Review: Ceton Takes HTPCs To a New Level With the InfiniTV 6 ETH
Television tuner products for personal computers have come a long way over the past 15 years or so. What began as complicated add-on cards with temperamental single tuners evolved to plug-and-play USB products and finally to whole-house networked solutions. These products promise consumers the ability to watch and record cable (and sometimes over-the-air) television without the fees and restrictive user experiences of cable company-provided set-top boxes.
Many companies inhabit the TV tuner market, but perhaps the most innovative is Ceton. The Washington-based company made headlines in 2010 when it released the first consumer-targeted and CableCARD compatible four-tuner product, the InfiniTV 4 PCIe. While certain cable companies and DirecTV also released four-tuner products around the same time, the InfiniTV 4 brought the functionality to the more customizable HTPC market.
Ceton later released a companion product, the InfiniTV 4 USB, which, as its name implies, took the technology formerly housed in a PCI Express card and packed it into a compact external box.
Now the company has upped the game again by releasing a new InfiniTV product with two key additions: six tuners and networking support. Ceton loaned us a review sample of the InfiniTV 6 ETH, as it’s called, and we spent a few weeks putting the device through its paces. Here’s why we think it’s a game changer.
The InfiniTV 6 ETH is a cable-only product, which means it won’t work with over-the-air ATSC signals via an antenna. Therefore, you’ll need an active cable subscription in order to use the device. The tuner can access both Clear QAM, or unencrypted, cable signals as well as the premium signals protected by the aforementioned CableCARD specification.
Unfortunately for Mac owners, the InfiniTV 6 is only compatible with Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8, although there is experimental Linux support for certain products. Windows 8 customers will need to make sure they have Windows 8 Pro along with the additional upgrade to the Windows Media Center (WMC) add-on pack.
You’ll need a relatively fast PC to handle potentially six simultaneous video streams. Ceton recommends a dual- or quad-core CPU at 2.5 GHz or faster, 4 GB of RAM, and a wired gigabit Ethernet connection. You’ll also need an HDCP-compliant GPU and display in order to view encrypted television content.
Box Contents & Setup
The InfiniTV 6 ETH comes packaged with almost everything you’ll need to get set up. This includes the tuner itself — a small rectangular device measuring 5.25 inches wide by about 7.5 inches deep (including the extrusion for the coax cable connection) by about 1 inch tall — a power cord, an Ethernet cable, an installation guide, and a USB cable for connecting to a tuning adapter required by some cable providers. The only thing missing is a coaxial cable for connecting the tuner to your home’s cable line, although it’s a safe bet that most consumers have a cable from an existing setup.
The process of connecting the device to your home network and setting up the required software is relatively simple thanks to the included installation guide, a copy of which Ceton has made available online as a PDF. The major consideration for new users involves obtaining a multi-stream CableCARD and tuning adapter from the cable company. Once these items are in hand, the step-by-step instructions are quick and easy.
One potential area for trouble is activating the CableCARD with the cable company. All CableCARD users must call in to activate their CableCARD devices and pair the card with the device’s unique ID. How smoothly this process goes can vary wildly by cable company and even by the customer service representative who answers the phone.
In our case, which involved several calls to pair and re-pair cards with multiple devices, we had two excellent encounters (the representative answered quickly and knew exactly what to do) and one terrible experience (30 minute hold, then an awkward conversation with someone who wasn’t familiar with anything other than TiVos). Again, your experience will vary but Ceton has done all it can to help you. The company’s customer service team has worked with all major cable companies in the U.S. and provides a list of the direct phone numbers for each company’s CableCARD help line. In short, this will likely be the most frustrating part of the installation, but it will be worth it.
Once you’ve got your InfiniTV 6 ETH activated and set up, it’s time to have some fun in Windows Media Center. In our testing, we launched the Media Center Guide and started loading up on scheduled recordings. WMC will notify you if you’ve selected too many overlapping recordings and there’s a conflict. While this happened a few times a week on our previous four-tuner product, we had to try really hard to reach a recording conflict with the InfiniTV 6 ETH.
This results in a whole new way of thinking about DVRs. While power users have long been addicted to connecting multiple tuner devices to their PCs, average HTPC consumers are still likely to have only one tuner device. With the InfiniTV 6, that one device is now far more capable. For most users, virtually anything they want can be recorded with no conflicts.
The large number of tuners also benefits users with multiple PCs or devices. As a networked product, the InfiniTV 6 ETH is natively built to support more than one PC. Ceton allows users to configure this tuner distribution via one of two methods: assigned tuners and pooled tuners.
Assigned tuners means that a user manually links one or more of the six InfiniTV 6 tuners to a specific PC. This is done during the Windows Media Center setup. When the WMC setup procedure reports that it has found a six tuner device, choose to configure them manually. Each individual tuner on the InfiniTV 6 will be presented in a list; make sure that only the tuners you want associated with that particular PC are checked. Then, perform the same steps on other PCs until all tuners are assigned.
While assigning tuners means that many PCs on the same network can share a single InfiniTV 6 ETH, this process doesn’t allow for automatic reassignment if necessary. In other words, if you have two tuners assigned to one PC, you won’t be able to access three channels at once, even if the remaining tuners assigned to other PCs are not in use.
To address this scenario, Ceton is developing its own implementation of “tuner pooling.” As the name suggests, tuner pooling allows multiple PCs on the same network to dynamically share all available tuners. If one PC is recording six channels, all tuners will be allocated to it. If one PC is recording three channels, another PC recording two, and a user launches live TV via their Xbox 360 media extender, all tuners will dynamically reassign to compensate.
This is an exciting feature and it remains in development. Ceton allows users to experiment with it via beta software and drivers, but it is not yet entirely stable. We had some fun throwing different configurations at tuner pooling via three PCs and two extenders (Xbox 360s), and it did indeed work as advertised. But it also failed on some occasions, requiring a power cycle of the tuner and tuning adapter. Tuner pooling, although “not ready for prime time” (pun intended), is a great feature that Ceton owners can look forward to once it’s stable.
In terms of video quality, the Ceton performed as expected. Once a channel stream has started, there is no difference in video or audio quality compared to other networked streaming devices, such as the HDHomeRun Prime, or internal PCI Express-based devices, such as Ceton’s own InfiniTV 4 PCIe. There is a slight delay at the start of each stream, however. Those who have used WMC extenders will recognize it: the audio starts almost immediately while the video appears frozen for about one second, then the video “speeds up” to catch up with the audio.
This delay is not ideal, but we quickly adjusted to it. It also only affects new channel streams; if your tuner is already recording a certain channel in the background, you won’t see the delay when switching to a live or recorded point in that stream. It’s also worth noting that this delay seems to be inherent to networked tuners. Our HDHomeRun Prime also exhibits the same behavior.
Turning now to network performance, the InfiniTV 6 ETH is equipped with gigabit Ethernet, although we never topped 100Mbps in our testing. While recording six channels simultaneously to a single PC, we measured average speeds between 75 and 85Mbps, with an occasional maximum of just under 95Mbps. While gigabit Ethernet provides an appreciated level of headroom, those with slower wired networks may still squeeze by on a 100Mbps connection. It’s important to point out, however, that Ceton sets a gigabit requirement for the optimal user experience.
The InfiniTV 6 also works via Wi-Fi. Our Windows 8 laptop was able to receive up to two streams simultaneously via 802.11n as we wandered around the office, although dropouts in the signal required us to close and then restart Media Center. Our experience leads us to recommend that users stick with a wired PC for their main Media Center hub while relying on wireless devices for occasional use.
Finally, as we mentioned earlier, the InfiniTV 6 worked great with our Media Center Extenders. There was the expected brief delay when starting a new stream, but quality and performance were exactly the same as our former PCI Express tuner. While we used Xbox 360s as our extenders, Ceton also offers its own extender, the Echo, although we have yet to test one. The InfiniTV 6 ETH should work fine with both, although you’ll need to be running Windows 7 if you use the Echo, as Microsoft removed third party extender support from Windows 8.
Wishes & Conclusions
The InfiniTV 6 ETH and its six tuners make watching and recording television a great experience, but we wish that Ceton could find a way to support over-the-air ATSC tuners on the device as well. Many cable companies highly compress their HD channels and the over-the-air broadcasts of national networks are, in many areas, of a higher quality than the feed provided by the cable company. While there are many inexpensive ways to add an additional over-the-air tuner to your HTPC setup, having everything in one device would be ideal.
Another concern is heat. The InfiniTV 6 gets quite warm, especially when all six tuners are in use. We measured about 60 degrees Celsius from the tuner’s own diagnostics and a surface temperature of about 48 degrees Celsius. Our tuner was kept with our networking equipment on an open mesh shelf with an ambient room temperature of 23°C (about 74°F). Despite the high temperatures, the tuner performed flawlessly over several days, although we would be wary of installing the unit in an enclosed and non-ventilated space.
While we wish we could say that HTPC tuner cards were great for every user, the fact remains that simply plugging in a cable box is still an easier process. We have no hesitation in recommending the InfiniTV 6 ETH to users with even moderate technical experience, but this isn’t something we’d recommend for less technically savvy users. Dealing with CableCARD activation issues alone may be enough to turn some users away.
But at the end of the day, a TV tuner and Windows Media Center offer a far more customizable, powerful, and often cheaper solution for premium television enjoyment compared to leased cable boxes. With only a few minutes of setup, the InfiniTV 6 ETH granted us the ability to watch and record TV on all of our Windows PCs and extenders, without the fear of running out of tuners.
There are several options when it comes to CableCARD tuners, but the InfiniTV 6 ETH offers the best combination of features and performance. Its minor flaws are far outweighed by the benefits it provides, and we’re confident that once you upgrade to six tuners, you’ll never go back.
InfiniTV 6 ETH
Requirements: Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8 with Media Center | HDCP-Compliant GPU and Display | Wired Ethernet Network (Gigabit Recommended) | Multi-Stream CableCARD and Tuning Adapter
Release Date: May 2013