Step-By-Step: Convert Your PC Into a Digital Video Recorder

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.

The Nvidia Personal Cinema FX 5200 with its included remote and break-out box of connectors.
The Nvidia Personal Cinema FX 5200 with its included remote and break-out box of connectors.

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

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