Third time's the charm for our Vista CableCard testbed

Brief description of Vista-based CableCard

Three visits by a Time Warner Cable of NYC technician and two trips to NYC from Virginia by Velocity Micro's Chris Morley, and today I finally brought up a Vista-based CableCard signal on a Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater system. I actually have two CableCards working, each plugged into its own ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner PCI card. That means I can watch digital cable on one channel and record another at the same time with full, TiVo-style automation through the Vista Media Center-based channel guide software. Throw in the Blu-ray drive, an Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card for next-gen gaming, wireless networking capability, and a wireless keyboard, and you could say I'm finally living the home theater PC dream.

If you saw my last Vista CableCard post, you'll know it wasn't easy getting here. Microsoft hasn't provided the cable installers with the documentation describing PC-based CableCard, so actually getting the connection to work takes some patience, both with the technology and the technicians. Fortunately, today my service call was escalated to a Time Warner Cable foreman, who was knowledgeable and more than willing to work on an unfamiliar CableCard device. As Chris and I thought, our initial install failed due to a faulty CableCard, which the foreman replaced with a working unit. He also reported to us that CableCards aren't the most reliable devices in general, and that it's fairly common to have to try a couple before one finally works.

Our PC CableCard guinea pig, the Velocity Micro Cinemagix Grand Theater. CNET

Even after getting Windows Media Center to recognize both CableCards, my signal is not ideal. I ordered a standard digital cable package of about 150 channels, along with a handful of HD channels, including all of the local networks, as well as ESPN-HD and others (missing the NCAA Men's Basketball Final in HD by one day). Right now, the standard-def channels look fine, but the HD channels are plagued by frequent pixellation and occassional stuttering. The TWC foreman said that it can take a little while for the full bandwidth to kick in. I've also had signal strength issues in my apartment before, so I'm not ready to attribute my bad reception to the technology or Velocity Micro's computer. If the signal remains choppy through the weekend, the foreman suggested that I get TWC to come back out.

Now that I finally have a working CableCard PC at home, I plan to spend the next month or so diving deep into the full home theater PC experience. I'll be playing with scheduled recordings, HD audio reception, input devices, streaming media around my apartment, and whatever else comes to mind. If there's anything you're curious about that I haven't listed, let me know and I'll try it out. My first update will hopefully have the full story on HD cable reception over your PC. Wish me luck.