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MyHTPC
Overview
Well I have decided to get serious about my HTPC.  After years of using a HTPC for slide shows, music server and some SDTV recording, I decided that it is time to move into the high definition era.  I went to work researching the different technologies available and ended up settling on the MyHD MDP-130 HDTV Receiving PCI Card.  The reason I chose the MDP-130 was due to the on-board hardware decoder.  This card is the equivalent of taking a ATSC digital tuner box and placing it on a PCI card with the additional benefit of being able to record   programming to the hard drive.  If you are interested in the MDP-130 card see:

MyHD PCI HDTV Tuner / Decoder Card

MyHD PCI HDTV Tuner / Decoder Card

With MyHD you can watch both Digital and Analog TV broadcasts on your PC at an affordable price. MyHD is the hardware decoding HDTV card. Unlike software decoding HDTV cards, MyHD does not require the resources of your graphics card and CPU. All you need is a PCI slot and MyHD to experience crisp, clear HDTV. MyHD supports live-pause, record and playback of HD broadcasting programs with time-shifting capability. MyHD is ideal for use with LCD Displays, Projectors, Plasmas and other digital displays in both 4:3 and 16:9 ratios. MyHD also supports digital video output (DVI-D) using optional MDP-130DVI adaptor. MyHD MDP-130 features TitanTV integration that makes scheduling recordings a snap! Record HDTV, capture still HDTV images, up-convert NTSC, MyHD is the perfect next generation card that keeps getting better.


First, the MDP-130 is the functional equivalent of taking a Set Top Box and reducing it to a PC card with the benefit of adding the recording ability. It has its own video output and the ATSC video does not leave the card for HDTV display, therefore it will work with ANY video card as your PC's video card has nothing to do with the MDP-130. You do have to decide whether you are going to connect the loop through connection to the card to connect your PC's video card through to the HDTV to use the HDTV as the PC monitor, but that then requires that your video card must support HDTV resolutions. On my setup I use a separate PC monitor from the HDTV so it runs at 1024x768p in 4:3 whereas the HDTV is running 1920x1080i in 16:9.
Hardware
Even though the MDP-130 card only needs a 900 Mhz CPU, I decided to get a faster computer and went to eBay to see what was available.  I was able to acquire a Compaq D51S Pentium 4 computer with the following:
  •  2.4 Ghz processor

  •  512 mb of memory

  •  40 Gb hard drive

  •  CD-Rom

  • On board Video

  •  Floppy drive

  •  10/100 high speed Ethernet port

  • 4 - 2.0 USB ports (2 in front)

  • Windows 2000 (with coa)

  • On board sound

 

 

 

The total cost for the computer was a little over $200 delivered and all that was needed was to add the MDP-130 for the transformation to a HTPC.  Well that and a larger hard drive of 300 Gb which was ordered for another $100 delivered.  Adding the cost of the MDP-130 card of $160 delivered and the total cost wound up coming in under $500.  Since I plan to use the system without a keyboard, mouse or monitor, that would be the total cost.
 
Setup
Once I received all of the components I decided to get the system set up using the 40 Gb hard drive that came with the computer before tackling the hard drive change out.  I also wanted to do some testing of using some outboard storage rather than just the internal hard drive and if successful would just leave the 40 Gb drive in the computer.  The Compaq computer will only accommodate a single hard drive and two PCI cards, but with all of the video and communications being on the motherboard, that should be sufficient.  I would have liked to have the space for an extra hard drive, but will make do with what it is.
One thing that should be noted here is the Compaq  D51S is dead quiet.  Once placed in my entertainment center it will not be heard at all.  I can't even hear it sitting 2 feet away.  The reason is the design of the case which is superb for sound suppression.  The fan for the CPU is located in the front of the unit and fresh (cool) air is ducted to the CPU so I will have to provide a cool air source for the front of the unit when placed in the cabinet.  The power supply fan in located inside the cabinet mid-chassis and the internal air is ducted over the power supply components and exhausted through two louvered square outlets - see photo.  
To install the MDP-130 card it was only necessary to slide the cover off of the chassis.  Next it was necessary to remove a single screw that held the PCI card carrier in place and then the entire PCI buss carrier could be removed.  The MDP-130 card was installed in the carrier and the carrier was reinstalled into the chassis.  That's it!  One of the easiest card installation I have ever made. Oh, yeah also the sound jumper needs to be installed for the analog audio to be passed to the sound card.  Also, to my surprise the computer has a speaker included in the chassis that is loud enough for the initial testing. 
 
Initial Connections
Next step is to button up the computer, hook up a monitor, mouse and keyboard and the connection to the HDTV.  I had a KVM switch already installed for my existing HTPC for using another computer for testing purposes so I used the same monitor, mouse and keyboard through the KVM switch.  The VGA from the onboard video card was connected to the KVM switch and the HDTV VGA connection was used to connect the HDTV which for testing was another computer monitor.  Eventually I hooked up the HDTVs through a Key Digital VGA to component Transcoder.  It is possible to attach the cable supplied with the MDP-130 card to the computer's VGA output to allow both the computer desktop and the HDTV tuner output to be displayed on the same display, but that would require the HTPC video to be able to match HDTV resolutions and timings.  The onboard video in the Compaq is not settable with HDTV resolutions, so my system would require a HDTV that would take a 1024x768 signal and my HDTVs will not so I opted for the separate monitor and HDTV connection.  
Actually before I installed the MDP-130 card I connected the computer to the KVM and Internet and downloaded all of the Windows updates to make sure I was starting with a good and up to date operating system and to be sure I didn't receive a dead computer.  Then I popped the cover and installed the MDP-130 card.  Also, it is necessary to plug in the IRC remote control IR receiver to one of the USB ports.  I used on of the front ports for this.
 
Software Installation
After re-booting the computer, Windows of course found the new hardware and wanted to take control of the driver install.  This needs to be canceled and the installation software run from the supplied CD-ROM.  This will install the software that is required to allow the card to become operational, but it will not necessarily be the latest version of the software.  My CD had version 1.65 software on it and version 1.66u was the latest version.  At first I didn't realize this and started the system up with the v 1.65 software to find that some of the recorded files would freeze midway.  After updating to the v1.66 the freezing was fixed. Also if you are going to install Cliff Watson's EPG software for TiVo like recording scheduling, v 1.66 is a requirement.  More on that later.
 
Initial Reaction
To tell you the truth, I didn't know what to expect in terms of picture quality from the card.  My other HTPC had a ATI Wonder NTSC tuner card that was less than impressive in the picture quality department, which is why I waited so long to get a ATSC card.  To my surprise, the card performed as well as my Zenith HD-SAT520 receiver, which is one of the best OTA tuners available.  Considering the card also will receive QAM as well as OTA ATSC, it makes for a very nice high performance HD PVR.  Now how does the recording work?
 
Here the standard recording method is clunky at best.  Basically you can record the show you are watching by pressing the Record button on the remote and the recording will continue until you stop it or the disc is full.  A second method is to use the capture function available through the PC menu and there you can enter the file name (it defaults to capture.ts) and the duration for the recording.  Thirdly, you can use the PC Config Panel Capture Menu to schedule upcoming  shows by channel number, start time and duration.   Also there is the possibility if you have a free account with www.titantv.com that you can configure titantv to fill in the data required by pressing the red dot on your selected program.  The last 3 methods mentioned will require a monitor, keyboard and mouse for entry, so the possibility of controlling everything on screen via the remote control is not there. I use a separate laptop computer and VNC software for this and I will go into more detail as to how to set this up separately. There is a third party software upgrade available that I have referred to previously that will allow for show titles to be picked from a guide and season passes entered that I will also cover separately.
 
There are a few things that were a bit unexpected that I should mention.  When a scheduled capture is being done, the MyHD will be reduced to the system tray with a red dot in the center of the icon.  The HD video will still be output to the HDTV, but monitoring the video on the PC desktop is not possible.  Also when a capture is in progress the audio is turned off through the PC speakers and audio output.  Additionally, if the capture (record) function is used the MyHD window on the PC monitor will show a bunch of horizontal lines like a TV that has lost horizontal sync.
 
Also, because the MyHD window is put to the system tray while recording if for some reason, trust me it will happen, you need to add another scheduled show to record, you will have to wait until the window can be restored.
 
Network Video Servers
I was pretty sure this was not going to be possible but I tried it anyway.  After recording a file of about 13Gbytes, I copied the file to my other HTPC hard drive.  Then I played the file using my local LAN to retrieve the file. The results were unusable, so as of now I've abandoned that idea.  It is probably the fault of the remote computer and I will get back to it later.
 
The Cliff Watson's EPG Software
I have downloaded this add on software and the first try at getting it to go was not successful.  After getting the labs.zap2it account the software populated the guide like expected.  The problem is it is wrong.  It appears the pm listing is a duplicate of the am listing, so it may be that I need to do more work on that package.  What I was able to determine from it told me that the channel/time/duration method used in the base MDP-130 software would work fine for me for a while.
 
Remote Control Via VNC
Although the card comes with a remote control and IR receiver, it turns out the HTPC can not be fully controlled using it.  It does offer the basic control functions for changing channels, selecting input source, controlling the volume/muting, start/stop a recording, select a file to play, etc.  But if you want to be able to completely control the HTPC the PC monitor, keyboard and mouse will be required.
That's where the VNC software comes in to play.  It is available from http://ultravnc.sourceforge.net/ as a free download, although I recommend a donation - it's that good.  Using their own words to describe its operation: UltraVNC is a powerfull, easy to use and free software that can display the screen of another computer (via internet or network) on your own screen. The program allows you to use your mouse and keyboard to control the other PC remotely. It means that you can work on a remote computer, as if you were sitting in front of it, right from your current location.
I have been using the VNC software to control my other HTPC for some time and it is by far the best scheme I've ever come up with yet.  I like to sit on the couch and watch TV while surfing the net, working my blogs and moderating the highdefforum in the evenings.  To facilitate this I have added a LAN jack so I can hardwire connect my laptop to the internet.  I tried wireless, which I can also use, but the speed just does not match the wired connection during heavy down/uploading. 
The VNC software comes in 2 modules, a viewer and a server.  The viewer is used on the laptop and the server is used on the HTPC.  With both running in their respective computers the viewer computer is connected to the remote server computer by selecting the server computer's network name and entering the password for that server.  Once connected, the viewer computer will display a window that contains whatever is showing on the server computer's monitor and the viewer computer's keyboard and mouse will be connected to the server computer so that it is literally like you are sitting at the HTPC using it's monitor, keyboard and mouse.  You can surf the web, download software, clips, updates, etc. using the HTPC being controlled by the viewer computer.   To return to the local laptop operation all that is required is to minimize the viewer window.
The VNC remote connection was particularly helpful in setting up the HTPC because I could search the web for edit software using my laptop and when found, switch to the HTPC for downloading and installing.  A couple of packages required me being at the HTPC because the video window not being transmitted back to the laptop, but mostly I was able to try various packages while sitting on the couch watching TV!  Also by taking the laptop to the HTPC area, I could use it for help pages while operating the HTPC.  This was particularly helpful in learning the video editors.

 

Editing Software
After making a few successful recordings I quickly decided I would need a software package that would allow me to cut out unwanted sections of the recordings like commercials.  My requirements were pretty simple, I though.  I wanted to be able to mark the start and end of the unwanted sections and cut them out.  I wanted a resulting file that would be playable back through the MDP-130 card. Little did I know that it would not be that simple.

Apparently, the transport stream the MDP-130 records will not cooperate with all of the mpeg video editing software out there.  Case in point after searching out several different packages, I decided to try the Womble MPEG Video wizard and downloaded the free trial version.  After figuring out how to make the cuts, I cut up my first try a 2 hour movie and saved to file to the hard drive.  Playback through the monitor windows in the software was ok, but the playback through the MDP-130 card was less than impressive.  Although the video seemed to be all there, the audio would come and go.  Ok, this was going to be more difficult than what I had envisioned, so to make things a bit simpler I captured a short 30 minute file that would not take so long to save.  Same results. Apparently there is a way to make this package work, but I wasn't interested in investing a whole lot of time forcing a software package to work, so I decided to move on.

The next package I tried was the predecessor to the  Womble MPEG Video wizard, Womble MPEG-VCR, which I thought might do better because the site digitalFAQ.com listed it at the top of its FAQ page for removing commercials in MPEG.  Same deal as before.

So I moved on to the next recommendation on the page, the VideoReDo package available from www.videoredo.com  and this time I was rewarded with complete success! Not only did the test file work perfectly, the 2 hour movie was edited and saved in no time.  Well, the saving took some time because a 12 Gb file doesn't just appear on a hard drive! In any case the software performed flawlessly on the first go, so it is what I will settle on for now.  Later when I get to burning DVDs, it may work out that I will need something else, but for now this package will do what I want. Actually I plan on using my VGA to s-video converter to feed into my stand alone DVD player until a HD DVD burner is available, but that is another chapter.

Another side benefit of the VideoReDo package that I was not expecting is the compatability with my remote access system.  I use my laptop to control the HTPC rather than the IR remote because it allows me to have access to all of the PC via the laptop's monitor, keyboard and mouse.  The MyHD software will not transport the video inside of the viewing window, which is not unusual, but to my suprise the VideoReDo viewing window is transported, so all of the editing can be done from either computer. The audio does not get transported, of course, but it is really not needed for cutting out commercials. All in all so far, I'm a happy camper.

Follow Up Posts:
HTPC update
Software Report - VideoReDo
MyHTPC-2
HTPC2 Update

HTPC Questions & Answers

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