Recording over 1394 (Firewire) in Media Center

There has been some recent effort to pry open the 1394 interface in various STBs (set-top boxes), most notably that of timmmoore's STB package that goes to extraordinary lengths to hook into Media Center's experience.  The state of the world today, at least with Media Center, is that the "outside looking in" hooks of Tim's package are the only way to get that HD content off of digital cable and into Media Center.

Here's how his package works, in a nutshell.  You install a couple of drivers that provide a software interface to the various commands you might expect to be available from an STB: channel changing, power toggle, etc.  An application then runs in the notification area, or tray, and acts as an intermediary between Media Center and the STB drivers.  When Media Center says "Change channel to 54", MyTray (Tim's tray application) listens in via a "hook" into Media Center and sends the channel-change command to the STB.  When Media Center starts a recording, another hook lets MyTray know that's happened and MyTray sends a "start streaming video over 1394" command to the STB.  When Media Center stops the recording, a similar event happens.

Physically, you connect your computer with the STB by plugging in a IEEE.1394 (Firewire) cable into each.  If you have two STBs, you can daisy-chain them together.  The traditional "IR" blaster for each STB is removed from the receiver so that it does not interfere with the commands sent over the 1394 connection.

There are a couple of significant downsides to doing it this way:

  • It's a lot harder to hook in from outside Media Center and try to figure out when channels are changing, recordings are starting or stopping, and in multi-tuner scenarios, which tuner/STB to use than it would be if Media Center could just treat the STB as a virtual tuner.
  • You still need an analog tuner for each STB you need to control.  This may seem odd, but it's part of the reason this works.  From Media Center's point of reference, it is still managing all of the recording and channel changing.  The fact that the actual channel change is triggered by another application is unknown and unknowable within Media Center.
  • Since Media Center is still recording over the analog tuners, you end up with two copies of the same program.  MyTray can be set to clean up the Media Center version once it knows its recording completed successfully (e.g. no 5C protection from the STB prevented the recording), but you still churn the disk more (2x more for non-HD shows).
  • Premium content like HBO is likely protected by the STB by the 5C standard, which MyTray does not support.  Nor can it without obtaining a 5C certificate, which are pretty hard to get.  The sticky parts for most interested parties are the unlimited liability clause you have to sign, and the certification process itself, which I hear is stringent.
  • MyTray is the product of a single developer, and one person alone cannot bring to bear the necessary development, testing, and packaging resources that bring a high polish to a product.  A common saying that applies here is "90% of the work is in the last 10% of the project".  Tim did a great job and some impressive detective work getting the app where it is, but getting that "shipping product" quality is a hard job to do all by yourself, working in your spare time.

I am personally using this at home right now, despite the downsides.  The fact that I am willing to do this probably means I'm not alone, and in the few informal hallway conversations I've had about it there's a lot of interest in getting this sort of thing done natively in Media Center.  There's not matching excitement about funding the cost of doing it, but there seldom is, when it comes down to it.

As Media Center becomes the default SKU for OEMs shipping Windows and our user base grows, there is a tremendous downward pressure on the unit cost of the machines.  The first target for downsizing seems to be the tuners, since a fair number of those new Media Centers are being sold as "Tuner Ready" instead of "Tuners Inside".   In my humble opinion, implementing a 1394 recording solution is the single best way to get broad market appeal while keeping hardware costs low.  Everybody wins: we sell our Windows licenses, OEMs move more units, customers get reliable, scalable SD & HD recording, and the cable companies get their $10 a month from renting their STBs.

Consumers are used to paying the fee, and I think they would continue to do so.  There's been a market for leasing otherwise expensive equipment for many years, and there's no reason to think that will change soon.  When faced with a decision between $10 a month (or $20 for two STBs), or buying a $250 tuner (or two), a lot of people go for the monthly fee.  After all, it takes over 2 years to amortize that, and with technology that seems like a good bet to me.  Being on the bleeding edge is more comfortable if you can stay there on a lease. ^_^

Which brings me to the true point of my post: I want to hear how much this feature is wanted in the user community.  Is it only wanted by the technically savvy, or do "average" users want it?  I really want it, and I don't want this relegated to the "power user" or "enthusiast" bin, because that will result in, at most, a power toy implementation.  If we can bring a full feature team to bear on this, I bet we could really make our users happy.

Just think, you could have everything Media Center gives you, plus VOD support (including Pay-Per-View, integrated into Media Center), and HDTV over digital cable.  If I'm not mistaken, this could easily expand into satellite STBs, too, if they don't already support streaming over 1394.

I'm going to get back to tinkering with the Network Provider and 1394 tuner classdriver code some more... I'm all worked up with excitement now. ^_^

Comments (17)

  1. John says:

    I really believe this kind of innovation is a good idea. I for one would be interested, having the tuner external to the PC makes the upgrade path a lot easier

  2. Ian Dixon says:

    Great post, I am sure a lot of people would go for that. I would prefer not to have an extra box but for a non geek install, knowing that you can plug your Media Center PC in to you STB and control it has to be a great selling point.

    What are the chances of getting the STB equipt with firewire ports?

    In the UK the premium content is provided by Sky (via sat) and they have there own PVR solution (sky+) so why would they want to open it up to another device? (but it would be cool for me)

    You should come on the show and talk about it!

  3. Paul says:

    I am a MCE system builder and the number one pre-sales question I get is whether they can record HDTV directly from their cable/satellite boxes. While you can’t offer them CableCard, I think Firewire is the next best alternative. The other thing to think about in parallel is being able to record unencrypted QAM from card like the Fusion, which I think would be equally as beneficial.

  4. Zuri says:

    Hell yes its a desirable feature! The tech savvy group have been wanting something like this for a long time and the non-tech savvy want it too. The problem it they just don’t know they want it or care to know how to get it. As far as the average user goes, they just want to plug MCE into their cable box and have it work. If it’s done over Firewire or qam it doesnt matter. It’s my understanding that all cable companines in the US have to offer firewire on STB if requested. this would make sense for MS to focus on since the legal issues will be less of a hassle.

  5. Michael Schoneman says:

    I don’t really care how it’s implemented, but I need something better than the IR blaster controlling the STB. HD would be a great thing as well, but for me the root issue is the unreliability of the IR blaster.

    Despite successfully doing the setup routine where I changed channels 6 times and trying to set the IR speed, I had so many programs that didn’t get recorded because the STB "missed" a digit when changing channels, I gave up on the whole digital cable tier, sent the STBs back and am using the built in tuners.

    Personally I’d prefer the lack of clutter (couple of extra STBs) that I’d have with CarbleCard, but I’d be willing to put up with it if I could get the VOD and such integrated in Media Center.

  6. JoeD says:

    Sounds like a great solution, Pete. There are many STB’s and HDTV’s with firewire ports already available, maybe the drivers for all the various models might be a challenge. And isn’t the unlimited liability involved with the 5C certificate something Microsoft has already agreed to with the Foundation STB software?

  7. Brian Hoyt says:

    My only problem with IEEE 1394 is that it has yet to catch on. First in FCC 00-342 and then in FCC 03-225 the FCC mandated 1394 interfaces on HDTV STB cable boxes. The flip side however is the only major TV manufacturer to consistently include the interface is Mitsubishi. Also there is no requirement for either DirecTV or Dish to include 1394, I believe some Dish models have but not all and no DirecTV boxes do. It seems like 1394 is a stop gap on the way to CableCard which gives you everything that 1394 does and removes the need for a STB. I am all for 1394 support since it is (currently) required by FCC, just don’t pull resources from CableCard development. Honestly my ideal would be for MCE to be able to take either DVI/HDCP or HDMI as an input and record that way. Then any STB would be supported.

  8. andy vt says:

    I’ve often wondered why MS hasn’t done this before. I love Tim’s application, his work has made the platform so much more appealing. Just look at his thread at TGB, it’s enormous. That has to be some indication of how much interest there is in this sort of application. Personally, I would have prioritized FW support over ATSC support.

  9. I just wish that I could utilize the dual tuners in my MCE box without having to have 2 STBs. I would be happy being able to record/watch the non-digital cable channels on one tuner while being able to record/watch the premium output of the STB on the other tuner. My cable/internet bill is already too high without having to pay for two STBs.

  10. MattP says:

    The more options the end user has the better. If 1394 STBs can be integrated in to MCE as simply as regular IR Blasted STBs, it will be a welcome feature. In reality it should be significantly easy from the end user perspective since timing and lining up the emitter and sensor would be eliminated.

    The only problem I see, and as others have mentioned above, is getting Cable providers to "buy off". It seems very few STBs have 1394 ports at all, and of those that do, many Cable providers have the ports disabled. So, while many MCE users would like to have this functionality, Cable providers have the final word.

  11. Shawn Schafer says:

    Anything that promotes the use of a HD capable digital interface (1394) seems like a worthwhile project. This would allow the content providers (cable/sat/fios) to maintain control of the access device, and allow MCE users to easily use the content. I’m sure the cable providers would rather have a "closed" tuner box that they can remotely update vs. a Cable Card in a PC. Just think of the STB and 1394 as the video equivalent of your cable modem and ethernet… just another broadband connection to your content.

  12. TonyS says:

    I’d love to see just because it would open up the world of HD over cable which we’ve been waiting for via cablecard. If you can’t get cablecard in the next year, go for it. It’s a compromise though…

    The cost is high. For instance, I have TV’s in an office, living room, and 2 bedrooms. MCE is in 3 of the rooms. Extender in one (soon to be an XBOX 360) Main recordings happen on one of the bedroom machines. If I have to go with one STB in each room that had tuners it would be $21.00 a month on my cable system. Let’s say I want dual tuner in one or two of those rooms. The cost would jump even more. At least with cablecard, the cost is under $2.00 a card. Granted, with a powerful mce system, I would likely be accessing content across the home network from whatever box did the recording (what I’m doing now with OTA hd) and I could possibly get by with 2 STBs in only one room. Of course the cable company would love to sell one STB/DVR that already has dual tuners. The cost is cheaper. For the novice, MCE w/Firewire would be competing with that offering. When you have 1 teen, (2) 4 year olds, and 2 adults, there’s a lot of different content you want to view/record at the same time and multiple STBs/tuners through out the house is one of the ways to go. It’d be nice to have a sw version of an extender though so the different PC’s could access one box with all the tuners.

  13. Jerry says:

    Tim’s implementation of the firewire recording app is pretty solid, especially considering the extent which he describes having to go through in order to be able to handle all the channel changing contention issues, etc. One of the first questions I am asked when people see my media center is whether they can watch cable HD through it. With Tim’s add-on, the answer is yes. It’d be nice to see it integrated natively, heck, Tim obviously learned a lot through this process, maybe he’d wants a job with the Media Center team 😉

  14. Troy Guenther says:

    The ability to get HD signals into my HTPC is my biggest issue right now. OTA is good, but not great. CableCard is too far away, and I’m not going to be crazy about the upfront expense. As for timmmoore’s solution – I keep looking to try it, but keep getting turned off with how much "tinkering it may take". Trust me – my other half doesn’t like me "tinkering" at the <GASP!> risk of no TV! ha ha Anyway, I think 1394 is a great potential solution, and I would love it being supported out-of-box. (As an FYI, every HD box I’ve seen in the Comcast-Minneapolis area has 1394 on it.)

  15. Carlos says:

    Timmmoore’s application is greatest thing that ever happen to windows Media Center, it has it faults. But is the only thing that has made the media center the HD machine I wanted it to be. There is no solution in he market to do cable HD on a pc. Timmmoore rocks.

  16. G says:

    The one thing I haven’t seen mentioned here is the DRM issue (Digital Rights Management). The fear the studios have is making it too easy for people to record and distribute near perfect quality shows. They’re scared to death with people having an easy way to record on a computer and upload it to the internet (especially the HD movie channels and specialty channels like HBO etc.). There is too much money to be made by selling shows and series on DVD. You’re going to see a lot of differences in the way HD is regulated, and it will become harder to make something like viewing and recording HD through Media Center a standard. This is why we haven’t seen a solid 3rd party solution for record STB HD on computers. Of course, I’m hoping this situation changes and innovative approaches to getting HD into Media Center like Tim’s become standards.


  17. Having been bitten by the media center bug a few months back, I &quot;retired&quot; my old machine to a closet…

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