How to turn your PC into a personal video recorder

Sit down when you’re ready and watch it at your convenience — fast-forwarding those annoying commercials, in the process.
Except PVRs also come with limitations. It’s not like you can hook up any external hard drive to a Bell ExpressVu, Rogers or Shaw PVR set top box and store all your content on there. You can’t really do that with a TiVo box, either, though Western Digital’s My DVR Expander is one of the few exceptions that will work.

Failing all that, why not just do it with your PC? Here is a list of a few different products currently available that offer that setup, no matter how you’re getting your TV signal.

Nero LiquidTV TiVo PC






This was a natural partnership. Nero, with its media and CD/DVD software knowledge, hooking up with TiVo, the arguable king of PVR makers. This hybrid package that fuses the PC and TV together comes in two iterations – one with the LiquidTV TiVo PC software, a remote, an IR blaster to relay the signal to a satellite or cable box and a one-year TiVo subscription for $199.99. The other costs $99.99 but comes without the remote and IR blaster. Once your subscription is up for renewal, you’ll have to dish out $99.99 to keep it going.

If you’ve used TiVo before, you’ll get accustomed to this pretty fast. The user interface is all TiVo, from the menus all the way down to recording content. Nero’s software comes in by transcoding the content for iPods, iPhones, Sony PSPs and the PC itself. You can also burn the content onto a DVD, if that’s your preference.

You’ll need some horsepower in your PC to run it all. I have a 3.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 1GB of RAM and a 512MB video card. For the most part, it functioned well, but there were a few hiccups along the way. Some users also might not like having to keep the PC on at all times to record programming. But even if the PC is on, you also need to make sure LiquidTV is still up running as well.

It’s a neat product all in all, but probably more geared to those who would love the idea of making their recorded content portable. Plus, backing it all up on a PC is a lot easier when you have external hard drives. Using a regular TiVo PVR box doesn’t make that as easy for the average user.

SnapStream Beyond TV 4

SnapStream’s product is a little unique in that it requires your PC already have a TV tuner hooked up. Some new PCs out on the market do fall into that realm right out of the box, like HP’s new TouchSmart PC lineup among others.
Essentially, Beyond TV is software that can manage everything for you once you have the TV tuner in place. You can set it to record whatever you want, whenever you want. Search capabilities include typing in and searching for any content that has a specific hockey team, actor or show title, for example. You can even change the viewing order, so that you separate the shows in groups and seasons. It even sorts them by original air date, so old shows like Miami Vice or Knight Rider, for example, can be grouped together chronologically.

The iTunes integration also makes it easy to transcode the recorded video to a format that iTunes likes. You can take it further by transcoding for the different iPods, iPhone or Apple TV. I didn’t see anything specific for transcoding to other devices like a Sony PSP or another media player of some kind, which was a bit of a letdown.

You can also control the TV using your smartphone, PDA or any device with a Web browser using the Firefly Mobile remote. You type in a certain URL with your IP address and it directs you to a site with a remote control layout. Doing this with an iPhone or BlackBerry worked brilliantly, with no real lag.

You can buy a download online directly from SnapStream’s website for $69.99US (for the basic Beyond TV 4) or $99.99US (for DVD burning support and H.264 plug-in). Add $10 to either package and they send you a backup software CD. If you’re still not sure, you can download a 21-day trial version as well.

Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick






Pinnacle’s PCTV HD Pro Stick tries to blend ease-of-use with increased functionality to create the kinds of conditions that would make it simple for anyone to use it. A noble undertaking for a setup that many novice PC users might not understand.

That said, this is a product that’s pretty easy to get up and running. After installing the software, you just plug the USB dongle into your PC and then connect the source of your TV signal into the coaxial jack on the other side. The signal can either be from cable, satellite or an antenna. This unit does come with its own little antenna that can pick up both analog and digital over-the-air channels in both standard-definition and high-definition. It’s also portable, meaning you can take your laptop with the dongle and antenna and literally pick up channels from wherever you are. The magnet at the bottom can keep it steady on metallic surfaces, like a car roof or a window sill, for example.

But aside from all that, you can use it to record content directly from your TV, just like a PVR would. The recordings can then easily be saved onto external hard drives in MPEG 1 or 2, DivX or straight to DVD.
Apparently, the HD Pro Stick can actually work in tandem with SnapStream’s Beyond TV software, though I never tried it to see for sure. But if the Pro Stick is used only to make the connection between the PC and the TV source, then it should theoretically be possible.

Vista users should be careful, as the Pro Stick has a tendency to not always play nice with the OS. XP seemed to handle it all much better. Also, with a product like this, you should expect results to vary depending on where you are and what you’re looking for. Placement and timing seem to work hand-in-hand.

You can find the PCTV HD Pro Stick for about $129.99 at Best Buy, Future Shop and most major electronics retailers.






Like SnapStream’s Beyond TV, SageTV is software-based, so you’ll need to have a compatible TV tuner already installed before you can take advantage of its features. It can record, pause and schedule recordings of live TV for you, including regularly capturing the shows you tell it to. It will even record shows that it thinks match your viewing habits. Sometimes, it’s actually pretty dead-on with that.

There is a Program Guide – just like the other products have – that you can browse no differently than the one on your satellite, cable box or TiVo. The latest version added Google Video support (no YouTube, unfortunately), which is a cool way to add to your recorded collection.

Be prepared to tinker and tweak a lot of things with SageTV. Rather than be something that works well by default out of the box, SageTV can be an exercise in frustration when trying to get it just right. Plus, if you have a video card and processor that meet the system requirements, but don’t enough power behind them, then you can expect some degradation in picture quality and framerate drops.

But if you do have things running smoothly, then you’ll love the optional Placeshifter software that works a lot like the Slingbox. You can access all your recorded content from any PC with a high-speed connection. There’s even an optional Media Extender box that allows for playback on any TV in the home by connecting it to the SageTV PC via the home network. I never got to try the Media Extender, but the Placeshifter software works well after you get the hang of it.

You can buy everything online from the SageTV site. The main software is $79.95US (there are also versions for Mac and Linux as well). Add $20 if you want to include the Placeshifter software. The Media Extender is $249.95US.

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