Can a PC completely replace our cable box/DVR?

We have Time Warner digital cable (no subscription channels). We “rent” a cable box/DVR combo from them. We also have a PC (Win 7) in the den. Is there a card I can drop in and a Web site to subscribe to that would allow us to return the cable box and do all viewing through the PC?

There are graphics cards that have tuners built in them, which may be able to do some DVR-like stuff, but you aren’t going to have your fancy menus and stuff you get with your cable box, and you’ll only get the channels that naturally come through on the line… hard to explain what I mean exactly but it sounds like since you don’t have subscription channels you’ll be fine.

But basically you just need a special type of video card and yes you can watch cable TV on them. It might not give you the same DVR/menu experience though.

Some versions of Windows 7 include Windows Media Center which can work with the TV tuner card to let you watch and record live TV. You may need a tuner card that supports a CableCard if the channels are encrypted. It can certainly work. I was using a Windows XP PC to record TV shows about eight years ago (using third-party software).

It’s a little bit more complicated than simply dropping a card in, but yes, this is doable.

  1. You need a Cablecard supporting TV Tuner device if you are going to access Digital Cable stations. While, currently, the FCC mandates that over the air (OTA) channels be freely available over your cable connection, the vast majority of digital stations are probably not going to work with your run of the mill ClearQAM/ATSC tuners. You can go with a PCI-Express card such as the Infinitv4 PCIe, or a USB solution such as the Infinitv4 USB or HD HomeRun Prime
  2. You need an M-card Cablecard (and likely need a Switched Digital Video tuning adapter) from your cable company. Time Warner in my area only charges a few bucks a month for the Cablecard rental (and the tuning adapter is included, free of charge, likely per some FCC regulation)
  3. For Windows 7, you MUST use Windows Media Center to access most of your TV content. No other player (that I’ve been able to find) on the market supports the encryption flag/DRM necessary to access content that has been marked as “Copy-Once” or “Copy-Never”

Once you get the Cablecard activated and paired with your 7-MC (Windows 7 Media Center) install, you’ll have access to all of the same channels you do on your cable box, minus any on-demand channels (no solution outside of proprietary TWC boxes supports those, AFAIK).

A couple of important caveats I’ve discovered when I went this route (and ultimately decided, bleep it, I’m getting a Tivo):

  1. Make sure your Windows maintenance tasks, ie Software updates and WMC guide updates, are being performed at a time when you KNOW you won’t miss/lose recordings.
  2. The PCIe version of the Ceton, on first bootup and access to a cablecard restricted channel, can take 30 seconds to 1 minute to access. Shouldn’t happen again until you close WMC and re-bring it up, but take that for what it’s worth.
  3. Your recording hard drive (without hacks) is the same as your live tv/buffer drive, which can in theory slow things down if you’ve got 4 simultaneous streams recording/viewing at the same time.
  4. For dual-monitor setups, Full Screen WMC removes your ability to essentially do anything at all on your second screen. There is a program called The Maxifier that alleviates this, but it has it’s own…fickle pecularities to deal with.
  5. My experience, with Intel HD 4000 graphics, Nvidia graphics, AND ATI graphics all results in major screen tearing (a visible line) if Windows 7 Aero Desktop compositing is turned off, which, depending on your video card, may be necessary in order to run anything.

Sadly, with the Windows team all but abandoning MC for Win 8 (oh, it’s available, but only for Win 8 Pro, and it’s essentially unchanged from Win 7 anyways), the one platform that supports Cablecard for PC’s looks to be dying. May end up moot if the accessible IP-TV stuff that Boxee is pushing for happens, but that will be a year or two down the road at least.

Wow, thanks for the details. I’ll give TW a call and find out how much they charge for the cable card (calling it “rent” would spark a Pit-thread). If it’s close to the amount they charge for the cable box it doesn’t really make sense. So bizzare that I have an order or magnitude more processing power than the box but can’t easily replace it.


JayRx1981 summarized basically the ideal way to do it. Another track is to rent just the cable box and have the Media PC control the cable box, for example with an IR blaster.

DIY DVR with digital services is a major pain in the neck and not for the faint of heart. There’s accessing and changing channels, getting schedule information (especially timely updates), controlling the Media PC remotely, feeding the signal to the TV, etc.

I have tried this off and on for over 10 years and nothing has been as easy to use as a cable box. (and my wife never could use it well).

In pre-HDTV days, I could watch all 100 or so ‘Basic’ cable channels via PC, but with the switch to HDTV and digital, it is rare to get much more than local channels without a cable card and supporting hardware cards/boxes.

As noted above, Ceton and SiliconDust are the main solutions for cable cards and PCs.

The guys in this discussion board have the most experience :

Do you leave your computer on all the time anyway? If not, how much extra electricty will you use? (My Cisco cable box uses 22 watts when in use)? What’s it worth not to have the cable company blame your equipment when you call with trouble? What’s it worth for the convenience of being able to use easily your computer for something else while watching TV. How about the ease of use of a cable remote instead of pulling something up on your computer.

Just a few things to think about…

Never tried it with cable, but with broadcast TV it’s as simple as plugging in a USB TV Tuner and running software than can access it, on Windows that was Windows Media Centre and on Linux Mythtv and Kaffeine.

Can a PC replace a cable box? In theory, a lot of things are possible. The question is are you looking for the change to improve your quality of life or turn it into a living electronic nightmare?

I have an HTPC hooked to my tv and I tried the Ceton card, but between having an older Sony SXRD model plus the fact that Ceton has to use windows media center, I never got it to work properly and wasn’t willing to turn that into a part time job. It was easier to just go back to the box and use the PC for other video like I’d been doing.

What’s really discouraging is that I still need a mouse, keyboard and 3 remotes handy in order to really do anything. There’s something wrong with that - or me.

It’s been a year, and so rather than start a whole new thread I figured I’d bump this one.

Has the past year brought anything new technology-wise, or are we still better off paying TWC for a lower-powered but proprietary computer to watch cable with?

I save money by using my pc for recording. That avoids the rental of a dvr (The Hopper). I do have a standard receiver box.

For recording you need a Firewire or Usb analog/digital converter. I use a Canopus firewire.

You also need software to capture on the PC. I used the free Windows software for awhile and was unhappy with the resolution of wmv files. I spent $80 for Cyberlink Powerdirector 12. It captures in full Mpeg-2 and has a editor to remove commercials.

The one thing I still need is a scheduler. I’m starting my recordings manually. I’d love to remedy that someday.

Overall I like my DIY dvr. The recordings I make are on my PC and can easily be burned to DVD or Blu Ray data disks. Not trapped somewhere in the Hopper or Tivo box.

It’s still the same universe. Some more options as to makes and models, but still the same setup/connection issues.

More and more cable companies are encrypting all of their channels. The days of even the local channels being in the clear are numbered. So to decrypt the signal you need one of two things:

A cable box. Which you then capture the signal. This adds an extra decode/encode layer to the signal. You also probably will have an issue recording off an HDMI signal for many channels (copy protection). Or

A cable-card device. Either an external tuner or an internal card. Both have advantages/disadvantages. Almost all, if not all, of these require Windows Media 7 if you want to watch/record protected content.

Google SiliconDust, Ceton or (if you’re desperate) Hauppauge.

It’s not a simple world.

I use this and Windows Media Player to record. Plug it in the USB port and it works a charm.

Not a DVR, but I swapped out a bedroom TV cable box for this cable-card tuner. It will pay for itself in a year and a half and provides Netflix, Amazon, etc. streaming to boot. Much more compact than cable box.

I live without cable. In fact, I mostly use my smart tv: netflix has a pretty decent library. Anything else I can’t find I download on pirate bay. As I live in Brazil I also use Unblock-us. for something like 15 dollars I have way more content than I could watch, with no commercials, in HD and at any time that I want. In fact, I has been some time I dont “watch tv”…

Good grief, that’s a NTSC (or PAL) mono SD tuner! Where do you live that you have a cable company still providing analog channels??? Wow.

This is not an option for just about anyone. Especially if you want HD, or stereo or … anything remotely modern.

Chicago - Comcast.

Much of the content on Pirate Bay is not legal to download in the U.S. (and many other parts of the world) as it is a copyright violation. The discussion of illegal downloading is not permitted here.

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