The holy grail of entertainment in your home is the mesh between television and your PC. Since the CPUs in today’s PCs are much more powerful than the set top boxes that provide the majority of programming, it is entirely possible to use your PC to record shows and to play them back later.
If you are feeling especially brave, you can actually hook a computer directly to your television set – this is called a HTPC or a Home Theater PC.
Let this tutorial show you how to save the cost of a digital video recorder by closely aligning two of the most important entertainment devices in your home to record tv shows on your PC.
Bringing In A Signal
The first step to watching TV on your PC is bringing in a television signal. You can do this in either one of two (OK, three) ways.
The cheapest way is to install an antenna and bring in an OTA (Over-the-air) signal. This depends on your proximity to the transmitting towers and how clean the signal is. This is called an ATSC signal in the United States.
The second way to bring in a signal is through a cable provider. Most cable providers offer a very basic “local” package at a cheap rate. This gives you a basic cable coming into your house, and the signal will be encoded in a format called QAM. The channels they normally charge for will show up as encrypted, and you will not be able to see them unless you are able to decrypt them with a CableCard.
QAM is actually a great way to get the signal to your home. However, there is a big problem with it. Each cable provider and even every area has different channel mappings; that is the frequency mapped to a channel such as ABC or NBC. Figuring out these mappings can be an exercise in frustration.
For both of these options you can decode the signal with a tuner card. At your PC, there is a PCI (internal) card and a USB (external) interfaces available, and then there is a network attached device which is very popular called the HDHomeRun.
The third way to get television into your computer is through Satellite. A USB tuner such as this one from TeVii will decode the signal coming in from a satellite into a format that your PC can read. In the UK this is a popular option since Freesat is available for free.
Playing And Recording TV On Your PC
Now that the television signal has a way to get to your computer, we need to be able to decode that signal into something that your computer can display on screen and record to the hard drive.
There are several software packages available to do this for you.
The easiest to use software which is actually included for free in Windows 7 is called Windows Media Center. This software from Microsoft will decode the signal, and perform DVR functionality, in a very nice interface. Look for it in your Start menu.
I’ve had a hard time getting this set up with QAM – I understand with OTA signals it is actually quite easy to get running via the Settings area.
NextPVR is the latest update from what used to be called GB-PVR. It is actually a complete media center and is able to both view and record television shows, but also display your other media on your computer in a pleasant interface. It is not as easy to use as Windows Media Center, but is a good option if you do not have that available.
The Software That Came With Your Tuner
Almost every provider of hardware tuners also include software that is able to work with it. This software can at least play live TV, if not record as well.
I use Haupage and my provider bundles it with a package called WinTV. This software will play live TV coming in (QAM or OTA) and will record it as well. It also interfaces with the radio tuner that the card also has. This specific integration is only possible with software from the original provider, and is important if there is a specific feature you want to access.
If you do not use Windows or want to check out Linux, MythTV is a great solution for watching and recording television on your computer. It is not quite as easy to set up as the other options, but the interface is top notch and you can get a lot of support in their forums.
There are some other software available which can take the place of a cable box on your computer. BeyondTV and SageTV are both well-known makers of software, but both are also just under $100 in cost. It seems expensive, but if you think of the money you will save from your cable provider it is definitely worth it and can actually pay for itself in a month or so.
Recording television, specifically high definition television, takes up a LOT of hard drive space. A few gigabytes per hour. If you will be doing a lot of recording, make sure you have a decent amount of hard drive space, at least 500GB.
If you are going to be watching and recording HD television, you will also need a decent processor and graphics card, or you can see performance suffer and the television may actually stutter.
Once you get set up, however, you will be glad you did it. I’ve been running a PC-based DVR since about 2003 and haven’t looked back! Let us know if you have any recommended software for recording television, or if you need assistance getting your own rig set up.
Also, if you like your entertainment, check out our PDF guide on How To Build A Great Media Center For Your Home.