Hands-On: HDHomeRun DVB-T Edition
Manufacturer: Silicon Dust Product: HDHomeRun DVB-T Edition
Price: £159 Web: HDHomeRun

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There are thousands of Windows Home Server users out there who are eager to transform WHS from a backup, storage and streaming device into a full Media Server, with TV recording and playback facilities. Indeed, companies like SageTV are ahead of the game in bringing these kind of features to the platform, and with last week’s release of Power Pack 2 offering the first signs of Windows Media Center integration, even Microsoft are hinting that a new Media direction is emerging for Windows Home Server.

But, there’s a problem ahead. Home Servers are always-on/always-available devices, powered up 24 hours a day and as such users want them to be small, low powered, passively cooled and ideally silent. Boosting the media capabilities means bigger processors, more memory, TV tuners, more powerful graphics processing and ultimately, more cooling, more noise and bigger chassis, right? So, unless we see some ingenious engineering, the home server of 2012 may look a lot different to the home server of 2009.

Fortunately, there’s engineers with lightbulbs over their heads right across the world thinking through these problems, and their work results in products like the HDHomeRun, a network-based tuner box which has been available in the USA for some time now, but has just started shipping in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. We were excited to get hold of one of the first units to arrive in the UK for a hands-on review.

What’s the Big Idea?

The idea behind HDHomeRun is to solve one of the big issues in using a PC for watching TV. Here in the UK, over the air (OTA) digital TV is received with a roof antenna which usually is wired into the main living space where your TV is situated. If we want to run that TV signal into a PC, wither that PC needs to also be in that living space (noisy and not fun unless you spend lots of money), or you’ll need to drop additional wiring in to take that signal to wherever you wish to place the PC. Neither is an ideal situation.

Enter HDHomeRun which is a small, standalone box with twin DVB-T (Freeview if you’re in the UK) tuners and an ethernet port. It can be positioned next to your aerial socket, and take two separate digital TV inputs (using standard coaxial aerial cables). It then outputs those signals directly on to your network using the ethernet port, where it can be picked up by any computer on the network using a range of different media applications – including Windows Home Server running Sage TV’s Media Center, or in the future, any other media package that may ship with, or support Windows Home Server. So, that means you can get live TV on any PC in the house, without having to pack in multiple tuners in your home server. Cool, huh? So, let’s take a look at the pack.

What’s in the Box?

The HDHomeRun comes packaged with all of the cables you need to get started, along with an installation CD. You’ll find:

  • 1 x HDHomeRun
  • Power Adaptor
  • Ethernet Cable
  • 2 x Standard Coaxial Cables With Aerial Connectors
  • Installation CD

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As you’ll see, there’s no documentation shipping with the HDHomeRun. Nectar, the UK distributor, shipped separate hardware and software installation instructions (including setup instructions for Windows Media Center) to me via email, but I’m guessing these will be included in the package when you purchase the unit.

First Looks

The HDHomeRun is a small, dark grey unit, with a front power light and network connection light which flashes green to let you know the unit has correctly connected to the network.

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The rear is an equally simply affair, with power socket, two standard aerial connectors and ethernet port.

Connecting the HD HomeRun

Connecting up the HDHomeRun is a pretty straightforward task – just make sure you have a couple of power sockets available, and most importantly, think through how you want to run the network from wherever your aerial socket is positioned to your router. In this example, I’ve used a powerline network connection from the lounge through to the understairs cupboard where my router is located. Powerline can sometimes be a little problematic with high bandwith applications, but I’ve found streaming video to be fine. Will be interesting to see how this kind of network connection is handled by the HDHomeRun.

Firstly, let’s split the Freeview (DVB-T) signal to feed the HDHomeRun’s twin tuners. It’s recommended that you use a powered aerial amplifier to split the signal. These are available from most electronics stores – I picked up this one from Maplins for around £15.

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Simply take your aerial cable and slot it into the amp’s input socket.

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Then take the two coaxial cables supplied with the HDHomeRun and connect them between the two outputs on the amplifier and the HDHomeRun’s “Tuner 0” and “Tuner 1” inputs.

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Connect the supplied ethernet cable to the HDHomeRun’s network socket and your router (or, in my case, a Netgear Powerline HD adaptor connected through to my router).

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Power it all up, and you’ll see the power light and second light on the HDHomeRun illuminate. That second light will flash green for a short time whilst a network connection is made, but as long as everything goes to plan, should turn solid green.

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Now, you will go and tidy up all of those cables neatly with cable ties, won’t you, rather than just stuff them down with the rest of the cable bush behind the TV? Thought not. Okay, let’s move on – that’s it as far as hardware installation goes. We now just need to get things working with our media software.

Installing the HDHomeRun Software

You can use the supplied CD to install the HDHomeRun software, or to ensure you have the latest version, head over to the SiliconDust website and download it for yourself. It’s a 3Mb download, but as new versions of the software are current appearing every 2-3 weeks with bug fixes and new media software support, it’s well worth installing the latest version. The software is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, by the way, and for the tinkerers amongst you, you’ll also find a pretty active beta program underway also for software updates.

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Once you have the software installed, the HDHomeRun Install Wizard will then fire up, check for, and install any firmware updates (all of which happens way to quickly for me to capture!). It will then report how many tuners it’s discovered (it found my two tuners very quickly), and it’s then a case of setting up the HDHomeRun.

Firstly, enter your location and zip/postal code.

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On the dialog box which follows, simply change the source for each tuner to “Digital Antenna” and the application to “Windows Media Center” (if you’re running other media software for TV viewing and recording, you can set that instead).

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As you can see, a wide range of other media software is supported.

The wizard will then perform a channel scan on the first tuner (marked “[a weird number]-0”), and then present a list of available channels. All of the available Freeview channels (62 in total) were found first time. Select the second tuner from the dropdown (“[a weird number]-1”) and re-run the channel scan for that tuner.

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That completes the installation and initial setup of your tuners.

Configure Windows Media Center

Next step is to run Windows Media Center and configure Live TV with the newly installed network tuners. The first time you try to watch Live TV, you’ll be prompted to configure the tuners, or you can simply select Set Up TV from the Settings > TV section.

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Okay, let’s not take that last screen shot for granted. This is taken from a laptop connected wirelessly on my network. There are no TV tuners on this laptop. Those HDHomeRun tuners are in my lounge, connected to my router via a Powerline network (i.e. electrical cables) which is under the stairs. That is very cool indeed. Okay, let’s continue.

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The installation instructions do point out that the Services scan takes around 20 mins (with a top tip to take the opportunity to walk the dog), which was our experience also (no dog to walk here however).

Once the setup is complete, head over to Live TV and you’re all set to record television on any PC you configure in the house, straight from the Media Center TV guide! To allow additional PCs to access the HDHomeRun tuners, you simply repeat the steps above. Of course, with twin tuners on board you can easily watch one channel whilst recording a second, or record two channels simultaneously.

With regard to quality, I found it pretty difficult to watch TV over a wireless network with an 802.11g connection on my laptop. I’d recommend you go for an 802.11n wireless connection at the very least, with Powerline and Ethernet being the preferred method.

HDHomeRun supports a wide range of media center-style software, as well as Windows Media Center, including Beyond TV, Sage TV, Liquid TV, Media Portal and others. With regard to running HDHomeRun with Windows Home Server, your options are restricted in the main to Sage TV which has an add-in version of the software available for Windows Home Server. You simply install HDHomeRun directly on the Home Server (or via Remote Desktop), and then install and configure the Sage TV add-in.

Summary

HDHomeRun is a small package of great innovation and I see it playing a major role in the future as Windows Home Server grows and starts to flex its media muscles. Network-based tuners will allow future (and indeed existing) home servers to maintain a reduced form factor and hardware specification and yet provide almost effortless access to Live TV – a must for many owners.

HDHomeRun provides a very neat solution to providing access to Live TV on multiple machines across the network, without the need to purchase tuners for each box. If you’re in the market for building a tuner farm, you can also run multiple HDHomeRun boxes on your network to allow the recording and live streaming of more than the standard two tuners across the network.

It’s fantastic to see the product hit the UK and other countries outside of the US, and let’s hope we see a DVB-S version for satellite TV made available in the future. For now, though, The HDHomeRun provides a well-built, graceful solution to a common problem making the watching and recording of Live TV with PCs very easy. Highly recommended.

More Info: HDHomeRun UK | Silicon Dust

35 comments

  1. Very cool.

    I’d like to know how it would handle tuner allocation for multiple pc clients? If I have 1 HDHomeRun and I’m watching 1 channel and recording another, and then one of the kids wants to watch tv on a pc upstairs, what does it do?

    The price is a little disappointing as you can buy 3 dual tuner cards for that…

    Still very cool…

  2. Not so relevant for us in the UK, as Freeview doesn’t have HD channels, but the HDHomeRun can stream up to 1080i

  3. The HDHomeRun covers that situation exactly, with tuner pooling. You can have each tuner statically or dynamically assigned to a machine, which means you can set it up so that 1 tuner is always allocated to a machine (say your MCE) and the other “float”. That allows you to use it from another PC or allow two recordings at once on the MCE.

  4. Ideally in a tuner farm all of the resources would be dynamically allocated. So if all tuners are allocated, and another tuner request is received, then how is the conflict resolved?

  5. I also think that they should be stackable and only require a single arial input like most other dual tuners do. I currently have 2 dual tuners in my htpc (4 tuners in total) and only need to use 2 arial inputs. Looks like I’ll be waiting for the next gen…

  6. I have 2 of these connected to my Vista Media Center along with my existing PCI tuners. They work perfectly (in Australia at least). Can’t rate them highly enough.

    Switching between channels is faster than any PCI tuner I’ve used before.

    Media Center Extenders work as usual, I watch all TV in the lounge through my xbox360.

  7. @sheroo – They have two inputs because you can use heterogeneous sources. Here in the US, you can set up one connected to Cable and one to over the air (OTA)… which is pretty useful IMHO.

  8. How long does it take to switch between 5 channels? less than 5 seconds? I’m just trying to gauge performance.

  9. My issue with this, and so many other tv tuners now is that they only deal with OTA broadcast. That’s fine and all, but that list of channels seems to be getting cut more and more every day. I myself just went from getting nearlly 100 channels down to about 20. Those being the ones I’m required to get, and then about 5 CSPANS, and 3 or so local add channels. As cable companies push more stuff away from QAM or OTA broadcast in general, the selection gets less and less and you are left with having to buy some way to expensive system from a PC manufacture and then about 300 bucks a pop each for the ATI Cable Card setup. This all confuses me, because Microsoft is really on to something here with the push more for the Media center, but at the same time…the cable portion of it is being forced to the wayside. I just built a Media Center system myself back in October of last year, and by Jan-Feb of this year, they dumped all my channels so now it’s my music and Blu-ray player only really. Sad….because I know i’m not going to shell out the cash now to buy another system for a cable card, when the cable card replacement could show up any day..or so they promise.

  10. @Tom – I’m using HDHomeRun with multiple PCs at home, including one of the old Linksys extenders: works fine, just like any other TV tuner I’m happy to say, otherwise my wife would have savaged me by now!

  11. @Dave – do you have any more info on your setup, or good links to using the HDHomeRun in Aus? This plus my WHS could be just what I’m looking for.

  12. @Ray Broadbridge – Thanks Ray. I installed this last night – for the most part was straight forward and simple to get it up and running. Works beautifully on all PCs with Media Center. On the HP MediaSmart Connect in VMC Extender mode, many of the channels have a lot of noise – e.g. the picture pixelates (is that a word?), and the sound skips.

  13. @Tom – If this doesn’t happen with other tuners, I’d take a look at network utilisation. Vista (without the TV pack) does consume a noticeable lump of bandwidth per channel, and if this is competing with traffic to your extender over a slow-ish connection, that could be what you’re seeing. I recommend HomePlug-P over wireless if possible. Or, add the TV pack to Vista, which takes its bandwidth back down to the same level as XP MCE 2005 uses per channel of TV over the network from HDHomeRun.

  14. @urmaster – As none of the semiconductor manufacturers has yet produced a commercial demodulator chipset for DVB-T2 (the UK version of HD Terrestrial Freeview), no-one in the UK yet has a complete receiver design for this. The moment the bits appear, we’ll be pouncing on them to make this available!

  15. @Ray Broadbridge – I thought it might be a bandwidth problem – I’m running a gigabit network, although the HDHomeRun amd the HP MCE are both 100MB devices. So you think even though the HDHR works fine with the VMC, it’s when the VMC has to “forward” the signal to the Extender that the network issue pops up – e.g. you have HDHR -> VMC -> Extender meaning you effectively have the TV signal on the network twice?

  16. @Tom – Yes, that’s correct. The way to test this, on the VMC, is to start Task Manager > Networking. When you watch one channel of live TV, the network utilisation should increase by about 18 Mb/s (under Vista without the TV pack). When you watch a channel of live TV on the Extender, how much does this figure increase ?
    If your network is cabled, however, I’d be surprised if bandwidth is the root of the problem. I was too mean to buy an Extender for Vista, so don’t have direct experience of this. Questions therefore – is the Extender connected to the network by a cable, or wireless ? Does stuttering happen on all channels of live TV ? If you record the same (problem) channel of TV, then play it through the Extender, does stuttering still happen ? There’s a known problem with the XP MCE 2005 extenders and Channel 4 which drove me batty for months, and has no solution – I wonder if what you’re seeing is something similar…

  17. I already have a Slingbox setup which does pretty much the same thing. So rather than spend more money on another piece of kit I’d love to see an add in for Media Center to integrate my Slingbox and see it as a tuner.

  18. @Ian, the people who make SlingBox don’t provide Software Development Kit to get access to the raw data stream, etc.

  19. @Shane – I don’t have much more info than what was on their website. The install and configuration is very simple, as can be seen in the article above.

    I would strongly suggest that you upgrade the firmware before attempting to scan for channels though, as the original firmware did have some known issues.

  20. This is an awesome product and looks very promising. However, I’ll probably wait for the next gen version as I think an aerial cable per tuner is annoying. I’m hoping they bring a box with at least 4 tuners built in. This will allow a good amount of flexibility where there are more than 1 Media Centers and also avoid daisy chaining these boxes together.

  21. @Milan – I hate unnecessary wires, too. We’d be more than happy to integrate 2 HDHomeRuns plus a tiny switch and a 6-way aerial amplifier into one neat, self-contained box for you, together with all their power supplies. Please let me know if this is of interest.

  22. I would love to see a HDHomeRun with say 6 tuners and built in amplifier and taking only a single aeriel cable !….that would be the ultimate product for me and if priced right would snap it up !!

  23. @Ray Broadbridge – u can do it!…wow….but steep price considering I could run some software (dvbdream + dvsbridge) on a server with dual usb tuners to accomplish something very similar for alot less

  24. @Kets – Anything done in software is cheaper than in hardware, but will it be as convenient? I don’t think £450 is a steep price to ask; the basic model is two tuners for £159, yes? If Ray can do a one-input six-tuner version for £450, that’s less than the price of three basic models, PLUS a built-in amplifier and the convenience of no cable spaghetti (five less antenna cables, two+ less power bricks).

    @Ray Broadbridge – Ray, you mentioned a single tuner stream is about 18 Mb/s? So a “six-pack” would need a gigabit switch as 6×18 would saturate a lesser switch, yes?

  25. @Shane – You’re correct, of course; but Vista (without the TV pack) is an exceptionally bandwidth-hungry TV consumer. This is due to a known bug in this version of the Vista Media Center software. If instead you run XP MCE 2005, or Vista with the TV pack, or Windows 7, the bandwidth per channel of live TV goes down to about 6 Mb/s, which is much more manageable.

  26. I think streaming DVB-T to client PCs should be something Windows Home Server could do provided it is equipped with a TV tuner.
    We shouldn’t need any additional devices when we have a such a versatile device as a PC at our disposal.

  27. @John – key phrases being “equipped with a TV tuner” and “shouldn’t need any additional devices”. A TV tuner *is* an additional device, whether you have a card on the inside or a box on the outside, and the HDHomeRun has several advantages over a PCI solution.

    As a Microsoft product, what WHS really needs is Media Center: everything else that’s MS/MC-friendly on the network can then be fed TV, regardless of whether WHS is using a card or a box to get it.

  28. I bought a hdhomerun some time ago and the first week I got everything my cable company had to offer. then they apparently sent a magic bullet to it and / or the firmware update changed it. I now only get the basic over the air stuff that you would get without cable. I suspect they may be able to allow at least the channels I'm actually paying for but getting them to support a non-supported box is an uphill battle. unfortunately it is now an expensive box that picks up only the most basic of channels (about 5 total). disappointing. cable provider is wide open west.

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