Is it time to trade in my TiVos for a Vista Media Center?

I’ve been a TiVo users since the first TiVo HD for DirecTV was released — used ReplayTV with commercial advance before that. But lately I’ve been seriously considering selling my three HD TiVos (2 Series3s, and one TiVo HD — thanks Steve!) and buying a Dell XPS 420 with a single CableCARD tuner. Then I’d add my HDHomeRun, as two additional OTA HD tuners for a total of 3 tuners. Add a Media Center Extender for my other TV and a Blu-ray player with WinDVD 9 and I’d have a really nice setup.

My main motivation is to converge all my media on to one box. I can have all my HD, TV shows, my Blu-ray movies, and stuff I download all accessible from the same UI — for me I find that I’m less likely to consume media if I have to switch inputs, so if it’s not on my TiVo it doesn’t get watched. Add to this the new DirecTV HDPC-20, and I’d have a really sweet system. Plus, this would save me from buying a new AV/R as I’d have access to TrueHD and DTS-HD content via analog outputs, thanks to the latest WinDVD 9 update.

The problem of course is the price. If I sell all three of my TiVo’s and my BD-P1000 I’ll get about $1200. A Dell XPS 420 with a CableCARD tuner, is $1300 — assuming I can’t find a better deal. Plus, I’ll need a at least one extender for $300 and a Blu-ray drive at $130. This makes my grand total at $1730, minus my eBayed items, leaves me at $530 out of pocket.

If given a choice, I’d just wait on the CableCARD tuner, as I don’t really need it until football season kicks off — damn ESPN and the NFL Network. But according to a Dell XPS rep, it can’t be added later.

Of course the lack of TiVo tax is a factor, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it. I’m not sure Vista Media Center is ready to replace my TiVos.

16 Responses to “Is it time to trade in my TiVos for a Vista Media Center?”

  1. Brent says:

    One thing you might consider is waiting to see how the Hauppauge HD-PVR looks once released. If it is as good as it sounds, you might not need CableCard. That also opens up the possibility of SageTV which has a better (my opinion) and cheaper HD extender that can actually extend your ripped DVD’s to the extender as well.

    Getting the digital content is the big question though so that’s why if I were in your situation, I’d wait just another month or so before taking the plunge like that – especially with the amount of money your talking about.

  2. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Good point, that could make the deal even sweeter, but the idea of re-encoding all my content doesn’t settle well with me. Either way, it might be worth a bit of a wait to see for myself. But even if I do go that route, that means I’d have to rent a box from FiOS, and I don’t like that idea either.

    What about SageTV do you like more than Media Center? MCE seems to have a much bigger eco-system.

  3. Brent says:

    Not sure what you mean by re-encoding all your content – I don’t think you’d need to do that unless I’m misunderstanding.

    The expert on Microsoft’s Media Center is Chris Lanier for certain so if you’re considering that route very seriously, I would definitely get his input before making a purchase. I own Snapstream’s BeyondTV, but switch over to SageTV (using basically the same hardware) so that I could consolidate all of my media on one server and view that content from an extender (SageTV’s new HD extender), another PC (software-based extender) or even over the net using a slingbox-like software SageTV sells called SageTV Placeshifter. All of these use the exact same interface and work the same way. The number one drawback of SageTV, BeyondTV and others right now is the lack of a good way to get encrypted digital channels to the HTPC. Vista Media Center PC’s with the CableCard pre-installed have this capability and that to me is the biggest advantage they have for now.

    Advantages of SageTV over VistaMC (my opinion):
    1. The SageTV HDExtender handles all media formats, can view ripped DVDs (VMC can’t as far as I know) and is cheaper.
    2. Vista Media Center uses a proprietary format to record. This format includes DRM which can cause issues – I’ll let Chris get into that as he has more experience with it – maybe it’s not a big deal after you get used to it.
    3. You can make your own “extender” using SageTV Client. Microsoft had promised they would come out with this and called it “Softsled”, but backed off of that promise a long time ago and we haven’t seen anything since. I have on server that has all of the tuner cards and hard drives in it that runs everything. Then I have a smaller HTPC that is quiet and fits in with the AV equip that actually runs the playback. It’s just an extra layer of flexibility.
    4. SageTV is not dependent on any one OS. You can run it on Windows, Mac or Linux.
    5. SageTV has much faster turnaround of beta cycles and is adding improvements, bug fixes and new features much more often than MS or Snapstream does.

    I think you’ll find that SageTV really is more for the power-user and is more flexible for customizing and making it do what you want it to than the competition. With that flexibility though comes the tradeoff that it takes more to get set up. Its obviously a much smaller company than Microsoft and likely has a much smaller user-base, but if you check out the SageTV forums and compare it to the Greenbutton forums (MC focused) I think the two compare well with lots of active users that are developing plugins and helping others out. This is an important factor as well.

    I’m rambling on so I’ll stop for now, but you should consider asking Chris Lanier this same question – while I think he has a Microsoft bias, to me he’s THE expert on the topic and seems to understand the pros and cons of VMC better than anyone I know. He’s also somewhat familiar with SageTV even though he doesn’t use it. I’ll think on it some more and try to give you some better comparisons. It’s not a cut-and-dry decision especially coming from the TIVO world so don’t make your decision too quick until you understand what you can and can’t do with both solutions. Sorry for the overly-long comment 🙂

  4. Chris Lanier says:

    Hey Ben

    All XPS 420’s sold from Dell’s consumer website should include the needed BIOS and CableCARD COA for the tuners to work. I say consumer because if you purchase from their business site it has been found out that the BIOS isn’t the same.

    Next, as long as you have that XPS 420 from their consumer website you can add the CableCARD tuners at a later date. It includes everything you need, but the catch is that Dell doesn’t sell the tuners standalone after the PC purchase. Because of this you only have one choice and that’s to purchase the tuners from The downside is that the tuners are $300/each from Sony, Dell has their for ~$180/each when you buy them with the XPS 420.

    As for Media Center being ready to replace TiVo, that’s really a personal decision. When the CableCARD tuners work, Media Center is fantastic. When they don’t, troubleshooting is nothing short of a b**th. I’ve been trying to get Microsoft to release some troubleshooting information but have basically been ignored.

    Sage by far has it’s advantages as Brent pointed out above. If your questioning CableCARD in Vista you might want to stick with TiVo for a few more months and see if we can get more DIRECTV tuner specifics (I’ve got D* and I’m tired of waiting too).

    I’ve also got a Dell CableCARD Q&A that covers some of the basic stuff (as well as a link to my general CableCARD FAQ for Vista)

  5. StanS says:

    Since the DirecTV HDPC-20 connects via USB and the Tivo has a USB port it’s only software that keeps it from being able to to connect.

    Come on Tivo and DTV. Make it happen.

  6. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    It’s never been a technical problem, and I’m sure TiVo would be more than willing to make a DirecTV DVR, it’s DirecTV that doesn’t want to play ball.

    Regardless, I prefer FiOS to DirecTV despite the lineup disparagement, but it’s my NFL addiction that keeps me coming back.

  7. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Thanks for the explanation, the problem is that I need my premium HD channels and the whole point of making a change is to consolidate sources not add them.

    As for the “re-encoding all your content” part. The hauppauge component capture card, captures uncompressed HD, so it has to re-encode it. No matter how good the encoder is, the content can’t look better than it went in, and odds are the network’s encoder is much better than I can find for $250.

    So the no CableCARD or DirecTV is a deal breaker for me.

  8. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Thanks for the information and the link, but by the looks of it, CableCARDs are enough trouble without trying to do anything wacky with them, like adding them later or switching video cards.

    At this point it comes down to price, so I think I’ll keep my eye out for when Dell drops the price again. At one time you could get a 420 with a single CC tuner for $1079, but now its ~$1250. Also, HP doesn’t seem to sell them anymore, or at least not that I can find.

    Thanks again.

  9. Charlie Owen says:

    Chris Lanier: “I’ve been trying to get Microsoft to release some troubleshooting information but have basically been ignored.”

    Chris, sorry if we’ve been ignoring you — please send me an email at with the details.

    Ben: I listened to the 077 podcast where you mentioned a Media Center box would be a dedicated appliance in your environment. When you are doing the price comparison do keep in mind there are *many* more things you *can* do with a Media Center PC in comparison to dedicated set top boxes. Not that you would – but you can. If you are discriminating about what you install you can have some very nice customizations not possible with a set top box. Check out for an example — here is a screenshot of what it might look like for you (all the titles and art for each tile are fully customizable by you):

  10. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Thanks for the suggestion.

    Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that Media Center can do so much more, which is what motivated me look into it in the first place.

    My question is will it do everything I need it to?
    One of my concerns is outputting multi-channel audio and stereo at the same time. This is something my TiVo and Blu-ray player can do easily, and believe it or not, in my setup I have to have both outputs working simultaneously.

    It’d be a much simpler problem if I didn’t have multi-channel video and audio using a matrix switcher that will send HD to multiple rooms at the same time.

    I’d bet that I can get it done, the problem is that it is a $250 bet, as that is what I’ll lose if I try to return a XPS 420 to Dell.

    Thanks again.

  11. Charlie Owen says:

    Send me an email with a description of your setup (especially the need for both multi-channel + stereo audio simultaneously) and I’ll ask around to see if we can give you clarity.

  12. Dave Zatz says:

    I’m with Ben on this one and thinking of augmenting my living room setup (or replacing a TiVo) with an HTPC… been a few years since I took down the projector (and associated HTPCs), but WatchNow and Hulu have me rethinking my current config. I may drag the VMC from the den into the living room to see how Netflix scales on the plasma before pulling the trigger. I probably wouldn’t mess with the CableCARDs – ESPECIALLY since it requires a separate tuner housing. Like Ben, I want to consolidate. Of course, I’d rather just use my 360 to present Watch Now…

  13. Dave Zatz says:

    “outputting multi-channel audio and stereo at the same time”


  14. […] the past week I’ve been going back and forth about trying to use Vista Media Center to replace my two TiVos and today I finally decided to take the plunge. After spending some time with my friend […]

  15. Gladys says:

    Let me know if you decide to do this… I would love to buy your Tivo HD for a good price.

  16. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Too late, I already sold both of ’em.