player.
  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    As long as the content providers are allowed to dictate how and where we watch their content, these products will always be a pain in the ass to setup and use.

    Still waiting on the CES 2006 announced DirecTV / MCE tuners.
  • michal1980 - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    i'd get that 4000 grand pc if it came with all the techs to help set it up.

    cable card needs bi-directional support before it gets my vote though.
  • BPB - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    This article was not at all interesting for me personally. Oh, the tech end of it was, and the fact that AMD/MS/Hollywood/the cable industry can't work well as a group was interesting. But since the technology itself is not available to me unless I buy an expensicve Dell (or equivalent), I really don't care about it. I'll continue to go along using my Cox HD-DVR and be happy. Actually, if I do want to do something like this I'll simply rent a Cox HD cable box and plug it into my ATI 650 based tuner card (which has HD support) or my X1900 AIW (which accepts HD input). So for the price of the Cox rental I can have HD on my PC, and for far less money. Then again, the way MS and the cable industry are going, I can't be sure that would work. Oh well, guess I'll have to continue using the Firewire out on my HD-DVR to copy movies to my wife's notebook, then my desktop. It's a pain, but it's cheap and easy. My dad's new HD-DVR is also a cable modem. I wonder if it can be networked? Wouldn't that be nice?

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