Recording, sharing video via PC a snap using PVS

Software makes recording, sharing TV programs a snap

July 25, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

TRYING TO capture video from TV or VCR and work with it on a computer can be as much fun as a root canal.

But in the course of working with different gadgets over the last few weeks, I ran across a nifty and inexpensive product that actually performed as advertised. SnapStream Personal Video Station turns your computer into a personal video recorder - like TiVo or ReplayTV - that can capture your favorite shows automatically and store them on your hard drive for viewing later.

Better yet, PVS turns your PC into a server that allows any authorized computer on your home network or on the Internet to play the shows you've recorded. They don't need extra hardware or software - only a Web browser.

First things first. Watching video on a PC requires hardware to turn the TV signal into something the computer can understand, and software to display the video and handle the recording chores.

On the hardware side, you'll need either a video capture card, which plugs into an expansion slot inside your PC, or an external adapter which plugs into your computer's USB port. Both hook up to your antenna or cable feed.

SnapStream will work with most video capture devices. If you already have one, you can buy a $50 software-only version of PVS. If you don't have one, SnapStream sells a $90 package that includes Hauppage WinTV, a basic video capture card that has been around long enough to have had its bugs worked out.

It took about five minutes to install the WinTV card in my test computer, a brawny Hewlett Packard Pavillion 761N running Windows XP. SnapStream recommends at least a Pentium II PC with a 500 MHz processor, but if you want to stream video over the network, the heavier the hardware, the better.

Once I plugged in my cable feed, the WinTV card worked as advertised. As a stand-alone product, it will display a TV window anywhere on your screen, let you choose channels with an on-screen remote control, and record video to disk from a TV broadcast or VCR.

SnapStream's software likewise was easily installed. The video-streaming software - which is also a Web server - automatically loads when you start your PC and runs in the background.

When you start SnapStream, it displays a Web browser-based interface with icons for recording programs, playing them, configuring the system and connecting with SnapStream's Web site. It was easy to use, but annoyingly slow at times, which SnapStream says will be fixed in an upcoming release.

For scheduling recordings, SnapStream depends on titan- TV.com, an online TV program listing. Here I ran into my only major glitch.

While I could log onto titanTV in a separate browser window, I couldn't get the TV schedule grid to show up in SnapStream's scheduling window. There I should have been able to browse through the listings and set up a recording with one click.

Instead I had to look for programs in one browser window and then schedule the recording manually by entering the date, time, channel and duration. SnapStream couldn't fix the problem, which was annoying, but not a deal-breaker.

I scheduled a half-dozen shows over three days and SnapStream captured them all in compressed MPEG-1 format.

On the playback side, Snap- Stream displays a list of recordings. To select one, just click on it. SnapStream launches Windows Media Player and the show appears on screen.

The recordings were smooth - without the dropped frames that often show up in captured video. The default image quality was fine in a quarter-screen size, but degraded at larger sizes. You can set the program to capture larger images, but you'll pay in disk space.

If this were all SnapStream PVS did, I'd probably give it a B. What makes the program distinctive is its network capability. By entering the IP address of my test computer in the Web browser of the other PCs on our home network, I got a page with a menu that allowed me to play any recorded program or schedule new recordings remotely.

Remote playback was remarkably good, although it slowed down a bit when I played three different programs simulatenously on three computers. Still, it's a pretty good trick.

This brings up the question of security. While you can set up passwords for playback and configuration, any remotely competent hacker who knows your computer's address could gain access to it through the video server when PVS is running.

My home network runs behind a router with personal firewalls installed on each computer. I'd think twice about enabling the server on a machine with an unprotected broadband connection.

SnapStream has a new release of PVS planned for late next month that it says has improved network security, overall speed and user interface. For an additional monthly fee that hasn't been determined, Snap- Stream will also offer its own TV listing service. The beta version I tried was much faster and slicker than titanTV, which will remain a free alternative.

All things considered, Snap- Stream PVS is great fun for recording broadcasts and sharing them with others. It doesn't have all the features of a TiVo or ReplayTV, but it costs only a fraction as much and works the way it's supposed to. In the world of computer-TV relations, that's a rarity.

Information: www.snap stream.com.

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