The Kiwi Personal Digital Video Recorder
A PC-Based Personal Digital Entertainment Centre
A project diary describing the process of building a PC-based home entertainment center based on regular off-the-shelf computer components and software.

After The Novelty Has Worn Off
Okay, so I've been lucky enough to have this system sitting in my living room for several months now -- enough time to establish its strengths and weaknesses.

First up I have to say that once the novelty wore off, I found myself almost never using the "freeze live TV" capabilities of the software that came with both the PCTV and Hauppauge cards.
Disk-based VCRs
A number of consumer-electronics manufacturers have recently released hard-drive-based video recorders in an attempt to capture some of the market currently owned by boxes like the Tivo.

These machines are significantly more expensive than a regular VCR but still less than a full-blown PC -- so how do they stack up?

Well unless someone wants to provide me with a sample to review I can only draw conclusions based on the brochures.

They certainly appear to offer a number of benefits over a conventional VCR and you can be pretty certain that they'd be more robust and reliable than a PC-based unit with its flaky software.

However, as outlined elsewhere on this page, these new HD-based VCRs still have some quite significant limitations if you want to do anything more than just record the odd program or two.

Perhaps it's because I'm not the kind of person who gets many phone calls or other interruptions, or maybe it's just that I don't watch a lot of "live" TV but for me this feature is not a "must have".

What I have found most useful of all however, is the ability to record something at the drop of a hat without having to hunt around for a blank tape. So long as you've got some space left on the hard drive, you just hit the record button and that's it.

Visit the sponsor
If you'd like your own system, it is recommended that you purchase the parts, or a ready-configured version from the project's sponsor.

Programs recorded onto the hard drive can then be watched later, with the luxury of being able to jump forwards two or three minutes (past the ads) in the blink of an eye.

Making such recordings at better-than-SVCD bitrates results in an image quality (at least with the Hauppauge card) which is indistinguishable from the original broadcast, yet still only requires 2-3 GB per hour of disk space. At that rate, an 80GB hard drive will hold well over 20 hours of recording.

When I know I'm going to be archiving a program onto disk in SVCD format, I simply capture at SVCD bitrates and resolution. Writing to a CDR then simply involves the optional step of editing out the ads using TMPGEnc and then using VCDEasy to do the writing. This takes about 15 minutes per hour of programming. With the Hauppauge card however, (thanks to its hardware MPEG encoding) you can perform this processing while recording other programs, which is quite cool.

You can easily fit two half-hour programs or a single hour-long one onto a single 700MB CDR once the ads are removed. Movies usually require two disks.

Here are some questions I'm sure you're all asking:

Do I still use my VCR?
Yes I do -- but nowhere near as often as I used to and mostly when I'm already recording something on the PC anyway.

I don't know that PC-based PVR technology is ready to replace the VCR just yet but it does open up a whole new world of video/music sourcing, enjoyment and storage.

For instance, being able to listen to a Net-radio station broadcasting from the other side of the world while you do the housework or read the paper in the comfort of your living room is really great. Likewise, recording a movie for the kids and burning it to VCD so that they can watch it on the PC in their bedroom is also quite cool.

Do Things Go Wrong?
Yes, they do. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the vendor-supplied software for most tuner/capture cards is pretty bad and, while the freeware alternatives is often a whole lot better, it's still not perfect.

Both the PCTV and Hauppauge systems will occasionally screw up and produce a recording that is unusable so, if it's absolutely essential that I see something, I tend to either watch it live or record it on the VCR as well.

Wouldn't One of The New Hard-Disk Based VCRs Be Better?
That depends very much on what you want to do. If your goal is to simply replace that VCR then one of the growing crop of disk-based VCRs would almost certainly be a better option. You won't have to battle the bugs in flaky software or wait 45 seconds for it to boot up -- but they won't network to the other computers in your house, nor will many of them burn your recordings to CDR, or connect to the Net, or handle streaming video/audio.

This project covers a lot more bases than just a VCR replacement and it's the breadth and flexibility of its features that make it so very useful.

Which Card Do I Like Best?
In the comparison between the PCTV and Hauppauge PVR-250 tuner/capture cards I mentioned that there were pro's and con's associated with each option.

Several months later I've found myself leaning increasingly towards the PVR-250 rather than the PCTV for everyday use.

The advantages of the onboard hardware MPEG encoder seem to outweigh the fact that this card can't perform raw captures and has no third-party driver support. With the PVR-250 you can record a TV program while the same PC is busy burning a CDR and that's really handy.

If I were only using the system just to capture movies at the highest possible quality, and if I were prepared to dedicate the machine to the task of performing high-quality MPEG encoding for size or seven hours at a time then the PCTV would be a better choice.

Was This Project Really Worthwhile?
Absolutely. Video and audio, whether they're home-made, purchased on disk, downloaded from the Net, or broadcast by TV or radio, are an increasingly large part of our lives.

A PC which has the ability to capture, record, edit and archive this material is an incredibly useful tool and one that I certainly wouldn't want to be without.

If you're prepared to flout the law, such a system will safe you a fortune by allowing you to bypass "official channels" to source your music and movies.

Within a few short months you could obviously build a very impressive library of music and video at no cost other than the cheap CDRs on which it was stored.

However, even the more law-abiding of us can enjoy the benefits that come from more efficient storage, lower media costs, greater flexibility and greater range of content that such a system offers.

Unfortunately the hardware used for this project was only provided on loan and now it's going back to the sponsor. There are lots of other options and bits of software I'd like to have tried out and tested -- but the truth is that once its limitations were identified and accepted, the damned thing just worked so well that I was reluctant to go fiddling.

I have a feeling that I'll be sending Advantage Computers my credit card details real soon just so I can get that box back!

Thanks To The Sponsors
Once again I'd like to thank Advantage Computers for making the hardware available for what has been a somewhat longer time than I'd first envisaged.

If you've found these pages to be of use, please visit the relevant section of the Advantage website and if you're planning to build your own Tivo-like PC then you really ought to consider purchasing the bits, or an entire system directly from them.

I have to say that the PC they supplied has worked flawlessly and is even quieter in operation than my Sony VCR -- an important consideration in an application like this.

The next update to this feature will be an examination of commercial PVR software for Windows and a closer look at the Linux and Open Source software options -- the hard work continues...

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Published and © 2002 by Bruce Simpson and Aardvark Net Publishing. All rights reserved