Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Looking for a good desktop with TV tuner/PVR

I’m in the market for a new desktop computer at the moment, My Dell laptop is coming up on three years old, and while I intend to get another year or so out of it I’d like to retire it to road use only and get a more powerful desktop for home use.

I’m looking for something with a digital TV tuner that I can use as a PVR. I’m currently making a monthly rental fee to rent a PVR from Rogers when I could be getting just a regular box free, so with a PVR-capable desktop I’d be able to downgrade to a regular cable box and save the monthly rental. So my desktop needs to be PVR-capable, and I’d also like to run a line back to the TV to watch recorded programs there.

I don’t do a lot of high-end gaming, but I do need decent performance as I’d like to get more into video editing. And of course, a good deal of storage is also a must. I’m looking to spend around $1000, w/o monitor.

I’ve got my eye on this machine at Best Buy, the HP Pavilion Elite M9250F. I like HP’s machines, and I’ve heard good things about their Media Center software. I’m also inclined to prefer the Intel chipset over AMD’s equivalent, don’t know if that’s fair or not. This machine looks to meet most of my requirements, and offer a good deal of performance for the price.

Does anyone have any advice or thoughts on this machine, or similar machines that might do the job? Any experience using a desktop as a PVR back to the TV, easy or a pain in the behind?

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Barcs said...

I used to use SageTV to do that...

Not a bad program. But not free. (I am sure there are some cheaper/free programs out there)

The only real problem I had was that it was a fairly cpu/memory intensive project. It slowed down other stuff, and there is already too much junk that I sometimes use running in the background anyway. When doing things (even browsing) sometimes made the picture choppy.

Another small problem is your video cards ability to keep screens apart. Some programs require they run on the primary monitor and appear blank on a secondary one (solved by making monitor 2 a clone of 1)

The 3rd small problem was linking it back to the set top box to change channels..... possible to get IR transmitters and broadcast remote codes. Or the other possibility is if your set top box has an auto-tune feature you can use in conjunction.

Using a computer as a pvr requires that it be near the TV. Don't know how your house is setup but I got tired of it in the living room and moved it to the office. Noisyness of your computer might also be a factor. (the extra case fan in mine sounds like I am sitting next to the freeway sometimes)

That said it is not that hard to set up... co-ax from your box to the computer then back to the tv (or whatever other connectors). You just extend or clone your monitor to the next monitor (the tv) And you can run programs directly on it(clone) or drag across to the next screen (side by side screen). Hit play and watch.

Computer is also very useful as a dvd player in the same fashion back when I had to choose between a computer and a dvd player.

I would also recommend running a/v cables or something from your box directly to the tv. (some cards do not pass signals through when the computer is off).

Hauppauge is probably one of the better names out there for cards. (and they do make software and external stuff too I think)

The last card I used was a Hauppauge WinTV PVR 250... a PCI card. Alway was gonna upgrade it to a 350 but gave up and got myself a box to do it.

One other note.... When you buy a card and a program to do it.... watch what the encoder they use is. Sage TV encodes to Mpeg 2 for example... Some files are easier to burn (like Mpeg 2) to take along. you can watch avi files on any computer. It also recodes easily into a DVD burn that will play in a dvd player somewhere (some dvd's do play avi's too)

Hope that helps more than it confuses people

A BCer in Toronto said...

Thanks for the advice barcs. I'm planning on buying a new PC with a lot of power with a tv tuner pre-installed, so that should take care of compatibility issues, and hopefully performance. I think HP's Media Center PCs come with PVR software, not sure how good it is. I also have a copy of Nero 8 Ultimate, haven't cracked it open yet but its supposed to have support for this too.

My computer is in the living room so location is fine. Since I don't have HD I'll probably split the cable before the box and into the PC, since I don't need to record any digital-only channels, and then run a video/audio line back to a secondary input on the TV.

How big a hard drive do you use, and do you use a separate drive? The PC I'm looking at comes with 750GB.

Barcs said...

Software on the PC....

The first thing I do with any HP computer is to do a couple complete foramts to get rid of all the extra junk they put on.

The computer I used to use is infact a media center PC. I didn't like their software much and quickly went back to the itunes/WMP/winamp/WinDVD etc that I used to use. And went and found a 3rd party PVR software package. Certianly you can try there software. It does suit some people... just not me.

(note about pvr software, some programs.. wish I could remember the one my friend uses.. allow for the compression of video on playback.... you can watch 30 mins of video in 25 without making the characters sound like they are speaking way too fast.)

The computer you linked also appears to be a HP media center type. I have never had any conflicts with HP stuff (although HP does not always play nice with 3rd party hardware)

I cannot find which tv/tuner that model of HP uses, but they used to use the Hauppauge cards. (that's where mine came from)

Nero is the best burning program I have been able to find.... anywhere... I am sure you will like both the capture card and Nero 8. ( I think the ultimate version will even allow recoding from avi to dvd)

As for harddrives... I usually split my data stuff off from the operating/program stuff. Makes for easy backup. (small drive 40-80gig for wondows and a bigger one for data) Or I have been known to partition the main drive to keep it separate. Mostly that is personal preference tho. You can do just as good a job separating with just folders probably.

750 is really quite large when compared to anything out there in most computers. I used a 250 gig for both my music and my video (and moderate downloading... don't worry (most) of it was legal.

The .avi format (that programs like sageTV use is a pretty good format for video storage. Anything that is Mpeg-2 is basically. Depending on your quality settings you should be able to store alot. At about 2/3 of the max quality you can store about a 2 hour movie on a 700mb CD. If you max out the quality.... A gigabyte will end up probably about an hour and a quarter or so.

So you are probably talking about 5-600 hours of storage space.

And if that isn't enough it is relatively easy to drop in another Harddrive to most computers (the HP cases tend to be designed with fairly tight insides. Mine doesn't have a bay to screw it into, I had to buy a small rack for the inside....

Gonna pick up a 750 this weekend myself. (could get a 1 TB one... but that is a SATA, and I need the IDE :(

Lastly your video card.

I don not think you will be happy with a 9500 GS. It is not a bad card and will do everything you need it to do (except very heavy gaming like Crysis.)....

But here is the problem where you are concerned. You told us you have a standard TV setup without HD capability (or I assumed that somehow). The back of the 9500 GS has 3 outputs. VGA, DVI.. you basic monitor connections. And a higher end video connection to something like a tv... HDMI.

If you don't have HDMI on the back of your TV you can use a converter from one of the other connections (while possible it is not something I would reccomend).

If you buy that computer I would reccomend trying to get the seller to swap out that card for something like a 8600GTS (GT and GTS = s-video conncetion), or a 9500GT.

(the 9500gt is the same but with a s video instead of a hdmi, and the 8600 GTS scores slightly higher than a 9500. (The S on GTS usually denotes a more powerfual card than a simple GT..... 1 model up or something)

Maybe this one: GeForce GTX 280 if you are looking for a stupid amount of video power :) A 1 gig card.... lol

I can dream.... right?

Catelli said...

I've been wanting to do this for a while too. Biggest problem is IR, I want to use my damn remote. You can buy an IR blaster and program macros to launch your own apps to play your desired content.


There is a better way.

Buy a MediaGate in addition to your PC. (see here:

I bought a MG-35 from Canada Computers ( look under hard drive enclosures) for $120 and threw in a spare harddrive I had laying around. It comes with a remote and all the connectors for hooking up to your home entertainment system. Heck, Logitech has the codes so you an program it into your Harmony remote as well (You have one of those right? Absolute requirement for the home entertainment system) Including myself, there are 4 installations I know of and all of us love these things to death.

If you don't want to put in a local hard drive, it will network (wired is best) and you can share the files off of your PC from another room.

Its quick, simple painless and anyone can use it. Level of geekiness required, 2 out of 10.

Some of my friends take it to the cottage with them as it is really small convenient package.

One caveat, it works best for video. The MP3 player sucks, playlists are basically unuseable, so if you want music more than video, your back to the PC. But honestly, the issues around getting IR to work almost make it not worth it. Then the D-Link Media Lounge might be a better option.