PC PVR Goes Beyond TV?
By Jim Bray
Standalone PVRs are becoming increasingly popular, thanks no doubt
to their convenience and efficiency. Perhaps their most lovable feature
besides recording TV a la VCR is their ability to pause or rewind live broadcasts
for those times when the phone rings or something else rears its ugly head
when youre watching that pivotal scene or play in a broadcast.
But what about people who dont want yet another set top box hooked
into their home theater, but who would like to get the benefits of PVR
This is why PVRs are also finding their ways onto PCs these
days, whether it be bundled into a media center PC or an aftermarket
product. The advantage to using the PC is that you already have a hard
disk drive there to exploit and the PVR, assuming you have some kind of
TV tuner card, is basically just another software application that runs
on the PC. And, of course, you can also continue using the PC for all the
other PC-related stuff you already do.
The disadvantage is that you need to have your PC close enough to the
TV (and your TV programming input, whether its cable, antenna or
satellite) to make it work and PCs (thanks to their internal fans)
are a lot louder in your home theater than a standalone PVR.
You can get around the proximity problem with longer cables, of course,
which is exactly what I did in my test of SnapStream Medias $69.96US
Beyond TV.3 is a PC-based PVR and its the best one weve tried
so far. It can even give you programming listings for Canadas satellite
TV providers, the first product weve tried including the standalone
set top boxes and VCRs that offers that capability.
You get all the normal PVR features that let you watch, record, fast forward
and rewind TV shows and the abovementioned free, integrated TV listings
let you schedule TV recordings up to two weeks in advance (by which time
the shows likely to have been cancelled!). Other features include:
SmartSkip skip commercials or other parts of TV programs
at the touch of a button
ShowSqueeze automatically recompress shows to Windows Media or
DivX formats for easy transfer to Pocket PCs
Integrated Search by Title search for shows to record from the
comfort of your chair with a PC-based remote control (Sold separately in some
Transparent Program Guide Overlay search for shows while watching
live TV or recorded broadcasts
Network Streaming stream shows to other networked computers or
TVs with media adapters
In our real world tests, we found the BeyondTV.3s basic configuration
to be very straightforward, though it does seem to assume (as most Windows
programs seem to, now) that you have one huge C: drive. It takes a little
prodding to point it to other locations to use for program file and temp
file storage, but it can be done.
We liked the variety of interfaces. You can have windowed video to watch
while you're working, full-screen video (to watch when you arent
working), or use a web interface to program the thing for those times when
you're at work and you suddenly remember there's a show on in five minutes
you wanted to record.
BeyondTV.3 works with a variety of remotes, and can be set to control
satellite receivers (to change channels at the appropriate time), though
it doesn't support all receivers or remotes and you may have to purchase
an IR Blaster or other cable to make it work. Youll also
have to install the remote's software before it'll work, and then remember
to remove it from your Windows startup menu or itll want to take
control from the Beyond TV software, which can be annoying.
The Web interface is nice, though as is common its very MSIE-centric
(to the point where it doesn't work properly in other browsers). This forces
you to use Microsoft Internet Explorer, which users of Browsers such as
Mozilla are sure to find annoying. It probably wont matter to most
mainstream users, however.
In use, you may discover a short delay between the live video source and
the on-screen display. This wont bother you under most circumstances,
but if youre using an on-screen display such as for satellite TV
it tends to make the signal source seem quite unresponsive. This is undoubtedly
related to the on-demand features (i.e. the ability to pause live TV),
and its easy enough to get used to. Its also something weve
noticed with another PVR weve tried, so perhaps its the nature
of the beast.
You can save your video files in a variety of formats, including VCD-compliant
MPEG-1 video as well as SVCD- or DVD-compliant MPEG-2. This means you can
burn your recorded programs onto a CD or DVD and play them back using a
DVD player. Not all players, mind you, but probably most of them.
The TV image quality of the recorded programming is fine. The TV tuner
card SnapStream sent us to use with the BeyondTV software worked fine as
well (and it also worked well with our All-in-Wonder Radeon), and the combination gave us pictures
that are as good as we've seen from other such products. And thats
One thing we couldn't do with the product was use it to control our satellite-TV
tuner box directly, since we didn't have the extra hardware required. So
we had to tune the satellite box manually to ensure the PC PVR recorded
the correct program. We didnt find this a big deal, however, since
thats exactly how we have to use our satellite receiver for recording
anyway, regardless of the recording device.
What you have to do, then, is tune twice: set the PVR to record, and set
the source (satellite, cable box etc.) to tune to the right channel at
the proper time. This adds a step to the process, but it isnt difficult.
This does mean, however, that you cant watch one program while recording
another, one of the joys of the old fashioned VCR but you cant
do that with a garden variety satellite receiver anyway, even if youre
using a garden variety VCR.
So this shouldnt add any new hoops for satellite users to jump through.
As mentioned above, a workaround can include an infrared blaster or
a serial cable that can transmit the PCs instructions to the set
top box. This could also require long cables if your PC isnt in the
same room and in our experience (admittedly limited) we've never really
been happy with an IR blaster, which sits in front of the VCR and makes
the installation look rather sloppy. But it can do the job.
One place the SnapStream product really shines is for PCs that already
have a TV tuner card built in, since in that case all you need to do is
buy the software and youre off to the races (or whatever else youre
We really liked the Beyond TV.3 interface (which they call ViewScape).
It eschews the look of a regular Windows app while giving you a series
of easy-to-read menus that actually fade in and out. Not only that, but
the channel guide is very good and even lets you record all episodes of
a show with a single click.
Theres also a SmartSkip feature that lets you avoid commercials
(in shows you've recorded it doesnt work if youre watching live)
by inserting chapter points where the scenes change. Its reminiscent
of the Commercial Advance feature used in many VCRs from RCA and
And since the program is network friendly, you can log on and stream a
recorded file and as mentioned above you can even log on via the
Internet to set it to record a show while youre away! This is great
for travelers or forgetful people!
Product: SnapStream Beyond TV 3
Direct Price: $69.99
Requires: 733-MHz CPU or better (1.4-GHz recommended), 128MB RAM (256MB
recommended), 2GB of hard drive space per hour of recorded video, 16MB video
card RAM (32MB recommended), TV tuner card with Windows Driver Model support,
Microsoft Windows 98 or later
Company Info: SnapStream
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think