Adding HD to the Entertainment PC

We got ourselves a brand new HDTV for a Christmas present this year. We’d been look at them for quite a while, and finally pulled the trigger the week before Christmas. With that purchase came some other upgrades to keep things working on our Entertainment PC (DVR, Photo Viewer, DVD Player, Sling Viewer, Super Computer). Everything worked fine without upgrades, but if we wanted to take advantage of high definition (the reason we bought the TV), we had to make a few changes.

The first issue I ran into was getting the PC to output to the new HD LCD display. That can be very interesting given that computer resolutions are different than TV resolutions. The LCD is connected to the computer with a DVI to HDMI cable. Standard resolutions from the video card weren’t cutting it so I started diving into “the google” to try and find another method of getting a custom resolution out of my video card. I ran across a great utility called PowerStrip that does this exact type of thing, only to realize that it doesn’t work with the integrated Intel graphics card I have in the computer (it came with the slim entertainment case). I then moved on to another great piece of software made specifically for the integrated Intel Graphics chipset called DTD Calculator. I got a bit further with this utility, but it still didn’t quite cut it. I was able to get the custom resolutions into the video options, but kept getting weird results whenever I tried one. The screen would get knocked to the corner and turn either green or purple. So after banging my head against a wall for a few days with that, I decided to just get a new (more powerful) video card that would help out decoding HDTV as well. I should have a new Radeon HD 2400PRO showing up in a few days. I chose this card because it was available in a low-profile card (needed to fit the case), and for the reviews it got handling HD video. It also has a straight HDMI port on it so I may be able to route audio through it as well. Hopefully this will take care of my not-quite-right resolution issues.

hdhr_top.jpgThe other issue I ran into (and maybe more important issue) was running an HDTV signal through this thing. Now, we don’t have a ton of HD channels to chose from at the moment, but there are several (mainly local) unencrypted QAM digital signals coming through the cable line. Several of those are in HD. The capture cards that are currently in the computer are just standard definition Hauppauge Win-TV150 low profile cards. hdhr_front.jpgThey still work and I still have cable going to them, but let’s get realistic… SD signal doesn’t look that great on an HD set. So we were still able to capture our shows and watch our captured shows, but since we were able to view HDTV we wanted to be able to capture/pause/rewind HDTV. In comes the HDHomeRun. There are a lot of digital HD Tuners to pick from, but I chose this one for several reasons. First, it allowed me to integrate the unencrypted QAM channels into the DVR software we’ve been using (BeyondTV). Second, it comes with two HD tuners built in, so it seemed a bit more future-proof than some of the single tuners I looked at. It also works a bit differently than many of the other HDTV tuners on the market. The only output it provides is an ethernet port, making it a networked HDTV solution if I should ever want to pipe tv through the house. It arrived earlier this week, and I couldn’t be happier with its performance.

hdhr_back.jpgThe box arrived, and let me tell you, there isn’t much to this thing. The device itself is a nondescript box about the size of a small router. It has a power light and a panel with several non-labeled LED lights on the front, and a power port, ethernet port, and two coax connectors on the back. The box contains an ethernet cable, two short coax cables, a power cable, and a card that points you to their site to download software. That’s right, it doesn’t even come with a manual. I guess that makes sense since they want you to have the most up to date version of software and firmware available. I believe that the software used to run this thing is open source as well. I got everything hooked up (I just used one of the tuners) and I was off. It took a little while for the computer to recognize the box via the ethernet port (I have an open port since the computer is using wireless to connect). I ran the install app, and once it saw the HDHomeRun, the software connected to the net and automatically updated the firmware. Then it does a scan of available digital channels. It picked up the same ones that we were getting with the TV’s built-in tuner so that was good. Then you can test them by using VLC, an open source media player. The picture looked great! I believe this is how you can send HDTV over the network as well. If this thing were plugged into my router, Ihdhr_box.jpg could fire up VLC and pull TV over a wired or wireless connection. I’ve read that even over wireless HDTV looks good. It was then on to configuring BeyondTV to pick up the HD signal. That process was a little tougher. It involved comparing the directory information available in BTV to what I was getting from the HDHomeRun and make sure everything matched up. There are even a few channels that we get, but aren’t part of the guide. That just means when we tune to those we don’t know what’s playing… which is fine. Once all that was configured the BeyondTV guide now has a new section (above all the SD channels) listing everything the all the digital signals it is pulling in. And it now does everything we were doing with standard deff signals on the HD signals. We can puase, rewind capture in HD now. I will say HD capture takes about 3 times the space that SD takes. We probably won’t be capturing a whole lot of HD shows right away. I might need to add a hard drive here pretty soon as well.

So far everything seems to be working well, minus the resolution issue on the LCD, but hopefully the new video card should take care of that. I’m pretty happy with the setup. Down the road I could see adding a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player in place of the DVD-burner I have in there now. We’ll see where the format war goes, and how the prices on drives look. Until then we’ll be seeing the world (at least the channels we get) in HD!


gravatar Daniel Stout

It sounds like Blu-ray has pretty much won the format war. They’ve got 75% of the new releases now with Warner Bros on board vs. 25% for HD DVD. Just curious, what brand of HDTV did you go with?

gravatar Scott

Yah, that’s what I’ve seen – now the drives just need to drop in price a bit. I’d probably get a dual format anyway just to be safe. It’s still a ways off, so we’ll see. I ended up with a 37″ Magnavox. It was consumer electronics’ #2 set. So far it has been treating us well!

gravatar Kieran

I’m sure your new video card will solve your resolution issues. It’s impressive your different software bundles work so well together, you must have been planning this for a while. I like the slim design of the HDHomeRun box, who needs another huge component taking up shelf space?

gravatar Scott

The software working well together has been a labor of love I guess. It has taken a while to get everything talking nicely together. Plus, there is constant tweaking going on with this thing. The glue that hold everything together is a nice entertainment PC app called “Meedio” which is no longer being made (bought by Yahoo). It provides a lot of control for external applications to be called within a clean “remote-controllable” interface. I should post about the software that runs on this thing sometime in the future. Much of it is based on Jon’s HTPC with a few odds and ends of my own thrown in to keep things working.

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