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How To Create a PC PVR System

Lucy Would Love You

Francis Vale

1956: The whole family gathers around the 19" B&W TV in the living room to watch I Love Lucy. Big argument erupts when little junior starts crying because he wants to watch Davy Crocket instead. Lucy is not pleased.

2006: Each member of the house, wherever and whenever, watches his or her favorite TV shows on HDTV, PC, laptop, or on the go portable media player. The shows have been automatically recorded at any time day or night over the last week or several months. You skip right past the commercials. Plus, unlike TiVo, there are no monthly subscription fees.  And no one is watching what you watch, like back at TiVo HQ.

How do you do this?  Read on.

First, you designate a Windows PC to become a home base PVR (Personal Video Recorder). You will also need some specialty software, hardware, and, optionally, high-speed wireless networking. The PC software for making it a PVR is as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

For doing it the simple and easy way, yet still have great power and flexibility, use SnapStream Media’s Beyond TV 4.4 software ($69.99, from http://www.snapstream.com).  You can easily setup TV recordings using its terrific built-in electronic program guide. You can record an entire TV series, a single show, or just new episodes. Beyond TV 4.4 lets you browse by program category, type in a few letters of a show name, and offers several other ways to let you quickly zero in on what you want to watch/record.

During playback, you can skip past blocks of annoying commercials in user-defined increments of time; say 90 seconds fast-forward and 30 seconds fast rewind. If you don’t want to record for later viewing but simply want to time shift, hit the pause button and come back in 15 minutes with the beer and pastrami sandwich and fast forward through commercials.

You choose the recording quality, and the resulting amount of disc space needed, by selecting the video format you want the program saved in.  Your choices range from DVD quality (using MPEG-2), which requires the most hard drive space, to space-saving formats like Windows Media and DivX. For example, a 2-hour program will need about 6.25 GB of disc space in MPEG-2, but only 1.9 GB of space using Windows Media. But there is no free lunch. Despite the hype, recorded TV shows look better in MPEG-2, especially live action sports.  But what the heck, 200GB+ hard drives are cheap.

On the other hand, you can transfer a compressed Windows Media Video (WMV) file to a Pocket PC, Windows Mobile 5 smart phone or other portable device that supports WMV files. In this tiny screen case, video quality is secondary to go anywhere viewing.

If you have other PC’s or laptops in the house, SnapStream’s Beyond TV Link, an extra cost feature ($29.99), lets everyone in your networked home access all the recordings on the PVR-PC, or simultaneously watch a live TV show without needing additional TV tuner cards.

Another good PC-PVR software choice is SageTV 5 ($79.95, from http://www.sage.tv). This program is extremely capable, and in some ways goes beyond SnapStream’s offering. SageTV 5 tries to replicate the TiVo experience by intelligently learning your viewing habits and determining what it is you would also like to have recorded automatically. It will take a few weeks training SageTV to get it familiar enough with your tastes to be really effective. Still, it’s a very powerful feature. Like SnapStream, Sage TV 5 supports high quality MPEG-2, and DivX. 

Unlike SnapStream, SageTV also supports industry standard MPEG-4, a technology locked in a battle royal with Microsoft and its proprietary Windows Media format. MPEG-4 offers much greater compression than MPEG-2, but with very good picture quality. For example, both the Dish Network and DirecTV are currently making a switch in their HDTV service from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 (all you millions of existing satellite users out there are in for a confusing, crazy time). However, Windows Media is not supported under Sage TV 5.  But this is no great loss as DivX clients are available for just about everything.

As with BeyondTV 4.4, SageTV 5 also supports over the air HDTV recording, sports a fully integrated programming guide, offers multiple tuner support (watch/record on one tuner, watch/record a different channel on the second tuner), and, via SageTV’s extra cost Placeshifter software ($20) serves up live or recorded TV anywhere in the home via a wired and/or wireless network.

Where SageTV 5 and Beyond TV 4.4 completely part company is ease of use. Beyond TV4.4 is a perfect model of a simple yet powerful system.  SageTV 5 is all about the power; but simple to use it isn’t.  Sage TV 5’s menu structure and user interface need a Queer Eye for the Geek Guy makeover, desperately.

For viewing, if you want to watch the programs on your analog TV use the PC’s or laptop’s TV-out, S-video connection. For HDTV’s use the computer’s VGA (analog) output to it hook up to the set (if a VGA input is available), otherwise use S-video.  If your computer has a DVI (digital) output, which is the best picture option, it may or may not work on your HDTV due to copy protection technology (called HDCP), which is Hollywood’s way of making its paranoia your personal misery.

If you are using non-HDTV cable or satellite TV service, there is only one PC tuner card to get. It’s the TV Wonder Elite PCI card from ATI, whose on-line prices range from $59 to as much as $114. Its TV picture quality is the best of any other PC TV tuner card out there, full stop.

For PC-HDTV, there are a small but growing number of tuner choices, and in the U.S., there is only support for over the air ATSC HDTV signals—no cable or satellite HDTV— again, mostly due to Hollywood’s copy-mongering fears (starting to get tiresome, isn’t it?).  If you should find a PC-HDTV tuner card with HDTV cable support, do try it, but be aware that cable companies generally encrypt their HDTV channels, and success will depend on your local cable company's encryption policies. You may get lucky. As compensation, over the air HDTV usually looks much better than either cable or satellite HDTV service as the signal is much less compressed. A good over the air ATSC HDTV choice is Vbox's Cateye 150/151 PCI cards (http://www.vboxcomm.com/product3.htm), about $69-$90 online. The Vbox product also comes in a USB version (model 3560) if you want to save a PCI slot or use a laptop.

One other thing--The high bandwidth HDTV signals pouring out the DVI or HDMI connection effectively precludes using these two ports for capturing HDTV broadcasts to your PC. However, in one of the few recorded instances of true enlightenment by your government, in 2004 the FCC mandated that all cable companies must give you a Firewire-equipped set top box if you ask for one. With Firewire, you can route those HDTV signals to your PC no problem, for say, burning to a Blu-ray or HD DVD read/write disc. So ask, already. And if you want the whole dope on HDTV, see the 21st article, HDTV Explained, at http://www.vxm.com/HDTVHowToBuy.htm

And, of course, make sure your PC or laptop has a good graphics card for displaying the video. These days, even $100 to $150 graphics cards from ATI or Nvidia will knock your socks off. They also excel at DVD playback. And don’t be cheap about the audio! Screw that built-in sound chip on your PC and get a good sound card. Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic $129 sound card is a good choice and offers the latest in surround sound support, like DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX.  Just hook the sound card’s digital output to your surround processor or receiver and bombs away. As for the PC to host all this PVR stuff, anything reasonably modern, i.e., something not Smithsonian material will do.

Lastly, networking. Do not believe anything you read or hear about wireless TV streaming over WiFi versions a/b/g. The picture will be miserable, slow, and choppy. Use the new wireless standard, Wireless-N, which, at its top rated speed of 300 megabits/sec, is up to 6x faster than 54 megabit/second WiFi-g networks. But getting this extreme speed is still a vendor work in progress. Yet even running at half that speed, Wireless-N gives an astounding 150 megabits/sec, more than enough for great looking streaming video and also supporting the neighborhood’s wireless freeloaders. A good Wireless-N choice is Netgear’s RangeMax NEXT Wireless Router ($107-$150 on-line).  You will also need a Wireless-N card for each of the PCs or laptops you want to hook up.

Commercial-free, cheaper than TiVo, PC-PVR—yeah, Lucy would be pleased.

A version of this article originally appeared in Eons

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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