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