The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

TV or Not TV, That Still is the Question  

June, 2012  

Once upon a time, a television was a huge box with a little black-and-white screen that the family huddled around. Forget color, forget widescreen HD, forget home theaters, it’s just a different universe today. Not only can you watch television on your home computer, blending the two technologies, but you can take your home TV signal with you on your mobile devices, blurring the technologies even more. (Is it television, a computer or the Internet?) Only a mere four years ago, the AMPTP corporations who own the television networks, cable companies and movie studios were swearing up-and-down that the Internet and all this technology was so new-fangled that they didn’t quite understand if there was any money to be made from it. Ignoring for a moment that they didn’t remotely believe what they were saying, and it was just a disingenuous bargaining chip, the reality is that how we watch a television has spun off into the stratosphere, with far more changes to come. This month, we look at a couple of interesting products from one of the leading companies in this kind of technology, Hauppauge, that have helped redefine that TV world.

HAUPPAUGE DCR-2650 CableCARD™ RECEIVER 

TV cards have been around for a long time. Install them inside your computer, hook up a cable from your cable provider, and you can get television to play on your computer monitor. What hasn’t been around a long time – or ever – are TV cards that play back in high definition. That’s now changed with the Hauppauge DCR-2650.

Actually, the 2650 doesn’t install inside your computer. Instead, it’s a small box that sits outside. You still hook up your cable to it, and then connect the device to your computer. There’s one other thing that you need, which is what allows it to receive the HD signal: that’s a cableCARD™, which you rent from your cable provider. About the size of a thick credit card, you slide it into the available slot on the DCR-2650 box. Rental rates for the CableCARD™ will vary, but in my Time Warner area, they’re $5/month. (There is no monthly fee for the Hauppauge device, it’s a normal, one-time purchase).

In addition to providing HD, the unit is also a dual tuner, so you can watch a program on one channel while recording another (or record two channels at the same time).

It’s important to note that some cable services might require an additional “Tuner Adapter” box for converting HD channels. My Time Warner area does require it, but there is no charge for the box, which should be the case with most providers. It’s also important to note that although a Tuner Adapter is generally free, not everyone at your cable company might be aware that you actually need it. In my case, the initial Time Warner sales rep didn’t bother to even mention it when I picked up my CableCARD™. Fortunately, during the set-up process, the onscreen wizard does ask you specifically and clearly about Tuner Adapters, so I knew to follow up when I wasn’t getting a signal for most of the HD channels. A subsequent technician was more on top of things and confirmed that this would be the solution. (In fact, he went further, noting that because a Tuning Adapter is required by Time Warner, the company is supposed to automatically give them out with the CableCARD™, since, after all, the card won’t work without it. If you care to hear the technical reason a Tuning Adapter is needed in some locales, it’s because Time Warner was converting its system to what is called “Switch Digital.” And no, I don’t know exactly what that means either. I just know that cable systems that use Switch Digital require a Tuning Adapter.)

I’ve long been a fan of TV cards. Though on the surface they might appear to be distracting time-wasters that keep one from being productive during work, I find it the opposite. Often there’ll be some broadcast on that I want to see – usually a sporting event, or perhaps some special program – and procrastination getting the better of a writer, it’s easy to drift away into the TV room to watch. But with a TV card, you can pop up a TV window on your monitor, resize it to a tiny box and place the thing up in a corner of the screen while you work. It makes multi-tasking a pleasure…

 

At the moment, the DCR-2650 only runs with Windows Media Center. This lets you watch and record TV channels, using the Media Center Electronic Program Guide. (Recordings are stored on your hard drive, though you can add external drives to archive even more.) Like a regular DVR, you can also pause action and rewind, clicking the on-screen controls. Going through the settings, you can configure WMC to display “captions” when the sound is muted. WMC also lets you watch premium DRM channels (Digital Rights Management) like HBO and Showtime, if you’re you subscribe to them. Pay-per-view and On Demand are not available. (Those technologies require two-way communication through your cable provider.)

 

Windows Media Center is a perfectly respectable interface, that works well with the unit, but it’s not the most comprehensive or user-friendly, forcing you to switch back-and-forth between features and burying settings options a bit. However, the DVR-2650 can also work using Hauppauge’s “WinTV 7.2 with Extend” application, although with one limitation – it will receive all regular channels (both standard definition and HD), but no premium DRM channels. If you don’t subscribe to any premium DRM channels, it might be worthwhile installing WinTV 7.2, since it’s a particularly well-designed, full-featured application for playing back a television signal. It’s only $10, and the “Extend” feature also lets you receive your local TV signal on your mobile devices.

Installing the DCR-2650 is quite easy, though I ran into a slight problem, which I’ll describe in a moment. First, though, you run the enclosed CD to install software and drivers. Then you slide in the CableCARD™ and attach the appropriate cables to your computer’s USB port, as well as the aforementioned Tuning adapter, if needed.

Everything should work at this point – and most everything did, but there was one glitch. It was annoying, even problematic to a small degree, but not a serious enough issue to worry over. The short version is that the DCR-2650 receives all the standard definition channels and almost all the HD channels. It’s the “almost” that’s the nub of the matter. For some reason, there were a handful of high-def channels it just couldn’t pull in. (The error messages I get are “No Tuning Resolver Connected” and “No TV Signal. There is no TV signal detected for this channel.”) From discussions with the cable company, these appeared to be some of the less popular channels whose signals therefore aren’t as strong (indeed, a diagnostic test showed the signal strength to be significantly lower for the HD channels I couldn’t get compared to all the rest), though the problem appears to be more on the Hauppauge end. After all, I could receive the channels on my regular television, so signal strength wasn’t an issue there. Because the DCR-2650 is so new, my assumption was that the problem was related to the Hauppauge software not being able to recognize the Tuning Adapter for all these low-signal channels. The company sent me an updated version of the firmware that’s in beta test form, though it didn’t resolve the issue.

(By the way, keep in mind that this might not be an issue in all areas. Your cable company might have strong, normal signal strength for all its channels.)

But there’s a happy ending to all this time and effort to get everything working properly. Though the problem got worse before getting better. “Worse” in this case meaning the device stopped working entirely. Contacting the company, however, they said they had a “very important update” to the Tuning Adapter software. “Very important” was an understatement – it resolved everything. Not only did the DCR-2650 start working again…but I was now able to get all of those earlier “low signal” channels I couldn’t before. The device is working perfectly.

From this point forward, this shouldn’t be an issue for anyone getting the 2650, since the software is now updated. But it’s worth referencing because it’s important to know that problems do crop up in early release versions of most products. And importantly, it’s good to see when a company recognizes a problem and quickly fixes it. So, though I’m sorry to have gone through a lot of time and effort to address something that wasn’t working, I give Hauppauge big points for finally getting it right.

(Know that there are still occasional Windows-related issues with the device recognizing the tuner, but these are all Windows Media Center problems, not Hauppauge. It has to do with when there are occasional changes in certain critical Windows files – something that is a feature of any operating system – WMC sometimes isn’t able to get the information it’s waiting for. This doesn’t happen often, and it’s always a Windows issue, not Hauppauge I want to be clear, but a simple reboot resolves it.)

Finally getting everything right on its own end now, what the DCR-2650 does so wonderfully with HD broadcast sets it far apart from all over TV cards I’ve seen, to the extent that there’s no comparison. At the time of writing, the Hauppauge DCR-2650 retails for $150, but could be found online for $118.

HAUPPAUGE BROADWAY 

As the mobile world for communication expands, so too does the interest in taking all forms of communication with you wherever you go, most particularly the Mother of Them All, television. Hauppauge’s Broadway device is the company’s entry into the field. What the Broadway does is allow you to stream your home cable to your mobile device, so that you can watch your local television anywhere in the world that you have a WiFi or wireless connection.

This might sound familiar to you, and for good reason. It’s reasonably similar to the Slingbox, previously reviewed here, with some pluses and minuses. But more on all that later.

Again, to reiterate, it’s important to know that the Broadway is intended for viewing TV on your mobile devices, (a smartphone, tablet or notebook), though you can run it on your home desktop computer. You don’t have to download a proprietary playback viewer (as is the case with the Slingbox) – it simply runs from a specially bookmarked page on your mobile device’s browser, but that also means you can’t just go to any computer anywhere, log-in and simply connect – you need to have your own mobile device with you. More on this later, as well.

Setting up the Broadway is very easy, one of its strengths. But Hauppauge doesn’t make that easy on you. The Quick Start Guide is borderline useless if you’re setting up a wireless connection to your router (the Quick Start oddly presumes that your TV and router will be in the same room, which is not the case in most human households). The full-featured manual, though, is overwhelmingly more helpful – just download the PDF file from the website. This full manual is basically a simple step-by-step guide and reasonably clear (with a couple of hiccups. For one, it’s not completely clear about what to plug in. Ultimately, plugging in is very easy but not as well described as it should be.).

Here’s the short version of how you set up: connect the Broadway device to your WiFi network router with an included cable, and log onto a website at distan.tv to run through an online set-up wizard, which walks you through the steps. Then, you reconnect the Broadway to your DVR set-top box. (Know that you’ll need composite cables, which aren’t included.)

 

At this point, you’re pretty much done. The only thing left is the option to set up an IR Blaster, a plug which helps for changing channels remotely. Though an option, it’s a good thing to continue with.

Setting up the IR Blaster is easy, as well, though includes a couple of “caveats.” The first is that the setup wizard didn’t automatically recognize my set-top DVR box, so I had to do that part manually. Given that my DVR was a new Motorola from Time Warner, it was surprising that it couldn’t be found. That’s a pretty basic model.

Also, if you do have to run the IR Blaster Wizard manually, it helps hugely to have your computer and DVR set top box in the same room. Otherwise, you’ll need to go back-and-forth between rooms to run through the steps. As noted, most people don’t have their DVR and computer in the same room, but for this, having a notebook will suffice. You can launch the wizard on the notebook while sitting in front of your DVR and run the setup wizard from that. Again, the instructions aren’t great, but it’s extremely easy. You just place the included IR receiver directly over the IR spot on your DVR. It’s then a slow process of tapping keypad numbers, so that the IR Blaster can learn your commands. It may take some patience, but it’s simple.

You’re finished – again, basically. But rather than stopping here, it’s best to go back to your Broadway account page on distan.tv and set up your TV channels in groups. You don’t have to – you can simply enter channels manually whenever you want to watch something, but if you have channels entered in a list, then all you have to do just click on them. Also, you can create separate lists for groups – sports channels, news channels, favorite channels, whatever.

 

It’s easy to set up channels. My one quibble is that it would have been nice if you could drag and drop channels in one list to copy them to another. Instead, you have to enter channels fresh for each list, even if there’s an overlap. Not a problem at all, just extra steps.

(Okay, I have a second small quibble. When you log into your personal Broadway account webpage, you’ll see a Power Button – that’s what turns your actual, physical DVR on remotely, if it isn’t already. Hovering your mouse pointer over it, it says “Do you want your power on”. That’s fine…except it says this whether the power is on or off, which can be slightly confusing. This isn’t remotely a problem (no pun intended…), but it’s still poorly phrased.)

And now you’re finished.

(There’s one more important thing to do, but it’s not precisely part of the set-up process. The aforementioned bookmarking. I’ll get to that in a moment. For now, since the device is physically set up, it’s time to finally look at the freaking TV picture already.)

It’s important to know that the Broadway on displays its TV picture in standard definition, not HD. You can watch one of your high-def channels, but the Broadway will only display it in standard definition.

 

The picture was definitely respectable. It was not sharp like HD will be, but it was thoroughly watchable and reasonably smooth. Yes, those sentences had a few qualifying adjectives, but that’s in part because picture quality is subject to change depending on your wireless connection at that moment. If your connection is slow, the picture will be herky-jerky. But on the times I tested it, there was no particular issue, and it was quite watchable.

To watch the picture, you log into your Broadway account, where you’ll not only see a split screen with your channels and TV frame, but you’re also given a range of settings options, configurations, device information and all of the set-up wizards if you’d like to run anything again. Getting access to your log-in page is as easy as clicking on any bookmark in your browser. But it requires an explanation. Actually, a big explanation, alluded to earlier.

 

I’m a tad hesitant to give that explanation in some detail because it might make things sound like it’s a horrifying difficult process. But it’s not. Here’s the short version to remember as you read the explanation ahead: “You are simply telling your wireless router that it should recognize the Broadway device, and also you are merely bookmarking a web page.” That’s it. What you do to achieve this is pretty easy.

That said, it’s important to know why you’re doing this, so that you don’t get bewildered during the process, no matter how simple it is. That’s because most people will likely think, “Okay, I’ve connected everything, and it should now work.” And it does work – inside your home. But obviously you also want to watch the Broadway remotely, outside your home. So, it helps to understand what’s going on. To be clear, you don’t need to read this or know this. But it helps. Really.

All right, here we go.

To log into your Broadway device when away from home, it requires two things: having a Dynamic IP Address (which is simply a number automatically given by your Internet service provider), and you also have to configure your router to accept the default Port Forwarding number.

Don’t panic! This isn’t as convoluted as it sounds, and also the PDF manual explains it all.

Your router’s manual will explain how to accept a Port Forwarding number. It’s basically as simple as checking, “Accept Port Forwarding,” and then typing in which port to use. The Broadway guide tells you that the port should be “80.” Admittedly, this does require some thinking, but honestly it’s not rocket science. (Just know that the reason you have to do this step is so your wireless router knows something is connected to it and where it should send the data.)

 

As for the Dynamic IP Address, the most important thing to know is that this number is always getting changed by your service provider. As a result, the Broadway has no idea what address to connect to, and you won’t be able to log into your distan.tv account. But (and this is the good part) – Hauppauge has an automatic way for the device to discover the often-changing Dynamic IP Address without you ever having to know what it is.

Here’s how. Okay, you know that you log into your Broadway account by going to “distan.tv.” Well, Hauppauge provides a free, special service where its distan.tv server can recognize whenever the Dynamic IP address changes, and then will automatically correct the link to the proper, new-address, without you doing anything.

The point is that it’s automatic without your involvement. But – you have to do something to set it up the first time. That’s why the Broadway will only work on your own, personal mobile devices where you’ve already set this up. (This is the reason you can’t just go to a friend’s home computer and log into your distan.tv account.) And again, the manual explains this and tells you exactly what to do. But if you don’t read manuals carefully, you can miss it:

It’s incredibly easy, but takes a few steps. First, you connect your mobile device (smartphone, tablet, notebook,…) to your home wireless network, the same as you’d do whenever you want to make a wireless connection. You have to do this so that the Broadway unit and distan.tv can recognize what your home network is.

 

Then, from the browser on your mobile device, you log into your account at distan.tv. You’ll see an icon marked either “Info” or “?”, and when you click on it, there’ll be another icon, very clearly called “Create bookmark page.” When you click on that, your browser will then have a bookmark to that special distan.tv server that will always know what your Dynamic IP Address is, even when it changes. Use this bookmark the same as you’d use any bookmark in your web browser. (That’s all it is, a bookmark!) Click on it, and it’ll always take you to your Broadway account with the correct dynamic IP Address…without you ever having to know that it changed.

 

(If you have more than one mobile device, you can repeat this process on all of them.)

Again, the short version of all this is that you have to create a bookmark to your personal Broadway distan.tv log-in page. That’s all. It’s just that there’s this convoluted reason why you have to do it, and a few steps involved.

It really is pretty easy. But the manual doesn’t do a great job of making clear how easy it is, and some of the information gets buried a little. The information is all there, but you have to pay attention to see it.

(Side note: the Hauppauge people at this point might be insisting that the Broadway will not only work with mobile devices, but also on any desktop computer anywhere in the world. And technically, this is true. But because the Dynamic IP Address is always changing, you would have to know what it is at any particular moment. If you did know it – all 10 digits – then yes, you could log into your account from anywhere. But I’m going to make a wild guess here that most normal human beans won’t know that ever-changing number. What they will know, however, is that they’ve set up their mobile devices to work.)

Okay, way back at the beginning, I mentioned that the Broadway was similar to the Slingbox, though with notable pluses and minuses to each.

In the simplest terms, the Slingplayer allows for HD, which the Broadway does not (it’s standard definition only), and with the Slingbox you not only can watch TV but also run your DVR remotely – to schedule recordings and watch them – which can’t be done the Broadway. (At least it can’t in the U.S. at the moment. The Broadway does have remote DVR capability in the U.K., where the company has a deal with an online Electronic Program Guide, so that might change in the North America.)

However, the Broadway is a touch easier to set up and less expensive – significantly less, in fact, under certain conditions. For instance, if your router sits in a different room than your TV, which is the case for most people, the Slingplayer requires you to buy a separate unit. (The Broadway is WiFi-ready.) And if you do want HD, that requires a much higher-end Sling unit.

The other notable core difference is that the Slingbox requires downloading its proprietary playback software onto the device you’re watching (this is what lets you easily watch from any computer anywhere… but it requires that the computer’s owner gives you permission download the software onto it) – while with the Broadway, as noted, you bookmark a web link on your mobile device’s browser.

There are several things I’m not crazy about with the Broadway. I wish it would stream HD. The picture is okay, but not crisp. And I wish (in North America) it could access one’s DVR to schedule recording. I also don’t think the account page is as user-friendly or well designed as it should be. And the manuals need serious revising (though the main PDF Users Guide that you can download is respectable enough). Finally, it should include the required cables.

But for all those issues, I actually like the Broadway. No matter how much detail I went into explaining the convoluted set-up… the actual process when you’re doing it is not at all that convoluted. It’s actually pretty easy to set up, easier even than the Slingbox. And though the picture isn’t HD, it’s very watchable, and ultimately the point of the device is to have TV on your mobile device, and the convenience of that is a pleasure. And though I miss being able to run it on any computer, the reality is that the owners of most computers that aren’t your own won’t generally want you to download proprietary software onto their system. Finally, it’s reasonably priced. At the time of writing, it retails for $187, but could be found online for $162.

None of this is to recommend the Broadway over the Slingplayer or vice-versa. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and if you’re interested in being able to watch your local TV anywhere in the world on a mobile device or distant computer, it will be a personal matter what’s most important to you how you do that.

TWW Notes 

  • This is a bit geeky for most people – and it’s also an “in development” situation – but it fits in with this month’s theme of alternate ways of watching television. Azuki Systems is a developing technology for the “delivery of high quality video across many platforms and devices, including smartphones and Tablets... desktops, connected devices, game consoles and streaming media players.” Click here to find out more. Ultimately, though, it’s further evidence (if any is needed at this point) that anyone trying to sell you that the world of television is something only that is watched on a television… is blowing smoke up your various orifices.
  • The Bing.com search website has gone through a significant overhaul in recent weeks. There are now three columns displayed following a search: the main search results, as well as columns with services and information related to the search, and social networking options. Early word is that content is somewhat limited for the two new columns, though that’s sure to grow.
  • Microsoft has suggested that it will be releasing its new Windows 8 operating system to manufacturers in around two months. If this occurs, then it seems likely that they will be able to reach their goal of putting out the O.S. in time for the holidays.

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article. 

Copyright 2012, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved. 

Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He also writes writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. A screenwriter, he served for five years as a member of the WGA, West website editorial board and Editorial Advisory Committee.