I guess you could say I’ve stumbled, rather than climbed, onto the Windows Media Center bandwagon. I’ve heard of people spending months planning and building the perfect media PC, complete with multi-channel tuner cards and high-end hardware decoders. For me, I just happened to notice that the release candidate of Windows 7 comes with Media Center, and my existing XBox 360 works as a Media Center Extender. Pretty soon I was watching videos on my TV through the XBox.
Through some form of geek osmosis, I’ve come to understand that Media Center will also do live and recorded digital TV. However, the level of futzing required was quite frankly well in excess of my care factor. I run the servicable but generally annoying MySky HDi PVR, so don’t really have any need for live TV through Media Center. Also, I was not at all interested in screwing around with tuner cards inside my PC. If you’ve ever hand-built a PC, you’ll understand my reluctance to touch anything inside a stable and reliable box.
When Blair from Digital Pride contacted me about reviewing a HDHomeRun from Silicondust, my initial reaction was the same: please don’t make me. But then I had a look at the specs: no futzing required. The pitch from Silicondust is your standard plug’n’play promise: plug the HDHomeRun into your network and antenna, install some software on your media PC, and you’re done. Colour me sceptical.
The HDHomeRun has two tuners, fed by two aerial plugs. This brings my first and only complaint: most houses, like mine, have only one aerial input for the TV. The HDHomeRun comes with two aerial cables, but no splitter. There’s no way to make use of the second tuner unless you go and find a splitter. I guess this is why Digital Pride offer a $19 splitter so prominently alongside the HDHomeRun on their purchase page. No massive problem in my case: I just left the second tuner as “disabled” once the software was set up.
I only have one network cable at the TV end, and it runs straight into the XBox. I dug out an old Linksys router with 4-port switch, plugged that cable into it, and ran two more ethernet cables from the switch to the XBox and now the HomeRun. Adding another switch layer between the HDHomeRun and the PC was asking for trouble, but didn’t cause any. After powering up the HDHomeRun, I headed down to the other end of the house to install the PC software.
The local website has some nice clear instructions and downloads for pretty much any combination of OS and media software you can think of. If you get stuck, there’s also a very active forum and an IRC channel. I have to say I agree with this forum post: Windows 7 isn’t even released yet but Silicondust are quite happily supporting users and resolving issues already. Compare this to companies like HP, who still can’t provide me with Vista drivers for my printer. If you’re one of those anti-Bill types, the guys over at MythTV.co.nz have all the details about using the HDHomeRun under linux and OSX.
I followed the instructions from the website, and everything went perfectly. It’s a sorry statement about software when one is surprised that everything works first time. The software installed, immediately located the HDHomerun on my network (through two switches remember), and set about automatically updating the firmware in the unit. When this was completed, I set the location, and the HDHomeRun software scanned and found all the available Freeview channels. Seriously: I was expecting at least some sort of shenanigans about IP addresses or connection issues, but nada.
The next step was to show Windows Media Center the tuner, which once again was seamless. Wait for WMC to locate all the channels, and then I was watching crisp HDTV on my PC monitor. Down the other end of the house at the XBox 360, I was immediately able to view, pause and record HDTV. Well happy!
Considering you can plug a bunch of these things into your network to get more than two tuners, at no stage having to crack open a PC case, I’m seriously impressed. The only thing you’ll have to consider is that the HD video streams are running across your network, so you’ll want to make sure you’re at least using 100MBps. In my case, I think both switches are 100MBps, and I noticed no issues at all with the HD stream running from the HDHomeRun, across two switches to my PC, then back across those switches to the XBox 360.
The HDHomeRun seeks to solve a problem in a new way. This scares me. So many of these slightly quirky solutions to already-solved problems end up weighing heavy on the hassle side of the scales. The HDHomeRun doesn’t. If you want Free-to-air HDTV (Freeview in New Zealand) on your media PC without the trouble of cracking your PC case, get one. In fact, if you use coupon code “ben.geek.nz”, you can 30 bucks off the normal $349 price when you buy from hdhomerun.co.nz.
Full disclosure: I don’t get anything out of the coupon code. It’s just for you guys. I’m returning the HDHomeRun in a week or so, but wish I had the cash to buy one myself. It’s bloody genius!