"Hauppauge WinTV PVR-500 and SageTV" by Troy H. Cheek on Mar 10, 2008
I grew up watching television, but it wasn't the television most of you are familiar with. For one thing, for the first few years of my life, I thought that most of the world was a dreary gray color, with my house and the surrounding countryside being the only places God ever blessed with color.
The other thing was that back then you just didn't have cable or satellite or any other source of television signals except what were flying through the air. "Television" meant nailing an antenna to the side of your house. It also meant sending the oldest son out in the hail storm to turn the antenna 18 degrees to the left so the football game would come in more clearly.
Back then, you got the three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and maybe a PBS station or two. As I recall, we considered ourselves very lucky that we could point the antenna in a different direction and occasionally (when the moon was right, though cloud cover probably had more to do with it) pick up the CBS affiliate of another town. We could get an additional PBS station on a backup television with a simple wire loop antenna. Of course, we couldn't pick up anything but that additional PBS station on that antenna.
While my current cable TV costs an awful lot for an awful selection of channels, I do get about 50 of them fed to half a dozen televisions and computers, so I think I'm getting my money's worth.
As I mentioned last week, I finally got some decent Personal Video Recorder software (SageTV) and a working TV tuner device for my computer (Plextor ConvertX). While I haven't been watching a lot of television during the last few years, I discovered that with an accurate and searchable electronic program guide, you can find something worth watching. The adage that there's never anything worth watching on television anymore is indeed true, but only on average. Sure, at a given time, it's highly unlikely that there's anything worth watching on whatever channel you're checking, but let the computer start recording things for you, and you'll suddenly discover that there aren't enough hours in the day.
In fact, you'll suddenly discover that there is more good television than your computer can record at any given time. I realized, for example, that a lot of the really good (really bad) science fiction movies I like are aired at times like 2AM on Sunday morning, which is unfortunately the same time that two other really good (really bad) science fiction movies are airing on two other channels. How to record three different shows at the same time?
Enter the (drum roll) Hauppa uge WinTV PVR-500 (and cue Cheek.Org "Link of Death" theme song). This is a PCI-based analog TV tuner card. Though it is billed as a Windows XP Media Center Edition product, it will work quite well with other Windows versions as long as you've got a third party PVR application like SageTV installed. In addition to having it's own remote control and an infra-red receiver which plugs into any available USB port, the PVR-500 has not one, but two, two, two TV tuners in one!
If you already have a remote control for your computer (say, the one that came with your Media Center computer), then you can also buy the PVR-500 without the extras. I almost did just that, because I couldn't really see any reason why I'd want to work my computer by remote control. After I received the MCE kit, I almost didn't install the receiver and try out the remote control. Now, I'm exceptionally glad that I did. SageTV just sings with a remote control.
SageTV Media Center, as you'll remember, is a TiVo-ish computer program whose $80 purchase price includes an electronic program guide. SageTV will not only show you what's on, it will record anything you tell it to. Let it know what your favorite shows are and it will record them without you having to specify every episode. Tell it to really turn loose and it will start recording shows that it thinks you might want to see based on your past viewing history. You can fine tune it by telling it you liked or didn't like its "intelligent" picks.
Sure, you can do all this with a TiVo or your cable or satellite company's DVR, but can you add more storage space and more tuners to your TiVo as easily as I can to my computer? I didn't think so.
The PVR-500 was easily installed in any available PCI slot. Well, not any slot, as I put it as far away from my video card as I could just to help with air circulation. And not easily, as I had a fan wire running right through where the card was going, so I had to lengthen the wires. But once past those problems, installation went smoothly. Totally ignoring the included CD, I downloaded the latest drivers from the Hauppauge website and told SageTV that I had two new tuners. I had a minor heart attack when neither tuner could tune anything, but they both worked on the second attempt. This brought my total number of available tuners to three.
And, yes, SageTV was able to record a movie I'd manually told it to record, an episode of one of my favorite series, and intelligently record something it thought I might like, all at the same time. Because the Plextor ConvertX and the Hauppauge PVR-500 both have hardware encoders and because I have all my television recordings going to a dedicated harddrive on its own dedicated controller, even recording three channels at once doesn't significantly affect my computer usage. I'm recording two shows as I'm typing this, and I wouldn't even know it if the disk drive activity light didn't keep flickering.
The PVR-500's picture quality is easily as good as the ConvertX's. Probably better. I've seen small imperfections in the ConvertX output that I probably wouldn't have noticed if I didn't have the PVR-500 to compare it to, but they're both head and shoulders above any other analog TV tuner I've used.
Yes, I said analog. I'm still viewing plain old analog, standard definition, NTSC television as provided by my cable provider in their lowest (and cheapest) tier of service. Sure, over the air analog television transmissions are being phased out in less than a year in favor of digital ones, but the PVR-500 is "future-proofed" in at least two ways: 1) I'm not getting my television over the air, but rather through analog cable, which is not scheduled to be phased out, at least not that soon, and 2) since there are still a lot of old non-digital televisions out there, when the world does go completely digital, there will be a lot of digital-to-analog converter boxes out there. The PVR-500 also comes complete with coax, S-Video, and component video ports which can accept the output of these converter boxes. The IR receiver also acts as an IR transmitter, so in theory SageTV can tell the converter box to tune to a channel so the PVR-500 can record its output.
SageTV does an excellent job of juggling recording schedules and tuners so that everything gets recorded. If more than three shows are on at a given time, it looks ahead to see if one of the shows is repeated within the next few days, then schedules that one instead. Since the total number of tuners SageTV can operate are limited primarily by how many ports and slots my computer has, I can increase tuners until I can record everything I want every time, but SageTV's scheduling prowess means that I can be happy with just three. For this week, anyway.
About the only time SageTV has let me down has been when watching live television.
Technically, SageTV's "LiveTV" selection isn't really live. Since all my TV tuner devices have their own hardware encoders and are sending compressed MPEG-2 streams to SageTV, technically even live television is still pre-recorded, even if it was only recorded about half a second ago. The problem is not with the recording, however. The problem is deciding which tuner SageTV will use to tune in the recording which will be used for live television.
SageTV has four types of recordings in the following order of preference:
For example, I might tell SageTV to Manual a movie that I want to make sure it records, tell it to Favorite another show which happens to air at the same time, and SageTV might decide to Intelligently record another movie or show similar to one of those I've specified. That uses three tuners, but I have three tuners, so that's okay.
Well, that's okay until I flip through the electronic program guide (EPG) and see another interesting show already in progress. If I tell SageTV to tune to that show, I suddenly have four shows and three tuners, so SageTV has to make a value judgement. As the Intelligent recording has the lowest preference, it gets kicked off and SageTV uses that tuner to give me the live show I just requested. I think it will kick Intelligent recordings silently, but ask me if I'm sure before kicking a Favorite or Manual. I'm not sure. I haven't tested it thoroughly. I know that SageTV will ask me if it's okay to kick a live show I'm watching if a Manual or Favorite is coming up in a few minutes and it needs my last tuner.
All that works fine. The actual problem comes up because I tried to outsmart SageTV. For reasons all its own, SageTV decided that the best way to use my three tuners was to use PVR-500 tuner #1 first, ConvertX's only tuner second, and use PVR-500 tuner #2 last. As the PVR-500 tuners have slightly better output (and closed caption data), I prefer to use them first, so I changed the encoder merits in the SageTV properties file to indicate PVR-500 tuner #1, PVR-500 tuner #2, ConvertX tuner. And SageTV records Manual, Favorite, and Intelligent recordings using the tuners mostly in that order. Sometimes an Intelligent recording gets put on the lowest merit tuner even if a higher merit tuner is available, but Intelligent recordings are the ones that SageTV is simply guessing I'll want to watch later, so I guess it's okay that SageTV treats them like a redheaded stepchild.
When I request LiveTV, however, SageTV gets confused and doesn't always use the "correct" tuner. On more than one occasion, SageTV has kicked an Intelligent recording off a tuner to use it for LiveTV even when the other two tuners were not in use and available. Free, even. The user support forum suggests this is normal behavior because user-requested recordings always take precedent over SageTV-requested recordings, so Manual will always usurp Favorite, either will always usurp Intelligent, and LiveTV trumps all. Since Intelligent is at the bottom of the pile, it's redheaded stepchild time again, and if an Intelligent record gets kicked for no good reason, who cares?
Well, I care. I investigated a little and found that if I reset the encoder merit back to normal and let SageTV decide for itself which tuner to use first, LiveTV will use an open tuner rather than kick something. In fact, I can view or record on as many tuners as I have available before SageTV finally (and silently) kills the Intelligent recording to give me my latest request. That's kind of how I expected it to work to begin with.
It doesn't work that way after I mess with encoder merits, but I guess I can't complain because when you dig into hidden files and change properties files in ways Technical Support says you shouldn't unless they specifically tell you to, I guess you're not allowed to complain. At least, once it was explained to me that way, I felt too guilty to complain.
The bottom line is that I now have three tuners and the ability to use them. This has caused me to decide that if you have cable TV and you don't have at least three tuners and the ability to use them, you're not getting your money's worth.
For next week... Well, that depends on what I decide to do next. I still have an open PCI slot, and the PVR-500 is on sale, so I could get another one and add two more analog tuners. But I've also heard rumor that even my plain old bottom tier analog cable television service probably has some unencrypted HD digital channels being broadcast over it as part of the "must carry" laws the FCC laid down. I hear there's also a digital TV tuner card on sale...