Exploring Today's DVR Options: Homebrew 101

Welcome to Part Four of the Exploring Today's DVR Options series: Homebrew 101! By now you've looked at some of the integrated options that were discussed in Part 2, and the standalone units covered by Part 3, but if you aren't sure they're what you're looking for, then the final (and most complicated) choice is left: homebrew.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of this option, I want to clarify that this overview is just that. This isn't a how-to article, or meant to be a concise list of hardware or software.

There are many factors in deciding which tuner card, hard drive, or software to install. Also, to keep things simple, this article is geared towards PC users as a majority. Sorry Macs.

Dedicated Media Center or Desktop

If you're going to do a homebrew DVR, it's important to realize there are two essential options within this category: creating a dedicated media center, or merely adapting your standard desktop for use as a DVR. If you've ever used a LAN, you know the advantages of having a server. It cuts down on resources and allows easy access to information or file without having to clutter up every single computer with every file or mp3 or program that you want to access or use.

The same goes for DVRs. Using your desktop as a DVR and then running multiple programs at one time can bog down your system, especially if you're into graphics heavy games or applications.

If you want to keep things simple and cheap, using your PC will work. But if you're going to build a DVR, you'll get the best of the best by building a separate media center. Regardless of how you decide to go about your DVR, there are some necessities.

 


Is homebrew not quite right for you? Take a Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options.

TV Tuner versus All-In-One

You're going to need a TV tuner card, also called a video capture card. A TV tuner is not necessarily the same thing as a video, or graphics card, though that's not to say you can't get a card that does both. However, the odds are high that if you bought your PC as a bundle package from Best Buy or any other local store, that you've got a standard graphics card instead of an all-in-one. Odds are even higher that it's not all that great of a card, unless you bought a system packaged for gaming or one that's special ordered.

ATI produces a card that has the dual capability of a TV tuner and graphics card: the All-In-Wonder. These are reasonably priced, and I think they're a pretty good deal. You won't get the best graphics out of them, but you'll get a better than average tuner and a graphics card in one piece of hardware. If you want to use your regular PC as a DVR, this is a great option.

If you're building a separate media center, then you should seriously consider going with a separate tuner and graphics card. They vary in price, but for about US$200-400, you'll get good results; in the end, it's all about image quality.

One final point to consider: if you want to record multiple channels, you need to either get a tuner card that's packed with multiple tuners on one card, or install multiple cards. The basic equation breaks down to one tuner for one signal (channel). There are manufacturers producing cards with multiple tuners, like the Happauge Win TV-HVR-1600, so if space is an issue, and simplicity is essential, this is a good choice to consider

The important thing to remember when you're doing your research is that all TV tuner cards do essentially the same thing. The difference lies within the software programs bundled with the tuner cards. While you can use these instead of getting one of the other available programs (like MythTV), it's comparable to buying a basic car versus a deluxe model. One will get you where you need to go, but the other will get you there in style and it'll be a lot smoother of a ride.

 


Is homebrew not quite right for you? Take a Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options.

Video Card

If you're building your DVR from scratch, this is a no-brainer. You'll need a video card with enough guts to handle encoding and give you a quality picture when you're done. This isn't the area to scrimp on. But on the other hand, depending on whether you're building a separate dedicated media center or using your desktop, you'll have different priorities.

If you're planning to use your desktop PC, and you're a big gamer where graphics matter, then you'll need to meet two requirements when selecting a video card. If you're only going to need it for the media center and to handle encoding, you can get by with less power.

Hard Drive

Here's where the saying ‘bigger is better' holds very true. The size of your hard drive will dictate how much you can store. Considering that an average 43 minute program, with commercials cut, encoded in MPEG-2, takes up approximately 350MB at decent image quality, you can see how a 60GB drive just isn't going to cut it.

If you're converting your desktop and you've got limited hard drive space, you'll need to upgrade. It shouldn't cost too much; drives are getting cheaper all the time. Check for online deals, too.

Software

Once you've got your hardware installed and are ready to go, it's time to take the final step: install the software. DVR software will allow you to schedule recordings, playback, rewind, and burn to DVD, in addition to other uses such as viewing photos and listening to mp3s. There are quite a few programs out there, but you need to look at what OS the software runs on.

While a majority of DVR software is built to run on the Windows platform, MythTV is the exception, running instead on Linux OS. SageTV, Freevo, Windows XP Media Center and BeyondTV. They all offer the same basic functions; their differences fall within editing functions, encoding options, and ease of installation.

One program does seem to rise above the rest, with an interface as user friendly as TiVo: Beyond TV. Like all consumer goods out there, your mileage may vary. Scout around, read reviews and have a firm idea of what is important and pick the program that best fits your needs. The good news is that if you run into trouble with any of the above programs, a quick Google query should bring up someone who has an answer.

 


Is homebrew not quite right for you? Take a Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options.

Peripherals

There are a couple of peripheral items you'll still need before you're ready to go, whether you are building a dedicated media center or converting your desktop: an IR blaster and a remote control.

An IR blaster is a necessary device. It allows your computer to communicate with your satellite or cable box to change the channel in order to record. The best route to go is one with RF capabilities so you can avoid the line-of-sight issue, allowing you to stash the media center or desktop somewhere out of sight.

When it comes to remotes, you can spend a lot of money. How much depends on you, but the bottom line is, you'll want something to control your media center, TV, and Stereo system.

If you opt for BeyondTV, the Firefly remote is preferred. But take a look at what's out there, and evaluate how much you want to spend. Like the other products, remotes are all going to do essentially the same thing.

Summary

So what's the bottom line? As I mentioned in the first segment, Exploring Today's DVR Options, homebrew DVR is not for the computer newbie. You definitely need to be comfortable installing new hardware, software, and maintain a firm grasp on what options you want in your DVR.

The cost can be pretty high compared to integrated or stand-alone units, but you get more bang for your buck. No monthly fees, and customization, customization, customization.

Hands down, homebrew will deliver the most powerful DVR system out there; it's well worth the time and money if you can spare both.

 


The rest of the story... Keep up with today's DVR options as we continue with our four-part series:

Part 1: Deeper Dive into Today's DVR Options
Part 2: Deeper Dive into Integrated DVRs
Part 3: Deeper Dive into Standalone DVRs

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