Riddle me this: Just how many channels can Windows Media Center miss and dismiss?

-October 11, 2012

In my previous post, I mentioned that I'd figured out a workaround that (theoretically, at least) provided me recording capabilities for a portion of the channel allocation that I was receiving from Comcast, in spite of their (so far) refusal to provide me with a CableCard. Remembering my prior ClearQAM experience with Suddenlink, on a hunch I decided to bypass the set-top box and see if my 37" LCD TV's built-in QAM tuner would pick up any channels. It did...62 of them, in fact.

So I mated the coax wall connector in another area of the house to my SiliconDust HD HomeRun Prime, then connected the TV tuner peripheral to my router and from there to my Windows 7 Professional-based computer. The PC found the HD HomeRun Prime just fine; I had first installed the software drivers, which automatically upgraded the SiliconDust unit's firmware, then I went through the Windows Media Center setup process that by now I knew intimately.

Windows Media Center found only 21 channels on its initial configuration pass (my PC is a "headless" system, which I access from my Mac using either VNC or the Remote Desktop Connection Client, thereby explaining the screenshots' appearance):

A rescan picked up only two more channels:

And only around half of the 23 had program guide associations. At this point, I'd normally leverage the HDHomeRun software to fill in the missing channel and program guide association gaps. And as it turns out, SiliconDust even provides a utility called HDHomeRun WMC Sync that automates this process. But although the HDHomeRun Prime had also found 62 ClearQAM-capable channels:

It wasn't able to identify all or even most of the channels, as had been the case in my previous experiment back in CA. And its success rate varied depending on what zip code I entered; it was actually the worst when I plugged in the zip for my small town. The SiliconDust software did a bit better when I entered a Denver zip code, although given the distance away I was concerned that channel-association accuracy might suffer. And it filled in the largest number of channel identification slots when I picked the zip code for a somewhat larger town only a few miles away from me.

But plenty of blank spots remained:

SiliconDust's online database doesn't fill all of the gaps, and ironically contains entries that are incompatible with some of the existing channel assignments. And given the pending phase-out of ClearQAM at Comcast, coupled with my hopeful success at convincing the company to give me a CableCard, I'm not sure how much additional time and effort I'll expend on this particular phase of the project...although it'd sure be nice to be able to record this weekend's Denver Broncos and Notre Dame Fighting Irish games.

Frankly, if I'm able to convince Comcast to give me a CableCard, I'll probably end up with even more blank and otherwise messed up channel assignments then I currently have, anyway. TVFool tells me that I should have fairly good ATSC reception here:

Click to enlarge

So I think it's about time for me to evaluate some indoor over-the-air antennas. I'll end up with fewer channels, but the video quality will be true high-def and comparatively artifact-pristine. Regardless of whether or not I end up able to use my cable TV service, though, I won't dare cancel it. Believe it or not, Comcast told me that as an "existing customer" I'm no longer eligible for the promotions that were in place when I originally signed up, so if I were to go with an Internet-only plan, my per-month price would...double.

I've repeatedly wrestled with home theater setups for years now, both Microsoft-based and those developed by other companies such as Elgato. Every time, I walk away from the experience shaking my head. It's no wonder that service providers such as Comcast convince consumers to lease branded PVRs and other set-top boxes in spite of their comparatively restricted (and restrictive) functionality. They may not do much, but what they do they do reliably. And it all begins with program guide accuracy. Why can't Microsoft or another company sort out how to do at least as good a job, if not better, across the range of service provider options...cable, fiber, satellite, over-the-air, and the like?

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