July 26, 2007

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Record every show
And they said television was just a fad
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Last week, class, we learned how to use an ordinary television as a computer monitor as well as how to turn a computer monitor into a television.

Today let’s integrate things a little more: television in your computer.

TV tuner cards for PCs are nothing particularly new. What is fairly new is their cost: low. Electronics typically drop in price over time, but TV tuners have done so more sharply because of the looming promise of all high definition broadcast come 2009. Whether or not all standard broadcasts will really cease come that time remains to be seen, but because of the anticipated changeover, conventional tuners can be had pretty cheap. And to compete, HD tuners are lowering prices as well.

Computers hooked up to home theaters are often dubbed Media Center PCs, partly because, hey, it sounds cool, and partly because many of them run Windows XP Media Center Edition. They don’t have to, though, and there are even free software options for turning your PC into a TiVo on steroids — also known as a digital video recorder (DVR).

First, you’ll need a fairly powerful PC. Start with a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory and the biggest hard drive you can afford for storing all the TV you’ll suddenly be watching. Make sure your sound card is decent, although pretty much any modern computer will come with adequate audio.

The hardest part is getting signal into the computer, but all you need is a TV tuner card. Buy.com typically has a couple USB models for under $50.

Whether you choose a USB tuner that simply plugs into a port on your computer or a PCI card that must be installed inside, you’ll probably also get software for recording programs. Bundles programs range from simple time and channel controls to complete guides that let you choose a show from a grid.

Got a hankering to get away from Windows? There’s a whole community of nerds using software called MythTV, a pretty robust DVR program that runs on the Linux operating system. Both are open source and available as free downloads.

Setting up Linux on a machine you built yourself isn’t quite as simple for most people as installing a program on a familiar Windows PC, but the open source community has tried to make it as painless as possible. The simplest path is through www.mysettopbox.tv, a site that guides you step by step through installing MythTV on a Linux box.

The site starts with hardware requirements, noting that you pretty much need a Hauppage WinTV 401 with DBX for the whole setup to work. You might get away with using another tuner card, though, so if you have one already, try it out. If yours isn’t compatible, the 401 will only set you back about $70.

If all this seems a little complicated when your VCR has been working for years, well, OK, you might have a point. Still, does a VCR allow you to instantaneously import your recorded video into editing programs for use in entirely legal clip montages? Can you expand your collection to hundreds of hours without taking up any additional shelf space? Can you record One Life to Live for two weeks straight while you’re on vacation?

Yeah, didn’t think so.