Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 CableCARD Tuner Review

Aug 26, 2011 by

Technically speaking CableCARD tuners have been available for use on PCs for a few years. ATI, now AMD, released internal and external single tuner devices years ago. Unfortunately, they were expensive, some-what unreliable, and required one CableCARD per tuner. Then a year ago Ceton arrived on the scene with the InfiniTV 4. It was the first product available to offer four simultaneous HD, premium cable, streams from a single device. The InfiniTV 4 is great, but what if your home theater PC (HTPC) doesn’t have an open PCIe slot to put an InfiniTV into, or what if your PC doesn’t have one at all, like in the case of many small-form-factor PCs. Hauppauge now has a CableCARD option that will work for all of those potential customers, or for those who don’t necessarily want or need four tuners. Hauppauge is releasing the WinTV-DCR-2650 which is a dual-tuner CableCARD USB tuner. This means that for about $150 you can watch and record any channel that your cable provider offers right on your Windows 7 Media Center PC. Once you have the tuner  you’ll just need to lease a CableCARD from your cable provider, which is typically about $5/month. Some cable companies even provide the first CableCARD for free. You may also need a tuning adapter if your cable provider uses Switched Digital Video (SDV.) You shouldn’t need to pay for the tuning adapter.

Hardware

The WinTV-DCR-2650 measures about 7.5” wide by 4” deep and is about 1” tall. The front of the device has four lights separated into two pairs. The first light on the left is the System light. If it’s red it means that it’s either not plugged into the PC, or the driver hasn’t loaded properly. The second light indicates the presence of a cable signal. As long as it’s solid, so is it’s cable connection. The other two lights are for the individual tuners. If they aren’t currently in use then the lights are not illuminated. If a tuner is currently attempting to tune a channel then it’s light will blink. Once it’s successfully connected to the channel the tuner light will remain solid.

WinTV-DCR-2650 Doesn't Include a CableCARD

On the back of the tuner you’ll find all of the ports for the various items that need to be attached to the device. On the far left is the standard RF cable signal jack. Next to that is the USB port. This is for the USB cable that attaches to the home theater PC. To the right of that is the power jack for the AC adapter, and to the far right is the slot for the CableCARD. Make sure that when you insert the CableCARD that the manufacturer label is pointing up. Don’t jam the card in too far either. The card is designed to stick out of the back of the tuner about 1/2″. This enables you to pull the CableCARD out as there isn’t a separate mechanism for ejecting the card. The only other thing that I wish the WinTV-DCR-2650 had was a USB port that could be used to plug the tuning adapter into. If you need a tuning adapter you’ll have to plug it into your PC instead. The physical appearance of Hauppauge CableCARD tuner is probably a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I don’t dislike the shape and color of the case, but the frosted plastic lenses over the indicator lights look cheap to me. At the end of the day if you hate the design you can just hide the tuner, so how it looks shouldn’t really impact your purchasing decision.

Installation

Installing a CableCARD device can sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Hauppauge includes instructions to help you get the WinTV-DCR-2650 setup. On your Windows 7 Media Center PC the first thing you’ll want to do, if you haven’t already, is to run the Digital Cable Advisor Tool. You should be able to find that in the Extras Gallery within Media Center. If not, don’t worry, it’s covered in more detail in the Hauppauge instructions. After that is complete you need to connect everything to the tuner. Start by inserting the CableCARD into the back of the WinTV-DCR-2650. Then plug the USB cable from the tuner into your computer, and plug the AC adapter into the tuner and the wall to supply power to it. After doing that Windows 7 should detect it and install the drivers necessary. If Windows can’t find the appropriate drivers just insert the included CD.  Once the drivers are setup you’re ready to setup the tuner within Windows Media Center.

Open Windows Media Center and if it doesn’t automatically notify you that it found a new tuner then go to Tasks menu and select Settings. After that select TV, then TV Signal, then Set Up TV Signal. From there you just walk through the guided TV setup process. There are only a couple of new screens if you’ve never installed a CableCARD tuner before. The important one provides identification information for your CableCARD and it will instruct you to call your cable company to active the card. One of the nice things about this is that it even provides you with the phone number for your cable company right on the screen. Hopefully your cable company will properly activate your CableCARD and after you’ve clicked the “next” button a few more times you should be all set. Of course you’ll also want to make sure that you wired up the tuner well. You don’t want to have a bunch of cable splitters in your wiring or else your cable signal might be too low to give you a clear picture, or any picture at all.

Diagnostics

Accessing the Diagnostic Webpage

CableCARD tuners are a special breed of device, and sometimes that can make the initial setup difficult. The way a CableCARD works with your computer and your cable company’s infrastructure can also be quite dynamic, so it can be extremely beneficial to have as much diagnostic information available to you as possible. Hauppauge, much like Ceton before them, provides an entire diagnostic web page built right into their tuner. You find it by simply opening up file explorer, selecting the Network tree from the menu on the left, and then double-clicking on the Hauppauge OpenCable Receiver. This will then open up the diagnostic page in your default web browser.

The main screen displays the model number of your tuner, the device ID, and what version of the firmware is currently in use. It also provides links to deeper sub-menus for Status, Channel Lineup, CableCARD, Tuning Resolver, and links for downloading the latest drivers and installation instructions. The status menu is where you’re likely to spend most of your time. From there you’ll get more detailed information about the system, CableCARD, tuners, and tuning resolver (also called a tuning adapter.)  The pages for the individual tuners are ones that you’ll probably find the most useful as you’ll be able to see what channel they are currently tuned to, if the program is copy-protected, the signal strength, signal quality, and other details. The channel lineup can also be viewed by selecting that option from the main menu. It simply provides a list of every channel that should be available to you. This information is sent across the network from you cable company to the digital cable tuner. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty details of the CableCARD status you can select the CableCARD Menu option from the main screen. There you’ll find every detail imaginable about the card. All of this information can really come in handy if you’re experiencing any problems. Try to use this data to help your cable company solve any issues you might have a lot quicker.

Overall Impressions

The big question of course is: does it work? The short answer is: mostly. For channels that aren’t using Switched Digital Video (SDV) the tuner works exactly how you would expect. Unfortunately Hauppauge is having problems with their tuning adapter software. Obviously we’re testing this before the device has officially launched, so it is possible that they’ll have this problem fixed prior to customers receiving their WinTV-DCR-2650 tuners. Currently they are telling us that the problem should be fixed, via a software update, “in the next week or so.” Also, one thing that owners might notice is that the first time a request is made to the tuner after a reboot the device can take about 10 seconds to tune to the channel. After that it only takes a couple of seconds to change channels. Most channel changes took between 1.5 seconds and 3 seconds. These numbers were about the same as other tuners we’ve tested.

Because the Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 utilizes USB for it’s connection to your home theater PC many hope that it will work on essentially any Windows 7 computer. I say “essentially” because the only system requirements that Hauppauge states are the ability to pass Microsoft’s Digital Cable Advisor test. Unfortunately this didn’t work out in practice. Some of my testing was on a dual-core AMD Athlon computer, and on that machine the tuner worked without issue. However, I also tested on Acer Aspire Revo to see how it would perform on a low-power small-form-factor PC. This Revo is powered by an Intel Atom 230 processor with NVidia Ion graphics. On a fresh install of Windows 7 the Revo was unable to keep up with the demands of the WinTV-DCR-2650. Immediately after starting live television the processor spiked to 100% utilization.  The processor being maxed out also brought with it one major side effect: stuttering video. Just to rule out the possibility of something being wrong with the Revo, I tried on another Atom-powered machine and received identical results. After discovering this I went back to look at the numbers on the Athlon box I mentioned earlier. This isn’t the most scientific, but when watching live TV with the Hauppauge tuner the CPU was at about 35% utilization. After stopping the video CPU utilization dropped to around 15%. Clearly there were other things consuming resources on the computer at the time, but a 20% processing swing is pretty significant on a dual-core 2.7GHz machine. I want to be clear about the processor in the Revo. The Atom 230 is one of the oldest processors in the line, and it’s a single-core processor. We’ve tested machines with newer dual-core Atom processors, such as the Earth by Low Carbon PC, and had much better results with similar tests. On the Earth that we reviewed, which had a dual-core Atom 525, we used the Ceton InfiniTV 4 as a network tuner and it only took the CPU utilization up to 20%. The same test on this Atom 230 machine also pegged the processor.  We no longer have the Earth to test on, but given all of this its probably a safe assumption that an Atom 525 would be able to adequately handle the Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650.

Just to reiterate after that lengthy break-down, when the Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 CableCARD tuner was paired with anything we would consider “a decent PC” then it worked without issues. There is a fair amount of overhead that comes with an external device like this though, and that should be taken into consideration if you’re planning to match it up with a very low-power PC.

Conclusion

The availability of CableCARD tuners at reasonable prices have been the final piece in making a Windows 7 Media Center PC not only the core of your household entertainment needs, but have allowed it to be the only piece you need. For years Windows Media Center has offered a fantastic interface for accessing all of your music, photos, and videos, but now that you can easily and cheaply make it your cable DVR opens up a world of possibilities. The Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 is now solidly holding down the spot of entry-level cable television tuner for you home theater PC (HTPC.) It offers the ability to record two channels simultaneously from any cable channel you receive, for only $150. While Ceton’s InfiniTV 4 offers twice the number of tuners, and SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun Prime brings hardware-based network tuner functionality to the table, a dual-tuner CableCARD device for $150 that can connect to virtually any Windows 7 PC brings with it the functionality that you need at a price that is far easier to justify if this is your first foray into the wonderful world of HTPCs. The Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 is available from Amazon for about $150. Thank you to Hauppauge for providing us with a review unit.

 

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