Build Your Own Media Center PC – Part 6 – PVR

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One single application motivated me to create my first integrated home theater PC–personal video recording (PVR) technology. The idea of being able to record television to my hard drive for later viewing is outstanding. I already own several computers, so I don’t want a standalone solution like TiVo (not to mention, a monthly fee to use the hardware leaves a bad taste in my mouth).

Software options remain somewhat limited in the television recording space. TV tuner ATI and NVIDIA video cards both include proprietary PVR solutions. I haven’t tested the solution bundled with NVIDIA chip cards, but the PVR from ATI performs well. The downside to either solution is a proprietary tie in to specific video cards. I already have more than one video card with support for TV input. Spending more money on a new card doesn’t make sense.

What do I look for in a PVR?

  • The ability to fast forward through commercials.
  • Program shifting which records shows for on-demand playback, even when they haven’t finished recording.
  • Video serving to any available viewing device, including televisions, computers, and PDAs.
  • Remote scheduling via a Web interface.
  • Compression to reduce space used to store programming.

The ATI and NVIDIA solutions will do all this. TiVo meets my requirements too. Each of those solutions meets my needs at a price I’m not willing to pay. TiVo locks users into a contract and the ATI and NVIDIA solutions both need some interface improvements before I would deem them usable.

The only software solution I strongly recommend for PVR recording is SnapStream Beyond TV 3. Previously known as Personal Video Station, this application offers all the features you could ever want in a PVR, without being tied to a specific hardware device.

Beyond TV 3 allows viewers to skip commercials. Beyond TV 3 timeshifts programs. Scheduling of recording can be performed remotely and can be configured to remember your favorite shows so they are recorded weekly. A very slick interface makes using Beyond TV 3 easier than using a VCR. Video may be served to any networked device or to a television. Compression converts video to save space and make it portable on Pocket PC devices in Windows Media format.

You will need some kind of TV tuner card to make Beyond TV 3 work. SnapStream recommends the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR250 or 350 cards. I personally prefer the ATI cards, because they support live TV streaming, but the Hauppauge cards are an excellent choice. If you have one of the older ATI All-In-Wonder cards, like my Radeon 8500 DV, you can extend the useful life of the card by recording TV with it, while saving money on a newer (not necessarily better for recording TV) card.

Priced at $59 for the download version (or $179 bundled with a Hauppauge card), Beyond TV 3 is cheaper than TiVo, which costs $99 plus $12.95 per month. The ATI and NVIDIA solutions will cost you at least $200 for a card with bundled software.

One caveat to my preference: If you happen to have an early 9×00 All-In-Wonder card, you may find the ATI solution acceptable as a free upgrade from the version of Multimedia Center originally bundled with your video card.