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How to Use Dual Set-top Boxes in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

Published: October 12, 2004
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Barb Bowman

Media Center customers have been looking for dual TV tuner support and discussing it in the newsgroups for months. Now it's here—Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is available and comes pre-installed on computers from a wide range of manufacturers. One of its big new features is support for dual TV tuners. Whether you buy a new Windows XP Media Center with a single TV tuner or upgrade a previous version of Media Center that had a single tuner, you can easily add an additional TV tuner, quickly reconfigure your settings, and immediately increase your TV entertainment options.

What can you do with two tuners? You can watch one show on live TV and simultaneously record a different show on another channel. Or you can record two shows at the same time or two that overlap with different starting and/or ending times. Dual tuner support encompasses watching live TV using a Media Center Extender while another family member is watching live TV on the host Media Center PC or while recording a different show on the host Media Center.

In this column, I'll cover the following information:

How to obtain and install a second TV tuner.

How to add or configure infra red (IR) receiver hardware with dual set-top boxes and two individual IR control cables.

How to configure Media Center Edition 2005 to support dual tuners.

What You Need to Make Dual Tuners Work

Dual tuner usage in Media Center Edition 2005 requires both TV provider sources (channel lineups) to be identical. For example, you can configure two set-top boxes or two cable out of the wall connections, but you cannot use one set-top box and one out of the wall cable connection or one satellite and one antenna connection. The reason for this is pretty simple. Windows XP Media Center 2005 uses a single Program Guide and uses the "first available analog tuner" to complete each task that requires an analog TV tuner. Note: you can add a single supported HDTV tuner to receive over-the-air (OTA) digital/HDTV broadcasts to a system running Media Center Edition 2005.

If you have two different set-top box models from the same provider, you can use them as long as they both receive the same programs on the same channels. For example, you can use a Motorola/General Instruments DCT5100 and a DCT6200 set-top box to configure dual tuner support.

Obtain and Install a Second TV Tuner

All Media Center computers from Media Center partners such as Hewlett Packard, Gateway, and ViewSonic included a single TV tuner card in previous versions of Windows XP Media Center Edition. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 computer models may include single tuners or dual tuners. To help ensure that any add-on hardware not originally supplied with Media Centers is compatible, Microsoft has opened a Designed for Windows XP Media Center Edition Logo Partner List Web site. If you are adding a second tuner, be sure to select hardware from this list.

I have been using a Gateway 901x Media Center PC with Media Center Edition 2005 installed. Like other Media Center hardware, it has no expansion slots. And like computers from several other manufacturers, it has only a single IR receiver built into the computer chassis that supports only a single IR control cable. The IR control cable is required to control the set-top box from your cable or satellite provider. If you have two set-top boxes, you would need two IR control cables.

Adding a USB external tuner is easy for most people and can be done in a very short time. Microsoft supplied me with a Hauppauge WinTV USB 2.0 tuner and provided beta Media Center Edition 2005-compatible drivers. External USB TV tuners are externally powered, so in addition to an available USB slot, you'll need an available AC power outlet or socket on your surge protector. A different option for advanced users proficient in adding and removing internal PC expansion cards is to install an internal PCI tuner. This will involve removing the computer case and in cases where there is no PCI slot, removing an existing card, such as the internal modem card. (This won't be an option if you are a dial-up customer and no free PCI slot is available). Again, be sure to select a TV tuner from the Logo Partner List Web site. I've also tested a two internal tuner configuration on the Gateway 901x by removing the internal modem card and installing a second internal PCI TV tuner.

To install your new second tuner hardware:

1.

Power off your Media Center computer and all peripherals.

2.

Install the TV tuner hardware following the manufacturer's instructions and connect the USB cable if you're installing an external tuner.

3.

Turn on your equipment and Windows XP should automatically discover your new hardware.

4.

When prompted, insert the driver CD in your CD drive and let Plug and Play technology install your new hardware or follow the manufacturer's steps to install drivers.

When completed, power off your computer and connect the coax, S-video, or other cables to your set-top boxes and affix the IR control cable to the receiver window of each set-top box.

Add or Configure a Dual IR Control Cable-Capable USB IR Receiver

If you're using dual set-top boxes, you'll need to use two IR control cables to enable Media Center Edition 2005 to change the channels. One end of each control cable is inserted in a port on the IR receiver; the other is placed over the IR window on each set-top box. If your Media Center included an external USB receiver, you may already have hardware that supports a second IR blaster. For example, the first generation Media Centers from Hewlett Packard, such as the HP 873n, shipped with an external USB IR receiver that can control two set-top boxes. Other computers such as the Gateway 901x are equipped with only a single internal chassis-based IR receiver. Microsoft has engineered Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 so that an external USB IR receiver that supports dual tuners can be transparently added to any Media Center, whether or not an internal IR receiver is present.

If you need a new IR receiver to use dual IR control cables, you can purchase a kit from Newegg.com. You'll receive the IR receiver, the IR control cable, and a Media Center remote control. If you already have an IR receiver that supports two individual IR control cables and can't find a second single IR control cable locally, SmartHome offers several single IR control cables on their Web site. Be sure to buy a single version and not a twin version. When you have all the required hardware, set up the IR receiver.

1.

If you have an IR control cable plugged into an internal chassis-based IR receiver, remove it and plug it into the external IR receiver.

2.

Plug the IR control cable for the second set-top box into the second port in the IR receiver.

3.

Attach the other end of the IR control cable to the set-top box by placing it over the IR window. You must use a flashlight to find this. Look for a round or oval spot that is inside a rectangular area. This can be hard to find and you may need to adjust the position carefully.

4.

Verify that the second set-top box is connected to the second tuner using the proper cabling.

Configure Media Center Edition 2005 for Dual Tuner Support

Once you have all the hardware installed and connected, you'll need to spend about 15–30 minutes configuring or reconfiguring your Media Center PC.

Don't be daunted by the large number of individual steps outlined below. If you follow them carefully, configuration will be easy. To help you understand the sequence of steps that are needed, I've authored an introductory video that show the steps I used to connect two set-top boxes on my Comcast cable system. Watch the video.

The steps covered in the video are listed below:

1.

From the Media Center menu, select Settings, TV, Set Up TV Signal. Acknowledge the region.

2.

Select Configure my TV signal automatically (Recommended). Windows checks each of your signals automatically and compares them. A confirmation message is displayed confirming that two cable set-top boxes were successfully detected.

3.

Verify again that both set-top boxes are set on channels that you know you can receive. (For best results, don't select the same channel on both).

4.

Select your type of provider (Cable or Satellite).

5.

If you've previously configured your system (for example, configured with a single tuner), a window opens with choices for modifying channel change settings or reconfiguring all set-top box settings. Select Reconfigure all set-top box settings.

6.

To identify the first set-top box (Cable Box A in the wizard as shown below), use the controls on the set-top box itself (not the remote) to change the channel up or down. Try the other set-top box if the channel does not change in the Media Center inset window.

Figure 1

Figure 1

7.

If you have a cable or satellite company provided remote control for your set-top box, chances are that Media Center can identify settings automatically. (Note: If you don't have a remote control for your set-top box, select No remote control. A list of set-top box manufacturers will be displayed. Select each codeset until you find the correct one. If automatic identification in the bulleted items below fails, select Back and use manual identification. Do not select Cancel.)

When prompted, press and hold 0 on the set-top box remote (not the Media Center remote control). If you're too close to the IR receiver, you may have a problem with the signal being recognized. There is a sweet spot, approximately 3–7 feet away that is optimum for performing this automatic configuration.

When prompted, press and hold the ENTER button. Important: Your set-top box remote may have both an ENTER and OK button. Be sure to use the ENTER button.

8.

Put down the set-top box remote and pick up the Media Center remote control. Then select the number of digits corresponding to the highest channel you receive.

9.

Specify whether or not you need to press ENTER on your set-top box remote to change channels.

10.

Use the Media Center remote control and, if your service has 3-digit channels, enter a 3-digital channel number that you know you can receive.

11.

If the channel does not change, select the Try Next IR Control Cable button on the Media Center menu as shown in the image below.

Figure 2

Figure 2

12.

Verify that the channel changes correctly. You can try several channels you know you receive to be sure, even though you are only prompted to do this once.

13.

Determine whether the speed to change channels on the first set-top box is Fast, Medium, or Slow by pressing the Page up/Page down keys on the Media Center remote six or more times. Media Center will attempt Fast, Medium, and then Slow as you step through this portion of the wizard. When you are successfully able to change channels, select The channel changed correctly.

Figure 3

Figure 3

14.

Next, the wizard assists you in configuring the second TV tuner. To identify the second set-top box (Cable Box B in the wizard), use the controls on the second set-top box itself (not the remote) to change the channel up or down. Since the remote that is provided with most set-top boxes would change the channel on both at the same time, you cannot use the set-top remote for this step.

15.

The wizard guides you through configuring the second set-top box, repeating steps 7–13 above.

16.

The final sequence specifies and downloads the Program Guide. You should be connected to the Internet while performing these steps. Select Yes to using the guide and accept the Guide Terms of Service. Enter your zip or postal code.

17.

TV signal providers in your area will be shown. Select your provider and the Program Guide for 14 days downloads. This can take up to 20 minutes. You'll be notified when it's complete.

If you have any questions on dual tuners or Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 in general, Microsoft provides a dedicated newsgroup where you'll find quick and accurate answers from Media Center Edition MVPs and Microsoft support personnel. See you there!


Barb Bowman

Barb Bowman enjoys sharing her own experiences and insights into today's leading edge technologies. She is a product development manager for Comcast High-Speed Internet, but her views here are strictly personal.



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