Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tivo = FAIL

I guess the whole Cable Card concept was doomed to failure. Mainly because it requires two companies (one being a cable company - consistently the worst and most hated companies in the country) to cooperate closely to make the technology work in a reliable way. 
I've learned the hard way that when the other company is Tivo, you're in for a great deal of frustration and disappointment.
I decided to give Tivo a try back in October of 2010. It is now April of 2011 and the system still does not work correctly or reliably.
Tivo has some of the worst customer service I've ever encountered. They have yet to solve any problems for me. The main issues have been:

Channel lineup is wrong. I actually must setup my Tivo by selecting the channel lineup for a location other than my own to get access to some key HD channels. But this means that other channels are wrong.

Tivo search engine is broken. The results are random. You can enter and search term, view the results and then two seconds later, enter the same search terms and you will get different results.

Glitchy video.  I archive a great deal of video using an h.264 encoder. Each time the video has a glitch, this creates a minimum of a 7 second gap in the captured video while the encoder restarts. There are times when I get a major glitch every 5 to 10 minutes. This is, of course, unusable video. Meanwhile, the same program was recorded at the same time on the cable company's DVR (in the same room even I might add) and that program had zero glitches. The cable company says the signal quality to the Tivo is very good. 

It took about 3 months just to get reliable access to most of my channels. (Granted, Time Warner is just as much at fault on this one.)

The Tivo frequently freezes up requiring a 20-30 minute reboot.

If you don't do the setup just right, the unit freezes.

Because you must use a Tuning Adapter, you sometimes get denied access to channels you subscribe to.

Online scheduling often takes 2 to 3 hours to have an effect and actually schedule the recording (when it works at all.)

The latest one is a whopper:  A few weeks ago, I noticed the Tivo recording when I knew I did not have anything scheduled to record. I stopped the recording and noted what was being recorded. I checked that I didn't accidentally schedule this recording and that any Tivo features that would have automatically recorded anything were still turned off. There was no explanation for the recording. This happened several more times. Always the same program; an infomercial. I started to suspect Tivo was selling involuntary access to my DVR as a form of advertising. I contacted Tivo. We went back and forth a few times and then they finally admitted this was true:

"The recording that you are seeing is part of an advertising partnership program with that infomercial." . . .  "Since these recordings are part of our advertising partnerships and are covered under the Service Agreement, we will not be able to stop them from taking place."

This was my response:

That is what I suspected. Even if tivo slipped it into the fine print, it is still disgusting and unethical.
Previously, tivo responded:
"We completely want customers to have control over what shows are recorded & only want your TiVo hard dive to be filled with content of your choosing."
So that was obviously a lie.
I always park both of my tivo tuners on SD channels so as to minimize the workload on the already marginal performance of the tivo and to minimize the wear and tear on MY hard drive. Tivo then forces my tuner to an HD channel thereby increasing the chance of a bad recording or playback and increasing the wear and tear on MY hard drive. Tivo is using my resources for their benefit without my permission and outside of accepted advertising practices. Also known as theft.
So, as I said, I'll block this channel and I'll let Discovery Communications Inc. know why they have lost a viewer.
If this continues to be a problem, I'll simply terminate my account with tivo. (Since the tivo product has never worked properly, I certainly won't miss it.)

I will block the affected channel and I will let the broadcaster know. But, if this happens again on another channel, then I think that will be the last straw with Tivo.
If you are thinking about getting in bed with Tivo, I would strongly advise against it. If you are already a Tivo customer and are seeing this unauthorized use of your DVR and are as disturbed about it as I am, then I suggest you do the same thing:  block the channel and let the channel provider know why they have lost a viewer.
I'll post a follow up on Tivo's response and if in fact removing the channel from the lineup stops the recording from occurring. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Elgato EyeTV HD

I own both the EyeTV HD and the Hauppauge HD-PVR.  The short version is, get the HD-PVR (unless your primary use will be digitizing VHS tapes. See below.) For the same money, the HD-PVR has more features and is more flexible.

Here are the shortcomings of the EyeTV HD:

1. No digital audio input. The only audio inputs are analog stereo. This means that the already compressed audio coming out of your cable box gets compressed again into AAC. Since I primarily make my recordings into blu-rays, this presents another problem:  AAC is not a blu-ray ready format. So, when making a blu-ray, the AAC audio must be converted into uncompressed LPCM format. This increases the space needed for the program and the muxer you are using to make the blu-ray cannot give you an accurate estimate of how much space you will need. And of course, no surround sound.

2. The EyeTV HD can only be used with EyeTV. The HD-PVR can be used with EyeTV and HDPVR Capture on the Mac and with the included Arcsoft package on Windows. If the EyeTV and EyeTV HD combo have problems with your particular program material/source, then you have no alternative capture software to go to.

3. The EyeTV HD does not have any audio/video passthrough like the HD-PVR does.

4. Despite what the Elgato literature says, the EyeTV HD does not do VBR. It is CBR. This will result in files that are unnecessarily larger than the same file captured on the HD-PVR. I've contacted Elgato about this and even sent them video clips demonstrating this. I never heard back from them.

On the plus side, especially for those who will be digitizing VHS tapes, the EyeTV HD seems to have a more robust encoder than the HD-PVR. In other words, in my experience, the HD-PVR will restart/fail to lock much more often than the EyeTV HD on glitchy footage. Also, once the HD-PVR restarts, it seems to take much longer to recover than the EyeTV HD.

So, in my case, I use the HD-PVR almost all of the time. I use it for all of my DVR recording and even for VHS digitizing when the VHS is one continuous recording in SP mode. Otherwise, I'll use the EyeTV HD.

UPDATE:  03/29/2011 - I heard back from Elgato after 7 months (I had to prod them to get a response.)  They still claim VBR for the EyeTV HD even though that has been demonstrated as false. But I did get my answer:  there will not be an update for this unit or for units in the future.  They did offer me a refund, which I turned down. The unit is still useful, it's just not what they claim it to be.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

XFX ATI Radeon HD 5450

A few months ago I picked up a Radeon 5450. The main reason being that, at the time, this was one of the few cards that would bitstream audio out the HDMI port for a reasonable price. I picked one up for about $70.

I wanted HDMI audio for a couple of reasons:

1. I wanted to see/know/control exactly what was coming out of the computer audio wise. By sending the computer HDMI out to an A/V receiver first, I can see exactly what is coming out of the HDMI port. Most importantly, this allows me to verify when I am actually bitstreaming and when the audio is being converted to LPCM.

2. I wanted to split the HDMI out and also send it to the TV in the living room, thus making my pc an htpc and giving me another option for problematic playback. I picked up a 75-foot HDMI cable and an active splitter. This works surprisingly well.

This has all worked remarkably well considering this setup is a bit on the bleeding edge. But there are a few hiccups:
- Not all apps are up to speed at recognizing the video card as an audio card.
- Not all apps even conceive of the option of bitstreaming the audio instead of converting to LPCM first.
- the drivers still seem a bit buggy:  If I turn the monitor off, then back on, the display scales down for some reason. Usually, just opening the ATI control panel will pop it back. If I use the energy settings to turn the display off after some period of time, I can never get the display to come back on and must force a shutdown. This occurs when I'm splitting the HDMI output, so, to be fair, that may be the reason. I haven't tried it when not splitting the output.

I haven't had any problems with applications utilizing the card for hardware accelerated video decoding.

Overall, I'd say I'm glad I went this route.

Blu-ray Playback Software for Windows

In short, have as many blu-ray playback applications as you can get your hands on/afford. They all behave differently and in a case where one fails, another one will usually work. I currently have PowerDVD 9, TotalMedia Theatre 3 and Nero ShowTime.

PowerDVD 9:  In general, I've not been impressed with CyberLink's PowerDVD line. They include a lot of garbage that isn't easy to turn off or eliminate. Background processes are always installed that, among other things, always try to takeover disc playback duties and auto-start on disc insertion. I find PowerDVD to be the least compatible when trying to play non-commercial blu-rays. I've never been able to get the PowerDVD apps to playback a blu-ray file structure on the hard drive. On the positive side (as mentioned in another post), PowerDVD 9 does open my HD-PVR capture files and bitstreams the audio correctly out the HDMI port. At this point, I'm in no rush to upgrade to PowerDVD 10.

TotalMedia Theatre 3:  This has probably been the most compatible/robust app as far as blu-ray playback goes. Ironically, it will not playback files just captured by the Capture Module in the same ArcSoft package without resetting the audio preferences each time.

ShowTime:  This is an old version from Nero 8 and is considerably behind the times when it comes to features and compatibility, but it does occasionally come in handy when the others fail.

I would eventually like to add Corel's WinDVD and Roxio's Creator package to my arsenal of playback tools.

Arcsoft TotalMedia Extreme 2

This will be of somewhat limited scope as I only use the Total Media Extreme 2 package in a few specific ways.
The main reason I have the TotalMedia Extreme 2 package is because I own the Hauppauge HD-PVR and this unit comes with the TotalMedia Extreme (version 1) package. The included TotalMedia Extreme is quite old, so I was poking around ArcSoft's website and discovered they were offering a discount price for owners of the OEM TotalMedia Extreme to upgrade to TotalMedia Extreme 2, so I took them up on the offer.
Before I go any further, it is important to note that Hauppauge considers the included OEM version 1 of TotalMedia Extreme to be the only supported capture software. If you contact them and tell them you are using TotalMedia Extreme 2, they will tell you that version is not supported and will decline to offer help.
Having said that and despite what Hauppauge says, TotalMedia Extreme 2 (and when I refer to TotalMedia Extreme, I'm primarily referring to the Capture Module it contains) seems to work just fine with the HD-PVR. I had some problems that I was initially attributing to the TME2 Capture Module, but in the end, I think most problems really stem from the HD-PVR not being exactly robust in the face of less than perfect video on it's inputs.
Tip:  always check the length of the resulting file after a recording against what the record length was set to when you began the capture. If it is more than about 5 seconds off, you probably had a glitch in the video and the encoder restarted. The TME Capture Module will not warn you that there has been a break in the video (though I wish it would.)
Also note, the preview in the Capture Module and the playback in TotalMedia Theatre 3 (the playback software included in TME 2) are often somewhat jerky with footage from the HD-PVR. This can lead you to believe you are not getting a good capture. This can lead you off on a wild goose chase and waste a great deal of time. Check the footage in some other application and you will probably see that it is fine.
The other component of TME 2 that I use a lot is the TotalMedia Studio 3. I primarily use this to do some basic trimming/editing of HD-PVR footage and then produce a blu-ray folder. TotalMedia Studio 3 has been good and basically gets the job done. The editing functionality is on the sluggish side, so I try to avoid anything beyond trimming off beginning and ending excess.
The other major app from this package I use is the TotalMedia Extreme Theatre 3. It has it's strengths  and weaknesses. I find that all of the blu-ray capable playback applications behave differently and if you do a lot of work in this area, it pays to have as many different playback options as possible. For example, ironically, I can't use TotalMedia Theatre 3 to check the footage I've just captured with the TME 2 Capture Module. It locks up if I don't reset the audio preferences each time I use it. (My audio output is the HDMI audio on my video card.)  Instead, I use PowerDVD 9. It plays the files fine and correctly bitstreams the audio out the HDMI on the video card. But once I make the captured footage into a blu-ray file structure/folder, it is switched:  PowerDVD 9 won't even recognize the blu-ray file structure, but I can play it back correctly with TotalMedia Theatre 3.
In summary, I'd say that version 2 of TotalMedia Extreme is a worthwhile update from version 1, even though Hauppauge does not officially support it for use with the HD-PVR.

Hauppauge HD-PVR

The Hauppauge HD-PVR isn't exactly new, but I've had it and have been using it extensively for a few years now, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on it.
Overall, I'll say that the HD-PVR is a good unit and I'm glad it is on the market. There really isn't anything that competes with it at this point even though it has been out for several years now. (There are a few competitors that I know of, but they all fall short in some significant way.)

The pluses that I'll mention are:
- SPDIF 6 channel digital audio input and pass-thru.
- component pass-thru.
- variable bit rate encoding
- can be used with both PCs and Macs with at least 3 capture applications that I know of.
- resulting h.264/AC3 files can be re-muxed directly into a blu-ray without any re-compression needed.

The minuses I'll mention are:
- encoder seems fragile when it comes to dealing with less than perfect video inputs (and this will cause an encoder restart which will create about a 30 second gap in your recording for each glitch.)
- only 1 capture application option that I know of for Windows.
- some A/V sync issues when using the SPDIF input with certain hardware sources.
- as far as Hauppauge is concerned, there is only one officially supported capture application for this unit and that is the very old Capture Module in the included Total Media Extreme.

The competitors that I mentioned earlier would be: Elgato EyeTV HD (I own this unit and will comment on it in a separate entry), Blackmagic H.264 Pro Recorder (not shipping yet), AVerMedia AverTV HD DVR (I have no experience with this card.)

Image Constraint Token

Information seems a bit sketchy and conflicting on this issue, but one source seems to indicate that this may be enabled on December 31, 2010. In case you forgot, the Image Constraint Token is a mechanism by which content that has this flag or token turned on, will be down-rezzed on the component outputs of hardware that obeys the token. This is an attempt to plug the so-called "analog hole".
So if you rely on the HD component outputs from any of your hardware units, you could be in for an unpleasant surprise soon.
There is one potential fix for the consumer that I know of:  units like the HDFury3 and the Moome EXT-FULLHD. These connect to an HDMI output, perform the HDCP handshake and then convert that digital signal to an HD, analog component output. I have tried the HDFury3. I'll write that up in a separate entry.