By Stephen H. Wildstrom If you want to add the ability to watch and record TV shows on your PC, Microsoft's Media Center version of Windows XP is definitely the slickest way to go. But to get it, you'll have to buy a new, relatively high-end computer. Starting price: about $1,000, without a monitor.
There are, however, cheaper ways to add TV capabilities to an existing desktop computer. You're going to want a reasonably new, high-performance PC for best results, but it can be a lot cheaper than an official Media Center PC. I tried a product called the Personal Video Station 3 from Snap Stream Media. The $180 package includes a Happauge WinTV tuner (the same hardware used in many Media Center PCs) that fits in a card slot in your desktop, a remote control and infrared receiver, and software. The software alone is available for $75. Like Media Center, Video Station provides access to an online electronic program guide without additional charge.
While Video Station lacks the fancy user interface of Media Center and limits itself to TV-related activities, in many ways it offers more flexibility than the Microsoft (MSFT) software. It provides the basic functionality of a TiVo (TIVO) or Replay personal video recorder using the computer's hard drive. You can pause or replay live TV and record shows to disk with a choice of MPEG-2 or Microsoft Windows Media formats. You can also reformat recordings for downloading to a Pocket PC handheld. You can even play shows recorded on one PC on another computer connected over a network, something Media Center doesn't allow.
MAGIC OF RADIO. Other options: ATI Technologies (ATYT) sells a range of All-in-Wonder combination video adapters and TV tuners, along with software for TV watching and recording, starting at $149. Rival nVIDIA (NVDA) sells its similar Personal Cinema FX at a similar price.
The Microsoft Media Center PC could profit from some accessories. One of its inconveniences is having to switch back and forth between using a mouse when it's functioning as a regular PC and a remote control when in media mode. Gyration solves the problem with its clever Gyration Media Center Remote, which replaces both. It's a battery-powered device that contains motion-sensing gyroscopes. It communicates with the PC by radio, rather than infrared, so it has a range of up to 100 feet and isn't sensitive to light-blocking obstacles.
The Gyration controller features both standard mouse buttons and dedicated remote buttons for functions such as switching in and out of the Media Center software and changing channels. Simply waving left and right or up and down controls cursor motion the same way a mouse does. You can also program it to respond to a series of "swipe" gestures, such as a quick left-to-right motion to fast-forward TV replay. The Gyration remote sells for $150, and an extra $30 gets you a compact wireless keyboard, also with a 100-foot range.
TOUGH JOB. You can also tape TV shows that have been recorded on the Media Center PC and copy them to a DVD -- sort of. Microsoft planned to leave this capability out of the original Media Center to avoid annoying Hollywood. The company relented under consumer pressure but ended up striking a compromise that satisfied no one by allowing the copying but making it really difficult.
Sonic Solutions (SNIC) makes it as easy as it should be with a program called PrimeTime. The $80 package, which comes preinstalled on some Media Centers, integrates with the Microsoft software and can be used with a remote. It offers a list of the shows you have recorded and lets you select what you want to put on a disk. You can typically fit two hours worth of programming at the highest video quality onto a DVD.
Just insert the appropriate flavor of DVD disk, tell Sonic to burn it, and in a few minutes you'll have a disk you can show in standard DVD players (use DVD+R or ? disks, rather than the rewritable RW versions for greatest compatibility with players). PrimeTime can also create Video CDs on standard CD-R disks, but these offer much less recording time, much lower video quality, and won't work on many DVD players. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online