Way back in 1999, two tech startups introduced the first direct to consumer Digital Video Recorders. Both Tivo and ReplayTV introduced into the retail channels their first generation of DVRs. These two DVRs had plenty in common, but also had their own take on how to get their products and services into the mass market.
Tivo supplied an inexpensive DVR into the retail channel. However, the DVR could not be operated without their Monthly, or later, Lifetime TV Guide services for $9.99/mo or $200 for lifetime.
ReplayTV supplied a more premium product into the retail channel, however their products were priced 3-4x higher than Tivo, however it did include the necessary program guide for no added fee.
Both the Tivo and ReplayTV were both limited to recording only one standard definition program at a time. The program guide was updated and collected nightly via your home phone line. Both products could be configured to work with coax (free) cable television, or could be connected to a premium cable box or satellite box to access premium content such as HBO, Showtime and other pay channels.
During initial installation, the user would select which antenna, cable or satellite service they were using and that specific guide would be downloaded to their boxes.
Dish Network licensed technology from Microsoft to bring DVR capabilities to their customers. Built into the satellite box, users of Dish had the added convenience of having one less piece of hardware to place beside their television.
Being designed by Microsoft, the Dish DVR also brought basic web browsing features to the family television.
In Europe, the current satellite television providers provided “plus” (+) boxes which included the satellite tuner plus hard disk for time shifting content.
While these products were all available in 1999 or early 2000, these products were still very much a niche product and while people had had Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) for years now, the mass public still did not know what a DVR was, nor did they even understand how a DVR could actually enhance their television viewing experience.
People who owned a DVR loved their DVR and most homes had more than one – in many cases people had 3, 4 or even 6 DVRs in their homes.
Since the first DVRs could only record one show at a time, people started stacking their DVRs up under their televisions and soon people went from having one cable box per television to having 3 DVRs and 3 cable boxes per television!
As you can imagine, the cable companies loved this scenario, because they were now making more in monthly box fees than ever before. Homes went from paying $30 per month for cable boxes to paying $100. In those days, you also subscribed for premium channels on a per box fee, not a per household fee.
Just 2 years later, in 2001, second generation products were hitting store shelves. These products allowed for watching one live show and recording one show at a time.
ReplayTV added a networking feature which allowed multiple Replay TVs in a home share previously recorded content on one ReplayTV and watch it on anther ReplayTV on the same network.
Soon TiVo would add similar features as well add more features unique to TiVo where they would recommend and record shows for you based on your existing recording habits. This didn’t always work very well and if you happened to record the Golden Girls one time, it would seem that your TiVo now thought you were a “chic” and record all shows that aired for “chics.”
Today that wouldn’t be big problem, but back then, if you could only record one show at a time and your DVR could only hold 10, 20 or later, 30 hours of television, this feature had its haters.
What else did these early DVRs do?
Well, ReplayTV was the first to allow “streaming” shows recorded on one ReplayTV device and play them on another ReplayTV device in the home, but ReplayTV was also the first (and only?) DVR company to allow users to SHARE recorded programs over the internet to other friends and family who also owned a ReplayTV! By linking two or more ReplayTV units with a secret code, all future recordings from one ReplayTV could be sent/received by another ReplayTV.
Sharing recordings was a two-step process. First the user had to share the program and secondly, the receiver would have to accept the show before it would begin transferring. While this was a little cumbersome, it was a unique and amazing way to share shows with family and friends – remember, only one show could be recorded at time. J
All of these program sharing features have since been removed from all modern DVRs because of costly litigation from the content owners (network television, mpaa, etc).
Enter Windows Media Center
Microsoft, who already had several DVR products and technologies in various states of release and or development brought a new and unique product to market with it’s OEM hardware partners – Enter Windows XP Media Center Edition – yes, XP!
In 2001, Microsoft brought the DVR to the home PC however there a couple differences between the Microsoft offering and the consumer products that were already in the market.
Whereas the products from TiVo, ReplayTV, Dish, etc all included one or more dedicated analog tv tuner(s) paired with dedicated MPEG-2 (some proprietary) encoders to quickly convert the analog television signal into a digital MPEG-2 file that could be stored and replayed, the solutions for Windows XP Media Center were a mixed bag of mostly cheap analog tuners without the hardware MPEG-2 encoders. Because these early “Media Center PCs” sold by Hewlett Packard, Dell, Gateway and others didn’t have the dedicated horsepower like the DVRs did these Media Center PCs weren’t able to consistently record programs in full quality. Many recordings had ships or blocky images, audio distortion or simply didn’t complete a single recording to the end of the airing show – but there was promise in this fledgling system….
Enter the Media Center Extender…
Another very notable difference was that Windows Media Center supported a mode called an “Extender” where a “dumb” set top box, could extend the Media Center interface to the living room, bedroom or other televisions throughout the home.
These Media Center Extenders as the name suggests, would extend your copy/installation of Windows Media Center on your PC to multiple televisions in your home. Every networked Extender when turned on, would connect to the Windows Media Center PC and actually be run on the PC as a separate user.
This distinction of the Extender running the software on your WMC PC and not on the extender itself, allowed Microsoft to circumvent future legal issue that plagued, hindered and eventually would put many DVR companies out of business.
Computers Get Faster
Over the years to follow, computers would get faster and better able to multitask. Hard disk drives would become faster and the link between the CPU and the HDD would become faster too, allowing for many-multiple shows to be recorded at once.
TV Tuners with dedicated MPEG-2 encoders would be released, although costly, many of these cards cost $200 and came with 2 standard definition tuners. Thus a home Media Center PC could record 2, 4 or even 6 shows at one time!
But just because it could be done, doesn’t mean that it was easy to build the computer, configure the software and once working, Windows Media Center required a lot of maintenance to keep it operating smoothly.
New versions of Windows Media Center
With Windows Vista, Microsoft was ready to unbundle Media Center from a dedicated product sold by OEMS and package this software and interface into the more premium versions of Widows Vista.
Windows Media Center would get enhanced and upgraded over the years with support for 16:9 widescreen televisions, support for recording premium cable content with the use of CableLabs certified CableCards provided by the local cable companies.
All was not rosy
While anyone could configure their Pro or Ultimate versions of Windows Vista or later Windows 7 to work with standard definition television tuners; premium (pay) channels still require that a user have a dedicated cable box for each tuner on their Media Center PC.
Another problem for Windows Media Center’s central hub was that people didn’t have computers in their living rooms where they had their Cable TV coming into their home. Home also didn’t have wired networks and wifi networks were too slow and too unreliable to transmit video.
Now, HDTV is transmitted through the cable service already in MPEG-2 format in 720p and 1080i standards. Windows Media Center computers no longer need to convert the video signal into MPEG-2 formats and allows for much more reliable recording and trouble free use.
For me personally, I switched from having a dedicated Media Center PC to combining my main PC and Media Center PC into one. That’s less overall cost for the system and one PC uses less electricity than 2 computers, and much less electricity than 2, 3 or 4 DVRs from the cable company.
Fast forward to today
Before all these latest advancements, even a geek like me couldn’t rely on using one computer to do it all and was much easier to have two machines.
Many households are getting their internet connection from the Cable company so they now have a cable going to their computer – in addition to their TVs. The same cable that feeds your internet, also can be your one cable to supply your home with all your television. Most homes top out at 12, others have more.
The “main” computer isn’t used every day or even ever week. People are using their mobile devices and phones on their sofa, bedroom, etc.
Fast wireless networks are the norm in many households and many homes now either have a wired Ethernet connection to various rooms in their home.
While not every television in the home has a DVD or Blu-ray player, every television is connected to a cable box and/or Cable Company provided DVR. Our need for having premium content on each of our televisions, or rather, the requirement set by the Cable companies to have a “box” on every television, keeps us tethered and paying premium prices for services we may or may not be using on a daily basis.
The Best features of your Leased DVR and none of the annoying or bad stuff
- No advertisements: there are NO ADS in the program guide and there are no ads when switching channels
- Remove annoying unused channels: Only have Media Center expose the channels you subscribe to and/or use in the program guide
- Watch recorded shows on any television connected to an Xbox 360 – regardless of where you recorded it
- Stream your home videos or play photo slideshows on your TV without having to transfer them to your tv
- If you have a DVD or Blu-ray movie collection, you can add on 3rd party Media Center apps to allow you to stream those movies anywhere in your home – without leaving Media Center
- 3rd party apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows 8 and Windows Phone that allows you to remotely record shows when you are away from home
Xbox 360 Media Center Extender
Over 25 million Xbox 360s sold in the USA – over 78 million worldwide.
With so many homes already owning an Xbox 360 and many of those homes already owning a Windows PC, there are a lot of people who could quickly and easily switch from their Cable TV monthly rentals to a single much less expensive CableCard rental. Each CableCard supports up to 6 simultaneous channels recording or playing back at once and combining 2 of these cards can give you a total of 12 shared simultaneous channels shared on ALL your televisions.
The Xbox 360 is also the first game console with support for the most popular HD streaming services from Netflix, Amazon, Comcast/Xfinity, Time Warner Cable, ESPN, Hulu Plus, ESPN, Vudu, CinemaNow, HBO Go and many more. There is also the Microsoft Xbox Video service which allows you to rent or purchase 1080p movies – before many are available for sale on Blu-ray!
With all these services available on the Xbox 360 as well as it being able to play all your DVDs, the Xbox can become the one and only device next to or under your television.
The latest Xbox that supports Media Center Extender is the Xbox 360 E. An Xbox 360 E with 4GB storage (plenty of space for non-gamers) lists for $199 and can be found selling for $180 new at retailers. The older slightly larger Xbox 360 S 4GB can be found selling for around $120 used on Craigslist or game store. (Note: The Xbox One does not have support for Windows Media Center Extender).
Repurpose your desktop or tower Windows computer
Don’t throw away your “old computer”
Repurposing your lightly used Windows computer and adding the hardware to allow it to record HDTV and share it around your home is a no brainer.
Is your old Windows computer still running Windows Vista or Windows 7? Have you not felt the need to upgrade to Windows 8.x? Why not? Chances are you haven’t upgraded the OS because love it or hate it, it works just fine and allows you to do everything you need.
- Store digital photos from your camera or phone – check!
- Surf the World Wide Web – check!
- Send and receive email – check!
- Pay your bills – check!
Chances are, you purchased a good computer at the time thinking you would be using it for years to come. However, now we find ourselves ignoring the home office or computer desk and are using other devices around the home.
So you see, the computer that you purchased 3, 4 or even 6 years ago has all the horsepower it needs to be a Media Center PC and record cable HDTV. Note: the PC you already own may not be powerful enough to record over the air television from an antenna, or standard definition television using a “tv tuner,” but today’s CableCard tuners are nothing more than a fancy network card – and a slow one at that. ;)
What does it cost to get going and replace one of your Cable Company rented DVRs with a Media Center Extender?
Well, if you already own an Xbox 360 – and 78 million of you do, and you are one of the 68% of households that has a PC running Windows Vista, 7 or 8.x then you only have to pay a onetime fee for the HD Cable tuner that is certified by CableLabs and by Microsoft.
You may be able to still find 4 tuner cards or solutions, but the tuners have a total of 6 available tuners on one device.
You can get one that sits inside your PC, or you can buy one that sits outside your pc and connects to your home network’s router with a standard Ethernet cable.
These cards list for $300, but can be found for less – Newegg has sales on the cards every so often, but they usually sell new for $260.
A single DVR rental costs $120 a year before service fees and taxes. A Single CableCard rental which supports up to 6 tuners, will cost only cost you about $48 a year.
That’s the savings just for replacing one DVR, if you have more than one DVR or televisions in your home without a DVR or cablebox, just buy a used Xbox 360 for $120 and instantly get access to both live and recorded television on that TV as well!
Depending on the Windows OS version you are running you may not have to purchase an upgrade as many shipping PCs with Vista and Windows 7 included Media Center. Windows 8 removed both DVD player and Media Center from the standard versions, but it can be added on as an upgrade – prices vary, so you will have to check your version and local retailer.
Windows Media Center isn’t for Everyone
While I am a huge advocate of Windows Media Center and Ceton’s InfiniTV CableCard digital tuners, there are some people who should switch or upgrade to Windows Media Center.
- If you don’t have an existing Windows PC
- If you only have a Mac (there are no CableCard and/or HD Compatible solutions for any platform other than Windows)
- People who like remote controls with 30 buttons on them (Xbox Media Remote is easy to use and doesn’t require you to look at the remote in order to find the function/button you need)
Heck, I was talking about easy… My 82 year old mother installed Windows 8 Media Center herself with me directing her over the phone a couple of years ago. Since then, she’s had little to no issues. If she reboots her computer once a month or after major Windows Updates, everything works as it should.
I am happy to say, that uses her television much more than before and has mastered recording her favorite series on television – whether she gets around to watching them or not. ;)
As for me, I’m still a “power user” and in addition to recording everything, most shows I watch later after they have been automatically processed, commercials removed and placed in their series folders.