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 another, SageTV 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).
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!
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?
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.