Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vista Media Center TV Pack: Pros and Cons

Not too long ago, Microsoft leaked an upgrade to Media Center which they released to OEMs. This upgrade contained some "well duh" features: features that should have been in Media Center all along. It also contained a number of "WTF" featuers: features that were not added in the interest of end users; features designed to please television stations and content producers. Features that annoy me. Nevertheless, I have installed the TV Pack upgrade (codenamed Fiji), and continue to run with it. The good:
  • Tuners with different feature sets can be used (and it won't reduce them to the lowest common denominator): analog, digital, HDTV.
  • Multiple tuners can be hooked up to different sources (cable, over-the-air).
  • Clear QAM support: Media Center now supports HDTV over cable. Unfortunately, I can't seem to be able to get it to recognize my Hauppauge 1250 tuner as a digital tuner when connected to cable, so I can't receive the QAM channels.
The bad:
  • DRM: every recording is "protected" (from me accessing it) by DRM. There is no law or FTC policy that requires this to be done.
  • WTV container format (replacing the DVR-MS format). This format is currently incompatible with commercial skipping and/or removal programs such as Lifextender or DVRMSToolbox.
  • DVD burning of recorded content no longer works. At all.
  • If I go back to the pre-TV Pack configuration (which requires re-installing the operating system), I won't be able to access any of the content that I've recorded since the upgrade.
  • There is no WTV playing support on any non-[Vista-with-TV Pack] system, or Linux. The format is a complete black box that only Media Center knows how to decipher.
It went like this: I have two tuners: an analog USB tuner (Dell branded, Angel manufactured), and a digital HDTV tuner (Hauppuage 1250). Before the TV pack, I had both tuners hooked up to the cable. The other option was to have just the digital tuner hooked up to the over-the-air antenna, which would then receive HDTV channels, but no cable. Media Center allows you to browse through the next two weeks of movies that will be on TV and pick which ones to record. Cable (aside from having shows like Battlestar Galactica) has orders of magnitude more in terms of movie selection, so without the TV Pack, I would have to choose between quality (HDTV for broadcast, but only getting broadcast channels) and quantity (all the shows and movies on cable, but no HDTV channels). The Hauppauge customer support folks claim that since Microsoft hasn't officially released the TV Pack, and since the OEMs haven't yet released PCs with the TV Pack update yet, they aren't supporting Clear QAM in media center on my hybrid card. Clearly, it's a driver issue, and they haven't released one that deals with the problem, at least not officially. So, for now, I'm waiting: waiting for OEMs to start releasing TV Pack systems, which will in turn (hopefully) lead to driver support by the manufacturers; waiting for the Media Center user community to produce software that will decrypt, de-commercialize, transcode, and otherwise access the WTV format. This is already starting to happen, but more progress needs to be made for there to be a true solution. I don't like having my recorded TV locked in a proprietary DRM-restricted format, especially one that doesn't use much compression (I would prefer to be able to transcode to H.264), but for now, it 'works.'