Streaming Cable TV via HDHomeRun DLNA

Joel Ward —  July 30, 2014

Fellow tech enthusiast and DC neighbor Joel Ward continues his role as a Features contributor here at Zatz Not Funny. Beyond ZNF, Joel can be found at Joel Explains It All and @joelsef on Twitter.

In our crowd, just a few years back watching OTA and cable on your computer was all the rage. Platforms like Windows Media Center, SageTV, and SnapStream BeyondTV allowed you to attach a tuner to your PC, watch and pause live TV and record shows. I was all about Windows Media Center, and with the advent of Windows 7 it was available in every edition of the OS (well, except Home Basic). Instead of needing to buy a “Digital Cable Ready PC” like with Windows Vista, Windows 7 allowed WMC to view encrypted cable via a CableCard with the right tuner attached to any PC. Who needed a cable box anymore?

Fast forward to 2014: While MythTV is still around in some form or anotherSageTV was acquired by Google to power Google Fiber set-tops (and discontinued as a consumer product) and the company behind BeyondTV has similarly moved on to enterprise customers. Microsoft has all but abandoned Windows Media Center — WMC is still there in Windows 8 Pro as a $10 paid add-in. Yet it’s not promoted and definitely not being enhanced. The reality is that cable company set-tops and TiVo are a lot less work to maintain, with the market for custom HTPCs too small and companies like Microsoft losing interest. The explosion of over-the-top (OTT) video like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu Plus, and HBO GO has rendered live TV and even DVR recording much less important, even if you do actually have cable (which is required for HBO GO, BTW).

HDHomeRun-Prime-tuner

SiliconDust has been making network TV tuners for seven years. Their tuners are not attached to PCs. Rather they are IP network devices attached to Ethernet and made available to one or more PCs on the network via special Windows, Linux, and Mac OS network tuner drivers. Their HDHomeRun devices started as OTA and Clear QAM tuners, and in the fall of 2011 they released the HDHomeRun Prime tuner. This was initially compatible mainly with Windows Media Center perhaps due to CableLabs requirements but digital cable software offerings have expanded to other platforms as SiliconDust has had to find a way forward for their products – without having to develop native clients.

Starting about 18 months ago with beta firmware for the HDHomeRun Prime, SiliconDust enabled DLNA streaming of channels to certain DLNA compliant software. This was a direct stream—no transcoding—and you had to have the right video player to be able to decipher the stream. All of the computing had to be done on the device where the stream was playing, not at the tuner itself. Still, very cool. Any device could stream channels—with the right software. This worked with Windows Media Player and VLC—sort of—as well as some Smart TVs and video game consoles. And the cool thing about DLNA was that you could either use the device’s DLNA browser to look for content OR use, say, a mobile DLNA app (like MediaHouse for Android) to browse for channels then play to another device like a TV. We’ve enjoying that with our Samsung TV; The streams work very well and even come through in HD with 5.1 surround sound!

HDHomeRun-SamsungSmartHub

A few downsides of this were that you needed the right video player to be able to render the native stream. On Android there are a few options for free, like Wondershare Player. However because the stream was the full bitrate video, on WiFi and mobile devices it would often get choppy or cut out. Using the non-HD channel helped get more consistent video, but still had period troubles. In addition, ‘copy none’ CCI Byte-flagged channels like HBO on FiOS will not work at due to viewing restrictions set by the provider. Only ‘copy freely’ channels work.

SiliconDust released their own tuner app for Android called HDHomeRun VIEW. This is coming for iOS as well. This app costs a few dollars, but seems to get a more consistent SD stream than using a free video player like WonderShare. This reminds me of the old Elgato app for the iPad 2 that could do basically the same thing. But, what’s needed is transcoding of the stream to different bitrates at the tuner level so that more of the work is done before traveling through the network to the device. This would also reduce network traffic and eliminate hiccups in the stream. Fortunately, the more recent SiliconDust HDHomeRun PLUS tuners now have this: built-in transcoding to H.264. These tuners handle both OTA and Clear QAM (no CableCARD or encrypted cable) but do more of the computing work on the tuner box itself. They’ve also teamed up with Simple.TV to create a combined tuner/DVR. The Prime is still available, but does not include tuner-level transcoding. Perhaps we’ll see a refreshed digital cable model?

HDHomeRun-VIEW2

SiliconDust has also upgraded firmware for the earlier tuners like the Prime to have more features, like a web-page based browsing and viewing of channels in browser. Longer term, it looks like SiliconDust is working on apps for Android TV and maybe other platforms to have more of a slick UI for browsing, watching, and maybe once again recording TV. One big gap with these apps is guide data. Currently you can browse channels like the old days: by channel number and maybe network name, but no guide data or scheduling.

For a more in-depth look at a few DLNA viewing apps and devices, visit Joel Explains It All.

11 responses to Streaming Cable TV via HDHomeRun DLNA

  1. The transcoding isn’t really about different bitrates (although obviously it is a much lower bitrate) but that the raw video from your cable or OTA is mpeg-2, which offers hugely less efficient compression than mpeg-4 (h.264).

    Sadly only their very newest devices support DLNA. I have a slightly older HDHomerun Dual that doesn’t support it. Why is not entirely clear, it’s not like DLNA takes a lot of processing power.

  2. Would you be able to stream using a Roku? Thought they had a DLNA channel now.

    Do not touch the dual tuner SimpleTV…even the new one with all the pretty holes is still not as reliable as Tablo. I know that STV is working behind the scenes to update the firmware, but damage has already been done.

  3. Rodalpho, real-time transcoding is processor-intensive and ideally these folks go with a chip dedicated to the task like TiVo Stream, Slingbox, etc. SiliconDust did allude to both Joel and I independently that they’ve got a few things in the pipeline. Will be interesting to see if they stick with CableCARD and put out a Prime that transcodes – that would be pretty killer.

    Adam, one way or another you should be able to get this content onto Roku. Of course, I say that without having tried it and assume this is some sort of secure DLNA, which may limit options. If the Roku-built app doesn’t work, maybe could probably relay through Plex. Perhaps Rodalpho knows or Joel can test it out for us.

  4. DLNA and transcoding are separate features. The (newest) Dual offers DLNA; only the Plus offers transcoding.

  5. Gotcha – I misunderstood, didn’t realize it was DLNA that was limited to specific models. Wonder if they just don’t want to support the old models or the hardware can’t support the network throughput or computational requirements. You’re right, tho, seems like it should be possible. Hm.

  6. HDHRFling relays through a PC to Roku.

  7. In theory, this should work with Roku, Chromecast, and other devices that have DLNA features, if they can decode the stream properly. If you have a PLUS mode, it may work better because it transcodes vs. the Prime which does not.

    I thought all models from the past few years had DLNA at least on the latest firmware, though my older dual tuner ASTC/Clear QAM Dual does not.

  8. I want to reiterate: all the HDHomeRun tuners still work with Windows Media Center. We tried that for a few years and gave up and basically just use the Verizon FiOS DVR and cable boxes. It was just less hassle.

    Then I wondered what to do with the HDHomeRun tuners, and voila! DLNA streaming appeared!

    We use this mainly as second screen video, e.g. watching Capitals hockey on a tablet while watching Game of Thrones on the TV. Or catching some sports or news while at the lunch table or bouncing around the house. We also have an old PC in the kitchen instead of a regular TV. We got a touchscreen monitor and use the HDHomeRun Quick TV Windows app to tune in cable channels periodically, without needing a mouse or remote. If the PC was strong we’d use Windows Media Center, but it can’t handle the graphics load!

  9. Because of all of the problems listed above, I built a transcoding server/app for the HDHomeRun to help resolve this.

    It basically just tunes the channel, transcodes it, and then outputs an HTTP Live Streaming version. This lets me use iOS devices (GPU rendered h.264) and WiFI (lower bitrates). I can watch things on my iOS apps, desktop, and even AirPlay to an Apple TV.

    I originally built this to work with the media center I wrote, so that I could have Live TV in on my kitchen TV without having to pay for another stupid cable box or have a huge ugly box in my kitchen.

    It takes a little technical knowledge to set up, but once it’s set up, its great. It’s built mainly so you can integrate it with other software, so it’s mainly API driven. But it has web views too so you can just browse to it on your phone/tablet.

    And yes, I’m very excited to see a cable card version of a transcoding HDHomeRun, to be able to remove step from my set up, ha!

    Site – http://jonmaddox.com/wallop/
    GitHub – https://github.com/maddox/wallop
    Docs – https://github.com/maddox/wallop/tree/master/docs

  10. Jon, that’s very cool!

  11. That is cool!

    What I actually want is a little program that translates older HDHomerun streams into DLNA so I can play on XBMC. All the various linux programs like TVHeadend are various degrees of awful. Windows MCE works, but I don’t want to use my desktop when I have a perfectly good HTPC.