PCWorld: Convert Your PC Into a DVR

No doubt about it, TiVo has become a cultural icon. Witness its transformation into a verb: "I'm going to TiVo 'Survivor' tonight." Personal computer manufacturers have responded with so-called Media Center PCs that sport TV tuners, large hard drives, great sound systems, and Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004--an extended version of XP that lets you record TV and manage audio, video, and photos in one interface.

Unfortunately, you can't just go out and buy the Media Center OS; it's available only with off-the-shelf Media Center PCs. But you can use add-in accessories and software to upgrade your current PC to include virtually all the features of a Media Center PC or a digital video recorder like TiVo. Two possible routes are available. The less expensive is to add a TV-tuner card or USB box, which supplies basic TV viewing and recording capabilities. We decided to take the pricier route of upgrading our graphics, too, by installing a graphics card that integrates a TV tuner and other video extras.

To test the process out, we used two graphics/DVR cards: first ATI's All-In-Wonder 9600, then NVidia's Personal Cinema FX 5200, both of which retail for about $200. They offer built-in TV tuners, the ability to record to hard disk (and to CD/DVD or VCR), and TiVo-like features such as the ability to pause a live program for later viewing from where you left off. You can also hook these boards up to your television and surround-stereo system to play back recorded TV, or to connect your VCR and digitize old VHS tapes. And a PC-based DVR doesn't require a phone line or a monthly fee for a programming guide, as TiVo does.

Unlike their predecessors, today's PC add-in products are meant to work with cable TV set-top boxes. New ATI All-In-Wonder models can also share video with other PCs over a local network, and some can record HDTV with an included add-in board.

For information on ATI's All-In-Wonder 9600, go to our Product Finder:

For info on NVidia's Personal Cinema FX 5200, go to the company's Web site:

* The Top Down *

Benefits: Automatically record TV programs to your hard drive for later playback or for recording on CD/DVD or VCR; input video from a VCR or camcorder for conversion to digital video or CD/DVD. Use special features such as pausing a live program for later viewing.

Costs: TV tuner/recorder, $75-$200; complete graphics/video add-in kit, $200-$250; optional DVD writer, $150-$300

Expertise level: Intermediate

Time required: 45 to 90 minutes

Tools required: Phillips screwdriver, antistatic wrist strap (recommended)

Vendors: ATI, AVerMedia, Creative, Hauppauge, Leadtek, Matrox, NVidia, Pinnacle Systems

* Is Your PC Video-Ready? *

Recording video puts a lot of demands on your CPU and hard disk. In our experience, a PC needs quite a bit more horsepower than the manufacturer's minimum hardware and software requirements to be able to comfortably record, edit, and play back digital video. Here's our take on the real-world specs you'll need.

Processor: 1.8-GHz or higher Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon.

RAM: 256MB minimum; 512MB (or more) optimum.

Hard Drives: 60GB (or larger) separate partition. You should strongly consider a second hard drive dedicated to video storage.

Sound Card: It depends on how you're planning to use your media center. Most existing sound hardware should be fine for standard cable TV. But if you intend to view DVDs, you'll want a high-quality surround-sound card, such as the Sound Blaster Audigy 2. And a good set of PC speakers is a must as well.

Writable Media Drive: Though not strictly necessary, a DVD writer is something you'll wish you had if your PC lacks one.

Operating System: For some DVRs, Windows 2000 or XP Professional is required. Don't use Windows 98 or Me, even if the manufacturer says you can--you'll be disappointed.

Also, if you plan to integrate your PC with your home video and audio system, you'll need to set aside space for the computer, keyboard, and monitor. And many PCs are too noisy to work satisfactorily in these environments; see "Quiet Your PC: Easy Ways to Cut Computer Noise" for hints: http://pcwnl.pcworld.com/t/131484/15906100/515944/0/

* Installing Digital Video Recorder Hardware and Software *

Before you begin, do a complete system backup. Then check the manufacturer's Web site to ensure that you have the latest versions of the drivers and other software. Some PCs may also require an AGP driver update. The steps shown here are typical for using a graphics card with integrated DVR hardware. But your approach will differ if you aren't replacing your existing graphics card, and the steps vary by manufacturer. Your hardware comes with an installation poster and (usually) a manual. Read them carefully.

1. Remove existing graphics software and drivers.

This will help you avoid potential driver incompatibilities. Open Control Panel and open Add or Remove Programs. Find any entries for your graphics card and choose Change/Remove. If no entries are evident, right-click My Computer and choose Properties. Click the Hardware tab and then the Device Manager button. Double-click Display Adapters, right-click the entry for your existing graphics card, and choose Uninstall.

2. Change the graphics card.

Turn off your PC, unhook the monitor cable, and open the case. Don an antistatic wrist strap, and remove the screw that holds down the graphics card. Carefully remove the old card. Gently but firmly insert the new card so that it's securely seated in the AGP slot. Fasten the card with the screw, and then close the PC's case back up.

3. Hook up the equipment.

The connectors and cables on the rear of a TV-tuner graphics card can be intimidating, and each manufacturer uses a different layout. Study the installation poster that came with your hardware, paying particular attention to the audio and video inputs and outputs. Most cards, for example, require a connection to your sound card. Double-check all the connections before you restart.

4. Install the software.

Plug your PC in and turn it on. Windows should detect the new card and pop up the Found New Hardware Wizard. Insert the CD that came with your new card and follow the directions. Reboot your PC when instructed to do so.

5. Tweak the settings.

This is the most time-consuming step. Before you can use all the features of your new hardware and software, you must go through a number of setup screens. These will set up your audio and video connections, scan for available channels on your cable or satellite connection, and hook you up to a programming guide that simplifies choosing programs to watch or record. Follow the on-screen directions carefully.

6. Start using your multimedia center.

Learning all the ins and outs of your new hardware and software will take a while. Make some test recordings on your hard drive and burn a DVD (if your PC is so equipped) to confirm that everything is working together properly. If you run into problems, contact the manufacturer's tech support.


Linux PVRs Highlighted

On SlashDot, foolinator writes:

"Yahoo News is featuring an article highlighting TiVO alternatives. This includes MythTV (my favorite), Freevo, and even sites on how to start as a newbie. All of us who subscribe to the mailing lists be prepared to help out the newbies as Linux PVRs become more mainstream."

Here's a selection from the article itself:

At the Web Site "Build Your Own PVR" (http://www.byopvr.com), enthusiasts discuss the intricacies of how to build the most powerful personal video recorders with PC components, how well the latest hardware and software works, and also help the uninitiated to get started.
The site's tagline is: "Why Tivo when you can Freevo?"
SlashDot article
Yahoo! News article


PCWorld: Clean Up Your MP3 Collection

I've spent a lot of time cleaning up my MP3 collection recently, and it's come to remind me of a scene in Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity." Rob, the obsessive music fan narrating the story, has just been dumped by his girlfriend. He proceeds to regain some control over one aspect of his life the only way he knows how: He reorganizes his record collection. This is no typical reorganization, mind you. Rob arranges his records by the date he bought them--a sort of personal music fandom biography.

Of course, now that music's gone digital that "Great Reorganization" can be done in one click of the date-added tab. Sorting by genre, release year, artist name, or even track length is just as simple. Or at least it can be, provided your MP3 collection is in good shape to begin with.

Organizing a collection of records or CDs is time consuming, but at least it's unambiguous. MP3s on the other hand, have metadata, file names, and directory structures. Unless you've ripped your entire music collection yourself using the same program, you're likely to have some tracks that don't fit your naming scheme or that don't have all the correct data associated with them. This month, I'll show you how to whip your music collection into shape, discussing tools to help you perform your own Great Reorganization.

Get It Together

ID3 is not a summer blockbuster movie title; it's the most-used format for storing the additional data that goes with your digital audio files. The ID3 tags in a file store the year the album was produced, what genre the music belongs in, the track number, and a bunch of other metadata. Unfortunately, those tags have gone through several versions, and MP3 ripping programs don't fill them out consistently. My collection at work, for example, has track numbers in a couple different formats, and the year field is blank for over half the tracks.

The full version of Musicmatch provides a very cool way to clean up those ID3 tags with its Super Tagging feature. Grab a copy here:

Given a list of files, Super Tagging will collect whatever information is available to it from the file name, the directory structure, and any ID3 tagging on each song, then match that up with an online database to pinpoint which track it is and fill out the associated metadata automatically. It even can grab album art--when it's working correctly, anyway.

Super Tagging does come with a couple caveats. First, when a song appears on multiple albums, the tagger can get a little confused. For example, you'll see different album art for tracks from the same album. To fix this, you need to click "More..." on the screen where you review the matches to pull up a list and choose the right one. You'll have to spend some time tweaking the tagger's recommendations, but it's much quicker then entering all that data yourself. The second and more important caveat is that Super Tagging needs at least some information to get it started. If you've got a folder of files named "track1," "track2," "track3" without ID3 tags, you won't get good results.

If that's your situation, turn to an app like MP3/Tag Studio 3 to help you fill in the gaps:

Plenty of capable shareware apps help you rename or retag files in batches. MP3/Tag Studio provides a powerful interface that lets you automatically tag files based on their names, rename files based on their tags, enter your own tags in batches, or even remove extended intros or outros from songs. It's simple and fast enough to make hand-tagging some of your files convenient.

A nice final step in reorganizing is to create a consistent artist/album directory structure for all the songs. One easy way to do this is to let Apple ITunes do all the work. In the program, select Edit, Preferences, and click the Advanced tab. Set the ITunes Music folder location to a directory where you want your MP3s to end up and click OK to close the Preferences dialog box. (Make sure this directory doesn't already contain any of your MP3s, or they won't get reorganized.) Then select Advanced in the menu bar and click Consolidate Library. Click OK, and ITunes moves all your tunes to the directory you chose and sorts them into an artist/album folder structure. While consolidating your library, ITunes can also convert any WMA files you have to AAC or MP3 format so it can play them, but it won't convert any protected WMA files you've purchased at online stores like Napster. And RealAudio files or tracks purchased at RealPlayer Music store won't be converted or moved by this procedure.

If, after all that, you're up for some extra credit, check out a program called MP3Trim:

The program detects and removes big pockets of digital silence, like the ones inserted before hidden tracks at the end of a CD. It can also clean up extraneous ID3 tags and strange info found in MP3s. The Pro version even normalizes your songs so you don't get big jumps in volume between tracks.


Muppetopia Update

Just did a quick update to my home network diagram, simplified it a bit, taking out peripherals like the printers (which wouldn't transfer from the Visio to image format, annoying) though not all these systems are online just yet. My corner of the basement is still a mess, but at least the network is up now...

Muppetopia.png (79KB)
List of computers


Verizon DSL

So what's my speed? Did a speedtest through BroadbandReports at Speakeasy, tested at around 760/120 which would possibly indicate a 768/128 connection. Supposedly I should be able to upgrade to 1.5/384 if the CO has the cards needed. I need to speed-test again at night to get a good reading.

According to the site, my CO FLWTWVFW (Falling Waters) is BELL ATLANTIC - WEST VIRGINIA, INC Telco. And according to Mapquest they're just on the other side of 81 from me. Verizon will accept orders for ADSL up to 1500ft, so must be within that.

UPDATE: Done 5/27/2004 from FozzieBear
Speakeasy 2004-05-27 20:04:17 EST: 356 / 132
That's pitiful. I'm hoping it was the time of day and the fact that Fozziebear is across two switches from the router. (Have to make the network topography more efficient...)

UPDATE: From FozzieBear again, after fixing an issue with the switch (didn't have uplink on).
Speakeasy 2004-05-30 17:30:08 EST: 328 / 130
Even more pitiful, but at least consistent. Have to try again from both Beaker (plugged directly into the Linksys) and FozzieBear (25' Cat5e to switch, then 10' to hub before even get to the box) at the same time and compare, to track down where the bottleneck is. Speed is decent for normal web browsing at least. Just not what I'm expecting...

UPDATE: Got my wireless card and tested from Neuromancer, my work laptop.
Megapath 2004-06-02 20:40:46 EST: 661 / 130