Two-Way CableCARD Appears in Windows 7

I’ve long talked about the addition of two-way CableCARD within Media Center, but so far no real timeline has been drawn.  Microsoft has kept their lips locked as has CableLabs about actually finishing (or announcing) the specs for the two-way tuners (called BOCRs).  All of this leaves us to fill in the blanks ourselves.



Frankly, I don’t see full two-way CableCARD tuner support until Windows 7.  There are several reasoning’s behind this, but the first being CableLabs timeline for the actual specs.  At this point CableLabs has been focusing on the M-Card extension to OCURs.  I never got around to doing a good post on MOCURs, but the basic idea is that CableLabs approved an extension to the OCUR specs which allows OEMs to make OCURS that support M-Cards in M-Mode.  This means your single MOCUR is really two tuners when paired with an M-Card.  Currently, OCURs with an M-Card revert to S-Mode which means you only get a single stream (one channel per tuner).  I’m not exactly sure why they have chosen to do this and yet again have CableCARD fall behind what the market needs, but a little late to change that.



Outside of the BOCR specs you have the next issue being Media Center release schedules.  As Microsoft currently has one that should be getting ready to start any day now, you can bet that BOCR support is not a part of it.  So that would set the stage for support in the following Media Center release.  As Windows 7 is predicted to be released in 2009/2010 I’m betting it will be the follow-up for Media Center as well.



So it looks like our two-way CableCARD dreams are going to have to wait.  Here’s to hoping your cable company doesn’t deploy SDV, and if they do here’s to hoping the TiVo Tuning Resolver will actually be made to work with OCURs (don’t hold your breath though).

Short Bits: Plug-ins, Media Center Show, Prices





Plug-in News/Reviews











Ian Dixon will have Ed Bott on The Media Center Show today live at 12pm PST.  Click here for the live link.



Speaking of The Media Center Show, Pasquale DeMaio & Terry Walsh are on this week (pre-recorded) show.



Microsoft cut prices on some Vista SKUs which translates into no one is buying Vista at retail.  More here.

Linksys Extender Review Part 3: Wrap-up

I’ve previously stated that v2 Extenders are too expensive to really make a splash and I think that still stands.  While the Linksys DMA2100 and DMA2200 both are available online for less than their MSRP, when you consider that multiple purchases are needed in several occasions to make full advantage of the whole home Media Center experience it is a very pricey way to go when you add up all the issues.



File format support, while greatly improved over previous Extender offers still isn’t where it needs to be.  The simple fact is that the majority of customers looking at Extenders are specific format demands, if this device can’t meet those it’s not going to go over well.  For the rest of the market, they just want to play the content they have.  Changing FourCC codes of their files and/or re-encoding is not a step they should have to take.



I’d give the Linksys DMA2200 a 6/10.  It still needs a lot of work, and I really feel at this point with it being a second generation product that these issues shouldn’t exist.  For simply extending the “core” Media Center experience (minus videos), the DMA2200 is fantastic.  However, it still lacks in providing format support to bring the device to the level it should be.



If you’re in the market for a small form factor Extender for the bedroom or alike where 5.1 audio is not the main issue (for AVI/WMV files), the Linksys DMA2100 or DMA2200 are perfect for you.  If you are looking to get your loud/hot Media Center PC or Xbox 360 out of your living room the DMA2100/DMA2200 may not be your best option at this point if you are a power user.



I’d really like to see Extenders integrated into future Blu-ray Disc Players.  I believe this could generate additional revenue streams for manufactures by offering the Extender software download for a small price.  The hardware that many players are built off of already supports everything it needs, so I believe this is truly the next step.



Other than that, Linksys needs to offer a firmware update to fix the video format capability issues ASAP.  These v2 Extenders were delayed and delayed leaving the Xbox 360 as the only choice, now v2 Extenders are starting to become available with so many issues that the wait was hardly worth it.

Thanks to Microsoft, Linksys and everyone at Edelman!



Pros and Cons of the Linksys DMA2200 (6/10)

Pros



  • Solid design in small package
  • Completely slient
  • Integrated Upconverting DVD player a plus
  • Supports HD streaming
  • Easy setup and installation








Cons



  • No HDMI cable included
  • Lackluster file format support
  • Doesn’t output AC3 within AVI files
  • Doesn’t output WMV9 Pro as AC3
  • Transitions/animations clunky
  • Horrible included remote
  • Upconverting DVD only so-so quality

Related:

Linksys Extender Review Part 1: Media Center & PC Setup

Linksys Extender Review Part 2: Extender Experience

Linksys Extender Review Part 2: Extender Experience

Having the PC setup now on the Media Center side of things I moved onto the Extender.  The first step was connecting it to my display (or Receiver in my case).  I used HDMI to do this, but the DMA2200 has just about every output you could want if HDMI isn’t an option.  One of the first things I noticed about the DMA2200 is that it is rock solid in terms of design.  Cheap feeling plastic is nowhere to be found on the unit itself.  The remote however is a different story that I will get into later.

My first test involved connecting the Extender to the PC over a hardwired connection.  This is still the preferred way to connect any device in my opinion, and I had no issues doing so.  The standard process involves putting in the unique code from the PC and then the Extender/PC does the rest.  Over the hardwired connection I had boot-ups around 25 seconds on average.  I’d like to see this improve, but it not horribly bad.



Now presented with the exact same Media Center UI as on the PC, you can do just about everything you could on the PC.  I scheduled recordings, watched some previously recorded HD content, listened to music, etc.



Problems and Issues



The first problem with the DMA2200 (and most other v2 Extenders) is the lack of power when compared to an Xbox 360 or the PC itself.  Because of this the transitions and menu animations make the unit feel clunky.  Disabling these in the Settings menu brings the Extender to life.  I would like to see this improved upon because Media Center frankly looks and feels so much nicer with the animations.  If it can’t be fixed due to processing reasons, the Extenders should really disable animations to being with.  A first time user being greeted with the poor performance brought on by the animations alone isn’t a good thing.



On the same topic of lack of processing power, v2 Extenders lack the use of the forth Zoom mode (nonlinear zoom) which is annoying for those who have come accustomed to using it on the PC or Xbox 360.

The included remote is trash.  Unlike the DMA2200 itself which is solid feeling, the remote is a cheap feeling plastic piece of trash.  You can actually use any Media Center remote with Extenders, however this presents some problems for local DVD playback controls (the Linksys remote has extra bottons for the DVD playback portion).  A learning or univeral remote would be my choice to replace the Linksys remote, you can program a Harmony remote in seconds via the Harmony software and then learn the extra DVD playback controls from the Linksys remote to complete the setup.



Video Formats



Video playback was my next place to test and instead of a bunch of explaining in text here is a graphic that outlines most of my findings.

image

As previously discussed Linksys has disabled playback of DivX content by blocking DivX specific FourCCs.  While the DMA2200 will play DivX just like (it’s MPEG-4 ASP, same as Xvid), you have to use a FourCC Changer on all your DivX files before they will playback.  What better what to confuse people than this?  I want to see this fixed in the first firmware update, it is simply ridiculous that any user should have to go through the process to play the content they already have.



MKV containers are not supported, but MOV and MP4 both worked in my testing with H.264 encoded video.  I’d love to see an update include MKV support; after all it’s a free open standard.



The Linksys DMA2200 has major issues with outputting audio.  While DVR-MS files with AC3 (Dolby Digital) are output correctly, AVI files with AC3 audio are not in my testing (output over HDMI).  Instead the DMA2200 decodes the AC3 internally and outputs PCM.  Done correctly this isn’t that bad, however it’s not mixed correctly at all.  The center channel is completely destroyed in the process, as are the rear channels.



In addition to AC3 issues, the DMA2200 doesn’t transcode WMA Professional 5.1 to AC3.  This means that unless you have an AVR that decodes WMA Professional, your 5.1 channel WMV files are simply output as two-channel PCM.



VOB files are not supported; however playback does kind-of work if you rename them to .MPG.  However, the skip functions on the remote don’t work nicely even after running the VOB through VideoReDo (QuickStream Fix).



The next issue that I ran into was playback of WMV9 Advanced Profile content (WVC1).  There is a problem with the Linksys DMA2100/2200 freezing at 20 minutes into the file.  Not exactly sure why this happens, but it has be reproduced by several users including myself.



DVD Streaming/Playback



Ripping and streaming DVDs is one of the most common things people want to do with these Extenders.  Some things to consider here is that Media Center’s included DVD Library doesn’t extend to any Media Center Extender, neither do DVD Changers.



 If you want to catalog movies then using My Movies is your best option.  File format support must match to the above chart for the content to play via My Movies.



The main problem here is that the lack of a good file format for such.  In my testing VOBs didn’t work nicely, DivX/Xvid with AC3 didn’t output correctly, WMV with WMA Professional 5.1 outputs as 2 channel.  Bottom line, there is no good option at this point for ripping and streaming DVDs.

The DMA2200 also includes a upconverting DVD player locally in the unit.  While a nice addition, it is hardly a top of line DVD player.  Upconverting quality is so-so, and it does appear to suffer from pauses from layer changes.   The box for the DMA2200 states it does 720p, 1080i, and 1080p, however 1080i is the max output resolution that you can actually set the unit too.  I’m not sure if they are planning to add 1080p support at a later date, but the hardware “supports” it if they enable it.



Wireless Experience





As my review package included the Linksys WRT600n Wireless-N Router I decided to give the DMA2200 a test using Wireless-N instead of my preferred hardwired connection.  Much to my surprise connecting over 802.11n worked very well minus a few setup issues.

When first setup I did have some pixilation and blocking while playing HD recordings and was prompted that I have a network issue.  I ran the Network Tuning Wizard on the on the Extender (which it prompted me to do) and it looked okay.  I rebooted the router and tried to connect again and was able to stream HD recordings without an issue.  I continued to connect over wireless for the remainder of my testing and didn’t have any other issues.

Despite my success with the Wireless-N setup, it still seems like a hit or miss thing.  802.11n is really a must for nice wireless streaming of HD content, but if audio and SD video is your main usage you might be able to work with 802.11g.  A hardwired connection is always perferred, but clearly not everyone has that option.  Your milage may vary with the wireless aspect of the DMA2200 as their are several factors that come into play.

One cavet, it appears from fellow MVP Barb Bowman that the DMA2100 doesn’t have draft 2.0 compliant Dual Band Wireless-N (doesn’t detect non-Broadcom based (eg. Atheros) WiFi networks that are broadcasting SSID’s).  I didn’t have a DMA2100 to test, but I didn’t have any issues with the DMA2200.  I’ll note that I’m not exactly knowledgeable when it comes to wireless, so I’ll see if I can get a comment from Linksys.  Barb Bowman might be able to followup in the Media Center Newsgroups, but she is one wireless master and the one to point it out.  The DMA2100 also only includes two antennas, while the DMA2200 includes three.

Update: The above should have read “non-Broadcom” based.

Media Center UI on PC & Extenders

Related:

Linksys Extender Review Part 1: Media Center & PC Setup

Linksys Extender Review Part 3: Wrap-up 

Short Bits: Xbox HD DVD, Stage6


Microsoft made it official that the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive is now dead.  If you wanted one, I hope you got it already.  You will likely find stock marked down all over the place, some retailers going as low as $50 now.







DivX Inc has pulled the plug on their streaming service Stage6 mainly do to the high costs of keeping it running.  This will impact Media Center users that take advantage of Yougle to stream Stage6 content.  It also puts into question their DivX Connected STB concept that I’ve questioned in the past.  DivX does say “Products powered by DivX Connected, our new initiative that lets users stream video, photos, music and Internet services from the PC to the TV, are hitting retail outlets.”

ThinkRemote To Bring SideShow To Everyday Devices

As first spotted this morning on The Green Button, ThinkRemote is an upcoming application that aims to bring SideShow to “everyday devices” like your Windows Mobile phone, iPhone, Wii, Nintendo DS, PSP, web browser, and more.

The application is Media Center ready, and also focuses on home control with the ability to support IR bridging, Z-Wave, WiFi, and Bluetooth.

Check out the beta sign-up at controlthink’s website.

Linksys Extender Review Part 1: Media Center & PC Setup

Update: Skip to Extender Review Post



Between Microsoft and Linksys I’ve received a whole package of Media Center related goodies to test.  Instead of this being just a review of the Linksys DMA2200 Extender, it will also cover the overall Media Center setup process from PC to wireless.  Most of the time when I review something Media Center related I use my own PC which has generally been configured exactly how I want, and for the most part how it should be.  This is not always the case with your standard OEM PC, so I’m taking a step back and beginning the process closer to how a first time Media Center and Media Center Extender user would.



Hardware used is listed below.



HP Pavillion dv6500 Laptop



  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 TK-55 (1.80GHz)
  • 2GB of RAM
  • Windows Vista Home Premium (32-bit)
  • 3.6 Windows Experience Index
  • VGA and HDMI Outputs










Linksys WRT600N Wireless Router



  • Dual-Band Wireless-N
  • Draft 802.11n support
  • Gigabit Router






Linksys DMA2200 Extender



  • Included DVD Player
  • HDMI, Component, Composite, S-Video
  • Stereo RCA, Digital & Optical Outs
  • 10/100 Ethernet
  • Dual-Band Wireless-N










TV Tuner/Other



  • HP ExpressCard Digital/Analog TV Tuner
  • Used ATSC (OTA HD) in testing
  • HP ExpressCard Remote Control






General PC Setup



I started my setup by looking at the Linksys WRT600N Wireless Router.  Linksys has done a pretty good job over the years of providing end user software to basically automate the whole setup process (for those who don’t want to use the router configuration homepage).  Setup was pretty simple, I just connected my Ethernet cable from a switch into the router’s port marked “Internet.”  Most people will make this connection directly from their modem; however in my test environment I just used a live connection through my switch.



After this basic setup I moved onto the laptop which was where I encountered my first problem.  Upon first bootup I had connected to my existing home wireless network (non-Linksys) and everything worked fine.  However, now wanting to connect to my newly setup wireless router I came to find that Windows didn’t detect any wireless adaptor.  Ok, first stop was the device manager to make sure it wasn’t disabled.  It wasn’t even listed.  Next step was Windows Update to see if it has the drivers.  No luck.  On to the box to find the product CD, no go.  Finally I checked out the C: drive to find a Drivers folder with a WLAN folder inside.  Ran the setup, rebooted and now I was in business.  Of course, I did this to later think through that I still wanted the PC connected over hardwire for the best HD streaming experience.



I picked up the HP ExpressCard Digital/Analog TV Tuner and slide it into the card slot.  The drivers were already installed, however if they had not been I had the setup CD sitting next to me.



Media Center Setup



The next step was to setup the TV tuner and related Media Center bits.  To start the setup of the TV tuner and Guide I simply selected the Setup TV option that was already on the Media Center Start Menu.  It walked me though the setup including downloading the Guide data, selecting and setting up my TV source, etc.



I choose to use the recommended automatic TV source scanning feature in Media Center which found that I was using a Digital TV card with a single antenna connection.  Setting up the Guide was equally simple and just involved entering my zip code into the wizard.  About two minutes later Media Center had downloaded two weeks of Guide data and I was presented with the signal strength for my digital tuner.  To my surprise, the HP ExpressCard and small included antenna yielded excellent signal strength on all my local channels.  At this point, I was ready to start watching and recording some of my favorite shows.



For those of you new to Media Center, you can see what the UI looks like here.  The exact same UI is remoted to any Media Center Extender, of which five can be connected to the PC at once.  The PC can still be used independently either for traditional PC tasks or hooked up to a display running Media Center.

Product Shots 


Related:

Linksys Extender Review Part 2: Extender Experience 

Linksys Extender Review Part 3: Wrap-up

Fact or Fiction: Microsoft and Blu-ray

I’ve gotten a fair amount of reaction to the various articles I’ve posted on Microsoft and Blu-ray, and it still seems the overall consensus on the web is that Microsoft will fall head over heels for Blu-ray in their products.



I want to preface this post by saying that I’m not advocating Microsoft not supporting Blu-ray.  The fact is that Blu-ray won, while I think HD DVD had its clear advantages those don’t matter anymore.  I want Blu-ray support in any product that markets itself as part of a digital home.



Fiction: Microsoft should support Blu-ray on the Xbox 360



I truly don’t understand why Microsoft would add Blu-ray support to the Xbox 360 at this point.  When Microsoft added HD DVD support they did so by adding some four million lines of code to the Dashboard and had Toshiba manufacturer and sell the HD DVD drives at a loss.  How do I know it was at a loss?  Just look at the fact that the standard IDE drive was selling for far less than any other IDE HD DVD drive on market.



Toshiba didn’t make any money on the 300,000 that were sold and neither did Microsoft.  Microsoft took the development time to add support simply to counter Sony including Blu-ray in the PS3.  This was an extremely poor counter, but it provided a fairly cheap way for a consumer to add support for a next gen DVD format on their Xbox.



As that was the only real reason, what reason does Microsoft have now to do the same for Blu-ray?  The war is over, Blu-ray won.  Your not fighting that anymore. The Xbox 360 is nearly two years old with an approximate four year total turn-over time for the next console.  Why add Blu-ray in any form to the Xbox 360?



The simple fact is that it’s not in Microsoft’s best interest to provide Blu-ray support in the Xbox 360.  The drives are going to be too expensive as there is no reason to sell them at a loss anymore.  Pair that with the development time for BD+ and BD-J, two technologies that Microsoft didn’t agree with in the first place and you have a recipe for no Blu-ray on the Xbox 360.



As for internal drives, that’s even worse.  Going back to the drawing board, yet again losing money for an integrated drive that can only be used for movie playback.  Remember, developers can’t use Blu-ray Disc’s as that you limit your market by some 18 million current Xbox 360’s (Microsoft also wouldn’t allow it either).



I strongly disagree that Microsoft already has some of these things planned and working as Derek Flickinger suggested on CE Pro yesterday.  I don’t believe the Xbox 360 will ever have Blu-ray Disc support.  As for the Xbox 720 or whatever you want to call it, I think it is too soon to say it won’t but I don’t think you can say it will either.

Fact: Microsoft should support Blu-ray playback on the PC



There is no doubt that Microsoft should support Blu-ray playback on the PC, but as I’ve talked about several times this comes with a major technical concerns.



For native Blu-ray playback to happen in Microsoft applications they will need to update Vista’s Protected Media Path to support BD+.  This is a pretty significant change to the system that already supports AACS, the only protection that was needed for HD DVD.



It has always surprised me that BD+ never got the bad press that any other DRM/content protection system does.  It runs code in a virtual machine within the player, if that’s not something for the DRM opposed to get upset about I don’t know what is.



The need for BD+ and the equal need for Java-based BD-J interactivity support instead of the Microsoft developed XML-based iHD leaves a huge shadow of doubt about what Microsoft is going to do.  No doubt Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center users will suffer from having to use PowerDVD or alike to playback their Blu-ray Disc’s.



This also leaves Media Center and the connected Extender ecosystem in doubt.  Managed Copy in the still unfinished AACS specs will give Blu-ray the ability to offer streaming too, but BD+ is still an issue.  Microsoft might get burned by the PS3 again as there is a good chance it will be the first product to take advantage of such features.



Fiction: Microsoft should wait for digital downloads



Digital downloads are exactly what Microsoft wants.  Why?  Because from VC-1 to WMDRM to Silverlight to Windows Server to Windows Vista they can push their products from point A to point B and collect on them all.



The clear problem with this is the lack of bandwidth in the US.  Streaming and downloading of large files just isn’t an option for most US broadband users, and no matter how efficient VC-1 is as a video codec.  The fact of the matter is US ISPs are holding up streaming being a viable mass market solution.



The best way to explain this is with a graphic from Vudu, another streaming hopeful (via Dave Zatz).  As you can see from the graphic, those with broadband connections less then 2Mbps have up to a four hour delayed wait before they can start enjoying an HD download.  It should also be noted that the audio/video quality provided in these sorts of streams just can’t match what Blu-ray has been delivering for the past year.  Highly quality means higher bitrates with means larger file size which means longer download times.


image

Those ISPs that do have the bandwidth (>10Mbps) charge a pretty penny when compared to a basic lower bitrate DSL connection.  Are customers willing to both pay high dollar for an Internet connection and then pay high dollar for an HD download that it many cases has to be watched within 24 hours?  There is still a lot of work that has to be done before digital downloads can replace physical media for good.

Of course, itshould be noted that digital downloads already exist using Microsoft technologies.  The Xbox 360 has downloads via the Xbox Marketplace and the same basic concepts from above apply in terms of download times and bitrates.  Many are waiting for Microsoft to extend the reach of the Marketplace downloads to Windows Media Center (and thus Media Center Extenders) as well portable devices like the Zune.

Related:



More Ramblings About Blu-ray & Xbox 360

Short Bits: Media Center Show, On10, PowerDVD, more

Ian Dixon had Microsoft’s Steve Lindsay on the Media Center Show today talking about various including Windows Home Server, Extenders, Home automation and his new blog.



Some other stuff that I have not talked about, On10 has videos with S1Digital, Inteset, and Niveus Media.  The Windows Mobile team is looking for feedback from users with Zune’s and Windows Mobile devices which is always good to see.



Missing Remote has some tips on integrating PowerDVD Ultra with Media Center for a better Blu-ray/HD DVD playback experience.



Lastly, Jeff Atwood has an interesting article on Tivoization and the GPL.

Blu-ray on Xbox 360 Not Going to Happen

Some websites are reporting “rumors” of Microsoft getting ready to add Blu-ray support to the Xbox 360.  I’m not going to link to the main website in question, because nothing on that site has ever been true (unless there is an Xbox 360 with HD DVD intergated out there, it was said to be true by this website on at least three different occasions.  There are several other false stories out of this site too).

Jason Unger of CE Pro does have the basic rundown of the issue, but don’t believe that Blu-ray is on the way to the Xbox 360.



Among the reasons behind this are outlined in a previous post I wrote about support in Media Center.  All of these issues apply for the Xbox 360 as well.



Quickly…



  • Blu-ray support means adding a Java-based BD-J interactivity layer to the Xbox 360.  Highly doubtful to ever happen
  • The video/audio codecs are not really in question here, both HD DVD and Blu-ray use the same basic codecs.
  • Blu-ray has extra DRM in BD+.  The Xbox 360 can already do AACS, but they are not going to add BD+ support.  Microsoft has been opposed to it from the start.






I really wish more respected sites like Engadget would stop linking to well known false stories and publishers.

Related:



Fact or Fiction: Microsoft and Blu-ray



More Ramblings About Blu-ray & Xbox 360