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Snapstream's Personal Video Station

PVS kills the VCR

ModelPersonal Video Station 3.3
Price (Street)$64.99

ASK ME ABOUT THE COOLEST piece of technology I've bought in the last five years, and after some reflection (I love my iPod, after all) I'll give you a one-word answer: Tivo. Non-believers scoff when told by the faithful: "It will change the way you watch TV." But then, they of little faith become the converted, and are soon singing the praises of the PVR (personal video recorder).

Of course, the Tivo is simply a very good implementation of the PVR concept, which raises the question: can it be done differently, or better? If a Tivo is made of a PowerPC chip with a pittance (by current standards) of RAM, just imagine what can be accomplished with recent PC hardware. Ah, but the devil's in the details. Tivo succeeds not on the merits of its hardware, but its software, which is so easy to learn that it reduces a potentially complex device to an appliance that your grandmother could use.

There are a number of solutions out there attempting to bring Tivo functionality to the PC, but so far, the generally acknowledged front runner is Snapstream's Personal Video Station. This software claims to nail down most of the Tivo's feature set, and provide functionality that even Tivo can't duplicate. So does Personal Video Station live up to its creator's claims? We're about to find out.

Before installing the PVS software, you must install the drivers for your TV tuner card and ensure that it is working properly. While we're on the subject, you can look at Snapstream's system requirements page to see if your tuner card is supported. The list of supported cards is a long one, and if your tuner card is a fairly recent model, you're probably covered.

Once that's done, it's time to run the Personal Video Station installer. First, you either enter your product key (if you've purchased the software) or don't (if you'd like a 21 day trial). Then, you must choose which remote control (if any) you'll be using with the software. This step is notable because I couldn't find any way to change remotes without uninstalling and reinstalling the software. Granted, changing remotes isn't exactly a common operation for most users, but I'd like to see an easier way to do this.

Once you've chosen a remote, you're asked where you'd like to install the software. The initial install takes only forty megs or so, but by default the software stores its recordings on the same partition, so you'll want plenty of space available. Once that's done, the file copy begins, and the only step remaining is to choose whether PVS should launch automatically when Windows starts.

This finishes the installation proper, but there's still the matter of the PVS Setup Wizard. Fortunately the wizard isn't any more difficult than the install itself. You choose your country, then choose your broadcast source (broadcast TV, cable, etc.). It's worth noting here that the PVS software supports most cable boxes through the use of an optional infrared transmitter/receiver that plugs into the machine's serial port. If you choose to use this functionality, the setup wizard will ask you to aim your cable box remote at the receiver and press the necessary buttons so the software can learn the proper commands. Then you simply position the transmitter within range of the receiver on your cable box, and when you change channels using the PVS software, it will "push the right buttons" to change the channel on the cable box. Based on my observations of the process, I suspect it would work for just about any infrared-based remote control.

Next, the wizard will connect to and create an account for you using an e-mail address and password you supply. Then the wizard will use your ZIP code to present you with a list of possible channel lineups and let you choose one. Finally, you'll select your capture device and run through a short test to ensure it's working. At this point, the wizard is complete, and it's time to give the PVS a whirl.

The main event
The Personal Video Station software has several different modes of operation. There is a web admin mode that you can access either locally with a browser on the PVS computer, or remotely from any other PC on the network. The web admin mode is used to set many of the more advanced configuration options, and we'll look at it in detail later. Typically, however, users will spend most of their time in either fullscreen or windowed mode. Both of these modes present the same screens and perform the same tasks; the only difference is that (wait for it) one uses the entire screen and the other operates within a window. Obviously, one mode is intended for someone wanting to watch TV while working on his main PC, while the other is intended to be easily readable on a television.

Main menu of windowed/fullscreen modes

As you can see, Snapstream has done a good job of keeping the interface simple and function-oriented. The various features will make more sense if I introduce them in the right order, so don't worry if I deviate from the menu a bit. First up is Live TV.