I have been planning to write up my experiences trying to get HD content from my Virgin Media V+ cable into my Media Centre. Up to recently there didn’t seem a lot of point as Virgin only had 1 HD channel but today 3 more launched and with ESPN covering the premiership football (Soccer to my US friends) from monday in HD there now seems a lot of point.
Firstly why bother as the only way to get HD from Virgin is by renting one of their V+ cable boxes which is a multi tuner PVR in its own right. This is a really good question and for me the main reason is convenience. I like only having to go through my Media Center interface to view TV, I love the way guide data is displayed and its just a hell of a lot quicker to find the channel I want through the Media Center than the V+ box.
So how to get the Virgin channels into the Media Center. Firstly a major caveat – there are two V+ boxes the older Scientific Atlantic box I have which had both HDMI and Component Outputs and a newer Samsung Box that only has HDMI. Why is this significant well this solution requires to use the so called analogue hole and that requires Component Output. A second caveat this is only going to work with Windows 7 Media Center as previous version do not properly support the required HD codecs (OK you could use the hacked TVPack version but why! 7MC is just so much better)
Now our friends in the States use the component hole to get round the fact that their digital feeds tend to be encrypted and the same is true with Virgin. Basically the idea is very much like how in the very early days of Media Centre before DVB-T (Digital Terrestrial) tuners were common in the UK I had to use an analogue tuner to capture output from a standalone freeview box (Freeview is the UK’s over the air DVB-T service) and control this using the Media Center’s IR Blaster.
Using an Analogue tuner is currently the recommended way of watching Virgin TV in the UK in media center but of course a standard analogue tuner can only capture Standard Definition.
At this point I hear our European readers cry DVB-C tuners. These are the cable equivalent of the DVB-T tuners most people now use to view Freeview directly in Media Center and they work very well with most European Cable channels. Unfortunately there is a huge question over there legality in the UK and at the very least Virgin could cut off your service if they found you using one – stupid really as it would probably increase there subscriptions but at the moment that is the way it is – although I know a lot of people do question these legal facts and a lot of people in the UK do use DVB-C tuners as can be seen over at AVForums.
A lot of people are convinced of the legal position and won’t take the risk of using DVB-C tuners so we are left with the Analogue Hole but how to use it.
Obviously a conventional analogue tuner is not the way forward so what is? Enter the Hauppauge HD-PVR, specifically designed to take advantage of the analogue hole, this black box about the size of a mac-mini takes a component input at up to 1080. This is encoded to H.264 and passed via a USB port to your PC. It even has its own IR Blaster.
Fantastic problem solved! Eh not quite. The HD-PVR is not currently natively supported by Media Center even in Windows 7. Hauppauge are rumoured to be working on a native driver but nothing has seen the light yet.
So are we stuck, fortunately not. The good people over at DVBLogic have always been on the forefont of getting external stream sources into Media Center and fortunately their fantastic DVBLink product has an SDK which allows developers to add any media stream they fancy. Even more fortunately a couple of very talented programmers who can be found over at 1Geek1Tool.com have come up with an HD-PVR plug in for DVBLink.
This basically makes Media Center see the HD-PVR as a Satellite tuner – this is great news if you already have 4 DVB-T tuners as I do because you can also have up to 4 satellite tuners as well in Windows 7.
I should make the point that at the moment the HD-PVR plugin for DVBLink only supports a single HD-PVR. The guys are working on multi tuner support but as at the moment I only have one V+ box its not too much of an issue for me.
The plugin is really flexible in how you can control your cable box. You can use the HD-PVR’s in built IR Blaster, an MCE IR blaster (recommended) and even firewire. Unfortunately my V+ box doesn’t have firewire so I have had to go the IR blaster route. Now for cabling reasons it was a lot easier to use the HD-PVR built in blaster. Setting this up was a nightmare.
You have to use Hauppauges own IR Blaster configuration program prior to setting up the DVBLink software. This at face value looks easy. It gives you a list of satellite and cable tuner boxes you choose the box and it configures the blaster. Umm no! My V+ box is actually a Scientific Atlantic box so obviously I thought I chose this from the list. Nothing worked. I trawled the web, googled, binged even yahooed but to no avail. Finally I reversed engineered the IR codes my V+ controller was sending and worked out it was actually emulating a Pace Satellite box set of codes (don’t ask – I said don’t ask I have no idea why). Once I set up the HD config to send Pace Satellite signals it worked brilliantly – except for IR sender keeping falling off the V+ box but good old velcro stopped that.
So next thing is to set up DVBLink and I’m going to say this only once, Run don’t walk over to http://1Geek1Tool.com and read their install instructions really, really carefully before installing.
One thing I hate about DVBLink is they say you have to Disable UAC and make sure you’re logged-in as an administrator. I have to say I didn’t do this. I use the compatability feature of 7 to set all the components to run as administrator and whilst configuring I even ran Media Center as administrator and it worked brilliantly.
I’m not going to go through the full install process as the http://1Geek1Tool.com site does a better job than I could ever do but there is real gotcha for Virgin Media user which I want to cover.
When I first set up the service I was nable to see any of the normal terestrial channels over cable as they were not being switched correctly. Basically on Virgin these cables are number 101 to 105 but the DVBLInk set up process cause these to be seen as 1 to 5 (which is what they are on terrestrial) which would be fine if the PVR was switched correctly but the IR Blaster is told by the DVBLink HDPVR plug in to send 1 not 105. Fortunately not hard to fix.
After the “Close DVBLink Server Configuration tool and allow it to restart the service “step in 1Geek1Tool’s instructions go to the C:\Program Files\DVBLogic\DVBLink\Sources\HDPVR and open the config.xml file within that find the SetTopBoxChannelNumber entry for the terrestrial channels and change them to the correct values for the virgin box. So BBC1 goes from “1” to “101”.
So after all that I now have Virgin channels showing up in my program guide. Selecting one the screen blanks for a few seconds the baster slowly sends the channel number to the V+ box and after a few more seconds, even for the SD channels, a pretty fantastic picture shows up. One of the reason this is good is we have a double layer of signal processing going on. Normally this would not be a good thing but the upscaling in the V+ box and the Media center seem to compliment each other well – for sd channels this is better than directly from the V+ box to the tv through component (should note that I have applied the colourspace registry patch from over at Hack7MC.com which makes a difference to the black levels on my tv)
HD looks just as good as directly from the V+ box which is simply superb and way better than anything I have seen from a Sky source but not quite as good as Blu-Ray.
Ok so all is good right. Well not exactly. Unfortunatley the HD-PVR box is really unstable. About 1 in ten times I go to change channel it will not stream the content. Easilly fixed by powering on/off the HD-PVR box but not exactly reliable for recordings. I don’t think this is a DVBLink problem and seems much more likely to be an HD-PVR driver issue.
Now for me this not a major issue as I am still scheduling my recordings through the V+ box – one tuner is a bit restrictive in media center for recordings anyway but it may be show stopper for you.
So not exactly a perfect solution but it will do for me at the moment until Virgin sees sense and legally allows DVB-C boxes (BTW did you know the HD-Homerun sold in the UK has both DVB-T and DVB-C tuners (unencrypted only))
Oh an one final point whilst Xbox extenders are fine, Linksys Extenders are unfortuanately not able to play any of the channels captured through the HD-PVR.