Monday, May 08, 2006

A Non-Techie’s Adventures with Computer-Based PVRs

Want TiVo-like technology without the subscription fees … even without the TV? A few months ago, I described my attempts to set up my computer as a Personal Video Recorder (PVR), but I hadn't yet decided on the software I would use with my brand-new TV tuner card. Since then, I've tested the rudimentary PVR software that came with the card, then tried Sage TV and Beyond TV before deciding to purchase the latter.

This won't be a point-by-point comparison between the different options and their features. If that annoys you, let me draw your attention to the words “non-techie” in the title, and translate the phrase for you: I don't know what I'm talking about.

I may not know specs, but I know what I like. And what I like is a system that lets me do what I want to do with the least amount of hair-pulling possible. The advantage I have over a true technophobe is that while I might be a bit of an idiot about computers, I’m not afraid of them, so I will blithely mess around until I get things right. Plus, I'm not ashamed to follow directions.

The disadvantage is that while I find it a fun challenge to get everything working properly, I have limited patience for technology that’s supposed to make my life easier instead making my life a dark pit of unending torment. So if I can set up a computer-based PVR by myself, I’m convinced almost anyone else can too.

It all started with TiVo jealousy provoked by my American friends (it isn't easily available in Canada - they now offer subscriptions here, but you have to cross the border to buy the sets). The integrated PVR my cable company offers would be great if they had one for non-HDTV customers, and if the price wasn't so steep.

But the low start-up cost of a computer-based system, with no subscription fees, might have swayed me to choose that option even if I did have others. Once I bought the TV tuner card for my computer (for $100 Canadian on sale), and the PVR software (Beyond TV for $70 US), my financial outlay is complete.

It also has the dubious advantage of allowing me to watch TV in the background while I’m working in my TV-less home office. That may not be great for my productivity, but it is unexpectedly one of my favourite features. The downside, which I can happily live with, is that I either have to watch programs on my computer or burn them to DVD before watching them on my television.

Both systems can be controlled with a remote, though the one included with the tuner card I got is basically useless. Beyond TV and Sage sell remote controls, but I stick with keyboard commands and the mouse, since I don't have much choice but to sit at my desk while watching the computer.

Must Have: TV Tuner Card

The first step was to purchase a TV tuner card for the computer, so I picked up the Beyond TV-recommended Hauppage WinTV-150. The more easily satisfied could stop there and use the included software, and the more technically inclined could use the more sophisticated but free MythTV or GB-PVR. I did attempt to look at both of those, but came away convinced I would need a degree in computer engineering to figure them out.

If you don’t have a cable or satellite box, you just need access to a cable outlet. Because I have a set-top box for digital cable, the IR blaster (the, um, infrared thingamabob that changes the channel) has to be attached to both the computer and the television, meaning the two devices have to be reasonably close together - an extension proved impossible to find. For me, this required a little rearranging of my office furniture, but at least my office and living room are adjoining. The alternative would have been to forgo recording off the digital channels, which wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker, but would have been a missed opportunity hanging over my sad head.

The IR blaster simply attaches to the box with double sided tape, so it shouldn't have been an unforeseen occurrence when the tape came unstuck, causing the scheduled recording to pick up ABC, the last channel I'd watched, not the intended FOX. The tragic mishap of having Hope & Faith and Less Than Perfect recorded instead of House taught me to be vigilant about checking if the device is still attached any time I settle down to watch TV live.

My Choice: Beyond TV

The included software, WinTV, was a huge step forward from my Jurassic-era VCR setup, and would have been absolutely enough for my needs. But when we’re talking about recording television, we’re talking about wants, not needs, and I wanted the ability to use integrated TV listings to make it even simpler not to miss my favourite shows. Other features, such as more control over the format of saved shows and the ability to automatically skip commercials were bonuses I soon didn’t want to live without.

I tested Beyond TV for its 30-day free trial, and it was love at 30-days' sight. It's generally intuitive both to set up and use, though there are quirks and the help files are a bit spotty. Still, with some determined fiddling, I managed to discover how to watch a show without it being squished into a tiny, distorted rectangle in the centre of the screen.

The SnapStream guide allows you to view the programming grid and select shows to record at the click of a button - either single episodes, all episodes, or just new episodes. The padding can be adjusted, so the system will record however many minutes you specify before and after the scheduled start and end times of the show, but you're at the mercy of the programming grid. I attempted to record the Oscars (I know, but I'm an awards show junkie), and completely forgot that everyone but TV listings compilers know the show always goes long. I hear Crash might have won, though.

The ability to set priorities means if there's ever a scheduling conflict, you have already decided which show is recorded over another (you can set up it up to record two or more shows at a time, but you need additional tuner cards). You can search for programs by title or keyword, and set up recordings remotely through an Internet-based login.

With my tuner card, I can only record in MPEG-2 format, but there is a setting (ShowSqueeze) that will automatically convert recordings later to AVI or Windows Media format and either save or delete the original, saving space on the hard drive. Another optional setting (SmartSkip) inserts chapter breaks that allow you to skip easily (though not always perfectly) over commercial breaks.

Another Choice: Sage TV

Sage TV ($80) has a 14-day trial period as opposed to Beyond TV's 30-day trial, but I didn't need the whole two weeks to make the decision in favour of Beyond TV. They both have much the same capabilities, though Sage actually has the edge with additional features - but they are features I didn't want. The extra $10 for Sage TV isn't hugely significant, but it didn't add any value for me.

The biggest issue - and I recognize it's not that big - was that when the Sage viewer is not full screen, I couldn't read the menu text. Instead of distinct icons, all I saw were a series of identical bars. There are probably keyboard shortcuts I could learn, but Beyond TV had made it too easy for me with clear onscreen menu options, and I didn't want to struggle with something less user-friendly and more expensive, whose added functionality I didn't want.

The most interesting feature Sage has over Beyond TV is Intelligent Recording. As in, it will record programs it thinks you'll like based on what you already watch. I encountered a problem early on: it wasn't very intelligent. I had it set to automatically record House, Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, My Name is Earl, and The Office. It came back with Intelligent Recordings of 24 (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not my taste) and a half hour of paid programming (there's a lot wrong with that) before I turned off the feature.

I'm sure it would have become smarter as it had more exposure to my viewing habits. It's possible it monitored what I watched live, and randomly changing channels while I tested the system threw it off. But for me there is a larger issue. Each program takes up space on my hard drive, and I don't make time for all the TV shows I know I'd like to watch. Now that I've gotten cozy with my chosen system, I've added Battlestar Galactica and Slings & Arrows to my list of automatic recordings, but all that means is I now have even more shows languishing unwatched in my folder for too long. I really don't need my computer taunting me with the knowledge that there's a lot of quality TV out there I'm not keeping up with.

But Is It For You?

A computer-based PVR won't be for everyone, but it's been a near-ideal solution for me, since I don't mind watching TV on my desktop or burning to a re-recordable DVD in order to get comfier in my living room.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some TV to catch up on.