The Digital Life - Mike Delves into PVR Software

by Mike Shea on 27 July 2005

I've been a huge fan of the Tivo even though some days I feel like it controls me. Recently my Tivo started making funny noises (never a good sign) and I realized it was time to consider the future. I love the Tivo but paying a monthly fee bothers me and I didn't want to spend $200 on another propriatary box. I thought it was time to look into the world of PVR software.

Personal Video Recorder software probably started around the same time as Tivo with Windows XP Media Edition. This is an OEM bit of softare that can turn a PC (really it comes WITH a PC) into a nice media box. Since then there have been a number of software packages. For Linux we find MythTV as a big one. For Windows there is Meedio, SageTV, BeyondTV, and free solutions such as MediaPortal, and GB-PVR. (I'm not going to bother linking - go use Google).

You also need a tuner card in order to turn your PC into a TV and record the signal as MPEG. I bought a $70 Hauppauge 150 single-tuner PCI card. I already have a 160 GB Western Digital USB 2.0 external drive that I use to back things up. It has more than enough room for about 120 gb of video.

Right now I've been using GB-PVR and I like it a lot. It uses a free XML-based channel service to get the latest TV listings and it acts very much like a Tivo for recording and playing back shows. It has basic features for playing music and other videos but it isn't nearly as good as iTunes for music playback. iTunes is my favorite music player right now even if I am selling my soul to the Man for using it.

The size of the files it creates are huge. Its about 1.8GB for a 1 hour show. I hope to find ways to batch convert shows down in size to divx or another format. 1.8GB is a lot for a rerun of NYPD Blue.

Of course the whole purpose of this is to simplify my life and it hasn't yet done that. I have spent more time tweaking and tuning and testing out software than I have actually watching TV. My Multimedia PC is getting crazy with about 10 USB devices, three hard drives, five USB drives, and all sorts of crazy software. I want to slim it down to the bare requirements I have for it which include:

With my new 24" Dell 1920 x 1200 LCD Monitor (the best purchase I've made in years), I now have two 21" monitors flanking it powered by the Radeon 9700 Pro in the Multimedia box. Last night I stuck an ancient Matrox Mystique (Matrox Mistake as my old college friends love to call it) to power up a 15" LCD monitor I have stacked on the left 21". Thats a whole lot of screen and probably more than I need. I may dump the 15" LCD and the Matrox video card. We'll see.

In the mean time it is up and running for less than $70 and tonight I can cancel the Tivo subscription and maybe sell the box on Ebay. I plan to test out a few other PVR pieces of software but GB-PVR seems to do the job I need it to do so maybe I should just quit when I'm ahead.