In October 2006 I wrote about trying to find a replacement for my Tivo which bit the dust after five years of faithful service. The whole DVR (Digital Video Recorder) category has come on a fair way since then, with hard disk based video recorders or PC-based media centres being fairly common-place now.
So I thought I’d write again about the things I’d like in a DVR / media centre, and my understanding of what the options are. In Oct 06, I said I wanted:-
- Season passes (the ability to record all episodes of a show without having to know when they’re on)
- No monthly subscription, ruling out a Sky Plus box for that reason
- A silent or near-silent box.
Since then, I’ve come up with two or three more features which I think are important:-
- The ability to copy video files on to the device and play back a wide range of formats. Could be video of the kids playing in the garden, could be a show you forgot to record and a friend gives you a file on a memory stick. Whichever, it’s become clear to me that only being able to play back content which was originally recorded on the device is a bit limiting.
- There’s something to be said for having everything in one box – a video recorder, a DVD player, a playback device for other videos. There’s only one UI, one remote, one input on the TV where everything lives. It’s almost certainly cheaper to buy three boxes; a cheap Freeview DVR, a cheap DVD player, and a cheap media streamer, but it’s a less elegant solution.
- As my children get older and we all have things we want to watch, I grow more attracted to the idea of having one big hard disk of content somewhere with the ability to call up any chunk of it on any TV in the house. You could buy two or three Freeview recorders for the price of a PC-based server-and-clients system, but you’d either have to go round them all telling each of them to record everything, or accept that they’d all have different content on them. Not as neat.
So what are the options now? Sadly Tivo still aren’t selling new hardware in the UK, so despite having the best UI by a margin, it’s not really a credible choice right now; having dual freeview tuners is so much better than having to control a separate set-top box and being restricted to a single recording at a time that a Tivo no longer looks competitive. There was an announcement a month or so ago that the Tivo software has been licenced to run on PCs, so if and when that appears it might be worth a look – but it would have to support dual freeview tuners and allow no-subscription-cost access to the Tivo guide data. We’ll see.
What else? The cheapest way in is still to buy a freeview DVR such as a Humax 9200 or a Topfield TF5800PVRt. They’re a couple of hundred quid, and they’re appliances rather than PCs, so they Just Work out of the box. The Humax 9200 recently had a firmware upgrade to allow it to do season passes, and these work pretty well, so it now does just about everything my original wishlist had (it’s a little noisy and the season passes aren’t perfect because not every channel provider publishes the required metadata to support them, though most do). So it’s only my latter-day wish for an all-in-one box that can play back video from other sources that stops it being perfect. I gather you can make the Topfield do that sort of thing by adding third party software to it, but I’m not hugely keen to get into that kind of fiddling.
There’s a device called the Babel TV recorder which looks interesting; it’s a pre-built Linux box with PVR software, dual tuners, DVD playback and (I presume) playback for other video files. It’s £300 which is a bit more than a Humax, but might be worth it for the extra functionality. The only problem is, since being announced last October, I haven’t seen a single review of it anywhere which makes me a little bit suspicious; their web site suggests that you can buy one right now, so why hasn’t anyone anywhere written anything about it after the initial flurry of interest when it was first announced?
Other choices revolve around putting a PC or a Mac under the TV. I’ve tried this with a Windows Media Centre box and it works pretty well, ticking my boxes for dual freeview, DVD playback, video file playback, etc. The problems are that it’s a relatively expensive option – PCs are cheap, but PCs which will fit under the TV and run near-silently are not. You’re more likely to spend £500-£1000 than £199 if you go this way. And while it does season passes and has a free and relatively data-rich EPG, it’s apparently incapable of spotting when there are repeat showings of the same episode of a show, choosing instead to record them all, even though the show name, episode name and episode description are identical. Tivo never had that problem. Another snag is that since it’s Windows underneath, it’s relatively fragile, and is likely to lock up every now and again, or present you with an inexplicable error message. If you try to install software on it, there may be unwanted side effects; when I tried to install a DivX codec to give me thumbnails for DivX files, I broke my Freeview tuner drivers for reasons I don’t pretend to understand.
There are other DVR software choices if you have a suitable PC, too; I looked briefly at Sage TV which is Java software and thus runs on a PC or a Mac or a Linux box. I quite liked it, but the fiddling around to get it set up factor was quite high; it wasn’t a very appliance-like experience. If you buy a PC with Windows Media Center (or Vista Home Premium, now, I guess) on it, then it is at least a fairly appliance-like experience, with the software starting up on first boot and asking you a series of questions which you can answer with the remote control. Sage TV, by contrast, required me to download it, unzip it, run a setup program and then do quite a lot of fiddling before I had something working well enough to sit on the sofa and play with. Sage do make cheap HD extender boxes, though, which is interesting.
Last time I wrote about this I also mentioned the possibility of using a Mac for the purpose. The Apple TV box won’t do on its own because it can’t record TV, only play back content acquired elsewhere. Same deal with Apple’s Front Row software – no recording. And when I looked around back in ‘06, I couldn’t find any Mac software which would do season passes. Now there are at least two choices; the afore-mentioned Sage TV, or possibly Elgato Eye TV v3 which looks very Mac-like, and might integrate quite well with Apple TV boxes as extenders. But I’m dubious about the need to combine a Mac with third party software and third party hardware (for the tuners and possibly the remote control) and have it all Just Work. I might at some stage buy the software and a USB tuner and try it on a MacBook just to see how it performs, though.
So there is still no perfect solution. On a tight budget, I’d buy a Humax and live without the fancy stuff. It’s a great PVR, it does season passes, and it works. All the time. If I had money to burn, I’d buy a silent PC (probably one of these ) and run Windows Media Centre, accepting its quirks with season passes and trying as hard as possible to treat it as if it were an appliance and not installing anything on it that isn’t essential for its running. I think there is still a gap in the market for something which is more than a Humax/Topfield but less than a fuill-on Windows or Mac computer; the gap which the Babel TV might fill if it really exists, I suppose.