2006 is the year of the HTPC and we will therefore take a closer look at one of the market’s hottest TV-tuners: FireDTV. With unique support for pay channels with MCE05 and high build quality these cards are well worth the attention.
With the HTPC concept and all MCE computers that starts to pop up in the shops, soon everyone will have a TV card in their computer. Most common, thus far, has been an analog card but the digital variant is becoming more commonplace. The most common digital cards are for DVB-T, i.e. for terrestrial reception, but the fact is that millions of Swedes, and others worldwide, receive their digital transmissions through satellite or cable. Today we have looked at some products suited for digital TV, all being from Digital Everywhere. FireDTV is manufactured by a small company in Austria and has in rather a short time swept many user of their feet. These Firewire connected external digital receiver have some properties lifting them above the average DVB tuner and today we thought we’d see why.
The review today is mainly based on our experience with FireDTV-C/CI, i.e. the cable variety (in our case ComHem), but in general all results are applicable to the other two models (DVB-T and DVB-S) and also the internal FloppyDTV versions.
The installation kit consists of the CDs. One with drivers for the FireDTV/FloppyDTV, manual in PDF format and a special version of MyTheatre. The other is simple an OEM version of PowerDVD 5. There
is also a printed manual, of course.
Further more there are stripped OEM and MCE versions to buy with nothing less than the drivers.
The FireDTV package.
Installing the hardware is truly simple. Hook up the Firewire cable to your computer and you’re done. The included power supply is, by rule, not necessary unless you want to use the antenna throughput or the computer’s Firewire ports aren’t powered. Then simply plug the antenna into its socket and if you want to use the antenna throughput courtesy of FireDTV, with the computer off, you need to connect the power supply to make it work properly. Naturally you will need to insert a CAM module and a smartcard if you want to watch any coded channels.
FloppyDTV is a bit more complicated to install. First you install it in a free 3.5” floppy slot (if you don’t have a smartcard, you can install it in a 3.5” hard drive slot instead). If you don’t have any free 3.5” slots, there is an accessory that lets you insert your smartcard through a PCI bracket. A standard 4-pin molex connector is used to power the unit; a firewire cable is connected internally or through the opening in the PCI-bracket. Insert the CAM and the smartcard. Then install the PCI bracket with the antenna connector where you connect your antenna cable.
FloppyDTV with its exchangeable front (Black and White fronts are included).
Whether you install the WMD or the BDA-drivers (we suggest the latter) you get two applications installed that control the card.
Depending on what CAM you installed, the CI-tool lets you control and change settings.
The RemoteControl-tool checks if the remote control works. It also has a list of four applications that will receive the codes (Meedio, Showshifter, MyTheatre or Sceneo).
Let’s have a look at MyTheatre:
MyTheatre has lots of functions, but the user interface isn’t that well designed.
After installing MyTheatre, it’s rather easy to start using the DVB-T and DVB-S versions of this product. Just start searching for channels and you’re ready to go. We had however some difficulties when using the DVB-C version, because MyTheatre didn’t scan some of the important frequencies that ComHem uses. This resulted in us not receiving two of the biggest channels in Sweden, SVT and TV4, but after looking at a list of the frequencies ComHem uses and then adding them manually everything worked.
MyTheatre includes everything you would expect from a competent DVB-tuner application. Timeshifting, the ability to pause live-TV, is of course included. you can also record without any quality loss. The recordings are saved in .mpg format and “unnecessary” content is removed while the original sound and image is retained. With EPG (program guide) you can plan your recordings in advance. TextTV and Digital Dolby 5.1 broadcasts works as expected. you can also use MyTheatre as a regular media player.
If you, like us, don’t like MyTheatre that much, you can of course try a third-party application. MyTheatre, MediaPotral, ShowShifter, SageTV, TVCentral and Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 are some of the applications that, as of today, officially support this product. It also works nicely in popular applications like e.g. Meedio & DVB Viewer.
We have chosen to use MediaPortal because if fully supports the FireDTV/FloppyDTV-series (e.g. some of the applications only supports DVB-S or DVB-T) and because it is tidy, fairly fast and most of all easy to use.
There is a Swedish version of MediaPortal and it contains all the functions you would expect from a Tuner application.
Its interface reminds a lot of MCE05 (depending of what skin you choose to use) and most functions are easy to understand and use. There’s no problem when using your FireDTV or MCE remote control in MediaPortal thanks to predefined profiles.
The best thing about third-party support is that FireDTV/FloppyDTV is the only products that work with encoded channels in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. But more of this on the next page.
A fact that most people probably have missed, is that the digital-TV support in Windows Media Center Edition 2005 is everything but complete. Microsoft has chosen to only support terrestrial digital-TV and hasn’t considered those of you that receive cable-TV from e.g. ComHem, Viasat, and UPC or receive digital-TV through satellite from Canal Digital, Viasat or some other supplier. Encoded channels aren’t supported in MCE05 either.
This means that you can only watch SVT’s channels and TV4 with Microsoft Media Center and only through terrestrial broadcast. Considering how many households that receive cable-TV in Sweden (over 1.5 million households) and how popular TV3, Kanal 5 etc. are, you could, at best, call Microsoft’s digital-TV support inadequate. The assortment of channels varies throughout the world though, some countries have more non-coded channels than we do..
One of the main reasons that Microsoft hasn’t put any effort in this is that most other countries in the world have a wide, non-coded terrestrial range of channels. Traditionally, commercial free pay-per-view channels like Canal+, TV1000, TV4 Film etc. goes under the category encoded pay-per-view channels, while commercial financed channels like TV3, Kanal 5, ZTV etc. are broadcast as free channels. The situation in Sweden is completely different, because of big-brother behavior from the Swedish government and greedy TV-networks; we have, unlike Germany, where you have 20-30 non-coded, terrestrial broadcast channels, only five channels. And four of them are from SVT.
Sounds boring? To only be able to receive Public Service and one more channel in your brand new Media Center? Fortunately, Digital Everywhere has a solution. With the help of new drivers, firmware and a plug-in, you can now receive encoded channels in MCE. We’re still “bound” to terrestrial broadcast but there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for households who use ComHem.
Installing FireDTV in MCE in order to receive encoded channels is not that hard.
One extra step in the installation.
Because we don’t want MCE to break down and cry, we have to remove all channels we don’t have access to. This is done easiest from inside MCE.
Remove the mark on those channels that you don’t have access to.
Voila, encoded channels in MCE for the first time. Digital Everywhere fixes Microsoft’s faults in a heartbeat.
The idea that a small Austrian company is needed to correct Microsoft’s faults is rather amusing, but we can’t do anything but say thank you. A huge step has been taken towards the ultimate HTPC when using a FireDTV-T in your computer together with MCE2005.
No product we have tested so far has been perfect and no product probably will. We have compiled a short but concise list of things that we would like to see added or changed when it comes to the FireDTV.
The first and probably the greediest, is a dual-tuner. This would allow you to watch a channel while you recorded from another or e.g. showing one program on one TV and another on a different TV or perhaps a computer monitor. Or why not record two programs at the same time. This would, of course, increase the manufacturer’s costs but considering how expensive the FireDTV-C/CI (approximately 2000 SEK) is compared to e.g. the TwinhanDTV Cab-CI (approximately 1000 SEK) it feels justifiable to wish for this.
The next item on the list is a bit more realistic, better software. MyTheatre 3.27 and PowerDVD 5 aren’t the best applications in the world. Admittedly, they are pretty stable compared to other solutions and MyTheatre has loads of functions that not all applications have, but it doesn’t feel fun to work with because of its terrible user interface and its low usability. Shortly, we don’t feel that these applications equal the hardware they’re delivered with.
On the other hand, if you’ve bought the DVB-T version for MCE you shouldn’t worry, because only drivers are enclosed with it.
Regarding FloppyDTV, we would like to see an antenna throughput. The connector is located on the unit, but according to the manual you should absolutely not use it. Because we don’t know why it says so, we chose not to push our luck and because the bracket only has an input connector and no output connector, the wiring would be complicated. We have now been told that the antenna throughput can be used on the DVB-C and DVB-T versions. However, the fact that the PCI-bracket doesn’t have the necessary connector still remains.
Last but not least, we really hope that Digital Everywhere figures out how to receive encoded DVB-C and DVB-S channels in MCE05. you can receive non-coded DVB-C and DVB-S channels with other products, using rather simple methods, so it’s not an impossible mission. We’re mainly thinking of ComHem, that delivers TV to nearly a third of the households in Sweden.
In the land where everybody wants to be like everyone else no provider of digital TV dare to stick their nose out by offering a truly digital settop box. you might wonder what’s so digital with digital TV if the signal is transformed to analog before reaching your digital television. With a digital TV card in your computer in combination with a modern television you can experience digital transmissions the best possible way: digitally all the way.
FireDTV helps us get a better picture and, believe me when I say, the difference is monumental compared to a settop box feeding the picture through a regular SCART. The benefits don’t end here, two interesting functions accessible with a computer mounted digital TV receiver card are time shifting and recording. With time shifting you are able to pause live broadcast (the broadcast from that point on is the buffered on the hard drive) should the need to visit the facilities, answer a phone call or check the laundry. upon returning you can easily resume the broadcast, having missed not one second. Being able to record digital TV digitally is also a nice function. The broadcasts you record are in the same format as they were transmitted, without quality loss (including 5.1 sound). A prominent difference compared to e.g. recording via an analog TV card or by hooking up your digital settop box to a DVD recorder via a SCART connector.
Furthermore, it gives you the opportunity to receive HDTV broadcasts without the need to purchase an expensive digital settop box. With the right software (e.g. MediaPortal in combination with FFDShow) you are able to scale up the picture of regular broadcasts to almost HDTV quality. Also possible, again with the right software, is streaming broadcasts on to the LAN (and of course to the Internet) so that anyone in the house or maybe a friend overseas can watch it in its full glory.
In short, receiving digital TV broadcast through a computer offers a lot of improvements, both concerning picture quality and functionality. It can also be cheaper to purchase than a regular settop digital box. The digital settop box’ destined for the Swedish market we’ve seen so far will have a MSRP of some SEK4000. In such a case FireDTV will be a lot cheaper alternative that will do the same and more.
With the card comes MyTheatre, a program that offers a lot of functionality and really is a treat for a power user. The program is very stable compared to similar software. One thing that strikes us is the hopelessly dull and
somewhat awkward interface, It just doesn’t feel good to set some channels in MyTheatre and then pass the remote to Grannie or much less the kids.
Another part of the software bundle is PowerDVD 5, it’s supposed to be used as a codec. The reviewer in question is not particularly happy with the picture quality PowerDVD offers, in our opinion neither the color management nor the de-interlacing is up to par with the other codecs on the market.
We have chosen a different combination of software for our FireDTV, in the form of MediaPortal and nVidia’s PureVideo DVD Decoder. This combination is more user friendly, better looking and in our opinion gives a better picture quality. The freedom to choose a third party software, which of many are cost free and supporting FireDTV, is nice. If you’re not happy with MyTheatre there are plenty of other choices.
What also ranks high , maybe highest, is the fact that it, with support for coded channels in Windows Media Center Edition, is quite unique. That means, pop any other digital TV card in your computer and you will only be able to see the free to air channels in MCE. FireDTV is something of a small revolution for the HTPC, with its ability to receive coded channels in MCE. (DVB-C and DVB-S do not work at all in MCE, neither coded nor non-coded, so it would be a nice achievement if the succeeded.)
+ Solid quality build
– A bit expensive
FireDTV, in our opinion, is the ultimate digital TV card on the market today. The installation is really simple, quality of the build is good and we like the external box. The support among third part software is very good, not to mention that FireDTV/FloppyDTV, in their DVB-T versions, so far are the only ones to support coded channels in Windows Media Center Edition 2005.
In comparison with competing DVB-C solutions, FireDTV is among the easiest to use, so if you have e.g. ComHem you can save yourself a lot of headaches by choosing this product, should you want to receive digital channels in your computer.The only this we can complain about is the bundled software. PowerDVD is hardly a codec that can match up, in functionality, with newer codecs and MyTheatre have, with all its fabulous functionality, a miserable user interface. But since there are many compatible third party software, we don’t consider this as a major problem.
Naturally the price is rather high, maybe even twice as high as a PCI version. Despite that, we feel without a doubt that FireDTV is worth every penny, especially if you want DVB-C or if you want coded channels in MCE with the DVB-T version. you should also consider buying the subsidized FireDTV receiver, of course you will have to sign a Boxer agreement. (This will only work with the DVB-T versions).
+ Many choices of software
– A bit expensive
Even though FloppyDTV is hard- and software wise identical with FireDTV there are some issues that makes us prefer the external version. First of all is the fact that not all chassis can accept it, maybe all the 3.5 inch places are taken or your chassi have a door etc. Secondly we have had problems with signal strength and interference of reception with the FloppyDTV, problems not found on the external versions. These problems arise due to grounding issues, these are to be adjusted with coming revisions of FloppyDTV.
All in all we were very impressed with Digital-Everywhere and its FireDTV and hope to see more interesting products from this company in the future.
We would like to extend a big thank you to Magnus Thomé of TystPC.nu for providing the test products.