Tired of TiVo's monthly fees and eager for even more control over their television programs, computer enthusiasts are building TV recording devices out of personal computers and new software packages.
The trend is perhaps a touch of bitter irony for TiVo Inc., whose personal video recorders started out as a disruptive technology for cable and satellite companies, by allowing users to digitally store their favorite shows and skip commercials.
Getting the power of TiVo and updated TV listings without having to pay the monthly fee has apparently made such software quite attractive. At SnapStream Media, a maker of PC-based video recording software, business is growing 20 percent a month, the company said, while declining to disclose its number of users.
"Consumers are becoming aware of the fact they can transform their PCs into entertainment centers that are very powerful and still very easy to use," said Rakesh Agrawal, SnapStream's chief executive officer.
Of course, people who get jittery at the idea of tinkering with their computer hardware or loading up new software will still find the prospect of building a "home theater" personal computer daunting.
But for those who wear the label "leading edge" with pride, the ability to control television and movie content like never before is almost impossible to resist.
At the Web Site "Build Your Own PVR" (http://www.byopvr.com), enthusiasts discuss the intricacies of how to build the most powerful personal video recorders with PC components, how well the latest hardware and software works, and also help the uninitiated to get started.
The site's tagline is: "Why Tivo when you can Freevo?"
Starting from the ground up
The first step in building a personal video recorder is determining whether it's worth the effort. The biggest benefits are the ability to record television shows on your PC's hard drive, watch them on a PC monitor or television, and transfer shows to other PCs or portable devices.
Those features may be overkill for the occasional sitcom watcher. But for TV obsessives, the process begins by upgrading a regular home personal computer with a special PC card that can turn television signals into digital information a computer can understand.
That process can overload some PCs, so more advanced TV tuner cards with hardware "encoding" can take on some of the heavy lifting.
Installing a PC card involves cracking open the case on your PC. Those averse to the idea of touching circuit boards can also find boxes that connect to a PC's USB port -- a far easier undertaking. Enthusiasts seem to prefer USB and internal cards from Hauppauge Computer Works -- both available for $200 or less.
The next step: choosing software.
Microsoft Corp. has a special version of Windows for "media center" personal computers that can manage users' music, photographs, and videos, but it is only available pre-loaded on special PCs.
Two alternatives are SnapStream's Beyond TV 3, available for download (http://www.snapstream.com) for $59.99 (or $69.99 if you need a CD-ROM), and Frey Technologies LLC's SageTV 2, for $79.95.
Free options are also available, including MythTV, described on its Web site (http://www.mythtv.org) as "a homebrew PVR project I've been working on in my spare time."
Along with their software, Frey and SnapStream both have "bundles" of TV tuner cards, which offer a good deal and help ensure that your new "PVR PC" will work as expected. You can also buy remote controls that free you to operate your new TV device without clicking on a mouse or punching on a keyboard.
Those software packages serve as your main screen for viewing television and scheduling recordings.
The alternative to all of this is to get someone else to build one for you. Agrawal said a few small PC makers, like Monster HTPC (http://www.monsterhtpc.com) offer PC-based personal video recorders using SnapStream software, and in months ahead major PC makers could sign on to building these devices.
"I think, actually, the integration with hardware is really where this thing will become a mass market product," Agrawal said.