Its not often that a product comes along that really shakes up a niche market like ours. With few exceptions we are accustomed to every product acting like all the others. Price or brand recognition ends up being the determining factor in hardware choices.
What happens however when a product comes along and challenges our notions of the HTPC landscape?
Way back in January of 2009 we learned about an exciting product that really deserves the much-overused title “game changer.” Ceton’s InfiniTV 4, a pci-express card that can record up to four simultaneous high-definition television shows at once via a single CableCARD, gave HTPC builders what they have needed for a long time: more tuners, smaller form factor, and a pci-e interface.
- 4 Tuner CableCARD device
- 1x pci-e (will fit into any pci-e slot)
- Low-profile or full-height bracket
What you haven’t realized yet is that two of us at the Digital Media Zone are reviewing the Ceton InfiniTV 4. Richard decided to reinstall Windows 7 on his Dell XPS 420 to provide Ceton every opportunity to succeed or fail based on the strength of their hardware and software design. I, Josh, took the route that I think many will, to simply install it into my Media Center PC as it stood.
Prior to doing the driver installation I ran the Digital Cable Advisor Tool located in the Extras Gallery within Windows Media Center. This is a requirement to prepare your computer for a CableCARD. The driver installation went smooth for both of us, and of course the hardware installation is a breeze. Physical installation of the card is simple. Just slide it into any available pci-express slot regardless of the size. Then slide the CableCARD into the slot of the back of the card. Don’t be alarmed when the card is still hanging out of the back about an inch. It’s supposed to do that so that you’ll have a way of removing the card. Once the CableCARD is in, simply attach the coax cable to the dongle. While dongles don’t have a great reputation, the one supplied by Ceton is top-notch. It feels very solid and well-built, while still providing flexibility to accommodate any cabling situation. After the driver and card were installed we ran the guided setup within Media Center. If you’ve ever setup a TV tuner within Media Center then this process will feel very familiar to you. The only real difference is that you will eventually be greeted with a screen full of identification numbers for the CableCARD. This screen will instruct you to call your cable company so that the card can be activated for your account. Most likely a cable technician will be sitting in your living room watching you do all of this. This is the one part of the setup that he will actually take part in. Once the cable company has activated the card you can complete the setup as normal. You may need to wait a few minutes for the computer to receive all of the channel maps. Fortunately Ceton even makes this part easy. Just point Internet Explorer on the PC with the InfiniTV 4 installed to http://192.168.200.1. Alternatively you can also click Start, then Computer, then select Network from the menu on the left. Among the listed devices should be one labeled Ceton InfiniTV Mocur. If you double-click it you will be taken to the website also. You will be taken to the web interface for the card. From here you will be able to access all kinds of diagnostic information about the tuner card and the CableCARD. At this point you will want to go to the tab labeled CableCARD. Scroll all the way to the bottom. You are looking for the items labeled “Number of Channels” and “Channel Maps Received.” If these are both zero then the card hasn’t received the information from the cable company yet. Refresh the page every minute or two. If you haven’t received anything after five or ten minutes you should probably call the cable company again. Once the number of channels looks right for your cable subscription you should be all set!
You may also want to play around with the previously mentioned web interface for the InfiniTV 4. From the site you can view information from each of the four tuners, including the current state of the tuner, whether the stream is copy protected, the signal level, the signal to noise level, and even the temperature of that individual tuner. The card also supports Switched Digital Video, so if your cable company requires a tuning adapter you can also view the status of it from the web interface. Neither of the cable companies used during our testing, Buckeye Cable and Comcast, are currently using SDV though, so we were unable to test this. Buckeye is apparently very close to completing their roll-out, so we may be able to test that in the near future.
Obviously Richard and I aren’t the only people in our homes to use Windows Media Center 7. It is the only way anyone accesses television and the rest of our digital media. With that, it was important to make sure that it would work great for everyone, so Richard asked his wife how she liked it in comparisson to their single ATI CableCard tuner. She stated the obvious at first. “Four is better than one”. But she put a finer point on it. “We like to record a lot of shows. We can do this comfortably and still have live events on around the house.” She was absolutely right! Since switching to the InfiniTV 4 I’ve never once been concerned about missing a recording due to not having enough tuners.
CableCARD and Copy-Protection
I’ve seen a lot of mis-information out there about copy-protection, DRM, and how it relates to CableCARD. Many people seem to think that all content that comes via CableCARD is 100% copy-protected 100% of the time just because its coming over CableCARD. That is completely not true. What people are typically confusing here is copy-protection versus encryption. Typically premium channels (like ESPN, Food Network, etc…) are encrypted by the content provider. That just means that, in the case that you’re using a cable company, you wont be able to view those channels with a ClearQAM tuner. If a channel is encrypted you need some other hardware/software to decrypt it before your TV, or TV tuner card can display it. In the case of CableCARD, it is the CableCARD and device that are providing that decryption. Copy-protection doesn’t factor into encryption at all. Most cable companies are now encrypting most of their content, especially the premium channels. That does not mean that they are always copy-protecting it though. In my case, with Buckeye Cablesystem, all of the premium channels are encrypted, but while using CableCARD almost none of those channels are copy-protected. In the end, it all comes down to your cable company. They choose which channels are copy-protected. Most channels will be encrypted, but not necessarily copy-protected. The main advantage that CableCARD provides is the ability to decrypt the content. If the content provider doesn’t copy-protect it, then the Ceton InfiniTV 4 won’t copy-protect it either. On the other hand, if your cable company does choose to mark the content as protected, then the InfiniTV 4 will honor that copy-protection. That doesn’t mean you can’t watch the content. It just means you can’t share it with other computers on your network. You can however still view that content using Windows Media Center Extenders in addition to viewing it from the computer on which it was recorded.
When it comes to watching cable television via the Ceton InfiniTV 4 everything just works. I’ve used the device for a few weeks and I haven’t had any issues at all. This has also been on drivers that should be considered beta, because the card hasn’t been officially released yet, and I know they are working hard every day to make the device better and better. When it comes to whether or not I would recommend the card, the answer is absolutely: yes! If you can afford the $399 price tag then you absolutely owe it to yourself, and the other people living in your house, to put this card into your home theater PC. It can drastically simplify your setup, which in my case also brought with it increased stability. To put it simply, the Ceton InfiniTV 4 is Media Center paradise! I’ve never once been concerned about running out of tuners, and every channel that my cable company provides to me is viewable, even the premium channels in high definition.Purchase on Amazon