Monday, June 8, 2009

DIY DVR, it's about time... (part 1)

Two years ago I decided that I was going to build a DVR. For those who don't know, that's a digital video recorder. Basically, it involves sticking a TV card into a computer and plugging the coax cable from your cable company into it. Why would I do this when I can rent one for cheap from my cable company? You might as well ask why the birds sing or why the sky is blue than to ask a geek that question.

So, on my 29th birthday, I received some gift cards from friends and family and the blessing of my wife to go do it. The problem was, we've been living on laptops since 2005, and the only reasonable box to use in the house was an underpowered, oversized, noisy monster of a thing from 2001. And we don't have, nor do I care to have a new HD-TV at the moment. Analog is fine for now, thanks. Also, my goal isn't just to record shows. My goal is to have the box hooked directly into the TV, and then use the box not only for DVR tasks, but also install NES and SNES emulators and also have myself an old school game station (only for games I have the cartridge in the crawl space for of course). And, I also want this machine to serve as the family's file server for music and pictures. And, this box may host an ASP.NET website or two with a SQL Server express backend.

So, armed with some goals bigger than my budget, I set off on a half-hearted mission I wasn't fully ready to complete, and I got some pieces and parts but mostly blew the gift cards on other fun things because I decided I couldn't have everything I wanted at that time. Besides, I reasoned that our DVD recorder was a reasonable stop-gap.

Well, lo-and-behold it's 2 years later and I still didn't have my DVR. But, we experienced a few new developments.
  1. Beth and I, though we only have 1 TV in the house, have found ourselves spending more time in our basement since we (she) re-imagined it last year (you go girl!)
  2. During our TV watching time, the commercials have gotten way out-of-line and inappropriate. Specifically, if we watch the Sci-Fi channel, the ads for R+ rated horror flicks during otherwise PG shows are awful. The volume discrepancy between the show and the ads became too much to take as well. And, if I see one more ad for this ridiculous Burn Notice show on USA I'm liable to put a hammer through our only TV.
  3. Our analog cable box no longer shows the channel guide, as WOW (our cable provider) is discontinuing it to push their HD offerings. Again - who needs the HD when 1/3 of what we're watching is ads anyway!?
  4. I received an unexpected but much welcomed bonus at work
  5. Memorial Day tech deals were smokin' hot this year
So, without further adieu, here's what I got:
  • HP Pavilion, 500GB SATA drive, 4GB RAM, dual core 2.5 GHz Intel 64-bit processor, Vista Home Premium (comes with Media Center). $400 at Staples.
  • Hauppauge internal PCI card. Remote and IR receiver and repeater included. Best Buy, $89
  • Galaxy 8400 512 Video card with S-Video out. Best Buy, $46
  • S-video cable from my video card to my TV. Found one in my cable drawer.
  • 2 Play Station controller to USB converters. Micro Center, $15 each 2 years ago.
  • Headphone jack to RCA converter cable. Found one in my cable drawer.
  • Life Extender. Free .NET commercial stripping goodness for Media Center. Wow.
  • USB hub. Already had it from 2 years ago.
It took me two hours to get up and running, plus some serious cable management time, and some learning time, but it has been well worth it!

As for DVR software... I had a co-worker at my last job who used Beyond TV. I drooled over MythTV when I read about it in my Linux Journal. I was planning to use GB-PVR this time around. But, Microsoft blew me away with Media Center. Being not afraid of Vista one iota, and in fact even thinking that it's a really great OS (once you disable UAC and tweak the nasty defaults), I forged ahead with MS's offering and am so very pleased. I could not be happier with this and am wowed by new features and functionality every day.

Did I pay too much? Well, maybe. But the box isn't just a DVR. It's also, as I said, my legacy Nintendo console emulator, as well as an ASP.NET development/deployment box for my personal projects, a SQL Server express dev box, a family files archive, and really the only recent 'desktop' machine we have. So, with the bulk of the expense having gone into that, it may seem pricey, but if I only wanted a PVR I could have found a cheap-o box to do the trick and stuck it in a corner rather than connect it to the TV. There are lower-cost ways to do this, but I got nearly everything I wanted. This, instead, is a much more multi-purpose platform.

I'll review Media Center in a "part II" post, and highlight the small downsides of this setup. Stay tuned. For now, I'm going to browse to Casino Royale. And Media Center will smartly remember exactly where I left off in it last night - even though the kids have watched their stuff during the day, and even though a re-run of House is recording on Fox. Ah, I'm commercial-free and happy on my crappy but functional old TV from 1992. Sweet. It's about time. My time.

3 comments:

truist said...

Awesome! Congratulations on getting this working - I can't wait to see it.

ftmomma said...

funny... the whole nintendo aspect never got mentioned before I "gave my blessing"...

:-) but I am really super happy with the dvr and you have absolutely earned my super-genius-husband-of-the-year award.

ftmomma said...

funny... the whole nintendo aspect never got mentioned before I "gave my blessing"...

:-) but I am really super happy with the dvr and you have absolutely earned my super-genius-husband-of-the-year award.