— 10:29 AM on June 24, 2004

After editing Geoff's AIW vs. Personal Cinema article last night, I got warm and fuzzy feelings about my BeyondTV setup. Reading over Geoff's review, I was struck by the fact that software from ATI and NVIDIA is so far from being acceptable as an everyday TV interface for use in the living room, like a cable box or TiVo. BeyondTV seems to be much closer, so I fired up my never-quite-finished PVR box and started to play with it.

I recently installed the 3.4.4. update that adds support for displaying video on the graphics card's overlays. This new display mode is just what it ought to be; it uses the video scaling and acceleration engine on the graphics card to improve image quality. On my ancient Personal Cinema based on a GeForce2 MX, the image quality approaches that of the BTV gold standard, the WinTV PVR-250 card. Also, CPU utilization is down and deinterlacing actually works. However, like so many things with BTV, this feature comes with unexpected drawbacks. In this case, I spent way too much time trying to figure out why BTV refused to pause live TV or do any sort of time-shifting stuff. Turns out you can't have both overlay mode and time shifting with most video cards, although I swear this just-a-little-bit-major drawback isn't mentioned in the 3.4.4 release notes. So now I have to pick between a nice display and the #1 PVR feature.

Time shifting and overlay will work together, of course, if you have a WinTV PVR-250 card. I swear, sometimes I think Snapstream sold me a piece of software that requires purchase of a single, particular piece of hardware in order to work properly. You'd think they were trying to sell PVR-250 cards or something. Oh, wait.

But I acknowledge that my ancient Personal Cinema isn't exactly ideal hardware; I'm just too cheap to buy anything else—unless, of course, I can be confident that such a card could actually be useful for duty in a viable, everyday-use PVR setup that could replace my TiVo. I love the TiVo software, but the hardware in my Series 1 box is dog slow, and I'd like the flexibility of a real HTPC. The problem is this: TiVo's combination of hardware, software, service, interface, and remote still seems light years ahead of anything else. I don't think I could ask the rest of my family to learn and use BeyondTV's menu system, because it would be a big step down. Also, TiVo just works.

However, BTV does seem to be getting closer, and I expect some of the other PVR apps are too. I'm wondering: how many of you guys actually use a PC with PVR software as your primary TV-watching interface? What do you use, and how well does it work? Do you have friends or family living with you, and do they like using the thing?

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