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 snapstream.net 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.
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.
When you first enter Live TV mode, the PVS will start displaying whatever channel the system has tuned. A key on the remote both summons and dismisses the onscreen display (OSD) shown below.
Like all of the onscreen displays with the PVS software, the Live TV OSD is translucent to minimize its disruption on the show underneath, and rather than just appearing, the various segments slide in smoothly from the edges of the screen. It’s a nice effect, and looks much more professional than if the OSD appeared abruptly or completely blocked the show underneath.
Though we’ll cover the program guide in a moment, you can also navigate to different channels straight from within Live TV. Typing a channel number in on the remote will bring up the name and description of the program on that channel. Similarly, pressing the arrow up/arrow down keys will show the name and description of the program on the next higher or lower channel (depending on which arrow key you’re pressing) and it will continue to cycle through channels as you press the up/down keys.
Whether you use the number keys or the arrow keys, if you find a show you like, simply leave the remote alone for a few seconds and the PVS will automatically switch to the last channel you were looking at on the OSD. If you decide to stick with your current channel, there is an “escape” key on the remote that will dismiss the OSD without changing the channel.
One of the benefits of a PVR like the Tivo is its ability to pause or rewind live TV, which is also known as “time shifting.” Tivo accomplishes this magical task by constantly recording the channel being watched, up to a half hour back from the current time. The constant recording of Live TV is an option with the Snapstream, and it can be disabled or enabled from the web interface we’ll see later.
Assuming you have the time-shifting feature enabled, you have a number of options with regard to live TV. The screenshot above shows a horizontal bar representing the show you’re watching. The lighter area within the bar represents the portion of the program which the Snapstream has in its buffer, and the yellow “needle” within the bar represents where you are in the buffer. You can pause, rewind, and fast-forward within the buffer at three different speeds. Separate keys will let you skip seven seconds backward (useful for replaying something that just happened) or thirty seconds forward (useful for skipping commercials if you’re trying to “catch up” to live action, since commercials are typically thirty seconds long). Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be any facility for frame-by-frame advance or slow motion.
Pressing the record button on the remote will bring up a menu with a number of record options: Record this episode, record all episodes, record all new episodes and timed recording (which lets you record for a user-selectable number of hours and minutes from the current time). As we’ll see shortly, the first three options are available from the program guide, but it’s nice to be able to schedule recordings without ever leaving live TV.
One final thing I’d like to point out here is the remote help. Pressing a particular key on the remote will bring up the following screen:
In my review of ATI’s All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro, I complained about the remote control help facility in the EAZYLOOK software, which was ill-suited to pointing out which key was responsible for a particular function. ATI would do well to adopt a system like Snapstream’s, which shows all of the remote’s functionality on a single screen.
You’ll notice that the current “mode” is shown in the upper right corner of the screenshot. Because different buttons will have different functions depending on which mode you’re in, the help key is context sensitive, showing you the key layout of the current mode. I have only two complaints here: One, the PVS software supports six or so remote controls, but only has help screens for three of them (Streamzap, ATI Remote Wonder and the X-10 remote). Two, the help key always brings up the Streamzap screen first, forcing you to cycle between screens using the arrow keys on the remote (assuming you don’t own a Streamzap). Perhaps a future version of the software will note which model of remote is being used, and only show the help screens for that remote.
Now that we’ve seen the options available in Live TV, let’s look at the program guide. First, a word about the guide in general. Based on my experience with the product, it appears that the program guide is totally separate from live TV, which is very unfortunate. Let me explain: With nearly all of the program guides I’ve used, live TV is either displayed beneath the guide via a translucent guide screen or in a corner of the screen in a shrunken version. In either case, you can still hear the audio of the broadcast while you’re looking through the program guide. None of these is true with the Snapstream PVS; go into the program guide, and you’re totally cut off from live TV.
Furthermore, when you enter the program guide, the recording buffer on the show you’re watching is reset, even if you go from the guide back to live TV without changing channels. The really strange part is that if you watch the hard drive access light on the PC, it certainly appears that the PVS software is continuing to record. Yet going into the program guide and returning to live TV always resets the record buffer.
This disconnection between two such closely related functions is annoying. Channel surfing has changed with the advent of the program guide. Instead of mindlessly stabbing the channel up button looking for something interesting, the more typical behavior today is to first find a show that’s at least marginally interesting, then use the guide to search for something better while continuing to watch the first show. The gap between the Snapstream’s live TV and program guide makes this impossible.
Now that I’ve vented my frustration, let’s explore the program guide in more detail. When you choose the program guide from the main menu, you’ll see a screen similar to this:
The guide screen is fairly typical, composed of a matrix with time across the top and channels down the side. Personally, I think Snapstream could fit more information onto this screen, even considering that the target display device is a television. The guide on my digital cable box, for example, also presents three half-hour time slots and five channels in a readable format, but it presents that information in only half the screen, using the other half for program descriptions and a quarter-size view of live TV. I’d like to see either more channels and/or times, or (preferably) a live TV window in the PVS program guide.
One nice touch about the program guide is the vertical yellow line running down the screen (in the screenshot above, it runs between the S and the T in “Celebrity Justice”). The line provides a graphical representation of the current time, and it makes it easy to gauge how close you are to the end of a show. Have you ever been guide surfing and found (and switched to) an interesting-looking show, only to realize that the show will be over in two minutes, or hasn’t started yet because the guide is showing you future times? The line totally prevents that problem in an easy and intuitive way. It’s a great feature.
Navigating the guide is pretty intuitive. The cursor keys will move up and down between channels, and left and right to different time slots. The rewind and fast-forward buttons on the remote will skip backward and forward six hours at a time, while the channel up and down buttons will skip five channels up or down. If you know a particular channel you’d like to jump to directly, just type its number in using the keypad and the guide will go straight there.
Once you choose a show in the program guide, you have a number of options, as you can see below.
An important distinction here is that the View Upcoming Episodes, Record All Episodes and Record All New Episodes options only seem to apply to the current channel. Depending on the program in question, this may not matter: If you never want to miss a new episode of the Simpsons, just find the listing on your local Fox affiliate and tell it to Record All New Episodes.
But what if you’re a recent Simpsons convert, and you not only want to see the new shows, but also to catch up on the years of shows you’ve missed? Thanks to syndication, the Simpsons may be on half a dozen different channels, but the Snapstream has no automatic capability for recording all occurrences of a show across channels.
As you can see, there’s not much to the program guide, but I don’t mean that as a slight. Aside from the concerns I’ve listed above, I don’t think it’s deficient. In fact, it’s easy to use and well-organized. One more important note about the program guide: It’s free. Unlike Tivo or ReplayTV, you don’t have to pay a monthly service fee or a lifetime subscription for the PVS program guide. Purchase the software, and the guide is yours for life.
Once you’ve poked around the program guide for a while, you will inevitably find some programs you’d like to record and schedule them for recording. The PVS software gives you control of those scheduled recordings through its Upcoming Recordings and Recording Manager features. We’ll look at each one in turn.
When you enter the upcoming recordings screen, you’re presented with (shock!) a list of upcoming recordings in chronological order.
Choosing a show presents you with a menu of options. You can view the details of the scheduled recording (including description, broadcast time, record quality and target folder, among others), view upcoming episodes, cancel the selected recording or cancel all scheduled recordings of the program. Notable is the fact that, while you can view the recording quality and the target folder here, there is no facility for modifying it.
While the upcoming recordings screen lets you view scheduled recordings in chronological order, the recording manager lets you establish the recording priority of each program. Why is this fact important? Schedule enough recordings, and you’re bound to run into a conflict. It wouldn’t do if you missed your treasured first-run Simpsons episode because the PVS decided a rerun of Seinfeld on a different channel was more important. The recording manager lets you prioritize recordings so such slip-ups don’t occur.
Changing priorities is pretty simple; select a show, and you’re presented with a menu. You can change a job’s priority (which lets you use up/down keys to move the selected show above or below others in the list), view upcoming episodes, or cancel all scheduled recordings of the show. As in the upcoming recordings screen, you can view details of the recording, and as in the upcoming recordings screen, you can’t actually change any of those details.
Sooner or later, the PVS software is actually going to record some of those shows you’ve scheduled, and when you decided you want to watch them, it’s time to go into the video library.
The video library is where recorded shows are available for viewing on the PVS computer. When you highlight a show, its description and recording format are shown at the bottom of the screen. You’ll notice that all video formats are shown, so if you’ve recompressed a show to a different format, you can watch it in any of its recompressed forms. If you’re curious about phrases like “on the PVS computer” and “recompressed,” don’t worry, all will be explained shortly.
Once you select a particular show, you can view its attributes in more detail (record date and time, channel, etc.). As you can see, Snapstream once again chooses to keep it simple. You can play the recorded show, delete it, or edit its “Keep until…” attribute. There are two options available here: “Keep until I delete” or “Keep until room is needed.” The current setting is shown at the bottom of the screen.
While the windowed or fullscreen interfaces can give you access to many of the features available in the PVS software, many configuration options, including some advanced functions, are contained within the web admin interface. You can open the web admin interface in a number of ways, but basically what you’re doing is opening a browser to port 8129 on the PVS computer. This is important, because it means that you can access web admin mode from any machine on the same network as the PVS computer or, potentially, even over the Internet.
We’ll look at each of the options, but let’s start with the program guide. First, note that if your browser window isn’t open on the PVS machine itself, choosing the program guide will redirect you to snapstream.net, where you can log in using your account to see your program guide data. The important factor here is that you can just go to snapstream.net from any computer with a browser and get to your guide data the same way. Then, if there’s a program you want to record, click on it and choose one of the record options from the small “details” window that pops up.
The server at snapstream.net will make note of your selection. As long as your PVS computer is connected to the Internet, it periodically polls the snapstream.net server for new tasks, so any selections you make this way will automatically get queued up for recording on your PVS computer at home. The nice thing about this arrangement is that, because the PVS machine is contacting the server itself, you don’t have to worry about firewall configurations or other security concerns. You can also schedule recordings using a WAP-enabled cell phone, but unfortunately I was unable to test this feature, as my cell phone is, umm, WAP-less.
As you can see, the web-based program guide can display much more information than the fullscreen or windowed program guide. You’re looking at the default settings here, but you can reconfigure the display to show up to five hours of programs, and up to a hundred channels, per screen. The web-based guide is much more flexible, as well. For example, if you click on one of the channels on the left, a pop-up window will show you the names and descriptions of programs coming up on that channel. Depending on the channel, I found that this method would show me programs up to eight hours or so in the future, and each title has a button next to it to schedule recording for that program.
Other highlights of the web-based program guide include the “At A Glance” feature, which shows a list of all upcoming programs for a particular date that fall into one of several pre-defined categories (such as Animated, Movies, Science Fiction or Sports, for example). You can also search guide data for all occurrences of a particular program or actor. While this feature is similar to Tivo’s Wish Lists, the distinction is that the search is run on a point-in-time basis when you initiate it, and programs which return a “hit” must be marked manually for recording. In contrast, Tivo’s Wish List feature constantly watches for shows matching the keywords you’ve input, and automatically records any matching programs.
Clicking on the Record link takes you to a screen with two tabs, predictably labeled “Recording Manager” and “Upcoming Recordings.” Interestingly, though, these tabs don’t perform the same function as their namesakes from the fullscreen or windowed interfaces. In particular, Upcoming Recordings is simply a read-only list of scheduled recordings, with no facility for viewing details or upcoming episodes, for example. The Recording Manager here doesn’t seem to have any facility for changing recording priorities. Apparently if you want to change this setting, you need to do it from the windowed or fullscreen interface.
However, the Recording Manager in the web interface does have some unique features that aren’t present elsewhere. Here’s a shot of what you can edit on a particular program in the web interface:
Looking at the Advanced Information section on the bottom, you can override defaults on the Target Video Folder or the File Format. You can also override defaults on Video Recompression, which we’ll cover shortly. As I mentioned previously, none of these options can be edited from the windowed or fullscreen interfaces.
Ironically, only one of the video recompression settings is in the video recompression section, but this gives us an opportunity to talk about video recompression in general. Programs can be stored in a variety of formats, including MPEG-2, WMV and (as of version 3.3 of the software) DivX. Depending upon what you want to do, you might want to use any or all of these formats for various functions. For example, WMV enables you to stream recorded programs to another computer on your network, while with MPEG-2 you must download the entire file before you can view it. If you’re using a tuner card with a hardware encoder, however, you can only record directly to MPEG-2. If you want the program in a different format, it’s time for video recompression.
The only option available in the Video Recompression menu is setting time constraints for video recompression. Recompressing video is very CPU intensive, and if the PVS software is installed on your primary machine, you probably don’t want it recompressing video while you’re trying to work. With the time constraints feature, you can choose a start and stop time (in hour increments) to set a range when video recompression can be performed.
Clicking on the Watch link from the main menu gives you this screen:
It’s a little difficult to see from the screenshot, but some of the programs have a green “down arrow” next to them, while others have a blue icon that looks like the “Play” arrow on a DVD player. The difference here is the video format: The green icons represent MPEG-2 files, which must be completely downloaded to be viewed, while the blue icons represent WMV files, which can be streamed over the network.
Choosing a recorded program reveals the following options: Download or Watch (depending on the video format), Recompress, Move (to a different PVS folder), Edit (the properties of the show, such as whether it can be automatically deleted) and Delete.
If you choose to recompress a program, you’ll see the following screen:
You have a number of choices here. You can choose between MPEG-2, WMV and DivX video formats, schedule the recompression for a later time, and optionally delete the source file when the compression is complete. Finally, you can choose the quality of the recompressed file. I’ve selected this drop-down so you can see the wide variety of options availableanything from a 56K modem connection to Near DVD. A separate section lets you know both the bitrate of the selected quality level and the file size of a half-hour program recorded at the selected quality.
The other sections of the web admin interface have links in the left-hand navigation bar, as well as much larger icons on the right side of the home screen. The configure section, on the other hand, appears only in the nav bar. Why? I have no idea.
At any rate, the configure section has seven sub-sections, each with a number of options. Rather than including a plethora of screenshots, I’ll summarize the settings below:
- Recording Preferences – Set the recording source (cable, cable box, etc.) and the default folder, file format and quality level. Also, there is an option to pad recordings by 1-5 minutes on either side to account for variations in air times.
- Time Shifting – Enable or disable Always Timeshifting (which lets you timeshift live TV), specify the location and size of the timeshifting buffer.
- Video Folders – Create new video folders and edit folder settings, such as path, maximum space used, minimum free space to leave on the drive, and whether or not to delete shows to create space.
- Channels – Edit the channel lineup, add channels and/or hide unwanted channels.
- Snapstream.Net Settings – Configure account settings, download program guide, scheduled recording and channel lineup updates, and enable or disable automatic update downloads.
- Video Recompression – Set file format and quality for automatic recompression, and whether source files will be deleted after automatic recompression. Enable or disable automatic recompression.
Selecting the advanced settings from the configure menu reveals its own set of options:
- Security Settings – Here you can add user accounts for the PVS software and require a username/password combination to log into the web interface.
- Qualities – Edit existing video quality names and bitrates for each file format, and create new video quality settings.
- Video Sources – Create new video sources with custom capture card, video input, and brightness/contrast/gamma settings.
- Streaming Server Settings – Enable or disable streaming server, set streaming video quality, set ports used for video streaming.
- Web Server Settings – Choose the port for the web administration interface, choose whether users can download recorded shows.
- Miscellaneous – Choose which interface (fullscreen, windowed, etc.) is used on startup, set forward/reverse skip times on shows (default 7 seconds backward, 30 seconds forward), set reaction time auto-compensation for high-speed seeking.
When you look at the configurable options available in the PVS software, it’s difficult not to be completely blown away by the sheer amount of customization available. Users can customize everything from the default startup interface to custom bitrates for recording shows. The “reaction time auto-compensation” feature is nice too, and merits a quick explanation. When you’re fast-forwarding through commercials to find the point where a show resumes, invariably you’re going to wind up stopping the seek process after the show has already resumed. Depending on how quickly you’re fast-forwarding and how good your reaction time is, you might pick up ten or fifteen seconds after the show has started. Your choices at this point are to just live without the part you’ve missed, or rewind back to the beginning of that segment of the show. Either solution is annoying.
The auto-compensation feature account for this, and actually backs up slightly when you drop out of fast-forward mode. Tivo has this feature, but it can take some getting used to, and the fastest seek speed means you’ve got to be very quick on the draw. Since the PVS software lets you configure this function, you can tailor it to your own reaction time rather than having to adapt to what the manufacturer thinks is best.
Observing from afar
A couple of special features of the PVS software deserve special mention. One is the ability to stream recorded shows over your local network and/or the Internet. I played with this feature some over a LAN and it works very well. I could see this as being a life-saver for people who fight over the TV with the PVR so they can watch their recorded shows; one person can watch a show on the TV while another watches a different show on another computer. Everybody’s happy.
I played around a little bit with watching shows over the Internet, and it works pretty well as long as you’re aware of the limitations. First, you’ll have to configure port forwarding on your firewall to enable external access to the computer running PVS (you do have a NAT’ing firewall at home, don’t you?). Second, you need to be aware of the bandwidth limitations of your connections, both on the source and destination sides. Once you figure out the optimal compression rate, though you should be good to go.
Another feature that ranks very high on the cool meter is the ability to encode video for playback on a PocketPC. I tried this myself using an iPAQ and a CF card, and the results were very impressive. A 30 minute show took up 47 megabytes, and the audio and video quality were both surprisingly good. The geek factor of being able to watch TV shows on your PDA is extremely high, and I mean that in a good way. If you use mass transit to get to work, using the time to catch up on your favorite shows could really improve your commute.
Speaking as a Tivo owner, my standards for a PVR are extremely high, and Snapstream’s Personal Video Station does not disappoint. While it is lacking a couple of Tivo features that I would miss, its own unique features more than make up for the deficit. The ability to watch shows over your LAN, the Internet or on your PocketPC is just too cool for words, and if Tivo changes the way you watch TV, the PVS’s streaming capabilities may change the way you use your PVR.
Still, these unique features couldn’t save the product if its core interface weren’t any good. After spending quite a bit of time playing with the PVS software’s fullscreen interface using only a remote control, I can say that, with a couple of minor exceptions, Snapstream has just nailed it. The interface is easy to learn and very intuitive, and while the argument could be made that advanced features are missing from the fullscreen interface, the argument could also be made that users are being rightly shielded from advanced features in the fullscreen interface.
One final thing that really impresses me about the PVS is Snapstream’s commitment to the product. I haven’t followed it for very long, but based on some cursory research, it looks like version 3.0 was released in April of this year. When I got my review copy of the software in late September, they had released two minor updates, bringing the version number to 3.2. In early October, they released version 3.3, which added built-in DivX recompression. Clearly Snapstream isn’t content to rest on its laurels.
Of course, if you don’t believe me, pop over to Snapstream’s downloads page and grab a 21-day trial. But let me insert a pre-emptive “I told you so.” The bottom line is that Snapstream has an excellent product that just keeps getting better, and if you’re looking to roll your own Tivo, this product should be at the top of your list.