Hack Attack: Build your own DVR
by Adam Pash
Ever since TiVo came around, I was eager to jump on the time shifting bandwagon. After all, nothing makes a productivity junkie happier than turning an hour-long show into forty minutes. But for all its loyal fan base, TiVo never seemed like the right fit for me.
For my money, time, and, let's be honest, the gratification of a solid DIY project, I'm a big proponent of building your own digital video recorder (DVR). TiVo is pretty good at what TiVo does, but imagine a world where you can also tweak your TiVo to do anything you can do with any other computer.
With all the potential controversy and uncertainty surrounding TiVo firmware upgrades, the time to build your own DVR has never been better. With your own DVR, you can get all the benefits of a TiVo and more without the recurring cost for subscription. This week, I'm going to show you how simple it is to turn your computer into a DVR. After that, I'll show you a few ways that I use my DVR to take it beyond TiVo.
Whether you're using your current PC, repurposing an old one, or going all out on a dedicated DVR to put under your TV, you can get so much more out of your own DVR than you could ever get out of a TiVo.
NOTE: Keep in mind that the setup I used here is far from the only way to go. After struggling for a while with how to put together an article that would work for everyone, I decided that I would just go ahead and describe how I do things. The main purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to the world of DIY DVRs, hopefully planting the seed for the possibility of a world beyond TiVo. On the other hand, if you do choose to take a route similar to the route I've chosen, this should provide you with a good starting point.
What you need
In order to put together your own DVR, you really only need to add two things to any given computer:
- A TV capture card
- DVR software
Add the preceding two components to any PC and you've got yourself a solid, fully-functional DVR; it doesn't get much more simple than that.
Choosing a capture card
First things first. If you're going turn your TV into a DVR, you need a capture card. A capture card is a USB or PCI device that you install on your computer that allows you to plug your TV cable into your computer the same way you would your TV.
There are plenty of cards available, but I've had great experience with the Hauppauge PVR-150, the entry card in the Hauppauge line of cards. To ease the load on your CPU, the Hauppauge PCI cards do the video encoding on the card, meaning TV recording will take up very few CPU cycles (perfect for an older PC). After you've bought it, you are of course going to have to install your PCI card (the Hauppauge PVR-150 is the card I installed in this feature), which is easy enough to do.
Finding the right software
There are a lot of great software options for homebrew PVRs, like SageTV (Windows and Linux, $80), MythTV (Linux, free), GB-PVR (Windows, free), BeyondTV (Windows, $70), and Freevo (Linux, free), to name a few of the most popular.
Although MythTV is probably the most powerful of these programs (and it's free), when all was said and done I chose SageTV for its feature set, stability, and Windows/Linux support. Aside from its very active support forums, you can also get support directly from a real company, which is always a nice option. Out of the box, SageTV installs as easily as any Windows program, and configuring your capture card with SageTV is a breeze.
Basically, if you're looking for a quick and easy, no hassle PVR software, SageTV fits the bill. In short, your PVR will be up and running in no time.  However, keep in mind that one of the great parts about building a homebrew PVR is that you do have the option to tweak and fiddle to your heart's content. If that's the case, there's a lot more you can do with SageTV.
The following are all tweaks I've made to my DVR. Some are specific to SageTV, while others (Remote control tweaking and Commercial skipping) can be used with nearly any DVR software.
- Customize your SageTV: If you're not happy with the default UI of SageTV, there are some beautiful user-designed packages that are easy to install. The best one I've found is called SageMC16x9.
- Commercial skipping: Automatic commercial detection and skipping is another great feature that's pretty easy to get up and running, but there are a few different routes you can take. The easiest option is to use the ComSkip program, but you may also want to try Show Analyzer.
- Remote control tweaking: SageTV gives you a lot of flexibility for tweaking how your remote control works with SageTV, but there's a lot you can do to tweak your IR remote to work with any program on your computer by editing the irrremote.ini file. After all, it wouldn't be much of a DVR if you had to head for your mouse and keyboard every time you want to use a different program. Since virtually every Windows program has keyboard shortcuts that allow for mouseless navigation, you can easily setup your remote to control them. For example, the Hauppauge remote can handle pretty much any keyboard combination.
- Launch external programs: With SageMC16x9, you've got an added menu option to launch external programs (check post #99). This feature can come in particularly handy if you want to launch your favorite emulator, video game, DVD player, or batch script, again, without heading for your keyboard/mouse.
The cool part about putting together your own DVR is that you're only limited by your imagination, so with a little tweaking you can put together a DVR that perfectly fits your needs. If you've already built your own DVR, let us in on your setup. TiVo users, fight back! What can your TiVo do that my DVR can't? Add your thoughts to the comments or send an email to tips at lifehacker.com.Adam Pash is an associate editor of Lifehacker. His special feature Hack Attack appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.
 If you're looking to take the same route I did, SageTV offers some excellent packages at their online store, bundling, for example, the PVR-150 capture card and the SageTV software at a discount. [back up]
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