A few years ago I’d written about a product called the HDHomeRun by a company named Silicon Dust and the benefits of having your TV tuners out on your home network (you can find that article here.) That device contained 2 HD tuners and could tune in over-the-air channels or channels that your cable provider didn’t encrypt (ATSC/QAM) and make those channels available to a variety of devices on your home network. It worked great but, in the intervening years, has become less and less useful to viewers who get their television from cable providers as cable providers have encrypted more and more of their channels. As I’d noted in my previous article, what’s really needed is an HDHomeRun which could use a CableCard to tune in those encrypted channels. I’d also mentioned that I didn’t think that such a device would ever be available. Fortunately, I was wrong. Let’s take a look at the CableCard-ready HDHomeRun Prime.
Needless to say, it’s the inclusion of a CableCard slot in the HDHomeRun Prime which really distinguishes it from the original HDHomeRun. You can use the HDHR Prime without a CableCard and it will, like its predecessor, be able to tune in OTA and unencrypted QAM channels from your cable provider (assuming that your cable provider still has unencrypted channels). Drop in an activated CableCard from your cable provider, however, and the HDHomeRun will be able to tune in all of the channels which you’re authorized to get from your cable company.
The other major difference between the original HDHR and the HDHR Prime is the number of tuners. There are actually two different versions of the HDHR Prime – one with 3 tuners and one with 6 tuners. And, if that’s not enough, you can always add more that one HDHR Prime to your home network.
Limitations for Sage Tv and mythtv
The HDHR Prime is compatible with a number of popular computer-based DVR solutions such as Windows Media Center, Sage TV, and MythTV, but there are some limitations to what it can do if you’re not using Windows Media Center (“WMC”, included in Windows Vista and Windows 7).
When your cable company transmits a show it also transmits a flag that identifies certain restrictions which your cable company has put on the show which control how, or even if, you are able to record that show. Pay-per-view shows, for instance, are almost always marked as “copy never”, meaning that you can’t record the show at all – you can only watch the show “live”. Other shows may be flagged as “copy once”, meaning that you’re able to record the show but can’t make a recording of that recording. The least-restrictive flag is “copy freely” which means that there are no restrictions at all of the recording of the show.
None of the software mentioned above will record a show with a “copy never" flag so WMC, Sage TV, and MythTV are all on equal footing there. The problem that the non-WMC software runs into is with the “copy once” flag. Microsoft has made sure that everything recorded with WMC includes DRM (digital rights management) information that guarantees that those shows won’t be able to be copied a second time. Since Sage TV and MythTV can’t make that same guarantee they aren’t allowed to record shows marked with the “copy once” flag.
How much this would impact a Sage TV or MythTV user depends on how many shows their local cable provider is marking as “copy once”. If the provider is setting the “copy freely” flag for all of the shows then there won’t be any impact at all. Many providers will, at the very least, flag shows on premium channels as “copy once” but, beyond that, may also set that flag for other shows and those shows can’t be recorded within Sage TV or MythTV.
Build your own DVR and tell your cable company to keep their box
Users who are using Windows Media Center with their HDHR Prime don’t face those “copy once” limitations and can record all of their shows within WMC. Playing those show back on a computer may be fine for some users but, for those of us who are accustomed to watching TV shows on a TV, there is a solution that uses hardware which you might already own.
Every XBox 360 has a piece of software built into it know as “Windows Media Center extender”. That software allows the XBox 360 to “talk” to the computer running Windows Media Center and to display the WMC interface through the XBox and onto the TV. For the purposes of viewing live and recorded television shows the experience is really no different on the XBox than it is on the computer. You can even set the XBox 360 to launch the WMC extender by default when it turns on so that you don’t even have to interact with the 360’s dashboard at all. Users with the HDHR Prime, a semi-modern Windows PC, and an XBox 360 really can tell their cable company to just keep their box.
Then again, you may still want to keep that box
So, if the HDHR Prime can record everything and we can use an XBox 360 to watch all of our TV shows on our TV, why would we want to keep the cable box? There are two services that the HDHR Prime can’t provide for you: pay-per-view and on-demand (streaming). If you are a regular user of each of those services you’re still going to need a box from your cable company. You may be able to save a few bucks on your monthly bill by trading in your DVR for a box without any recording capabilities but you’re still going to need their box if you’re planning to watch shows on pay-per-view or on-demand.
The HDHR Prime certainly addresses the major shortcoming with the original HDHR – a shortcoming which has gotten larger and larger as cable companies have encrypted more and more of their channels. The Prime also adds a third tuner (of 4 more tuners for the larger model), just in case you just can’t record TV shows quickly enough.
For users who already have a Windows Vista or Windows 7 PC and an XBox 360 you’re already one HDHR Prime away from setting up your own fully-functional DVR. And if you currently use a DVR from your cable company and you never watch pay-per-view or on-demand services you can pretty much replace that DVR with the HDHR Prime/PC/360 combination.
Any way you want to look at it the HDHR Prime is a long-awaited improvement to an already-great piece of hardware.