Now that ATI is finally shipping its internal OCUR cards, which enable OEMs to build home-theater PCs that can connect to digital cable systems, we decided it was time to publish a small home-theater PC roundup (look for the full story in the August issue of Maximum PC). The three HTPCs we reviewed were impressive—except when it came to OCUR. I haven’t witnessed a product rollout botched this badly since Microsoft introduced the Zune .
Here’s a little background if you’re not familiar with OCUR. Following an FCC mandate, cable companies must now allow their customers to access their services using third-party equipment, as opposed to forcing them to rent a set-top box from the service provider. ATI and Microsoft, seeing a golden opportunity to move the PC into the living room in a big way, teamed up to create OCUR (Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver). Pair an OCUR with a CableCard from your cable-TV service provider and you can receive digital cable on your HTPC.
Internal OCUR cards are rolling out--to the sound of one hand clapping.
OCUR, believe it or not, was announced more than 18 months ago. But in order to pass muster with Hollywood, Microsoft had to build a massive DRM system into Vista, and ATI had to restrict the availability of OCUR cards (now known as the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner) to OEM PC manufacturers. The only way you can purchase a TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner is as part of pre-built Vista PC: Do-it-yourself builders like you and me are left out in the cold: We can’t add them to an existing PC, and we can’t build them into a roll-your-own rig.
Two of the three HTPCs we received for review—a Voodoo Aria and a Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater —had two internal OCUR cards each; the third system—an S1Digital Media Center FX Edition —had dual over-the-air HD tuners. S1Digital said they would be shipping OCUR-equipped systems by time our print issue hit newsstands.
Our office building is serviced by satellite TV, not cable, so we decided to test the TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuners in my downtown San Francisco apartment. And since the product was so new to the market, we decided to contact Comcast’s public relations department (Comcast is our local cable provider) about delivering and installing the necessary CableCards. (The FCC mandates that the cable companies give consumers an alternative to renting a set-top box, but they didn’t say the cable companies couldn’t insist on installing it for you, making a few bucks off the service call, and charging you a modest rental fee to boot.)
I don’t know about you, but the idea of having Larry the Cable Guy hollering “ Git-r-done! ” while futzing around with my $7,000 home-theater PC scares the crap out of me. Fortunately, the technician Comcast dispatched turned out to be very experienced with PCs. He was, in fact, a Maximum PC reader who had built several of his own rigs. But let’s face it, a PC-savvy cable installer is not the norm. You’re more likely to get an independent contractor whose experience is limited to stripping and terminating coax.
So I either lucked out or Comcast’s PR department hand-picked the tech. The PR department, however, failed to inform the tech that I needed to install two PCs with a total of four TV Wonder cards, so he showed up with only two CableCards. And then he wanted to know where the OCUR boxes were. “The tuners are inside the PCs,” I said. “Really? I haven’t seen that before,” he replied. “I’ve only connected two PCs to cable, and they both used external boxes.”
You'll need a CableCard from your service provider to make an OCUR card work.
The tech told me he’d receive training direct from Microsoft, but none of it covered internal tuners. We both agreed that the process should be the same, since the only difference is that the slots are inside the case, versus in an external box. The tech then proceeds to install the CableCards, connect the tuners to coax line, fire up the PC, and begin the software configuration. This step involves activating the TV Wonder with a product-activation code, and calling the Comcast office to exchange some information.
We should have had a picture at this point, but we didn’t. After double-checking all his connections, running diagnostics on the cable itself, and conferring with the home office, the tech decides to call his contact at Microsoft who had personally trained him how to install external OCUR boxes. And this is when the installation process went from absurd to ridiculous—especially since the tech—unbeknownst to the people he was speaking to—had his push-to-talk cellphone on speaker.
Hey, this is ** from Comcast. I’m trying to hook up a customer’s PC to our system, but I can’t get it to work. Can you help me out?
Microsoft Guy : Yeah, well, we don’t have our tiered tech support set up yet, but I can try to walk you through it. What are you hooking up?
CT : Well, he has two computers, one from Voodoo PC and one from Velocity Micro .
MSG : He’s got both those machines?! That’s $13,000 in computers!
CT : Yeah, he’s reviewing them. He’s an editor at Maximum PC.
MSG : Oh.... Sh*t, they’re supposed to tell us before they send those things out to the press.
CT : Both these machines have internal OCUR cards, too; I’ve never worked with the internal cards before.
MSG : [Still unaware he’s on a speakerphone] Yeah, those are really tricky. But don’t tell the guy that, or he’ll write it up. You’re gonna start seeing Dells like that come through your system like crazy.
The tech then proceeds to explain the steps he’s gone through and the results he’s achieved—none, the tuner simply reports it has no connection to TV—at which point the Microsoft guy punts:
MSG : I’m not sure what the problem is then. Call so-and-so at this number and see if he can help you.
The tech calls so-and-so and gets voicemail—not very helpful since the tech is on a service call in his customer’s living room—so he pushes “0” in the hope of getting an administrative assistant.
Operator : Thank you for calling Microsoft. How may I direct your call?
CT : Hi, This is ** from Comcast, and I’m trying to reach so-and-so to help me with a service call.
O : He’s apparently not in his office, but I can put you through to his voicemail.
CT : Yeah, I got his voicemail and pressed zero. That’s how I got to you. Is there anyone else you can connect me to who might know how I can get in touch with him right now?
O : Well, all I can do is put you through to his voicemail. Would that help?
CT : No, that’s not going to help. Thanks anyway.
At this point, the cable tech hangs up and calls his first Microsoft contact again.
CT : Hi, it’s ** again. So-and-so isn’t in his office. Is there anyone else who might be able to help me?
MSG : Here’s his cell-phone number. Try him on that.
So the tech connects with Microsoft Guy No. 2 on his cell phone. This person also doesn’t realize he’s on a speaker phone.
Comcast Tech : Hi, this is ** from Comcast. Whoozit said I should contact you about an installation problem I’m having. I’ve got two machines with internal OCUR cards, and I can’t get either of them to work.
Microsoft Guy No. 2 : It’s probably your CableCards. Those can be flakey.
CT : Yeah, I know that. That’s why I tested them before I went out on this call. The cards worked back at my office, but they won’t work here. These PCs have internal OCUR cards, by the way.
MSG2 : Oh really? We don’t have any of those here. You say you have two of ‘em? Which brands are they?
CT : One’s a Velocity Micro and the other’s a Voodoo.
MSG2 : And they’re in the same house? That’s a lot of money in PCs!
CT : Yeah, the customer is an editor at Maximum PC. He’s reviewing them.
MSG2 : Oh. Uh, I didn’t realize that. Come to think of it, I don’t think Voodoo has even qualified with us to sell internal OCUR cards.
CT : Well, I’ve got one here, and it has two OCURs in it.
MSG2 : Hmm. Well, let’s see if we can get the Velocity Micro system to work. I know they’ve qualified.
After running through all the same tests and diagnostics the tech had previously performed on his own, and then again with the first Microsoft guy, the second Microsoft guy comes up with an idea.
MSG2 : You need Administrator rights to do this. Are you logged on as the Administrator?
CT : Yeah, I’m using the customer’s login, and he’s logged in as an Administrator.
MSG2 : Okay, good. Click the Start menu and then click on Computer. Now, point the mouse to Local Disk C, but hold the shift key down when you left-click with the mouse. When the menu pops up, click on Open Command Window here. Now, type this command in, but you have to type it in exactly right or it won’t work. Type c colon, backslash, ehome, backslash, ehribjob.exe forward slash all caps OCURN lower-case register.
After the tech fails twice to type in the command exactly right—and to be fair, he was listening over a speakerphone—Microsoft Guy Number 2 gets a little exasperated. But why in the heck is a Microsoft product manager having a cable tech executing command-line instructions on a Vista PC anyway?
MSG2 : Look, how ‘bout I send you the command in an email. You can copy it from the email into the command window. Do you have email access?
Just for fun, I tell the tech to give him my personal hotmail address. When he does, Microsoft Guy No. 2 nearly has a fit.
MSG2 : [repeating the cable tech] *** at hotmail.com. Wait a minute. Hotmail? Whose account is this?!
CT : It’s the customer’s.
MSG2 : I can’t send this to the customer! This is Microsoft-proprietary information. Don’t you have an email account?
CT : Yeah, it’s *** at gmail.com.
MSG2 : No! I mean don’t you have a business email account--through Comcast?
CT : No, they never set me up with one.
MSG2 : [Sigh] Okay, your personal account will have to work, then .
So Microsoft Guy No. 2 sends an email to the cable tech’s personal email account that reads, in part:
Type this into the command window EXACTLY as I have typed it below:
Now anyone who’s ever typed a DOS command will immediately realize that this command isn’t going to work—the cable tech certainly did—because Microsoft Guy Number 2 has used forward slashes (URL style) where he should have used backward slashes (DOS style). In any event, the cable tech typed the command in—using backslashes—but the OCCUR cards still couldn’t tune in any TV programs.
By this time, more than four hours have elapsed since the cable tech’s arrival, and his shift has long since ended. He bids adieu to Microsoft Guy No. 2 and tells me he’ll come back the next day to try and solve the problem.
True to his word, he comes back first-thing the next morning and we contact a product manager at Velocity Micro to see if they have any suggestions. Upon hearing that Microsoft Guy Number 2 had the cable tech executing CLI commands on his machine, the product manager wails “What have they done to my computer?!”
The product manager then asks permission to take remote control of the machine to see if he can diagnose the problem. I tell him to go ahead and he proceeds to troubleshoot the machine from his location. As far as he can tell, everything looks normal, but he has no more luck at getting a TV signal than the cable tech did.
At this point, I decide to punt. I thank the Velocity Micro product manager and the cable tech—promising to send the latter a bunch of Maximum PC issues for his library—and proceed to write the rest of the home-theater PC feature story. We’ve since sent all the PCs back to their manufacturers, but asked Velocity Micro to send theirs back for another try at hooking up to our Comcast cable service.
I’ll report on those results in a future blog. But for now, I wouldn’t recommend buying a PC with an OCUR card until Microsoft, AMD (ATI), and the cable companies get their collective acts together.