Quick Bytes: Homegrown TiVo

From Issue #5, Page #86
-Submitted by TechLiving

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No service fees, no small storage limits, and endless possibilities—how to make the ultimate digital recording device.

No one ever thought about building their own VCR; specialized recording heads, tiny motors, and complex electronics—not exactly a do-it-yourself project. When digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVo and ReplayTV started showing up on the market, electronics aficionados realized the boxes were little more than a computer with a big hard drive, a TV tuner/video capture card and some specialized software. It wasn’t long after that homegrown DVRs started being cobbled together from readily available computer components.

As this trend has grown in popularity, especially in the open-source community, freely distributed DVR software has been popping up on the Web. Additionally, cool new products are emerging that let computer users combine both home entertainment with home control using a single system.

Start With Software

DVRs simply record video input from either antenna, cable or satellite signals onto a hard drive using a video capture card. The input is recorded and compressed in real-time creating standard AVI video files using popular codecs such as DivX5 or Indeo. The sound is stored separately in an MP3 audio format or via PCM (pulse code modulation).

Anyone who has ever built his or her own computer can put together a homegrown DVR. Web sites such as MythTV and Freevo offer freely available software for turning a PC into a DVR. Nevertheless, be aware, these open-source solutions run on Linux and unless you have a firm understanding of open-source operating systems, you’d be better off purchasing a DVR or DVR software for a commercial operating system such as Windows or Mac.

Pumping Up Performance

Granted, if you are going to put together a DVR, the unit isn’t going to be the slick set-top box offered by off-the-shelf devices. Fortunately, what it might be lacking in style is more than made up in performance. Homegrown DVRs are easily beefed up to far surpass storage capacity offered on commercial products. TiVo models typically ship with 80 hours of recording capacity, but custom-built DVRs can easily provide as much as 500 hours given the drive space. Newer hardware models are recognizing that people want more storage for their programs and now offer up to 320 hours of recording time.

To circumvent any performance, a dedicated PC is suggested for a DVR; however, it can still be added to a desktop system with enough resources (i.e. hard drive space, graphics/tuner card and CPU horsepower). There are more entertainment choices for the system than just recording television shows, which quickly make the cost of an extra system well worth the investment. Consider the box a complete home entertainment center that integrates home theater, a repository for digital music, digital images and digital video storage as well as gaming and even other home controls. Imagine how much space could be reclaimed by storing all your photo albums, videos, and CDs on a single medium that is entirely searchable. Add a DVD or CD writer to the system and easily record anything stored on the machine. Even better, network access offers instant capabilities to upload and download files.

What's Missing?

The two main things that are missing with a home-built DVR are plug-and-play installation and the subscription service. Both TiVo and ReplayTV subscriptions run around $12.95 a month (or $299 for a lifetime subscription). These subscription services give users access to TV listings and allow easy scheduling of program recording even from the Web.

The open-source DVRs considered this and have included a way to download freely available television listings from the Zap2It.com DataDirect services on the Web. For example, with MythTV, users go to the Zap2It site and set up their own account determining their local line-up choices. When the MythTV setup program is first run, given the PC is Web-enabled, the configuration will be automatically imported from the Zap2It site.

Not to be left out in the cold, Mac users can also enjoy DVR capabilities for their Power Mac. AlchemyTV DVR is an expansion card and remote control for any G4 or G5 with an open PCI slot. Scheduling is provided by TitanTV or iCal, both of which are free programming listings on the Web.

To start building your DVR, a core system is needed. While an older box will work, at a minimum a Pentium 4 with a 2.4-GHz CPU should be used. A top-of-the-line graphics/tuner card will make all the difference in a home-built DVR. ATI’s All-in-Wonder Radeon 9800 Pro is a top choice due to its optional video output adapter that provides a direct connection from the card to an HDTV for better resolution. Add in a sound card and a DVD drive. The meat of the system is going to be the hard drive. A 200-GB hard drive will typically support about 90 hours of recording. Regardless of what operating system and DVR program you choose, the basic function should be easy to use for the least technically inclined member of the family.

Multitasking Multimedia

Converging entertainment and home control, Meedio is billing themselves as a “digital lifestyle management” product. The Meedio Essentials module creates a single library of all digital media—audio, video and image files as well as weather reports from the Web. Doug Davis, a digital home engineer who has used Meedio in several of his customized installations, likes the product because of the flexibility of configuration. “This system offers unlimited possibilities for any home theater system,” he says.

However, Meedio’s real power is their integration of home control within the same system. Meedio Housebot is a full-blown home automation controller with the ability to handle multiple devices such as those from X10, ADI and telephone/modem products. By tying into the entertainment control center, Housebot lets users define specialized functions such as pausing a movie when the telephone rings.

A souped-up system with all the bells and whistles can easily run 10 times the cost of an off-the-shelf DVR unit, but with all the added functionality spending the extra money can offer a more inclusive digital entertainment system than a $99 TiVo.

Home-built DVRs are just the beginning of the convergence of digital home devices. Add-on modules, such as MythTV’s MythWeb, a Web interface to MythTV; MythWeather, a module that displays your weather forecast; MythNews, an RSS feed newsreader. For anyone willing to plunk down the cash and spend the time tweaking their system, there are lots of options—both free and commercial—for building a DVR super center. - Sandra Kay Miller