We admit it. We're audio/video Luddites. Our home audio system is a dozen years old. The receiver has Dolby Pro Logic, but we've never gotten around to hooking more than two speakers to it. We use it only for playing CDs and occasionally an elderly cassette tape. We have a standard 27" Panasonic television, analog cable, no premium channels, no satellite receiver, and we didn't buy our first DVD player until 2005. TiVo? We've heard of it.
The only movies we watch are DVDs we rent from Netflix or borrow from the library or friends. We sometimes watch "Mystery!", "Masterpiece Theatre," or other PBS programs. Other than infrequent viewing of local news, sports, and weather, that's about it. We often go for literally months on end without watching a network television program or seeing a television commercial. And we like it that way.
For nearly 20 years, we've made it a practice never to watch television in real time if we can avoid it. We record everything, including commercial-free programs, and watch them later at our convenience. That way, we can watch multipart programs without waiting a week between episodes, and if the phone rings we can simply pause the program. The only change we've made over the years was to replace our VCRs as they died with inexpensive DVD recorders, which simply substitute inexpensive, convenient, reliable optical discs for bulky, inconvenient, unreliable VHS tapes.
Despite the very limited amount of time we devote to watching television, it sometimes happens that two programs we want to record are on simultaneously or that we want to watch a recorded program at the same time another program needs to be recorded. To avoid such conflicts, we have DVD recorders all over the house. One in the den. One in the master bedroom. One in the guest suite downstairs.
So why do we need a media center PC? We don't, really. In fact, we built a very capable home theater PC for the first edition of this book. After we verified that everything worked as it should, we found that we never used the system. We turned it off. It gathered dust, and eventually we salvaged its parts for other systems. There was nothing wrong with that system, mind you. It worked perfectly. We simply had no need for its capabilities.
But we freely admit that our television viewing habits (or lack thereof) are far outside the norm. Most people watch several hours of television every day, and have access to scores or hundreds of channels. If you're in that group (it's OK; you can admit it...), building a media center PC makes a lot of sense. It's not necessarily the easiest or least expensive alternative, but rolling your own media center PC offers a lot of advantages. Consider the alternatives:
Commercial Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) PC
Dell, HP, Gateway, Sony, and others offer purpose-built media center PCs that run Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition (MCE). The lure of these systems is that the integration work has been done for you and that everything is supposed to just work, more or less.
But there are many downsides to buying an MCE system. Although some MCE systems are advertised in the sub-$1000 range, these systems are minimally configured and often lack even such basic functions as the ability to record TV programs. Reasonably equipped MCE systems sell in the $1,200 to $1,500 range and up, and fully equipped systems may cost $2,500 or more. Even expensive models may have limited expandability. Windows MCE itself is problematic. It is crash-prone, even when running on fully certified equipment, and is unreliable. For example, many of our readers have reported such problems as MCE inexplicably failing to record a scheduled program or crashing reproducibly while playing back a recorded program. Finally, MCE is loaded with DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), which limits your freedom to use your recorded audio and video data as you wish.
TiVo remains very popular, although we don't understand why. Perhaps it's because TiVo is simple and reliable. It's easy to specify the programs you want to record, and TiVo always works as expected. The TiVo interface is attractive and functional. So why don't we like TiVo? First, it's expensive. A basic TiVo unit with dual tuners costs about $1,000 over five years after you factor in the monthly service charge. TiVo uses high compression with correspondingly low video quality. TiVo panders to the movie studios, networks, and advertisers, for example, by displaying special commercials when you fast-forward to avoid other commercials. Finally, TiVo also enforces DRM measures that make it difficult to view your recorded programs on other devices.
Many cable and satellite providers rent basic set-top PVR systems, sometimes for as little as $5/month. The lure of these set-top PVR boxes is their low cost and tight integration with the cable or satellite feed. These devices offer little functionality, less flexibility, and poor reliability, but may suffice if your needs are limited and you don't want to archive recorded programs or view them on other devices.
The VHS VCR is dead, replaced by inexpensive devices that record to optical discs instead of tapes. Basic DVD recorders cost less than $100. (We paid $78 for our CyberHome DVR-1600 unit.) Recording time on a $0.25 DVD+R disc or $1.00 DVD+RW disc typically varies from one hour (better than DVD quality) to six or eight hours (VHS quality). DVD recorders with built-in hard drives range in price from $275 to $1,000+, and typically store from 20 to 50 hours of DVD-quality recordings, which can easily be written out to DVD recordable discs. Current models enforce no DRM, although that may change as the movie studios and television networks continue to push for legislation such as the Broadcast Flag that mandates DRM in consumer recording equipment.
If your only requirement is to record television programs for later viewing, a basic optical-only DVD recorder or one of the less expensive hard disk models is the best choice. These units don't have an Electronic Program Guide (EPG), so you have to program recording times and channels yourself, but that is not unduly burdensome for most people.
Other than Windows MCE systems, which have problems of their own, none of these options offers anything more than basic television recording functions. If you need (or want) more, it's time for Plan B: rolling your own media center PC.