Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 3: The Telly

Posted on September 17th, 2010 in Technology | 1 Comment »

Two more cheerful chaps from Currys turned up with my lovely 42″ telly – took one look at my plasterboard walls and were about to slope off again, when at the last minute, one of them thought to look in the van for some of the special rawl plugs that this requires. Once found, the whole process of nailing the awesome beast to the wall took less than half an hour, and they departed with a generous tip.

I’ve moreoreless got the Harmony remote doing all the things I want it to, and both Blu-rays and Sky HD look fantastic on this giant screen. What’s amazing is how poor some SD content looks. Frasier on the Paramount Comedy channel looks worse than YouTube.

And I woke up yesterday to discover that the Sky box was actually taping what was meant to be my dummy recording. This was accompanied by a message informing me that my box’s software had been upgraded. A bit of tinkering later and I discovered that they’ve finally made Single Feed Mode work sensibly. Now if I’m watching BBC1 and a recording is due to start on BBC2, I will see a warning, and if I do nothing, it will flick over to BBC2 and make the recording correctly. This also seems to survive turning on “Anytime”. I believe that Single Feed Mode was introduced over a year ago. Good timing for me but appallingly slow for Sky’s other customers.

So, I’ve decided to postpone both the expensive SCR installation and the free, but unsightly, dish installation and just see how I rock with Single Feed for now. This completes the upgrade process. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Now.

Where can I get a stash of good Blu-ray movies for under a tenner each?

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 2: Sky+ HD

Posted on September 12th, 2010 in Technology | No Comments »

Yesterday was Sky+ day, and a cheerful engineer turned up at the time he said he would, fiddled with my satellite cable, bunged a box under my telly and mooched off. I played with it for a while, and then popped off to Currys to buy a Logitech Harmony 300i remote, satisfied that all seemed to be well. I was even able to take the digital sound from the Sky box and use my PC as an amp (albeit it stereo only, not Dolby 5.1). This means that I have to switch the Sky box off in order to shut off the sound when I want to use the media centre (which was actually one of the issues I was trying to avoid) but it does mean that one sound control works for everything which is convenient, especially if you’re trying to control everything with one remote.

The Logitech remote works very well for a £30 device. There’s a very convenient web/PC interface for programming it, which has loads of remotes already in its database, and you can drag-and-drop to move different commands to different buttons if it doesn’t get it right first time. You can’t program single buttons to perform sequences of actions, and there’s no feature for switching TV inputs automatically when you switch devices, but overall I’m happy.

What I’m less happy with is the profoundly weird behaviour of the Sky+ system and the near-total cluelessness of the telephone advisors.

If you pore over the Sky website, somewhere on there you will find a warning that you require two connections from your dish to your box for Sky+ to work properly. Fine if your dish is on your roof, balcony or in your back garden. But I’m in a block of flats with a communal dish, and my personal access to it is through a faceplate in the living room, which only has a single connector.

However, the latest generation of Sky + software has been updated to deal with this very issue. An engineer can set the box to “single feed mode” which means that you won’t be able to watch one channel while recording another, but also means that the Sky box won’t try and do this either. Although I think Sky could do more – considerably more – to flag this up to potential subscribers, I was aware of it and I wasn’t bothered. After all, I’m used to having only one tuner and I’m used to not being able to watch one channel while recording another. No big deal. Right? Wrong.

You see, the Sky + box really does take quite some convincing that it only has one tuner available. Deep in the core of its essential being, it is built around the fact that it will have two input feeds to choose from and its behaviour, even on single feed mode, is nothing short of bizarre.

With two feeds, if you are watching one channel while recording another, and at that moment, a second recording is triggered, you will – quite sensibly – be offered a choice: do you want to keep watching what you’re watching and cancel one of these recordings, or shall I start recording the new programme? If you do nothing, the box – perfectly correctly – assumes that it is unattended and prioritises the recording. My old Media Centre solution, with its noisy images and Heath Robinson IR blaster, unable to tune into more than one channel at once, would likewise warn me that it was going to change the channel to effect a recording if I was watching another channel when a recording was due.

But the new box, if I’m watching BBC 1 and a recording is due on BBC 2, simply IGNORES the recording and stays tuned to BBC1!! This is madness. Some Sky advisors advised that setting the box to standby cured this insane behaviour, but I couldn’t get this to work. There is a work-around, which I’m trying at the moment, but before I get to that here are some other possible options.

  1. There is a second satellite feed in the bedroom, but getting that connection to my digibox means trailing a wire out the bedroom window and back in again, or drilling holes in the walls. Neither is ideal.
  2. I could (if I could get permission from the landlord) stick a dish on the balcony and do things my own way, but we’d still have to drill (a small) hole in the wall and we’d have a fucking dish on the balcony. Sky would do this for free however.
  3. The technology exists to take two inputs from the dish, pump them down a single wire at different frequencies, and then separate them back out again at the digibox end. These boxes are called a “stacker” and a “destacker” and cost about £100, but they’d have to be fitted directly to the dish which means involving the landlord and/or the managing agents. Sky might or might not do this for free. Who knows? EDITED TO ADD: The terms “stacker” and “destacker” seem to refer to older technology which was very dependent on the quality of the wiring. The proper solution is called a Single Cable Router or SCR. My building managers can fit this for me for around £250, or if I buy the box for £100, Sky may be able to fit it for free. Chapter 4 will reveal the outcome.

Here’s the work around.

Before Sky implemented this single feed setting, tech savvy Sky users sharing communal dishes and only able to access one feed would set up “dummy recordings” which would fail but which would tie up the “second” feed. This would force the box to use the first feed for the new recording, the one you wanted, instead of using that feed for watching live TV. A version of this can still be used with the new software. Here’s how, courtesy of forum member utterepicicity on digitalspy.co.uk.

Step 1: Ensure feed is on input 1.

Step 2: Turn Single feed mode ON.

Step 3: Turn Anytime back ON.

Step 4: Ensure you are tuned into a channel (eg BBC1) and it’s on the mini-tv

Step 5: Set a manual recording on a channel you never watch starting in 2 minutes time (so if its 9:00PM, set it to start at 9:02PM), have it finish at 04:00AM in the morning (assuming you never watch anything at that time of the morning). This ensures that Input 2 is tied up til 4am.

Step 6: Set up another manual recording on the same channel from 04:02AM until 04:00AM. Set the frequency to daily. This will tie up input 2 all day every day.

Step 7: Set up another manual recording on a channel you never watch from 03:58AM to 04:04AM. Set the frequency to daily. This ensures that the dummy recording never takes up Input 1.

Ensure you turn your box to Standby whenever you’re not watching it. It doesn’t matter if you forget now and then but try and get into the habit of it.

The whole thread is here. So far this seems to be working, but it’s not ideal. Tomorrow I’ll try running a satellite cable out the window.

UPDATED TO ADD: Couldn’t face running a satellite cable out of the window and with two windows needing to be permanently open, albeit just a crack, it’s going to be a lousy, lousy solution come the winter. This evening, the Sky box was displaying only “no satellite signal” when I got in from work. I turned off  “Anytime” and it sprang back into life, so maybe my box prefers Anytime to be off. Later tonight, it got in a paddy trying to record Dragon’s Den and I had to do a planner rebuild to get it to record anything at all. Finally, with the “dummy recording” in place, I watched it obediently flick over from BBC HD to Channel 4+1 when Him and Her ended and Jamie Oliver Tells Rural Americans They’re All Too Fat To Live was about to begin. Success! But the real solution is clearly the SCR. Since another tenant is also having this done, we may be able to effect a saving by doing two at once. By which I mean it might be £200 instead of £250. Jesus. 13/9/10.

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 0: I wouldn’t start from here

Posted on September 9th, 2010 in Technology | 1 Comment »

For about five years now, my audio visual entertainment has revolved around Windows Media Centre. This week, I’m doing a major upgrade to pretty much everything, and what’s a blog for if not to document this kind of thing in fairly tedious detail?

The process has already been slightly screwed up however. The impetus to improve my broadcast TV and DVD picture quality was motivated by the decision to get a new TV set, and this, which we got for £399 in the bank holiday sale, was due to be delivered by Currys yesterday. Currys being Currys it seems they simply forgot. It’s now not coming until next Wednesday. Meanwhile more components are arriving in the next few days, none of which are going to live up to the hype on the old TV. Anyway.

So, before all of these new bits-and-pieces get installed, I thought I’d write about what I’ve got at the moment and where I’m starting from. But before I do any of that, let me just review what I’m trying to achieve.

So, here’s what I want to happen at this end of my living room.

  • Watching broadcast TV
  • Recording broadcast TV and watching those recordings
  • Watching DVDs
  • Watching downloaded movies and TV shows (all legal, of course)
  • Access to my music collection and photos

Now, a cheap PC hooked up to a flat screen TV and running Windows Media Centre software (which is free with Windows 7 Home Premium or better) means I can do all of these things very easily, and has two other advantages to boot. One is that I can hook up a very cheap-and-cheerful set of PC speakers to said computer and get 5.1 surround sound for a fraction of the usual cost and without having to screw around with complicated AV receivers. The other is I can do everything with one remote control, because everything goes through the Media Centre software.

So, here’s my setup. I have a computer which I’ve build myself out of various bits-and-pieces and which gets upgraded as needed. About three months ago, it got a new motherboard and processor because like a clumsy idiot I managed to bust the old (very old) processor while trying to change the fan for a quieter model. Last week, it got a new graphics card because the on-board graphics were struggling with HD content.

This gets a wired connection to my router, which in turn gets a wired connection to a 1Tb Network Attached Storage Device – a big hard drive which holds all my (perfectly legal) downloaded movies and TV shows, my music, my pictures and so on. A good-old-fashioned VGA cable goes into the DVI connection on the back of my 26” TV and bingo, I can check off the bottom two items on my list. Sound, as mentioned, is provided by these PC speakers and since there’s a DVD drive in the PC, and the Media Centre Software handles DVDs just fine, that’s the third element too.

Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

From my point of view, if you want to watch broadcast TV in the United Kingdom, you really want Sky. Virgin and BT’s offerings have improved in recent years but Sky is still the daddy. If you want to watch the Oscars live, for example, Sky is the only game in town.

Now, if I were content with digital terrestrial TV, my system would work great. I would put a TV tuner into my PC (an internal card or a USB dongle, either works) and this would receive the digital signals through the air, and feed them into my computer for display on the TV. And since the signal is being received digitally into the PC, the Windows Media Centre software can record shows for me, having downloaded a suitable EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), not to mention pausing and rewinding live TV and all those other things that seemed like magic when we first read about Tivo in the United States.

Sky doesn’t make it quite so simple.

Even though Sky broadcasts have been digital for years, the problem is that Sky regards the decryption of its broadcasts as very much its own concern. The little card you shove in the front of your Sky box authorises it to decrypt only the channels you’ve paid for and how it does this is Sky’s business and nobody else’s. So, the only way1 to insert Sky TV broadcasts into the Windows Media Centre environment is as follows. Sky box receives pristine digital signal from dish and decodes it. Sky box outputs audio and video signal via old-fashioned analogue SCART lead. This gets converted to composite video and stereo audio (three RCA or “phono” plugs) and is then fed into the analogue TV tuner in the PC. This takes the analogue signal and redigitises it so that Media Centre can work with it.

The picture doesn’t look quite as bad as you’re maybe imagining. But HD it ain’t.

Changing channels on the Sky box is fun too. Remember, the Sky remote plays no part in this set up. One simple remote control is a big feature of my audio-visual life and using the Sky remote would be hopeless for timed recordings. What’s the Media Centre PC going to do? Pick up the Sky remote and change the channel to BBC1 two minutes before Doctor Who starts? Well, almost.

What actually happens is that when a channel-change is required (either by me pressing a button or because a timed recording is nearing), the Media Centre machine has to send a duplicate of the required infra-red pulses down a wire, to a little “button” which I’ve stuck to the IR receiver of the Sky box. Of course, there’s no feedback from the Sky box to the computer after one of these events, so if – as occasionally happens – the Sky box fails to correctly interpret one of the pulses, the Media Centre computer has no way of knowing and so just records whatever is coming down the SCART lead.

Clearly this is less than perfect. But, you may be saying, Tom, you complete fucking idiot,2 you may be saying, don’t you realise that Sky has their own solution to recording live TV!? It’s called Sky+. Yes, I’m well aware of this. But you know what Sky+ would mean don’t you? Two remotes. Probably three remotes since I’d also need to switch the TV between the Sky+ box (live and recorded TV shows) and the Media Centre PC (everything else). So I’ve strongly resisted the urge to go the Sky+ route for some time.

But while I can get away with this double-conversion of TV pictures on a 26” TV, they aren’t going to cut it on the new 42” beauty, and furthermore, I am increasingly discomfited at not being able to receive the HD broadcasts trumpeted on every station. Then there’s Blu-ray…

So here’s the plan…

  1. Have new TV delivered and nailed to the wall.
  2. Add Blu-ray DVD drive to PC and hope that I can find the necessary software to make it all work properly – Microsoft have been slow to provide proper support for Blu-ray, Xboxes excepted.
  3. While I’m about it, upgrade the onboard audio which has never worked properly on this new motherboard.
  4. Have Sky+ HD installed and regrettably bypass the Media Centre for watching and recording broadcast TV.

This will leave two problems unsolved. One is audio. I want to avoid having to blow £200 or more on a “proper” home theatre audio system, giving me yet another box and yet another remote control to worry about. But if I simply run separate HDMI cables from the Sky box and the PC to the television, I’ll get stereo sound out of the TV speakers when I’m watching TV, but 5.1 sound out of the Media Centre when watching (legally) downloaded movies or DVDs. It would be better to have 5.1 sound for everything.

The second problem is the profusion of remotes. I’ll probably need three – TV, Sky and Media Centre. It may be that the Sky remote can be used to control the TV, or it may be that a universal remote will be required, in which case I think I favour something like this which is fairly inexpensive, can be configured through the computer (nice) and doesn’t need its own docking station to stay powered up.

As mentioned however, Currys sudden attack of amnesia regarding my order means that things are not going to work out exactly like that, so here’s the new revised plan.

  1. Upgrade Media Centre with Blu-ray and decent audio. Listlessly watch Blu-ray discs on old telly’s 1280×768 display.
  2. Have Sky+ HD installed and try to figure out how to connect it to a TV with no HDMI socket.
  3. After Sky engineer has gone, have new TV installed and nailed to the wall and have to connect up Sky box myself.

All of this, and no doubt more will be lovingly documented right here, starting tomorrow with the PC upgrade. See you then.

  1. All right, it’s not the only way, but it’s the only way I regard as being practical.
  2. That’s a bit much, isn’t it?