A Cool Alternative to Media Center and TiVo

Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) offers excellent digital video recording (DVR) functionality and an amazing "10-foot" UI that lets you interact with your computer as if it were a consumer-electronics device. But there's one major problem: To get XP MCE, you have to purchase a new Media Center PC, which will set you back at least $1000. That's because Microsoft refuses to sell the XP MCE software—a decision I think is a big mistake. But for people wishing to get DVR functionality on their PC without spending $1000, rejoice: An inexpensive XP MCE alternative has arrived and, in some ways, it surpasses the Microsoft option. That alternative is called SnapStream Beyond TV 3. And if you're thinking "TiVo," think again: Beyond TV 3 also offers significant advances over that product.

SnapStream entered the personal video recorder (PVR) market 4 years ago with its Personal Video Station product, renamed Beyond TV 3 for the most recent version, which shipped in early 2004. At its heart, Beyond TV 3 is a Windows-based software package that lets you record TV shows on your PC. But that's only the beginning: Beyond TV 3 really shines in the ways you can consume that recorded TV content. Before I get to that, however, I want to step back a bit and take a look at what you need to do to make this all come together.

Getting the Pieces You Need
Most PCs don't have the necessary hardware to interact with a TV signal, so you're probably going to need some additional hardware to get a good DVR experience. At the very least, you'll need a TV tuner interface (typically a PCI card for desktop PCs, though lower-quality USB-based options exist for notebooks). These cards typically offer a number of input types, such as cable-compatible coaxial, S-video, and component video, as well as stereo audio. Today, the biggest maker of TV tuner cards is HauppaugeComputer Works, and I've reliably used Hauppauge equipment for years in both my den-based Media Center PC and my home office-based desktop PC, on which I tested Beyond TV 3; for this reason, I feel comfortable recommending Hauppauge cards.

Depending on the situation, you might also want to grab a remote control so that you can control the Beyond TV 3 experience without hovering over your PC. Not coincidentally, SnapStream sells Beyond TV 3 bundles that include TV tuner cards and remote controls. The remote I tested, a low-end Hauppauge model, is pretty junky compared with the nice remote you get with a Media Center PC. But SnapStream recently started shipping a beautiful remote called the Firefly PC Remote, which appears to answer all DVR and PC-related remote needs. (It works not only with Beyond TV 3 but also with more than 80 PC applications, including MusicMatch Jukebox.)

Finally, you'll want to address the location concern. Today's PCs, by nature, aren't exactly at home in the living room. They're noisy and delicate, compared with typical consumer-electronics equipment, and prone to—ahem—rebooting at inconvenient times. For this reason, I have a love-hate relationship with my HP Media Center PC, which has been a fixture in my den since fall 2002. Microsoft has improved Media Center dramatically since then and will ship a second major update this fall, but nothing can change the fact that the box is a PC. It just doesn't fit in the den.

SnapStream's solution would have the same problem. But unlike the Media Center PCs, SnapStream has a handy solution: Instead of keeping the PC in the den, keep it in the home office where it belongs and use a home network to blast the recorded TV shows from Beyond TV 3 to a set-top unit attached to your favorite TV. SnapStream doesn't make such a box, but Hauppauge does. The MediaMVP is an inexpensive ($99) and simple solution that also includes an interface for enjoying your PC's digital music, photos, and non-recorded TV movies from anywhere in the house. The interface isn't as gorgeous as that of XP MCE, but you can't beat the price.

Installing and Configuring Beyond TV 3
After you decide which PC to use, and after you install at least a compatible TV tuner card (and, optionally, the remote and IR receiver), you can install Beyond TV 3, which is a relatively simple step-by-step process thanks to good documentation and a handy Getting Started poster. First, you connect the TV source to the tuner card—this can be satellite, cable, or antenna. If your TV system requires a cable box (say, to get premium channels such as HBO), you'll also need what's called an IR blaster. An IR blaster is a cable that runs from the PC (through a USB port) to the cable box. A small bit of stickum glues the end of the cable over the cable box's IR port. Essentially, an IR blaster emulates your remote control. When you send a command such as "Change the channel up," the IR blaster "blasts" that command to the box, as if your cable system's remote control had done it. It’s the same system Media Center PCs use. See SnapStream's Web site for compatible IR blasters, which typically cost $20 to $50.

Then, you run the Beyond TV 3 installation program. (Be sure to check the SnapStream Web site for the latest version first.) After you reboot, you can configure Beyond TV 3 for your hardware, TV source, and guide data configuration. You'll also create a free SnapStream.Net account, which I describe below. Now, you can start the application—which runs either in full-screen, windowed, or Web admin mode—and make further configuration changes.

Under Settings, you can configure such items as recording quality, whether to use an innovative commercial-skipping feature called SmartSkip (not available on TiVo or Media Center), source type (cable in my case), storage location of recordings, and other related data. Now it's time to get busy.

Watching and Recording TV Shows
When you click the Live TV option in the main Beyond TV 3 screen, you'll see a live TV feed. You can change channels, as you might expect, but here is just one of many areas in which Beyond TV 3 outpaces Media Center. When you move the mouse around or press any remote button, you see the Beyond TV 3 overlay, which presents information such as date and time, volume level, channel, and current show information, as well as links to the Guide and options.

Sounds fine so far. But Beyond TV 3 overcomes one of the huge limitations of Media Center, TiVo, and any other IR blaster-type solution by letting you quickly scroll through the list of currently available channels, directly from the Live TV view, without having to actually view the Guide. That is, you can click the Up or Down channel button on your remote until you find the show you want, and Beyond TV 3 won't try to change the channel for each button press. Instead, the UI changes to display the name of the show on each station as you move through the list. When you finally settle on a channel, Beyond TV 3 goes directly to that channel. This type of navigation is particularly important for DVRs, especially those with IR blasters, because channel changes can be very slow. On Media Center, for example, you have to laboriously click the Up or Down channel button, wait a few seconds until the channel actually changes, then repeat. It's so painful that most people with DVRs simply stop navigating TV that way. With Beyond TV 3, channel surfing is back.

If you do want to view the Guide, however, I have more good news: Not only does Beyond TV 3 offer all the standard Guide data and navigation that DVR users expect, it offers two major enhancements over Media Center. First, the Guide appears as an overlay over the live TV signal, so you can see both the Guide and the current show. (On Media Center, the Guide places the live TV signal in a tiny window in the corner of the screen.) Second, the Beyond TV 3 Guide features a thin marker line that denotes your position within the Guide's timeline. If it's 11:03, for example, you'll see a vertical line showing you where you are in the timeline of the current shows. That line moves left to right as time advances, of course. Nice!

If you want to record a show, the functionality is similar to that of other DVRs. You can record shows on the fly by simply clicking the Record button on your remote, or you can schedule recordings using Beyond TV 3's handy Setup Recordings option. Here, you can navigate the Guide and select shows to record, search by show title, view upcoming recordings and configure other options. And when you do find a show to record, you get a number of crucial options, including Record this episode, Record all episodes, and Record all new episodes.

Sharing Your Recorded TV Shows
If you're familiar with Media Center or TiVo, this information probably sounds pretty familiar. But Beyond TV 3 boasts some additional features that set this solution apart from other options. First, Beyond TV 3's recorded TV shows are in standard MPEG-2 format and aren't restricted in any way. You can edit recorded shows in your favorite movie-making application, burn them to DVD, or store them on a networked file server. Microsoft's solution generates huge, nonstandard files that are difficult to work with (6GB for a 2-hour show), and TiVo restricts you from even copying the recorded shows from the device to a PC.

You can copy recorded TV shows to a laptop and watch them away from home. With a MediaMVP, as mentioned above, you can watch those shows from anywhere in the house. And if you're a Pocket PC owner, you can even compress those shows by using Beyond TV 3's ShowSqueeze feature, and watch them on your PDA.

Wait, There's More!
At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, there's more. If you're away from home and decide you want to record a TV show at home, you can log on to your Beyond TV 3's system through a Web-based interface and set up recordings remotely. (This feature is the reason you need a SnapSteam.Net account.) You can even schedule recordings from a WAP-enabled phone, though I haven't yet tried that feature.

SnapStream Beyond TV 3 is a full-featured, well-designed DVR product for PCs, one that is made more capable by an intelligent set of add-on products. The base Beyond TV 3 software is $60, but SnapStream also sells TV tuner/remote/software packages for $140 to $180. Even when you add in the cost of the Firefly remote ($50) and a MediaMVP ($99), the SnapStream solution costs well under that of even the cheapest Media Center PC, all while offering more DVR functionality. Furthermore, SnapStream (like Media Center, but unlike TiVo), doesn't require a monthly fee that ties you into a service for months at a time. If you don't mind tinkering a bit with your PC—the TV tuner installation isn't for newbies—SnapStream's Beyond TV 3 comes highly recommended.

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