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(photo credit: Courtesy)
I just did a mini-refurbishing of my home office - moving stuff around, adding a few electrical outlets, etc.
Between one thing and another, the project took nearly a whole day - far more time than I expected. And what was the biggest challenge? You got it - trying to figure out which junk to keep, and which to throw out! We've gone from promises of the paperless office to offices full of not only paper, but old CDs, DVDs, floppies and other disk types, and various sundry other methods of storing data.
What goes for the office goes for the home - and for home entertainment, as well. Almost everyone has a large collection of music CDs as well as cassettes - some people still have LPs, and even 8-track tapes. On the video side, you've got videocassettes, DVDs, video CDs you watch on your computer and, of course, plenty of video games. The mass of media proliferates daily, and more and more time is needed to sort and/or clean up after it. And, of course, each medium needs a different machine in order to be played.
Some people look at the idea of a Home Theater PC (HTPC) as a way to get superior video and audio. The versatility of digital data and the ease with which software nowadays can monkey with data that appears in one form - like a DVD - and convert it to another form - like PC AVI movies - is attractive to tech aficionados who are looking for an easy and cheap way to deliver superior entertainment.
That's all well and good, I suppose, but, for me, the attraction in building an HTPC is being able to dispense with hundreds of disks that have piled up over the years and storing their contents on a hard drive. Whether it's for convenience or for superior entertainment, HTPC is the "next big thing" in home computers. It's a natural - so many services and technologies have already "converged" with computers, it's not a matter of if - it's a matter of when HTPCs become as common as the TVs, radios and DVD players they will replace (at least among the tech-savvy).
Why all the buzz about HTPCs? Well, for example, you can, with a little effort, turn your PC into a PVR (Personal Video Recorder), such as the TiVo systems used in the States, or the Yes Max recorder marketed by the satellite service provider here. With a PVR, you can record directly to your hard drive for later viewing, skipping over commercials and automatically recording programs when they come on. And unlike TiVo or Yes Max, you don't have to pay a monthly fee for the service.
The guts of any PC is its processor, and any modern PC - i.e. produced in the past two years or so - should be up to the task of recording off your TV. After all, most TiVo systems have a very basic processor - 33 mHz - far weaker than even recent Celeron machines (although TiVo systems have a special chip dedicated to encoding and decoding video, the most processor intensive task PVRs are required to do). A 1.5 mHz Pentium or AMD processor should do fine. You should also have 512 MB of RAM in your machine for this project.
The main ingredient in PC/PVR is its interface to the TV - its video card. Although we haven't done a thorough review of these cards yet, the kind of card you need will have a video in/out TV card, such as the Hauppague Win Series (http://www.hauppauge.com). The Win-TV PVR, for example, automates a great deal (but not all) of the recording process, and comes with time-shifting software that lets you set your own schedule for recording, as well as video control software that lets you pause, fast forward, or even detect commercials in recorded video.
The Hauppauge TV cards' main feature, for our purpose, is its hard wired Mpeg2 video encoder, which will shrink the digital data coming in from your TV to computer-friendly sizes - about 1 gigabyte per recorded hour.
Actually, the Hauppauge cards have a lot of nice extras, such as an on-board cable tuner and software to run its computer software via remote control. I'm not sure whether those features would work with our local digital TV providers, however - but the Hauppauge cards are all available locally. TV cards range in price and features, but most of the ones you'll be looking at cost between NIS 1,000 and NIS 1,500. Be suspicious if the computer store salesperson tells you he's got something that can do the job for about NIS 350 - it's probably a PVR type device that connects to your PC's USB port - and it's not going to do the job for you.
The software provide with the Hauppauge cards, by the way, is the excellent Snapstream Beyond TV (http://www.snapstream.com), which is so easy to use you can program it while half asleep, nodding off in front of your TV. On its own, Beyond TV costs about $100, but if you already have a card or buy one without bundled software, you can download GB-PVR (http://www.gbpvr.com), which has many of the same features as its more expensive colleague, but doesn't cost anything.
PVRs are only one example of digital convergence - there are dozens of other digital media tricks you can perform with cheap or no hardware, and cheap or free software. For example, you may have thought about investing in a High Definition TV. But forget about shelling out many thousands for such a set - your PC can pick up HD terrestrial broadcasts, and display them for you on your screen in true high definition glory - for a lot less money.
More on that and other HTPC issues next time.