Digital TV Recording (PVRs etc.)

Tivo pioneered a way of time-shifting free-to-air TV programmes so that you can watch them when you have time. Their box, no longer available in the UK, records programmes to a hard drive and plays them back on demand. It can also do things like pause a program you are watching if, for example, you get a phone call.

Since then many comparable products - now known as Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) - have entered the market. Some have hard drives and some record direct to writeable DVDs. All have integrated Freeview tuners and most have access to some form of Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) that allows you find a programme and set it to record in your absence. As with VCRs, you need a dedicated tuner for recording so you (or the kids) can watch another programme at the same time. If you want a quick, basic solution for under 500 then you have a good choice. There is also a service from Sky that does the same thing for their customers - reputedly very well.

I chose none of these boxes because they are closed in terms of function, preferring to create the same thing using a PC. This does all that the fixed boxes do and much more. You need the right kind of TV card and, preferably, a TV that takes the PC's output without sacrificing too much quality. Now that I have a TV that can accept it I use the PC's normal VGA output. Alternatives include putting a more capable video adaptor in the PC - one that generates a conventionl TV signal - you lose a lot of resolution however.

Choosing the TV adaptor was hard because there are so many available. I chose the Nebula Direct TV card as it has a number of nice features including remote programmability. To reduce wiring I chose the PCi hard in preference to an external box. The EPG is also simple to use and can get its schedules over the wire.

I got a new PC to do this as I knew it would be heavily loaded. After some searching around I decided on the Shuttle series as they are small, quiet and, IMHO, nicely put together. [A good local supplier is Overclock in Slough. You can buy them as parts or fully assembled.] Although some models have a composite video output that would theoretically work with older TVs I do not recommend using that. A decent processor and memory are important, not to mention serious disk space. I started with 160Gb of hard drive but have found that requires too much tidying up of unwatched programmes so I am planning to add enormous storage next time I see a good deal. Meanwhile, the machine has writeable DVD for additonal storage and, most importantly, a network connection so it can access all the other storage around the house. I put the Media Edition of WinXP on the box but this, to my mind, adds little that XP Pro (house standard) won't do. It would have been nice to use Linux but, todate, drivers for the cards are hard to get.

In my search I was looking for a PC with a hi-fi form factor. There are a few of these coming out but most are actually quite large. I see that Shuttle are about to launch a new model that might be small enough to be interesting. Need to check whether it is quiet enough. I would be nice if it accommodates multiple hard drives too.

The overall solution works well. In addition to the software that comes with the Nebula card and is complete in itself we use Windows Explorer to organise the material and VideoReDo Plus to tidy up anything we want to watch more than once. As an experiment I recently used this to remove ads from a movie so it plays in half the time without fast-forwarding. I also thought about grabbing some clips for use in presentations (with the permission of copyright owners of course).

The flexibility of this PC-based approach is the main consideration for me. I can now run an audio jukebox such as iTunes on this machine too and buy music online track-by-track over the net. Pity I can't use Linux for this but with a certain amount of rebooting Windows does the job.

Time to invest in a good 5.1 sound system - preferably wireless.

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