Let Your PC Turbocharge Your TV

Personal video recorders such as TiVo cost a lot; why not build one yourself?

For avowed couch potatoes, the biggest advance in video in recent years has been the personal video recorder (PVR). Set-top boxes from TiVo (TIVO ), ReplayTV, and Microsoft's UltimateTV bring such VCR-like features as pause and instant replay to live TV. They also let you search through electronic program guides for titles, actors, and directors--even keywords--to record hours of TV on their hard-disk drives. So when you finally hit the sofa at the end of a long day, it's not just for hit-or-miss channel surfing; there's always stuff on your PVR that you really want to watch.

But sales of PVRs, also called digital video recorders, have yet to take off beyond the million or so rabid fans, like me, who consider them today's must-have video appliance. For one thing, they're expensive compared with a $99 DVD player or $69 VCR. They start at about $300 and go up to a cool two grand for models that can store hundreds of hours of TV shows. Many of them incur a $10 monthly service fee on top of the purchase price--the last straw for many consumers.

To get around the hefty price tag and recurring fees, I set out to see if I could build my own--a do-it-yourself TiVo, as it were. After all, a PVR is nothing more than a special-purpose computer with a big hard drive, and I already have a general-purpose computer with a big hard drive. Personalized TV listings, the presumed reason for the $10 subscription fee, are widely available for free from such Internet sites as tvguide.com and zap2it.com. All I'd need to add is a little circuit board to receive TV signals and some software to manipulate them.

My conclusion: It will cost you a little more than $200, a free evening or weekend, and--geek alert--the guts to open up your computer and tinker a bit to install the special video card. It's easier than you think. If you're still intimidated, I'll suggest a couple of ways to get around it.

Gizmos that you can install to watch TV on your PC have been available for years. What made me take a second look, besides the new TiVo-like functions, was that these add-in systems now come with all the connectors necessary to separate out the television signal and send it across the room to a conventional TV. And they now come with remote controls. So you can watch PC-TV on the big screen, no longer tethered to a keyboard and mouse to change channels or turn up the volume. If your signal is scrambled, say, from a cable box, you'll have to use your cable box's remote to change channels, but you will still get the PVR features.

I looked at two new systems, NVIDIA's $200 Personal Cinema and ATI Technologies' (ATYT ) $400 All-in-Wonder Radeon 8500DV. The former doesn't sell under its own brand at retail, so I installed a version marketed by Compro Technology. A more widely available brand, VisionTek's Xtasy Everything, is identical, according to NVIDIA (NVDA ).

ATI now has a cheaper version than the one I tested, the $200 All-in-Wonder Radeon 7500, announced on Jan. 22. It operates exactly like the top-of-the-line model, minus a few features. There's no digital connection for capturing video from digital camcorders, a drawback for those wanting to edit home movies on the computer. But I'm interested in using my PC as a PVR, and, between the ATI and NVIDIA systems, ATI came closest to duplicating the features of TiVo and ReplayTV.

Both are basically graphics cards designed to replace the one that came with your computer. There are others on the market that I didn't try out, such as the Marvel G450 eTV, about $230 from Matrox Graphics. Hauppauge Computer Works takes a different approach: Its $250 WinTV-PVR is a TV card that slips inside your computer and works with the graphics card that's already there. Hauppauge has a $200 version that plugs into the USB port that comes on all new PCs. You don't have to open up the computer to install it, and it's the only way to get TV and PVR features on a laptop.

You'll need a pretty powerful computer to take full advantage of these systems' ability to record, compress, and play video signals in real time. The kitmakers recommend at least a processor that runs at 800 or 900 Megahertz, and 80 gigabytes of hard-drive space to store all your TV programs.

If you're in the market for a new computer, it's simple: Tell the retailer you want the upgraded TV and PVR capability, and it will come already installed. Or, if you buy the kit from CompUSA, the store will install it in your computer for free. Other retailers, such as Best Buy (BBY ), charge about $40 for the same service.

If you're at all handy, you can install it yourself. With the two systems I tried, it took about half an hour to swap in the new circuit board, load the software, and hook up all the cables that bring in the picture from your cable TV or antenna and send the audio and video to your computer monitor, speakers, and TV. If you've never done something like this before, the only scary part is the amount of force it takes to get the new card to snap into place. Tip: A quarter-inch nut driver, about $4 at Home Depot (HD ), works much better than a screwdriver for taking off the computer case and fastening the one screw that holds the circuit board in the PC.

Besides the internal graphics card, both systems have a separate box the size of a cigarette pack connected to the back of the computer with a short cable. Mostly, it is jam-packed with all the different connectors you need to hook up your consumer-electronics gear, such as a TV or a VCR for archiving shows you've recorded. (You can also burn the shows onto a CD if your computer has a writeable CD drive.) A key difference: NVIDIA's remote control uses infrared light, which means that its connector box must be in the line of sight of the remote. ATI's radio-frequency remote works even when the box is hidden behind the computer or in another room.

Once you're up and running, you'll be amazed at how powerful harnessing a little computer power to a TV can be. You can pause the picture for a trip to the kitchen and start up the show again when you return. You can jump back 10 seconds for an instant replay or, if you're watching a delayed show, jump ahead 30 seconds to skip a commercial. You can record a show to watch later and start watching from the beginning before the recording is finished. While the ATI system handles these TiVo-like features flawlessly, NVIDIA still has some rough edges. You lose the picture for about five seconds when you go from live TV to the PVR mode, for example. And while ATI's program guide is fully integrated and is searchable a week in advance, you must connect to the Internet every time you want to see TV listings on NVIDIA's system and then scroll a grid to find programs you want to record.

Does this mean I'm ready to junk my TiVo (and its $10 fee) and hook my PC up to my TV? Not quite yet. While ATI comes close, it's not the tightly integrated, elegant setup that TiVo is. But PC-TV sure is a nifty way to outfit a second TV with all those PVR tricks that I've come to expect. This time, though, they're virtually free.

By Larry Armstrong

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