In a word; No, not really, maybe, kind of, Yes. Got that? Clear as mud, isn’t it?

Eric with Media Remote

You might recall last month I started on a quest to investigate the viability of replacing my preferred DVR solution (DirecTV + Tivo) with Vista MCE and off-air HD. You can read about it in: Vista + HDTV = Tivo Killer?

After working with the Artec HD USB 2.0 dongle on my Vista Ultimate test rig (Intel Core 2 Duo based system) for the last few weeks, I can answer you with any of the above, just depends on the time you happen to ask the question.

Basically, the core functionality of off-air DVR recording in HD is there. The most challenging aspect of this feat was the positioning of the provided indoor antenna and dealing with Vista driver issues. Once these issues were settled both Vista and the Artec T14A performed well.

I will comment that playback and live TV viewing was choppy at times, I believe this was due to I/O and CPU strain. Vista records its files to a .dvr-ms file type. And it’s big, no make that VERY BIG. One hour of programming is about 9 Gig. I’m guessing that is due to a lack of compression, while this is a plus for quality, it is a bit unnecessary (with all the great codecs out there today), fills even a big HD quickly, and impacts playback performance.

My test box was low end Core 2 Duo based system (E6300 running @ 1.86) with two gigs of RAM, an NVIDIA 6600GT, and dual SATA drives. With I/O issues in mind I set the recorder location to the D: (not the system) drive, but even this did not completely alleviate the jitters and jumpiness of playback.

But believe it or not it’s not even these technical/performance challenges that bring me to the “kind of, maybe” answer.

Since navigating Vista MCE is pure eye candy you might ask what is my reservation in deploying it as my primary HDTV media hub? While it is true Microsoft has done a wonderful job ripping off all the best interface cues from Tivo, OSX and others, it has not solved the seamless integration problem that is required to live in my media room.

Listen, simply put I want it all. I enjoy DirecTV programming and happen to believe they offer the best service for the price in SD at least. As beautiful as off-air HD is I don’t want to limit myself to the 15 or so local stations I can get with an off-air solution. I want the off-air HD to be my primary for network programming, but I need a DirecTV USB or PCI tuner solution. Come on guys, you promised this type of integration at CES 2006, lets get on with it.

Finally the “No” or is that “No, not yet.”

One of the most compelling aspects of the Vista MCE strategy is its extendibility via the Xbox 360. As I stated previously, the demo at this year’s CES with one Vista Media Center feeding five remote Xboxs was jaw dropping. For $299 not only do I get a full fledged gaming console, it offers me complete access to my digital content (music, photos, DVDs, downloaded content, live and recorded TV) stored elsewhere on my home computer running Vista Home Premium or Ultimate. Sounds great right?

Try to get your local Best Buy or Fry’s employee confirm this functionality or, heaven forbid, demo it. No, unfortunately this solution is still in the Uber Geek, early adopter phase of life. I am hopefully 2007 might mark the turning point for this, but it’s at least 6 months out, if it’s going to happen at all this year.

So thus concludes my search for a perfectly unified HD + digital media player solution for my media room, at least for a month or so, till then I have some CSI episodes to go watch on my Tivo.