We’re now living in a golden age for home theater PCs (HTPC). For most people, the most important feature in an HTPC is live TV and DVR functionality. If the HTPC doesn’t handle live and recorded television, then many of the family members will never use it. That is why CableCARD tuners are so important to the progress of Windows Media Center as the leading home theater PC platform. With a CableCARD tuner you have the ability to watch and record cable television from any channel in high definition. 2011 has been a great year if you’ve been considering building a CableCARD-equipped Media Center PC. In the past, the only option for a multi-stream CableCARD tuner was the Ceton InfiniTV 4. While it is a fantastic device it has a somewhat limited reach because it required an open PCIe slot in your computer. This left small-form-factor PC owners out of the game. Ceton’snew device, the InfiniTV 4 USB changes all of that. Their latest offering gives the ability to record four shows at once from a small USB box that can be connected to virtually any Windows 7 PC.
The beautiful black box measures in at only 1″ tall, 5.25″ wide, and 7.25″ long. The design approach was clearly minimalistic. The only side that has anything on it, other than graphics or vents, is the rear. You won’t find any lights on the front. Some people will surely like that there aren’t any lights on the front that could be seen as distracting, while others will definitely wish that there were lights to indicate how many tuners are in use. The top and bottom of the all black case is peppered with cooling holes. This is one area where Ceton was able to take something that was necessary for the function of the device and still make it beautiful to look at. The vents aren’t just a grid of holes. They’ve stylistically placed them to give it a very cool look. Around the back of the tuner you’ll find the coax cable input to the far left. The device is tall enough that they didn’t need to use a dongle this time around. To the right of that is the slot for the CableCARD. Next to that is the USB port, and to the far right is the port for the A/C adapter. Remember, the CableCARD is designed to stick out by about a quarter of an inch, so don’t try to jam it in any further. This is to give you something to grasp on to when removing it. Also, when inserting the CableCARD ensure that the manufacturer label is facing up, and that the end with the two rows of holes is the side that is inserted first. When you’ve pushed it in all the way it will feel like its snapping into place. It would have been nice to see a USB A female jack on the tuner also. This could have been used for plugging in a tuning adapter if your cable company is using Switched Digital Video. Instead you’ll need to plug the tuning adapter into your computer.
Installation of the Ceton InfiniTV 4 USB isn’t very complicated, and Ceton provides detailed instructions for every step along the way. Of course, before you even purchase a CableCARD tuner, you should run Microsoft’s Digital Cable Advisor from within Windows Media Center. It should be located in the Extras Gallery. If it’s not in there, go to Tasks > Settings > General > Automatic Download Options and click the Download Now button. After a few minutes the Extras Gallery icon will be available on the Extras strip within Media Center. Run the Digital Cable Advisor, and it will inform you as to whether your computer is capable of supporting a CableCARD tuner. This step needs to be run before setting up your new tuner. Once that is complete plug everything into the tuner device, and connect the InfiniTV to your computer.
Every cable operator tends to implement their CableCARD system a little different than the rest, so the ability to effectively diagnosis any potential issues is critically important. Ceton offers a web page built into their InfiniTV tuners for accessing all of the diagnostic information for the tuners, CableCARD, and your connection to your cable provider. To get to the web page simply open Windows Explorer and select “Network” from the left-side navigation pane. Then, under Media Devices, you will find the Ceton InfiniTV USB. Just double-click on the InfiniTV option and it will open the diagnostic web page in your default web browser.
The diagnostic web page for the Ceton InfiniTV 4 USB is broken up into sections for the individual tuners, CableCARD, System, Tuning Adapter, and a Log and Help section. From the tuner sections you’ll get detailed information about whether each tuner is tuned to a channel, its signal strength, copy protection status, signal to noise level, temperature, and more. The CableCARD page is the most useful during initial setup of the device. This page displays card authorization messages, number of channels available, channel maps received, and out of band information. The System tab displays information about the InfiniTV including firmware version, hardware revision, how long it has been online, and details about its connection to your network (all CableCARD tuners are treated by Windows as network interface cards). Firmware updates can be done from this page also. If your cable provider is using Switched Digital Video, you’ll need a tuning adapter, and you’ll be able to get information about the tuning adapter’s status on that page. There’s also a Log tab which will really only be necessary if you’re having difficult issues to fix. The Help tab just links to Ceton’s support site.
If you’d prefer not to use a web browser, Ceton also offers an application that you can run from the Start menu. It offers much of the same information, but in a more user-friendly way. You won’t need to know the ins and outs of cable television to use the Ceton InfiniTV Diagnostic Tool. If you have an issues getting your new device setup, this is the first place you should look for help. The Diagnose tab of the application also offers the ability to collect information about your system for sending to Ceton for help. You can describe the problem you’re having and provide them with information about your cable company before it analyzes your setup and creates a zip file to transfer via their support system. The Update tab also provides for an easy way to update the device’s firmware
For our testing we used two separate computers. The more powerful box had an AMD Phenom 9500 Quad-Core processor running at 2.2Ghz and 4GB of memory. The less powerful machine was the Earth by Low Carbon PC (view our review) which has an Intel Atom D525 processor running at 1.8 Ghz and 2GB of memory. The AMD box represents a more powerful computer that could be used as a higher-end HTPC while the Earth fits the niche of a gorgeous and tiny small-form-factor HTPC that looks great in the living room, and works well as an entry-level HTPC. Both machines were running Windows 7 with Service Pack 1.
On the more powerful AMD-based machine we never noticed any hiccups in terms of computer performance. No matter how many shows we were recording the main show that we were watching kept on playing without missing a beat. There weren’t even any noticeable delays in system responsiveness. On the Atom-based PC we didn’t really notice any issues until we started pushing the limits. Watching one show while recording three others caused occasional blocky video in the show we were watching. Of course this is primarily due to the lower powered hardware, but we have to believe that the box’s external architecture is eating up some extra resources that a PCIe card doesn’t.
One thing was never in doubt with the Ceton InfiniTV 4 USB: its reliability. We recorded over 100 shows in a weekend, typically with four being recorded at a time, on the AMD box, and it didn’t miss a single recording. It simply worked every single time we tried to record something!
If you’re saddled with Switched Digital Video (SDV) from your cable provider then you’ll be pleased to know that the Ceton InfiniTV 4 USB has you covered. We attached our Motorola tuning adapter to the PC via USB, installed the driver (which in this case was actually written and provided by Ceton in their driver setup utility), and after just a couple of minutes of time for the tuning adapter to pair with the cable company, we were watching SDV channels. We never had any problems with SDV, but the technology isn’t the most stable. If you do experience problems with an SDV channel, the most likely culprit will be the tuning adapter.
The only thing we weren’t all that thrilled about with the InfiniTV 4 USB was the temperature of the device. It definitely gets warm. The other disappointing aspect is that it never seems to really cool down. It appears that as long as it’s connected to the PC and everything is on, it will be running and some-what warm. We never experienced any issues though, so apparently the beautiful vents are also very functional.
One of the primary advantages that the Ceton’s InfiniTV 4 USB offers over its PCIe brother is that its USB port allows it to be paired with virtually any Windows 7 PC. With this new device from Ceton you’ll be getting rock solid reliability in a beautiful and tiny enclosure that can be hooked to just about anything. For many, cable television is the centerpiece of their home entertainment system. If that describes you then you can now build the home theater PC that is perfect for you without having to limit your case choices to options that are big enough for a PCIe card. The InfiniTV 4, whether you pick USB or PCIe, will cost you $299 and bring with it the ability to watch and record four simultaneous cable television shows. You can now send that awful DVR you’ve been using back to the cable company and build a quad-tuner Windows Media Center PC and have access to premium HDTV, along with all of your music, photos, videos, and movies. Thank you to Ceton for providing us with a review unit.
Update: The Ceton InfiniTV 4 USB can now be purchased on Amazon (Prime eligible) for $299.00.