Want a TiVo without the subscription?

Everyone wants a TiVo, even if the don’t know what one is when you say the name. For those of you that are un-initiated, a PVR or TiVo is a VCR that doesn’t use tapes. Pretty considerate, huh? With a lot of PVR’s that are built from or as computers, you can even burn what you have recorded to DVD. Not only will this allow you higher quality recordings, but you can archive that Family Guy episode with the “novel” bit by Stewie without having to buy the whole season. (Although, why wouldn’t you want the whole season?)

Generally speaking, there are four options to choosing a PVR: TiVo, “generic” from your cable company, Windows Media Center, and a linux/MythTV box. I’ll briefly cover them here, pointing out differences as I see them. DISCLAIMER: In case anyone does read this, take note that I am heavily biased toward MythTV and have used only 3/4 (no cable PVR experience) of these options.

First up is TiVo. This company has been doing PVR for a long time and knows what they are doing. Their interface is slick, and the setup is a cakewalk in most instances. Unfortunately as the big man on campus of personal video recorders they are under a lot of scrutiny from the television companies. This has resulted in some functionality changes and some lawsuits. For simplicity and ease of use, I would suggest TiVo. Please remember that there is the up-front cost for the unit and a continuing subscription fee.

Second in line is a “generic” PVR from your cable company. The different cable companies each offer different models of personal video recorders. I can’t say a whole lot about these units as Charter does not offer one in my area yet. What I can be reasonably sure of is that there will be a monthly rental cost and fee for the service as well. To me this seems like double-billing, but I’m not with the FTC. Since the box will be from your cable company, you can take some solace in the idea that it SHOULD work well with their system (listings, etc.).

The first step in “independent” home theater personal computers (HTPC) would be to get a Windows Media Center PC. From what I’ve seen, this is just a slightly more polished version of XP (and soon Vista) that has a few little bumps in the areas of audio and video performance. In my opinion, the small “improvements” are not worth the extra price of the PC and software license. Also, since this is the first HTPC on the list, I will mention that even if you want to rip a DVD that you own to make yourself a single backup copy, GOOD LUCK. I know fellow geeks will say that there are ways around this, but that is illegal according to the DMCA as you must circumvent the CSS2 copy-control. The DMCA strictly prohibits bypassing any copy-control device. To summarize WMC-PC, you get small interface improvements and Windows on a PC. Yay.

Finally, we come to my point for this whole post: MythTV. Imagine that said in the “monster-truck-commercial-voice”, because that’s how I envisioned it. MythTV is a complete home-theater program that runs on Linux. When I say complete, I mean complete. Myth will allow you to record shows like the others, burn DVD’s of your recordings (WMC only does some), emulate old gaming systems, surf the internet (in fairness, WMC will too), and customize as you want (good luck registering WMC if you make changes). In addition, Myth works much better than WMC with less hardware requirements. Just go to www.mythtv.org and www.microsoft.com to compare specs. It’s okay, I’ll wait. Now, if you actually looked, you’ll see that the XP/Media Center requirements are really low. Now I challenge anyone to operate on those system requirements and be productive. While that may be the minimum to start the OS, it is impossible to actually USE the system at those specifications.

Oh, did I mention that upgrades to Myth are free? Yes, that’s right. WMC users will need to pay a (likely) outrageous sum to upgrade to the Vista version. Figure the free license into the cost of ownership with the cost of cheaper (older) components, and a Myth box can easily be made far more cheaply than a WMC PC.

Well, this has been my brief description of the four options facing someone looking to replace their VCR. Yep, I’m biased toward Myth and against WMC. Sorry if you don’t like it, but it’s my blog.

Here are some links to pre-built MythTV systems.