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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  • Terrbo40 - Friday, April 17, 2009 - link

    On the surface everyone say's, Why not just stay with the DVR from the cable company? Let's take a quick look at that first you have to get the DVR or Card from the Cable company in that way we are still beholden to them especially since BY LAW it's all Digital.

    Genrally a DVR will only take care of one room (some now will do two rooms) for a Cost of about $10.00 (depending on your provider)
    and if you wanted a second one it is approx. $20.00 more a month. So, for two box's you are up to $30.00 a month just for the set top box's and if you are like most people today you have more than two Monitors (TV'S) in your home. And if you out fitted each one with a DVR at a cost of $20.00 each what would that cost you a month?

    Now, Take the ATI TV Wonder Digital TV Tuner with one cable card
    and put it on the network in your home how many of your Monitor/Tv's would now have DVR capablities not to mention all, the channels that the one or two DVR's you orginally you had all off your network which not only would you be able to watch at home but some of you real tech savey people out there would even be watching from the road.

    So, I say why would I not want this tech in my home where in the long run ( short run as well ) it will save me a ton of money that I won't have to be paying to the cable company. Yes, There would be some set up cost in the begining but I figure that I would get that back with in the first year. well that's my two cent's worth thanks for taken the time. I'm sure if you look at it you will find more reasons if you wanted to to go with it as well.

  • verndewd - Friday, April 6, 2007 - link

    Bugs or not its a killer idea. They will work it out and everyone will want one.I want one.
  • Araemo - Thursday, April 5, 2007 - link

    I just saw">this article go up at Ars Technica. AMD has announced that they have discovered a bug with a specific Scientific Atlanta cablecard is causing issues with their OCUR device. Maybe Anandtech's problems are rooted there?
  • PAPutzback - Thursday, April 5, 2007 - link

    I just read a review the other day on the Niveus systems. These look a heck of a lot better than this system reviewed here and the channel changing was quick and flawless.">

    Perhaps Anandtech can get one of these systems for a review

  • DigitalFreak - Thursday, April 5, 2007 - link">Link
  • phil2cool - Thursday, April 5, 2007 - link

    Any of you guys take the card out of the box and stick it in a PCIe slot?? Would be interesting to see what the system would do.
  • TrueWisdom - Wednesday, April 4, 2007 - link

    I have to say, this review was excellently written, but it dashed all the dreams I had about running a media server. I had envisioned having one PC hooked up to my cable, recording QAM broadcasts, and then distributing them on the fly to any networked device in my house. (I was actually considering purchasing an Xbox 360 for just this purpose--well, that and Gears of War.) But this sounds absolutely ridiculous--any content I try to record or stream is locked down in every conceivable way. Why are they so goddamned concerned with what I do with my media? If it's broadcast OTA, and I paid for it, just let it go. Don't try and control it after it gets to my house, too.

    I was really excited about using Vista Ultimate's Media Center to stream video and whatnot; it really looked like a simple, attractive interface. Now it looks like it's back to Kubuntu and XBMC.

    Can Vista's Media Center stream downloaded material to an Xbox 360? For example, if I were to download episodes of a publicly available program (say Prison Break, for example) in HD, could I then stream it to the X360?
  • Tujan - Wednesday, April 11, 2007 - link

    I tend to agree with this. The problem with configuration of these type of components is you have separate proprietary parties controlling them. OTA broadcast,or Cable in the anolog areana,did not personify 'illegal distribution'. The VCR what it is and was,being nothing more than a recording.To the person making it.
    With DMCA,these parties become 'liable'in no ending concerns.Via closed off agreements pertaining to the systems volitility.Something RIAA,and MPAA continue to exploit- the reach of communicative systems,and thus their control in continuation of them,on their terms.
    I had looked into a Radio Shack catalog one time,and you could for example,take your analog signal,through the RCA connector,and have the whole homes systems receive the video.And sound.
    But with the digital stuff,the whole that makes up the parts,is something of a legal partition in consideration of whatever reach a device can be conductive too.Nevermind the usefullness of them.That would be in the terms and agreements.

    I had at first wanted to note that of the problems people are going to have since of course they are going to want to upgrade their processors.Here we are not in technical terms.But yet again going to what legal terms make up their composition. When the leverage is on the proprietary nature,rather than the usefulness of the technology.
    Dominoes in missing identity.
  • vailr - Wednesday, April 4, 2007 - link

    Why USB 2.0 instead of firewire?
    I believe firewire would have been a better choice for an HD TV tuner. Firewire 800 doesn't seem too common right now (firewire 400 being more common). Since Dell has total control of their PC design: why not include 2 firewire 800 ports. And use those instead of USB 2.0 ports for the external AMD TV tuner. Making for less bottleneck when using a USB mouse & keyboard. Not to mention external USB 2.0 hard drives, etc.
  • tagej - Wednesday, April 4, 2007 - link

    As usual Anand did a great job with this review.

    The more I read about this stuff, the more I realize the combination of the content industry and MS are shooting themselves in the foot with all the restrictions. This platform will never go anywhere if people have to jump through all sorts of hoops and end up having all sorts of issues and restrictions. They'll just get the HD DVR from their cable company and be done with it.

    The only reason to go with an HTPC over a regular cable-company HD DVR is to add flexibility -- and all the DRM restrictions have pretty much nixed the flexibility aspect already. For example, you can't burn something and take it over to a buddy's house for viewing. So how is this better than the regular DVR? It's a little shinier in terms of the interface, but otherwise is the same (except it doesn't work as well).

    Nope, this thing is dead in the water, MS will not own the living room anytime soon....

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