TV Wonder lets Vista PCs tune digital cable

If you’ve been curious about whether, how, and when media center PCs would gain the ability to tune and record high-definition digital cable TV, this year’s CES looks to be bringing some answers. AMD has just announced a new product in its ATI TV Wonder lineup, the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner. The product itself is fairly straightforward, but its use is substantially complicated by the provisions that AMD, Microsoft, and the cable industry have made to ensure that content received via this TV Wonder tuner will remain safely inside the digital rights management envelope established for it.

This process begins with OCUR, or Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver, a standard established by CableLabs and the cable industry for digital cable tuners. OCUR-compliant devices should be able to accept a CableCard and then act as tuner for digital cable on any U.S. cable network. As the U in OCUR implies, this standard is only unidirectional, so OCUR-compliant devices cannot transmit data in order to invoke on-demand movies or the like. AMD says this TV Wonder is the first device of its kind certified by CableLabs.

The TV Wonder unit itself is not a traditional PC expansion card. Instead of being a PCI or PCIe card, the TV Wonder is largely its own device. The external version has its own case and power supply, and connects to the PC via only a USB 2.0 cable. The internal version fits into a PCI or PCIe slot, but only for retention purposes; it draws power from a floppy-drive-style power lead and connects to the PC via USB, like the external version.

The internal version of the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner. Source: AMD.

…and the external version of the same. Source: AMD.

The TV Wonder can handle a number of standards, from NTSC analog television to ATSC over-the-air digital television and, of course, digital cable. The digital tuner is capable of handling all common HDTV resolutions, up to and including 1080p, thanks to AMD custom chips. Analog tuning capabilities are provided by an ATI Theater 550 chip, while an NXT2003 handles DTV duties. For digital cable, the TV Wonder does no video decompression. It simply receives encrypted data via the cable system and outputs a compressed video stream to the PC.

Not just any PC can connect to this TV Wonder, though. It must meet a stringent set of requirements, including OCUR support in the BIOS and support for HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection). The PC must also be running one of the versions of Windows Vista—Home Premium or Ultimate—with built-in Media Center functionality. Media Center support for OCUR must then be activated with a code, much like Windows Vista activation.

Once you have a TV Wonder and an OCUR-ready PC, the final step in setup will be installing the CableCard. AMD says this process involves making a call to the cable company, which will then dispatch a tech who will bring the CableCard to your house, install it, and enter a code to complete a pairing process that enables the device to tune cable TV.

Sadly, the OCUR-compliant PC must come from a major PC manufacturer. AMD says PC makers will have to provide a letter to CableLabs labs certifying that their PCs meet OCUR requirements. As a result, AMD expects to see OCUR-compliant PCs from major PC makers like Dell very soon, but expects smaller PCs vendors and system integrators to be left out. The smallest PC manufacturers on AMD’s list of TV Wonder resellers look to be AlienWare, Velocity Micro, and NiveusMedia. Others include larger players like Sony, Toshiba, HP, Dell, and Gateway. PC DIYers will be left out in the cold entirely, and AMD could not say whether this situation might change at some point in the future.

Major PC makers will be the first vendors offering the TV Wonder DCT as a packaged part of a new PC or as a built-time upgrade option. The upgrade option will likely have a price in the $250-300 range. Eventually, AMD expects the TV Wonder DCT to be selling separately to consumers once a sufficient number of OCUR-compliant PCs are out in the market. Consumer sales might be spurred in part by the fact that it’s possible to have up to two TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuners connected to one PC.

The restrictions associated with the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner are daunting, but they were no doubt necessary in order to win acceptance for this device among cable TV providers. The good news here is that one device should be capable of tuning digital cable anywhere in the U.S., and that Media Center PCs will at last have the ability to tune and record premium digital HD cable content. Xbox 360 owners will be especially pleased with the fact that the Xbox 360 can act as a Media Center extender and play back high-def programs recorded by this TV Wonder. PCs with the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner should become available when Windows Vista ships to consumers on January 30.

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