There are two primary methods for getting a home theater experience from your PC. You can buy the pre-packaged solution from a Microsoft OEM partner, in the form of a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, which means the entire package is ready for you to connect the cable box to the back of the PC as soon as you unpack the shipping crate. At a starting price of $1000 and the addition of a new PC to the family, this option isn’t for everyone. The second alternative is to do it yourself and build your own box or add-on to an existing machine. The second option is considerably more affordable and offers more versatility in picking components. The options for features like remote control, PVR, and media management are numerous, however many options fall short of meeting expectations. The shining star in the crowded galaxy of ala carte home theater is SnapStream, with Beyond TV for time-shifted television viewing and media management, and Firefly remote control for interfacing with DVDs, movies, music, and photos from the comfort of your couch.
Time-shifted television is a pop-culture junkie’s best friend. No longer are we restricted to watching TV shows when the broadcast schedule dictates we must; instead we get to watch when we want to. Tivo may be the household name for personal video recording, but there are plenty of other ways to accomplish the same thing—without paying a monthly subscription fee. Beyond TV is the cheapest route to adding TV recording to your PC, requiring only a TV tuner card for fully functional digital video recording.
Scheduling works nicely, letting you record individual programs or an entire series in a few clicks. A search feature helps find shows, which is easier than browsing through the cable guide. SmartSkip helps jump through the commercials, which can shave minutes off each 30-minute sitcom. A Internet interface lets you schedule show recordings from the office or while you are on the road. An improved sort feature makes it easier to find shows previously recorded. ShowSqueeze may be the coolest feature in the Beyond TV toolbox, shrinking the file size of recorded programs in a way that results in virtually unnoticeable quality loss. You can also transfer the files directly to a Portable Media Center for later viewing, which seems to work more quickly than the XP MCE implementation. New support for the tvtv for PC european programming guide is designed to make finding shows easier throughout more of the world (I haven’t personally tested this feature, since I’m in the U.S.)
A recent addition to Beyond TV is support for multiple tuners. This is a must have feature for anyone wanting to record one show and watch another at the same time, or watch live TV using the Beyond TV link while recording a show on the main Beyond TV box. I found having to use several remotes to get multiple tuners all doing what I wanted to be a little confusing at first, because multiple tuners also require multiple cable boxes, but after the initial setup and a run through of the procedure, everything worked smoothly.
Renting movies, accessing music from online services, and reading RSS feeds are all part of the remote interface. Cinema Now, Movielink, Napster, Live 365, and NewsGator all integrate to provide an easy-to-navigate experience. I don’t think I’ll ever find myself reading news feeds on my television screen, but that’s no fault of SnapStream; I prefer reading from a screen much closer to my eyes. The process of downloading movies and music from the major content portals is quite painless and certainly better than a trip to the store or ordering through cable on demand services. This feature is also present in the Firefly BeyondTV Basic bundle.
Beyond TV Link
SnapStream offers access to the media hub of your Beyond TV setup from any PC in the house using Beyond TV Link. Install the software on a laptop or second desktop, and watch from any room in the house. This is something that XP MCE cannot do. One key thing to keep in mind is the network overhead required for streaming live TV over your PC network. If you’re using all wired Ethernet connections, this is no big deal. Attempting to stream live TV over WiFi requires a 802.11g network, with very little additional traffic for best results. Beyond TV Link works great, but I’m hopeful SnapStream will add compatibility with hardware devices like the Media Center Extenders available for XP MCE. The reason the extenders are so attractive is because they don’t require a PC in every room of the house to function.
The remote is bundled with a basic version of Beyond TV, so it stands on its own as a solution for accessing all the entertainment stored on your PC. It functions just like a universal remote should, providing channel surfing, control for various media components, and offering extra buttons with programmable features. Going beyond the basics, a mouse mode provides control over your onscreen pointer, a max/min button shifts the size of windows, and a Close button “turns off” Beyond TV to restore your PC to its normal Windows state. Because the remote uses RF, instead of IR, you can easily change channels or skip to the next track without having line-of-sight proximity to the remote receiver, which is especially nice if you have several friends over for a party and want to switch up the mood during dinner.
File and Application Control
Firefly remote provides control over Windows applications beyond the basic controls for viewing and listening to media. File browsing similar to the Windows Explorer experience, Start menu integration within the Beyond TV Basic interface, and a CTRL+ALT+DEL replacement for the arm chair geek.
Third-party applications are supported much more thoroughly with Firefly than the experience of using the XP MCE remote. DivX Player, QuickTime, RealPlayer, iTunes, Musicmatch, Winamp, and ACDSee are just a few of the apps you can use from the couch with Firefly. In general, I use Windows Media Player for most video and audio tasks, but it’s nice to have options.
When support for additional applications is added to Firefly, an automatic update feature notifies you of changes available for the system. For a full list of supported apps, make sure you visit the Supported Apps page on the SnapStream site.
A set of programmable buttons are easily configured to extend functionality of the remote. If you understand XML, you can dig under the hood of the control settings and modify the performance of button functionality by editing config files.
To add TV recording to an existing PC, SnapStream presents the best looking interface, with important features like commercial skipping, remote scheduling, and hefty compression to keep file sizes down. Combined with the Firefly remote, this is a blueprint for convenience in the convergence of home theater and computing. While I’d personally like to see hardware units to extend Beyond TV to other rooms, rather than requiring a second PC, I like the fact that I can stream live TV to any PC in the house. Beyond TV is currently the only PVR solution providing this functionality. This is a great package at a reasonable price. It keeps getting better with every version.