A/V revamp

My home entertainment system has been pretty simple for quite some time. I have a TV of course, and its signal sources were a DVD player, a PVR, and my trusty antennas. The biggest complication was that each device was connected to my receiver separately, so not only did you have to select the proper source on the television, but you’d have to do it again on the receiver if you wanted to hear anything. I had no problems, but my guests could make no sense of it.

Things have changed, however. With my joining the ranks of the debt-free, I decided on a reward. I got myself a new television. Nothing ridiculous … just a 46″ plasma. Anything larger would be silly as my viewing distance is a mere eight feet. Since it supports 1080p resolution, I wanted a high-quality source to go along with it. The Blu-ray player the sales guy recommended was less than $200 so I got it, too. The other high-quality source is the pair of antennas I have. I connected them, and it was good. Man, was it good!

The problem was that while I could enjoy beautiful high-definition television broadcast over-the-air, I could not record it. My PVR is standard definition. It does up-convert the output, but up-converted crap is still crap. And standard def broadcasts look a magnitude worse on a plasma or LCD TV as compared to the same image size on a CRT. I had no idea how I’d solve this issue as high-def PVRs are scarce in North America. Over-the-air broadcasting is ubiquitous, but few people take advantage of it. Those who have cable or satellite usually rent or buy the service provider’s PVR to combine the tuner and PVR into a single unit. There’s no money in stand-alone high-def PVRs.

In the meantime, I sprung for an Xbox 360 as well. I have an Xbox, and it supports output resolutions of 720p and 1080i, as well as the 16×9 aspect ratio. I connected it, and was terribly disappointed. The wide-screen mode simply stretches the 4:3 image to fit the wider screen. And although the signal was a higher resolution, the source wasn’t. It looked terrible. So an Xbox 360 it was. And I could finally play Halo 3, and Halo 3: ODST, too! And yea, it’s beautiful.

But what about the PVR I’d grown so used to? I wanted to time-shift high-def broadcasts, damn it! Where I started with no solutions, two popped up and my difficulty was choosing between them.

Channel Master has released the Channel Master 7000 PAL DVR. It’s a stand-alone unit with a two ATSC tuners and a hard drive that can store 30 hours of HD programs. It also has a live TV buffer that allows you to pause or rewind live TV. Connect the antenna, the TV, and off you go. A nice little unit that costs $400, unfortunately.

The other possibility was the HD HomeRun, which is a network device with two ATSC tuners. You connect your antenna to one end, and your local network, via Ethernet, to the other end. Then, any computer on your network can use the tuners. Windows Media Centre supports the device and it can also record high-definition broadcasts. See where I’m going with this? I have the advantage of being able to watch live TV or recordings anywhere in my apartment (either room!), and I can add more hard drive space at will. I could even convert the recordings to other formats because they’re right there on the computer. The HD HomeRun is less than half the price as well, at $170.

I liked the HD HomeRun, but how would I feed the picture from my PC to the television? I could run an HDMI cable. That would be problematic, and I’d need to replace my video card to get an HDMI output. Hmmm, maybe this wasn’t the way to go after all.

I looked at the new Apple TV, but it didn’t stay in consideration for very long. I’d have to buy software to run on my Mac to record the programs from the HD HomeRun. While I prefer my largely unused PC to take on this role, using the Mac isn’t a deal-breaker. What disqualifies the Apple TV is that it supports no more than 720p resolution. While it’s true that the difference between 720p and 1080p isn’t huge, I want all the picture my television can deliver. That’s especially true when the signal coming in over the antennas is 1080i. I can’t stomach sacrificing resolution because of a limitation of the device connecting the TV to the computer.

Then it all came together. The Xbox 360 can act as a media extender for Windows Media Centre. The Xbox connects to the Media Centre PC over the network and brings live TV, recordings, music, and photos from the PC to the TV. Although Windows Media Centre took a bit of tinkering to work properly with the tuner, setting up the Xbox 360 as a media extender was the very picture of simplicity … which I do not expect from Microsoft.

So not only can I record what I want, I can also pause or rewind live TV, I can record high-definition broadcasts, I have a lot more hard drive space than a stand-alone recorder, I can record two shows at the same time, and I can watch TV on the computer, too. It’s not as simple as a single stand-alone recorder, but it’s far more flexible.

This is the configuration as it stands today:


Note that I’ve left out the audio connections. The only discrete audio connection is an S/PDIF cable from the television to the receiver. All audio into the television is carried with the video via HDMI. I no longer have to switch audio sources!

Also of note is that the black Ethernet switch lives behind the television and it’s purely for A/V gear. I’m still amazed that my home-entertainment system not only needs an Ethernet switch, but it uses all five ports. Why does my TV need a network connection? So I can watch You Tube, of course! It’s like I live in the future.

Also absent from the diagram is the rest of my computer equipment. I can indeed watch live TV on my iMac, but I wanted to limit the contents of this diagram to all the components used when I’m watching the television in my living room. It’s complex enough as it is.

My entertainment system is still incomplete, however. Of the eight channels I watch that are broadcast over-the-air locally, only four have gone digital. The HD HomeRun does not have an analogue tuner so I still rely on my stalwart standard-def PVR to time-shift the four analogue channels. When the digital conversion deadline arrives at the end of August 2011, I’ll be able to disconnect it and rely on the HD HomeRun for all my recording needs.

When I remove the PVR, I’ll also have to replace the coax splitter. Leaving an open connection can introduce interference, and I certainly don’t want that. Yea, it’s digital, but weak signals could have trouble if more interference makes its way into the feed. I worry about TV Ontario in particular. The analogue signal is marginal. After they convert, I may not be able to get the channel without tinkering or making some changes.

So for now I need to set my recordings on two separate devices, but that problem will take care of itself. I’m still very pleased at how it all came together.

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