You don’t need to buy a TiVo to experience the bliss of a digital video recorder. Any PC with the right hardware can handle the chore–the key is to use the right software. I tested shipping versions of SnapStream’s Beyond TV 4.2 ($70) and SageTV Media Center 5.0 ($80), and found both apps full-featured and easy to use.
System requirements for the two are similar: a PC with a TV-tuner card and at least 15GB (for Beyond TV) or 20GB (for Sage) of hard-drive space for recording programs. The setup procedures are also comparable: Each demands about 10 minutes for setting up the TV tuner, selecting the cable provider, and choosing folders for saved videos.
Once installed, both apps let me easily watch, record, pause, and rewind live TV via bright and clear full-screen windows. Each also manages multiple installed TV tuners, for recording two programs simultaneously or juggling HDTV and standard TV.
The differences between the two programs are in the details. Just two clicks of your mouse will record the show you’re currently watching in Beyond TV; SageTV takes four. SageTV, however, offers extra customizability, permitting you to create keyboard shortcuts, for example.
Both applications download your cable provider’s program guide, including specific information on each episode. You can decide between recording specific episodes or all episodes of a show, or you can set a daily or weekly recording schedule.
The two programs can also automatically record shows you might want to watch, based on your previous recording habits–but privacy-minded viewers might feel uncomfortable with Beyond TV’s system, which forwards viewing data to SnapStream’s servers. (You can easily turn the feature off, however.)
Both apps store and catalog recorded programs for easy playback, as well. Shows are usually stored as MPEG-2 files for easy DVD burning, editing, or watching on your favorite media player. Beyond TV can record standard TV in Windows Media or DivX formats, and its ShowSqueeze can further compress to save space. (Note: At press time, SnapStream released Beyond TV 4.3, which allows ShowSqueeze to convert HD recordings to Windows Media and DivX formats as well.)
Beyond TV has an optional $30 software component that extends DVR programming and playback functionality to any computer on the same local network. SageTV’s Placeshifter software–another $30 option–offers these features, too, but takes things a step further: Comparable to Sling Media’s $200 Slingbox hardware, it lets you watch recordings from anywhere using an Internet-connected PC.
Beyond TV and SageTV Media Center are both powerful DVR programs, but SageTV’s extra flexibility is more than worth its slightly higher cost.
TV fanatics will appreciate this DVR software’s wealth of options and flexible controls.
Price when reviewed: $80
Current prices (if available)