Electronic Design
Will Android Open The Set-Top Box?

Will Android Open The Set-Top Box?

Comcast’s final move to all-digital transmission in my area means I need a set-top box (STB) for all of my devices. This puts Comcast on par with other HDTV service providers such as Verizon and Dish Networks. Viewers can still get local channels via Comcast cable with a TV or HDTV tuner, but they’re just a fraction of all of the available channels.

This doesn’t make much of a difference for viewers with one or two televisions. But I have a few more, including half a dozen PCs with tuners and a MythTV system with six recording channels. This includes a neat box from Silicon Dust called HD HomeRun, an Ethernet-based, dual-channel ASTC/QAM HDTV tuner/recorder (Fig. 1).

HD HomeRun has an Ethernet port and a pair of coax connections. It needs a back-end server like MythTV to store recordings. It also supports other systems such as SageTV (see “Building A Multimedia Home Control Center) and Microsoft’s Media Center.

My MythTV server runs on a tiny VIA Technologies ARTiGO 1000 (see “VIA ARTiGO: Small But Powerful) equipped with Toshiba’s MK5055GSX 500-Gbyte, 2.5-in. 5400-RPM SATA drive (Fig. 2).

Setting this system up was easy, from the Ubuntu installation via a USB memory stick to linking HD HomeRun to the server. The HD HomeRun sits in the basement near the cable splitter, and the ARTiGO is plugged into Samsung’s LED DLP HDTV.

Unfortunately, the MythTV system is now relegated to secondary use along with the other recorders because of the transition to digital broadcasts. This is too bad because MythTV had more functionality like automatic commercial skipping compared to the Comcast HD DVR that I had to rent to record nonlocal channels in HD. I also have two more clients connected to regular TVs and access from all the computers on the network. The HD DVR only works with one HDTV.

Contending with a pair of STBs (Comcast and the ARTiGO) wouldn’t be bad. But I have half a dozen devices attached to the HDTV because none of them supports all my peripherals, such as my Sony Play- Station 3 and Roku Netflix Player (see “Roku Netflix Player).

The frustrating part is that almost any one of these devices could provide the full range of services I use. The ARTiGO offers an open platform, but most of the services are restricted to matching hardware. True, Netflix can be played on a PC platform, but not one running Linux.

This frustration with closed systems extends to storage as well. The Comcast HD DVR has a lovely eSATA connection, but it is disabled. There is an Ethernet connection as well, but it doesn’t have access to the 4 Tbytes of storage on my network.

I don’t see an immediate solution to my dilemma since the STB and the CableCard connections, which represent another way to connect to Comcast’s cable system, aren’t open. Still, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

I recently spoke with STMicroelectronics about some of its long-term plans. The company is one of the suppliers of electronics, including microcontrollers, for STB vendors. Its latest announcement concerns the Arm Cortex-A9 and Arm’s Mali graphics. It is an impressive platform that will allow aggregation of various services, but it was only one of two things that caught my eye.

The other was support for the Open Handset Alliance’s Android platform. This is the same platform that has all the smart-phone buzz. The open platform is based on Linux. Android is only one of the factors in play with STBs, but it could open the box.

For now, I’ll have to contend with an array of STBs and limited functionality or try the STB IEEE 1394 link. But here’s hoping for an Android STB.

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