Thursday, January 01, 2004

Banish Your Tivo

I've finally had enough of my Tivo. I still love it, but the cute interface and proprietary design has started to grate on me. But the $12.95 monthly tax for something I can get free over the Internet sealed it. So, with a tinge of sadness, I have relegated my Tivo to the bedroom and installed a shiny new rig upstairs to handle my home theatre needs.

Configuring my new rig was easy enough. J&N Computer Services helped me outfit a Shuttle SS51G small form factor PC with a sweet Intel P4 2.6 Ghz processor, 512 MB RAM, 160Gb hard disk, USB 802.11G wireless adapter, Sony DVD+-RW burner, Hauppauge PV250 TV tuner card and nVidia 5200 graphics card. The graphics card includes TV out so that I can see all this on my television. To round out the configuration, I installed Windows XP and Snapstream's Beyond TV. There is a ton of really useful information on the web about building these - I thought Brad Larson's tutorial was the most helpful.

The results were nothing less than outstanding. The Hauppauge card has an onboard MPEG processor that handles the TV analog to digital conversion, so the processor only handles the decoding the signal and housekeeping chores. Most times, the machine averages only 4% busy while recording and the quality (MPEG-2 just like DVDs) is better than Tivo. Beyond TV's interface isn't as slick as Tivo's but it is gaining quickly. And it has no monthly fee. Add in cool extra features like web scheduling and DVD archiving, and you can see the Tivo isn't coming back upstairs anytime soon.

That isn't to say that Tivo has some edges over Beyond TV. Beyond TV doesn't implement Tivo Suggestions, Showcases nor all the features of Tivo's season-passes. However, it does offer some advantages:
  • Standard based file format: MPEG-2, WMV and DivX
  • Automatic recompression of files (I capture in MPEG-2 then recompress to DivX and save 80% space)
  • Any size hard drive that you want. Unlimited number of hard drives
  • File sharing in the house across the 802.11G network
  • Remote recording (I can choose what to record from any web browser)
  • Multi-use (I can also play games on my PC)

Just like Tivo, Beyond TV can alter the recording quality. Normal MPEG-2 recordings take about 1 GB per half hour or so. Compressing the files with really good DivX quality takes the files down to about 300 MB per half hour. Beyond TV schedules the recompression jobs in overnight (adjustable). If you are willing to recompress the files into Windows Media format, you can even stream them across your network or the Internet.

The cost of the system was rather high. The computer weighed in around $900 but with the add-in Hauppauge card and Beyond TV, it crossed the $1100 mark. This could certainly be much lower -- replace the Shuttle SS51G box with a regular enclosure, cut the DVD burner and reduce the RAM / CPU / HD specs. I figure you could make this same solution for about $650 if you went Intel Celeron 1.8 Ghz, 256 MB RAM and 80 GB hard drive. Of course, that wouldn't be any fun whatsoever.

I'll keep you updated on my rig as I add more features to it.

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