Saturday, April 07, 2007
What is CableCard?
First off, what is CableCard? A CableCard is a special plug-in card that allows you to watch digital cable TV on any cable system in the United States through your digital cable-ready TV or more importantly through your HTPC (only Vista MCE today). Your local cable system operator supplies the card, which plugs into the rear of your digital TV set or in this case, it plugs into your CableCard Tuner like the Ocur.
Why do HTPC users care about CableCard?
Why would CableCard be beneficial to an HTPC user? In short, all cable, HD channels (or actually all cable channels) could be accessed directly by your HTPC through a CableCard tuner. Currently, your HTPC can access analog channels from your cable provider with no need for a cable-companies cable box. You can even access unencrypted digital channels from your cable provider using the excellent HDHomeRun device described in this article - unfortunately, many cable providers encrypt many of their cable channels so the HDHomeRun and even your nice, new HD TV set with a tuner built in can't access those encrypted channels. So your only other option has been to rent a cable company provided cable-box and a IR blaster and get your channels that way. This is less than perfect because of the likely delay from the IR blaster as well as the fact you aren't getting a pure HD file this way. With the cablecard, you would hopefully be able to get almost all of the cable channels in all their HD glory whether they were encrypted or not - just like you can with a cable box.
What's the Catch?
Ah yes, there's always a catch isn't there? PVRWire outlined a few gotcha's with the CableCard support for HTPC's.
Only certified manufacturers will be able to create media center PCs with CableCard support - no homebrew PC's are allowed to use CableCards
Any video coming through the CableCard must be protected from the evil-doers (read you, the HTPC user) and fully-laden with DRM. Microsoft has created their own proprietary version of the mpeg file they call the DVR-MS file. This is a "protected" or DRM'd version of the Mpeg-2 that is used by most other PVR software programs.
All files stored on the HTPC hard drive must be encrypted. No copying of those files and no placeshifting to V1 MCE extenders or the Zune or other portable media devices is permitted.
The tuner will decrypt the file from the cable signal and then re-encrypt it in the tuner with DRM. The video will then travel through a USB port to the media center, even if the Tuner is an internal PCI card.
No HMS's (home media systems) or what you and I call HTPC software other than Microsoft's Vista MCE are currently in the club.
Can other HTPC software's get CableCard support?
When reading Chris Laniers MCE-centric blog, I noticed a post he made about the DVR-MS format. His post was about why he felt the DVR-MS format was used for MCE. His points were, 1. so MCE could maintain metadata such as show title, info date etc 2. Content Protection (read DRM) and 3. Resources - he argues that DVR-MS is the only format to record to because it is less taxing on a PC's resources to record to a Mpeg-4 type format. I commented that the only reason Microsoft chose the proprietary DVR-MS format was for DRM. You can read the entire article and the comments Chris Lanier DVR-MS Story.
Chris made a comment that caused me to wonder, why don't Snapstream and Sage and others step up and get CableCard support? Does Microsoft have a monopoly on that? Here's how Chris responded:
"Microsoft doesn't have a monopoly on that. OCUR is open to any software mfg, you can download all the needed docs from CableLabs. MCE is currently the only "HMS" approved by CableLabs. I see no reason why Beyond TV or Sage could not get support if they really wanted to.
Granted, it would still take a ton of work, but Microsoft by no means has a monopoly on it."
So I ask, what would it take for Snapstream or Sage to be able to use the CableCard on their software? Here are my thoughts and ideas, but feel free to comment with your ideas in the comments:
Are the resources to get CableLabs seal of approval are not within the means of a smaller company like Snapstream or Sage? For a complete writeup of the Certification requirements demanded by CableLabs, read this "brief" fifty-one page document found on the CableLabs website.
If non-MCE companies did get the certification, they too would have to bundle their software with a system builder since the CableCard can't be used on a home-built system. It must be pre-certified hardware with a special motherboard bios in it that will hold an encryption key in it. Neither Snapstream or Sage currently bundle their software with the Dell's or the HP's of the world. It would be very difficult for them to do this and compete with a company like Microsoft that has their Media Center software "build-in" to the operating system. I'm sure Netscape would find this fact very familiar...
If these other companies actually are trying to get CableLabs seal of approval, they couldn't tell us. It says so on the CableLabs "rules for vendors" page.
Even though BeyondTV and many other PVR software programs out there can work with Vista, they can't piggyback on top of Vista's CableCard support. According to Rakesh Agrawal, the CEO of Snapstream, this isn't something that's exposed in Microsoft's API, at least not beyond being able to change channels within MCE's TV app.
So there you have it. I agree with Chris that other PVR software makers could in theory get CableCard support, but is it really possible for these smaller companies? Hasn't the bar been set so high and so costly that only a large company with great means and resources (read Microsoft or some day Apple) could do it? Let me know what you think in the comments. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear that CableCard is here for Microsoft only at least for a very long time.
ATI's CableCard Tuner
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
"Yesterday I posted about the possibility that MediaPortal might have just ripped off WebGuide4 by Doug Berrett. Today, thanks to everyone we find out that this is looks to be sadly true. Stolen images, code altered (non open source) just enough to throw off the eye. Same features, same UI, all stolen! MP's post from yesterday now gone, coverup!"
Media Portal has responded on their website as follows:
"We've made a big mistake with the webinterface for the tvserver.
As some of you might already have heard, it contains some parts of webguide4. To be clear, these parts are gfx only and NOT code. The reason this happened is because during development we borrowed the gfx layout of webguide4 with the intention to replace all the gfx with MP's own ones before releasing.
Sadly.. we forgot to replace some of the gfx and remove gfx we didnt use.
We would like to apologize to the author of WebGuide4 for this mistake.
All layout files like gfx/css styles/scripts etc have been removed from SVN for now until we found out which ones are left-overs from WebGuide4 and need to be replaced with our own graphics/styles. "
What do you think?
Monday, April 02, 2007
I've been a long-time Netflix subscriber and have really enjoyed the service. Not having to worry about late-fees is a plus for my family and having a new movie at home every weekend is a plus too. I recently gave Blockbuster online a chance just to try out the return at the store concept and I think Blockbuster has a winner there also. I've since returned to Netflix for two reasons. First, they have faster delivery and receipt times - my average turnaround time from the time I put a movie in the mail to the time I get a new one is two days total (not including the days the post office is closed of course. The second reason I switch back to Netflix was their new watch-online feature. I've read reviews in Laptop Magazine and at Slate. There is a very nice web demo of the watch-now feature on one of my favorite blogs: HackingNetflix Blog.
Last weekend my daughter wanted to watch The Tudors, a show on Showtime which I don't subscribe to. Since Netflix has the first two episodes of the Tudors available on the watch now lineup, I decided to give the feature a try and watch the two shows on our HTPC (displayed on a 36- Inch SD TV. I won't go into a full review of the watch-now service since that has been done many times before. Instead, I'll summarize my thoughts and opinion of the service here:
- Picture and streaming quality was very good. I had zero problems with both shows. Unlike when I watched the Donnelly Brothers episode that was available only online, there was no jerkiness and no buffering problems that are evident on many TV streaming sites. It was smooth and seamless, just as if the show was running on live TV (seemed as good as normal SD - if not just below DVD quality). Netflix auto-detects the bandwidth for your connection to determine the video quality. The options are: Basic, Good, High and it chose "High" for my quality fortunately.
- The Price is right. For every $1 you spend on Netflix each month, you get 1 hour of online viewing.
Installation was simple. To install the "netflix player", it took me less than three minutes. Using Internet Explorer (unfortunately this is the only browser supported right now) I clicked on install and I was set.
- Easy to use. It is a very simple video player with the basic controls: Play, Fast Forward, Rewind and Pause. I could also jump to any point in the movie just by sliding the "slider" with my mouse - this was smooth and worked well.
- Not enough show choices. While the selection seems to be improving slightly, there are not enough (if hardly any) new movies available. Also would be nice to see more TV shows available. Hopefully this will improve in the future.
- No Special Features.
- Some Censoring? While watching The Tudors, it looks like Netflix or Showtime blurred a nipple shot during a scene. While some families might prefer this, I would rather watch movies and shows as they were intended. I doubt they will be censoring this on Showtime.
- No keyboard shortcuts or HTPC integration. If there were some keyboard shortcuts, it would be easier to make a plugin for Beyond Media, MCE and other HTPC software's so you could run this thing with your mouse. I'm not sure the average Netflix subscriber would watch movies or shows on the PC. If it was able to run easier on an HTPC, this thing could be huge. I'll address this possibility more below.
- No Wide-screen Format. I think this is a must to eventually support wide-screen.
- Not currently available for non-windows PC's or for Non-IE browsers - this isn't a problem for me, but they need to add compatiblity to make their entire audience happy.
After finishing both shows, I went back to the Netflix.com website. On the “Watch Now” page of the netflix site, it listed my recently watched "watch-now" shows. This would make it simple to resume watching a specific show, but I didn't test this feature out. Both my wife and daughter were impressed and I think we'll be using it again in the future.
I see the netflix watch-now feature as a real possibility as an HTPC plugin. Already, there is a netflix plugin for Beyond Media that allows you to view and modify your netflix que, watch netflix previews (somewhat broken at the time) and check out the top movies lists (with previews and all). All of this can be done from your TV with your remote if you have Beyond Media (Media Portal has a similar plugin). If you could search for and watch full movies from the Netflix watch-now feature, this would be sort of a video-on-demand service just like you have with your cable companies, but included in the price of your Netflix subscription. Some on the snapstream forums have talked about writing a plugin to do just this so we'll see, but I think this type of integration with HTPC's is inevitable. Add to that the fact that the Netflix CEO and founder is now Microsoft's Board of Directors and I think we'll see some sort of integration with Microsoft's MCE some day soon also.
Watch Now Hack:
I heard there is a "hack" that will trick Netflix's Watch-Now feature into giving you more time for your watch-now feature. Read about that here.