HDTV PVR: intial impressions

I use my video purely for timeshifting – watching a show that screens at midnight at a more socialable hour. But the quality leaves a lot to be desired.

My grand plan is to retire the VHS recorder, replacing it with a shiney new digital thingy – a PVR, Personal Video Recorder. Which you can buy off the shelf, one or two grand (AUD). And I would. But, then again, I’m a geek, and that means why buy something when you can build it yourself for twice the price and with the enormous expenditure of your own time?

For example, it would be nice to be able to burn TV onto DVD. And most PVRs have a single tuner – while we all know that TV stations schedule the show you want to watch at the same time as at least one other you want to watch; you can only record one; and, incidentally, you can’t watch the other unless you have another digital receiver like a settop box (I’ve seen ’em for $80 at Safeway). Sure, you could tape one and watch the other, but that doesn’t work so great at midnight when it’s a schoolnight. And most PVRs are Standard Definition, not High Def – and if you’ve had the misforturne of trying to watch a SD signal, you know it doesn’t hold a candle to analogue (I’m not going to take a step back here). The biggest hard drive you’ll find in a PVR is 120Gig, and that’s the super-top-end-gee-whiz unit; most come with 40Gig – which might be fine with SD, but bites when recording HD at 15Gig/hour.

So in general, PVRs suck arse. I’m gonna build my own.

I got the bits last night – bottom end PC, two tuner cards (different brands – for reasons that will become apparent), 200Gig HDD (I figure I’ll upgrade to a decent sized RAID array later). Loaded up Windows (I’m using it to prove the concept, then swapping to Fedora 3 once I know the hardware’s good), dropped in drivers (God, what a nightmare; it seems like it eventually loaded) and hooked the whole setup to a bunny ear antenna.

One card can show me Channel 9. That card isn’t happy about the other channels it found, which was nowhere near what’s out there. They’re called things like “Ch@&&el T#n”.

The other card doesn’t show anything, but found all the channels. I think it found Channel 7 twice.

From the bunny ears I’m getting 75% signal strength.

So, now I can play around with recording SuperNanny and Enterprise, but I don’t think there’s much of a future with the current setup. I’ve got to try slightly more sophisticated antenna technologies. And I’ve got to see if I sucessfully can hook my creaky old TV up to the video card – there are a number of adapters that look promising.

I’ll keep you posted.

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3 thoughts on “HDTV PVR: intial impressions

  1. glen

    If you want another TV card, you can have my old one. I tried a very similar thing to what you’re proposing about 12 months ago. I could never get anything above really crap reception.

    Apparently there’s lots of tricks, such as making sure you don’t have any of the tv cards too close together (!!)

    Have a look at the MythTV forums… I’ve heard they’re a great source for this kind of thing.. as well as having a top notch recording solution.

    In fact, remember that guy that was working with us at Mobilesoft? The tall one (no, not me)… Neil. He was really into this. If you still have any means of contacting him, he’d be a big help.

    My TV card has RCA output too, so it hooks to the TV. But once again, the quality sucked.

  2. glen

    Also, I found the noise of the computer too much. You’d be surprised how annoying the fans are when you’re trying to watch tv. It’s like how LCD’s don’t do ‘black’ very well. A PC doesn’t do ‘quiet’ very well either 🙂

    My advice… wait and buy a PVR. But then, we’re not very good at taking advice. Better to feel the pain in the first person.

  3. Malcolm

    Buy yourself a Topfield, two tuners, 120Gb disk (although you easily replace it with a larger drive), Import/export to
    PC via USB, C programming environment (TAP), active user and developer community.

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