Set-top box replacement options

-August 04, 2017

When last I spoke about Microsoft's Windows Media Center service, in a post published back in February, I was dealing with yet another iteration of a longstanding struggle with the utility's program guide. As I wrote then:

Microsoft dropped the Media Center feature from Windows 10, so I suspect the product is on the back burner resource-wise at this point. But as long as Windows 7 and 8.x remain officially supported products, the company would be well advised to not drop the Media Center ball completely.

Well, as it turns out, the company is pretty much dropping the ball. Last fall, as I mentioned in another February-published post, I began getting notices by mail that Comcast was in the process of transitioning from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 compression (H.264, to be exact), presumably (and perhaps obviously) as a means of reducing both required transmission bandwidth and "cloud" storage capacity. I confirmed that my CableCARD-based network tuner, a SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime, was MPEG-4-compatible, so I thought I was good to go. Well ... not exactly.

The tuner network-connected to my Windows Media Center-equipped and Windows 7-based "headless" PC might be MPEG-4-compatible, but the PC itself is not, specifically with "protected" (i.e. DRM'd) MPEG-4 content such as HBO. Nor, as it turns out, are the Xbox 360s I'm using as Media Center Extender playback devices. When I try to direct-connect a display to the PC and play back HBO that way, I get reliable audio, albeit accompanied by a perpetually blank screen. And when I instead try to play back the recorded (or, for that matter, live) HBO-sourced program through an Xbox 360 intermediary, I again get reliable audio, along with a picture ... albeit plagued with perpetual frame-rate stutters.

The direct-playback problem seems, from my research, to derive from Intel graphics drivers that don't support MPEG-4 DRM ... drivers that are unlikely to ever be updated, since the integrated graphics are several generations old at this point. The Extender-based playback problem, similarly, seems to source from Microsoft's lack of support for MPEG-4 DRM ... and again, since the Xbox 360 is now nearing end of life, I doubt the company will bother to ever fix this issue. Keep in mind that the successor Xbox One console never even offered Extender capabilities. And similarly, while Media Center facilities were front and center in Windows 7, they were an afterthought (no longer offered, in fact) add-on for Windows 8.x, and completely dropped from Windows 10. Here's some more background reading on the issue, for the curious among you:

Fortunately, as the last bulleted-list entry above indicates, the problem is currently restricted (at least in my case) to HBO. Other channels I regularly access from Comcast are either unprotected or are still MPEG-2 encoded. And for HBO, I can alternatively pull up programs via the HBO GO app for the Xbox 360. But even now, the Xbox 360's MPEG-4 embrace is imperfect ... for what I assume are attempts to minimize license fees payments, the console dynamically downloads its MPEG-4 support each time you access relevant content, versus making a one-time install ... which means that you need to be logged into your Xbox Live account at the time ... which can only be done on one console at a time (i.e. precluding simultaneous watching of multiple TVs in the house at once). And, as Comcast switches more of its content to protected MPEG-4 in the future, the viability of Windows Media Center-plus-Xbox 360 Extender will further fade into the sunset.

My successor options, aside from renting a STB for each TV? Not many. SiliconDust's HDHomeRun PVR software, which I've written about before, still doesn't robustly support protected content more than two years after its Kickstarter launch. But more recently, an intriguing alternative has emerged. Comcast now offers, for recent (i.e. sufficiently speedy and/or sufficently DRM-supportive, I suspect) Roku media streamers, an XFINITY Stream app coupled to the service provider's Cloud DVR facilities. Post-beta, Comcast will charge you the equivalent of a few-dollar CableCARD monthly fee for each Roku, but that's less than the $10 (or more, feature-dependent) per month in rent for a STB. And although I'm not thrilled about being even more firmly chained to Comcast for my TV service, I'm already pretty solidly restrained, so it's really just a matter of degree.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance and a Senior Analyst at BDTI.

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