In the dark ages, the only way to record television was to fuss with awkward videocassette recorders. VCR tapes could be fragile and bulky to store, and the recorders' primitive software discouraged most of us from getting past the flashing "12:00."
Then came the wonders of TiVo and a brief competitor called ReplayTV. They made recording Family Guy or Buffy the Vampire Slayer as easy as sending an E-mail. In reality, they were computers hidden behind smiling, friendly masks. Their simple software tapped the magic of hard drives and digital files to let us hoard more TV than we could ever watch.
Now, it's time to bring the computer out from behind the mask. Even TiVo is willing to drop the facade and marry the full power of a consumer PC. It's a move that makes it worth looking at just what it takes to roll your own TiVo.
First, be prepared for at least some futzing. Putting together a DVR, or digital video recorder, involves numerous pieces. And the initial cost for new hardware will likely exceed the $300 price of a TiVo HD.
But the result is a more powerful recorder, and it can cost less in the long run. A home-made recorder usually isn't hard to put together, and it can capture TV as reliably as a TiVo or a DVR from the cable company or a telco. Better than a pre-made DVR, it can have unlimited capacity by just adding another hard drive. It can have added capability, such as saving shows to DVD or portable devices. It can also mean never paying a monthly fee.
Attaching a PC to the family room set also enables downloadable Internet TV and movies, YouTube videos, and E-mail. But those are side benefits to having a flexible TV recorder.
Here are five things to consider when tackling a DIY DVR:
1) PC—Don't try this with your father's computer. If the recorder will capture high-definition programming, it will need a modern microprocessor. But it doesn't have to be an expensive PC. A single-core Intel or AMD processor that runs at the equivalent of 3 Ghz should do. A multicore chip is better.
2) Video—Attaching a PC to the living room set used to be tricky, particularly if it was plasma HDTV. Even now, a video card sometimes won't support the plasma's native resolution, a problem that some inexpensive software can fix. Or a card might not support HDTV output. A good video card that does what you need can be added to a computer for about $50.
3) Tuner—To process TV signals, a computer needs this special piece of hardware. Good tuners from companies like Hauppauge Computer Works, Pinnacle Systems, or Dvico can be found for $100 or less. They can install inside a desktop, or plug into a USB port on a desktop or laptop. The best bet is a "hybrid" tuner that can capture ATSC signals, which is used by new digital broadcasts, and NTSC signals that are still used by basic cable systems.
4) Software—Computers that come with the Home Premium or Ultimate versions of Windows Vista have TV-recording software, called Media Center, already built in. Powerful software, Media Center has had shortcomings as a TV recorder. TV Tuners often come with their own recording applications, as well. But better software can be worth the investment. Spending $100 will get the simpler-to-use and more powerful TiVo software, which Nero calls LiquidTV and offers a 30-day free trial. It also comes with a year of the TiVo service (worth $100 alone) for updated program guides, season passes, and recommendations. Other options for Windows include BeyondTV ($70) or SageTV ($80). Both also offer a free trial. Macintoshes can use EyeTV ($80).
5) Remote control—If you're watching from the couch, you'll want a remote control. It's best to get one designed for the software you'll be using. A number of companies, including Adesso, make remotes for Windows Media Center. Nero will sell the TiVo software, a familiar peanut-shape remote, and a TV tuner for $200. Or it will sell the remote separately but hasn't yet set a price. Remotes are available for BeyondTV, SageTV, and EyeTV.