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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  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Uh.. I don't think you understand how these things work. The only inputs on the 650 & AIW are composite and S-video. Neither is going to allow you to record anything in HD from your cable box. The HD support on the 650 is only for OTA.
  • BPB - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    You know, until now I thought the AIW X1900 had YPrPb input. Man, I need to wake up!
  • TheTerl - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    I was amused by the choice in movies. After all, who wouldn't want to check out "Boinking in the Dorm Room" at work? With a title like that, I'm sure it's a cinematic masterpiece.

    Aside from that, very interesting article.
  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Thing is, it may show up in the guide, but you can't actually order it... :0)
  • WileCoyote - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Only Anand can turn an article I would normally ingore into a fun and interesting read. Good stuff!
  • MercenaryForHire - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Agreed. While I have nothing but distaste for this hardware, its related metric assload of DRM tie-ins, and lack of DIY support, I enjoyed reading the review of it immensely.
  • pjladyfox - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    "why on earth would you go through this when you can just rent an HD-DVR from us for $9 a month?"

    I think this pretty much sums up the entire system to begin with. It really does make me wonder if the unholy alliance (read: MPAA/RIAA/Cable/Telco) is making the use of CableCard-based devices more difficult than it needs to be. The number of people that were called on-site just to resolve the multiple issues is a rather telling statement that while the tech may be great it is being set up to fail in the marketplace.

    And why was there no provision for HDMI input? I mean, it was designed with HDCP encryption in mind so I would have thought this would have been a no-brainer but if I had to guess I would say the unholy alliance shot that idea down real quick. -_-
  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    Cable companies are required by the FCC to provide cable cards upon request. However, it's pretty obvious they make it as difficult as possible to get them up and running ($42.95 install fee?).
  • tuteja1986 - Tuesday, April 3, 2007 - link

    I hope the person incharge of this project reads this because he needs to get up his lazy ass and start sloving these issue by getting the right dude to slove this problems. Then ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner + VISTA MCE will succeed or Hollywood could just kill DRM which would make life easier on their loyal customer.

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