Oct 8, 2011

Hacking Digital Cable

Repost from article I did over at Rocket City Hackers

Save money by using a QAM tuner to get HD local channels and anything else your cable provider left unencrypted (including your neighbor's on demand purchases)

I have been wanting to get rid of directv.  The one thing that stops me is live sporting events, news, etc. My cable internet provider  has recently readjusted prices from 56 dollars to 36 dollars a month for 12Mb/s download and 2Mb/s upload internet speeds.  This made it somewhat reasonable to get cable internet alone without bundling in phone or digital cable.  So with my "internet only" plan  I can stream movies / TV from Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.  This leaves me looking for a way to get at least HD local channels for free.  There are two options: use an antenna for over-the-air HD or tune QAM channels over your coax cable.

QAM Tuning, what is it?

Straight from Wikipedia,  QAM stands for quadrature amplitude modulation, the format by which digital cable channels are encoded and transmitted via cable television providers.  So if you have a QAM tuner in your TV, computer, or digital cable box you can tune these channels.   Cable companies can encrypt these channels so that only the digital cable box or cable card can decrypt these channels.   I have not seen a good crypto attack published.  It is either pretty strong or the ones that have figured it out want to keep their free digital cable.

Testing your local cable provider for QAM channels

I don't have a QAM tuner in my TV so I will be using a Silicon Dust HDHome run to connect to my computer.  I have the older version but this new Dual below solves some of the shortcomings of my tuner mainly having two coax inputs, one for each tuner while the DUAL uses an internal splitter.  This also works out because I want to make a DVR of my computer and this is compatible with every program I would want to use.



I know from testing that my service provider blocks analog cable channels with a notch filter or band-stop filter either in my box or the box at the street.  This article will not suggest or condone bypassing this filter to get analog cable for free because this is illegal.  What you probably didn't know is that when you get cable internet you also get the higher frequency digital channels usually reserved for tuning with your rented cable box and corresponding digital cable plan.    I have heard there is some law that says that if it is available over-the-air then the cable company has to leave the channels unencrypted.  These signals are not blocked because it may be costly to have a filter that blocks digital cable and not cable internet, not possible, or they just don't care (winner).
So in my case I plug in the HDHomeRun connected to my coax cable split from my cable modem and install the software.   You put in info like zip code and provider to get the device set up.  For the provider you want to choose digital cable because this is what we are after.  The below screen is finding a QAM channel.  On the Program tab 941:0 appears meaning this is not encrypted.  You can then hit view and see the channel.  In this case it turns out to be CNN HD which is the first channel I happened to find.


So this was not normal, it looks like my cable provider was accidentally leaving various channels unencrypted.  That means that I wanted to search for more than just my HD locals such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX which were also there.  You can manually seek or you can scan and see what is found.  I came up with the list below.  What is not shown on this list was Discovery HD which is one of my favorite channels.  SCORE!  More than this there is no copy protection on these recordings because they are completely unencrypted.   In part two of this article I will tell you about options on recording these digital cable channels with MythTV or Windows Media Center 7.

Double Bonus Time

When I was searching through these channels which will change on the whim of your cable provider,  I noticed something.  Every once in a while a new channel would pop up at the end of the range of channels such as 114-123 for example.  When I actually tuned these transient streams I figured out that these where OnDemand choices that people were buying and watching on their digital cable boxes.  They ranged from SD to HD quality.  They also were being remotely controlled by the person's box who was watching it.  The stream would pause, rewind, and stop as controlled.  This made it slightly less fun to watch but if one stream paused you could usually find the same movie etc on another channel.  Using this method I could see and record every new release that was out there.  Word of caution, people rent some crazy stuff and you don't know what is going to show up so some parental guidance is needed starting around 9pm.   Since I found this flaw I think the service provider upgraded the encryption of the OnDemand system for encryption because I have not seen a stream like that pop up recently.

Try it yourself for free with no setup or hardware purchase!!!


So all you really need to try this out is a newer TV set with QAM tuners.  You connect your coax cable to the TV set and look for scanning the digital channels.  See what you find for free.  Also there is another feature that the Silicon Dust HDHomeRun website provides.  You can go here and put in your zip code and pull down your cable provider.  Apparently silicondust samples (with consent in the app) the tuners that are deployed in your area and show what they are able to tune.  You can basically find out what free channels your are going to be provided with no setup or hardware purchase.  You can see beforehand if your provider encrypts as they should or left some gaping holes for you to find.
Thinking about a part two of this article where I will tell you about options on recording these digital cable channels with MythTV or Windows Media Center 7.  Let me know in the comments what you think.

Feb 24, 2011

Google storing Wi-Fi AP names and passwords?

I just picked up a Motorola Xoom and noticed something odd when checking it out.  I turned on the Wi-Fi for the first time after syncing with my Gmail account, that my home network (which I was not in range of) showed up.  I also noticed that the Xoom connected to my local network at work.  I found it odd because it was obtaining an IP address before I told the Xoom what to connect with and more importantly what the password was.  I own an Android device (Droid X) and these networks it had as "remembered" were all the AP's I had connected to with my phone previously.  I have allowed Android to sync my contacts and some application info. 

The obvious implication is that Google was storing the names of the AP's that I had previously joined and more importantly the passwords that I had entered and saved on my Android phone.  I have not read any information reporting this previously nor can I find similar stories when I do a quick Google search.  Most importantly I don't remember authorizing storing of this data but who knows what fine print I overlooked in various EULA's.  I don't know if this is specific to Android Honeycomb 3.0 or Xoom but this is the first time I have noticed such activity.  I guess more testing needs to be done by others for verification.    Let me know in the comments if you have seen this behavior before or can test on the Xoom or other devices.

Another observation I have made is that all the applications from my phone restored on the Xoom rather than just the paid applications.  This is an upgraded Honeycomb 3.0 sync functionality because Android 2.2 only let one restore paid applications from the Android Market.   This may mean that storing the AP names and passwords was part of this upgraded capability in Honeycomb.  I then noticed that under settings and the privacy tab that they have added "Backup my application data, Wi-Fi passwords, and other settings to Google servers.  The Droid X Android phone that I have under the same tab has "Back up my settings and other application data.   This definitely confirms that Google is now backing up Wi-Fi names and passwords so uncheck this if you don't want Google to have this info.  The problem I have is clearly they stored that information before from my phone without advertising this until it restored this data on my Xoom.  Now I wish they broke out the options so I choose yes for contacts and no for passwords.  Bad Google, ...again!

May 26, 2010

New Monoprice HDMI Switch

I have recently bought the Monoprice 4x2 True Matrix HDMI switch.  I was having some problems with my previous Monoprice HDMI switch that I wanted to try to fix with the new device.  I have a projector and a TV set so the 4 inputs and 2 outputs of the matrix switch is ideal.

I currently most often use a directv HR20 and a PS3.  These are the sources that I typically switch back and forth from.  I have a Samsung TV and a Mitsubishi Projector as the two different displays.  I have a separate Yamaha amplifier and Logitech Harmony remote that I tie everything together with.  

The problem I was having was that when I would switch from the HR20 to the PS3 it would hang up in the transition and then it would flash between a black screen to white noise with a loud audio as if tuning a channel on an older tv set that was not occupied.  Between the flashes there was a greenish flash.  The only way to get this to stop was to power off the matrix switch and turn it back on.  This would happen maybe 1 out of 3 switch transitions so it became annoying.  I thought it was my cheaper 50ft HDMI cable run to my projector initially.  I then bought the amazing silver plated thick HDMI cable from Monoprice again and still had the problem. 

Monoprice then came out with a new switch that was HDMI 1.3c compliant and 12 bit deep color compatible so I bought this hoping for an improvement.  II connected the device to the sources and displays and had no initial problems.   Now a couple of weeks have passed and my wife calls me to tell me that the PS3 is not working.  The symptoms were a black screen that would appear on the projector or TV set.  Nothing I could do would fix this.  After a couple of days it randomly worked again.  One day the switch stops working with the PS3 completely and that is the state I am in now.  I will update this with my current status as I fix this problem.   


Aug 16, 2009

What is a HDMI Matrix Switcher?


Recently I have bought a HD projector to add to my living room setup. I am a fan of buying good quality hardware and I purchased the Mitsubishi HC5500 which has been working very well. I like to pay less for cables and switches so I don't buy name brands and have really loved accessories from Monoprice for that reason. I was looking for a solution on how to have the projector and TV connected to all of my HD sources. I first started out with a HDMI 5X1 switch from Monoprice which worked very well for connecting my 4 sources but I still had to get up and switch HDMI cables between the TV and the projector. I then bought a HDMI splitter which went from 1X2. This worked to connect to my switch effectively making it 5X2 which was what I wanted.

Then some logistics of this particular setup came up and was not exactly what I wanted. The projector I have is 1080p and the tv I have is 720p. When the splitter negotiates the HDCP handshake and gets the resolution info back from both of the displays it picks the least common denominator of the resolutions (as far as I can tell) and sends that back as the resolution that the display can support. So I would have to watch things in 720p when both were connected. Of course you can set the source to be whatever resolution you want and one display would work then the other would not.

So then I was browsing Monoprice yet again and realized I could have bought what is called a matrix switcher which is a 4X2 HDMI device. The beauty of this device is that you can choose what source goes to which display or effectively split to both displays. It can even support one source going to a single display while a different source goes to your second display simultaneously. I didn't know such a device existed so I thought I would pass this on as a lesson I learned. I still like the other stuff I bought for use other places but could have forgone the purchases.

This solved my resolution problem because I can choose a single display to send the source to so it does not reduce the resolution based on the other display. This would still be a problem if I used it as a splitter but since the projector and tv are in the same room I don't really have a problem. This has an IR port for control so I just integrated this matrix switcher into my Logitech universal remote activities.

Jan 22, 2009

Vudu Inc. Customer Service Report: Great

Vudu Inc. makes the Vudu set-top box that streams up to 1080p movies to your TV. The box works amazingly well, but more on that later. I wanted to share with you my brief and satisfying encounter with their customer service. Recently Vudu has had a sale on their box going from $299 to $99 dollars so I bought one being a long time fan of the capabilities.

The Fedex delivery man got lazy and put on the tracking number that he could not find my house in the middle of the suburbs of a small town. I called Fedex and demanded the money for shipping back as I still did not get my package on the 6th day. The said they could only talk to the company who had the shipping account which was Vudu of course. I sent an email off to Vudu not expecting much of a response. I got this back the next day.


Thank you for contacting VUDU. I can certainly appreciate how you feel regarding this issue. I've had a couple of incidents with Fed Ex myself. Although we are not responsible for Fed Ex's actions, in a gesture of appreciation for joining the VUDU community, I will credit your account the cost of shipping ($9). Please send me a notification when you've activated your VUDU box and I'll add the credit on for you. Welcome to VUDU!

Best regards,
Jimmy Houn
VUDU Customer Care

This made my day. I finally got the box and have started reviewing it. I have no trouble at first but eventually I start to have some choppy playback. I have rented a couple of HDX movies by now and none of them are playing correctly. I sent another email to customer support and get another positive response.


Hi Jark,
I think the problem here is a software glitch, possibly a codec issue. We have not had any widespread issues with playback of HD or HDX content. Please reboot your box (unplug it) and then try the playback of those movies. I've credited your account for $19.96 for the cost of the HD and HDX rentals.

Best regards,
Jimmy Houn
VUDU Customer Care

Well the advice worked and I have not had any playback problems with the Vudu box. Now I get to rent even more movies with the 20 dollars back in credit. So I want to thank Vudu and Jimmy Houn for doing an excellent job and let anyone who sees this to expect good things from them. I will review the Vudu box after I have had some time to really experience it.

Jan 18, 2009

SageTV HD Theater

This is a video of the SageTV HD Theater HD200 accessing Hulu that I found on EngadgetHD. You can buy it now.


Jan 13, 2009

Media Center Extension for Firefox using ZViewer Beta

When I was following the coverage for CES on the ZeeVee device, a QAM local broadcaster, I noticed they were giving away their software for free called Zviewer Beta. This software was developed to make a nice interface for when one streams the pc to the HDTV. The ZeeVee application does not need the ZeeVee box to run. Better yet this was built on top of Firefox 3 which you can download a stand alone installer or just install the extension just as any other Firefox plugin.


Below is a list of the plug-in bundle that is installed


When the install is finished (6.8Mb) Firefox needs a restart and then the launching icon is in the upper right hand corner. Below is an example of what the UI looks like. Of course one can full screen Firefox. Another advantage of running as a Firefox plugin is the ability to run this extension in a tab. As you can see from the screen shots I am running Windows XP in a virtual machine and taking screen shots of that because my main system is a Mac Pro.

This highlights one of the weaknesses of the program. As of yet this will only run on Windows with Firefox 3. Because of the platform choice of Firefox, one would expect other OS's to be supported in the future.
This is drilling down into the menu system which looks really good. Hulu is well supported.

One of the better things about the software is the unified search function over all of the streaming media. This works well. I would like to see a step further with integration. Right now when you choose a show it takes you directly to the webpage of the episode and starts it streaming. It would be nicer if it integrated the stream similar to the way Boxee does this.

Local media folders are supported.






And the result of is beautiful layout with automatic screen shots of random parts of the movie.


Supported Applications
This application is great for organizing your streaming experience all into one interface. It feels very lightweight and well thought out. The interface would be well used on a media center pc as a 10ft display for all of your streaming television watching.