You can read the first part of this blog series at Building My Windows Vista Media Center - Part 1 - The System, where I talk about what hardware and software I selected for my home Vista Media Center, which I will refer to as VMC from now on.

This entry is primarily about my selection of tuner for the VMC.

Tuner - Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick (800e) - Rejected

PCTV-HD_Pro_Stick_lg Impatience is its own reward.  I really wanted to get going, so I stopped at a shop and bought the USB tuner that they had on hand - it happened to be the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick.

The supplied documentation talked about the XP-based MCE, so when I went home, I went to the Pinnacle web site and quickly found this Pinnacle Windows Vista page.  I clicked the link, downloaded the Vista-32 driver.  With the driver on my local disk, I was able to plug in the USB tuner and find and install the appropriate driver without too much effort.

Next, I fired up VMC and navigated to the menu option setup my TV tuner - and it couldn't find one!  Not good.  The tuner also came with some Pinnacle PVR software, Pinnacle TVCenter, but I didn't want to use that - the whole point was to leverage the VMC capabilities.  After fruitless searches for an hour or so for some good step-by-step documentation, I finally noticed that the pinnacle Vista driver page had a lower section called "Pinnacle PCTV Installer for Windows Media Center 3.1" that had Windows Vista as one of the supported OSes.  I downloaded it to give it a try.

It turned out to be a critical piece of software - a software MPEG2 converter needed to encode the PCTV HD Pro Stick input for use by Media Center.  NOTE:  See my step-by-step guide at the end if you need help installing.

Again, I fired up Media Center, did the setup - and this time it detected the tuner attached to my Cable and configured properly for my region.

Long story short: performance was horrible.  Starting up Live TV, navigation was a bit stop and go.  I started recording a show and that worked okay.  Next, I tried to watch a pre-recorded show while recording something else from the tuner - choppy and bad.  I stopped the playback, opened up a task manager and noted the recording a show pegged the CPU at 100% by itself.  Since I want to ultimately replace my Comcast DVR box, this definitely did not make the grade.

Tuner - Adaptec DUAL TV TUNER PVR 3610 KIT

Having demonstrated the problems with being impatient, I started doing a lot of research on USB tuners on the Internet.  I really wanted a dual-tuner, so I could record one show and watch another live show at the same time - that's what I can do on my Cable DVR and my wife will expect that capability.

I found the WinTV-PVR-500 as one of the most recommended dual-tuners that works well with Media Centers, but unfortunately it only comes PCI card format.  I needed something that worked via USB, so that it could sit next to the laptop I am using.  After searching around for a while, I found the Adaptec AVC-3610.  I purchased it via Amazon.com, but the order was fulfilled by Computer Geeks (www.geeks.com).  After the fact, I noticed that I would've gotten it a little bit cheaper by simply ordering from them directly, but what they heck.  I notice that www.geeks.com still have a few in stock, but they have a notice saying these units are almost gone - but Amazon has several more sources listed, so you should be able to find them.AVC-3610-soft

I received my order in the mail after about 4 days and I  was very impressed with this unit because it came with every cable I would need, including a cable splitter, which are about $20 by themselves.  They also include two very short cables for connecting the splitter outputs to the tuner box, which is great, since you don't have to coil up multiple 3' cables (which is what I was already doing for my Cable DVR).  The bundle also includes a Media Center Remote, the cheapest of which I could find at www.bestbuy.com is $23.  Honestly, if you figure in the cost of the remote, the splitter, and the rest of the cables - the tuner unit itself is a very small portion of the $94.50 you pay at Computer Geeks Today for the whole bundle.

I followed the instructions for installation and it went very smoothly - I encountered no problems at all.  When I fired up VMC, it recognized 2 new tuners, which I configured and immediately started to use.   I picked some random show to record and began watching Live TV simultaneously and it worked very well, the image was good and the menus worked quickly and well.

Choosing the Default Recording Level Quality

I want to close Part 2 by discussing the Media Center quality settings for recording TV.  The choices are Fair, Good, Better and Best - very informative, eh?  I found this link on Microsoft, which has some general definitions and table.  I can guess that Good is probably between Fair and Better in quality and I can guess that it takes up more space than fair, but less than Better, so I didn't find the definitions from the page all that useful either.  Here is an example of the "good" description:

Good: The second-highest compression level allows you to store many recorded TV shows with acceptable video quality. At this level, you may notice some distortion during action scenes. Choose this level as the default level if you have a medium-sized TV screen; want to store a large number of recorded shows on your Media Center PC; and can tolerate occasional, minor video flaws.

See what I mean?  The tables I found more useful, here is the one that shows how much space a level uses:

Show length Best Better Good Fair
30 minutes 1.6 GB 1.25 GB .9 GB .75 GB
1 hour 3.3 GB 2.5 GB 1.75 GB 1.5 GB
2 hours 6.5 GB 5 GB 3.5 GB 3 GB

Ultimately, I had to experiment to see what worked for me.  Best was top-notch, but was using up a lot of space.  I tried "better" on some South Park episodes and action series from the Sci-Fi Channel and they seemed just as good.  Finally, I tried "good" for a mix of TV series like "The Office" and kids cartoons like "Bob the Builder."  I could notice a difference, but not a very large one.  Keeping in mind that the WVC interface allows very easy access to "advanced recording settings" so that I Ultimately, here is the policy I went with:

  • Good is my default recording level.  This is perfectly acceptable for any TV show I'm going to watch once and delete.  It is also fine for the kids TV Series like Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine, where I'll be keeping every episode, but is much more space efficient than the other settings.
  • Better is the setting I select for TV series that I am going to keep and rewatch for myself or my wife.  Heroes, for example, or Grey's Anatomy.  I'm selecting a better encoding quality on the assumption that I will do some post-processing myself to remove commercials and compress using the codec of my choice.
  • Best is the setting I select for recording movies or special events that I want to keep.  Similar to my assumptions above, I will be keeping these to watch, plus I will do some post processing on them myself to remove commercials and compress using the codec of my choice.  For example, I might record Lord of the Rings from TV, cut the commercials and then transcode to wmv - because of the transcoding, I want to start from a better resolution.

Your mileage may vary, especially since I don't know if the various hardware encoders out there all produce consistent quality, but since I found very little guidance in this area, I thought I would share it with you.

I will continue with this series on my VMC - I think the next one will either focus on tweaking the system and accounts for network sharing of media or possibly focus on interesting add-ons - I'm not sure yet.

Regards ~ Jeff

PS.  Because someone might need it, here is some help for getting the PCTV HD Pro Stick going... 

  Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick (800e)  Step-by-step Installation for Windows Vista

Though I am rejecting the Pinnacle 800e for my own purposes, it would probably work fine with a more powerful computer that had some CPU cycles to spare.  Even for me, I might use it as an extra PVR for the kids downstairs, scheduling it to record on "fair" quality so they can watch their shows on demand.

Either way, I thought I'd provide some step-by-step instructions for others that buy this tuner.  I may refine them over time when I get time to tweak settings and try more quality options.

Assumption:  Live Internet Connection

0.  Make sure you have the appropriate version of Vista, which has VMC features included - Vista Ultimate or Vista Home Premium.

1.  Unpackage everything, but don't plug it into a USB port yet.

2.  Plug in your HD Pro Stick.  The Found New Hardware wizard will prompt you should choose "Locate and install driver software".  It should automatically find and install hte driver.  It took quite a while for me.   If it doesn't work for you cancel out and follow the steps for manually downloading the drivers below.

3.  Navigate to the
Pinnacle Windows Vista (http://www.pinnaclesys.com/vista/vista_tv.asp) page.  Click on the Download Installer link in the PCTV HD Pro Stick / 800e row.

4.  You should be on a download page for different systems.  Look for the section called "Pinnacle PCTV Installer for Windows Media Center 3.1".  Click on the
Windows Vista 32 link.  NOTE that there is no x64 link for this key piece of software.  You will be prompted for an email address and then a file download dialog will start for PCTV_MCE_Vista_XP_31Setup.exe.

5.  Launch the installer you downloaded.  Upon completion, you should have to reboot.  When it comes back up, you should be able to launch VMC and have it detect a new tuner for setup.

NOTE:  You can adjust the software MPEG encoding quality settings for the software you installed, but I haven't played with it much, so can't advise you.

Steps for manually downloading the driver. 

This should work for other devices than just the 800e:
1.  Navigate to the
Pinnacle Windows Vista (http://www.pinnaclesys.com/vista/vista_tv.asp) page.  Click on the Download Installer link in the PCTV HD Pro Stick / 800e row.

2.  You should be on a download page for different systems.  Look for the section called "Hardware Drivers for Pinnacle PCTV / Dazzle*TV products."  Click on the
Windows Vista 32 link.  Again, find the row for the PCTV HD Pro Stick 800e and click on the "Yes" under the Windows Vista (32bit) column.  This should open a file download dialog for a file called 32_bit.zip, which you should save locally.  Open the zip file and extract all files to a location you will remember.

3.  You can now use the Found New Hardware wizard or the Device Manager to manually navigate to the driver files you downloaded.