SnapStream PVS improves digital recording of TV shows

Third time a charm for SnapStream PVS

October 09, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

ALOT OF THE new programs and gadgets I review contain the seed of a great product but aren't, as they say in the trade, ready for prime time.

The good ones mature, however, like SnapStream's Personal Video Station, which turns a personal computer into a digital video recorder (DVR) that captures TV broadcasts and stores them on its hard drive .

When I first tried SnapStream PVS 15 months ago, I was pleasantly surprised that it worked at all. This was still the bleeding edge of convergence, and the program did, in fact, record TV shows on my PC. But it was still pretty geeky, and SnapStream's online program listings, the key element to scheduling recordings, were virtually useless.

SnapStream PVS Version 3 shows what hard work can do. It's smooth and slick and works right out of the box, with minimal tweaking and fussing. It's not quite so convenient as a dedicated DVR - a TiVo or ReplayTV - but at $75 in stores or $65 online, it costs a fraction as much and does a fine job of bringing DVR technology to the office, dorm room and local network.

Just so you don't get the wrong idea, you can't turn a computer into a TV set with software alone. SnapStream requires a compatible tuner card or an external receiver that displays programs on your screen. Internal cards generally work better, but you have to open your computer to install one in an expansion slot. External-capture devices connect to a computer's USB port, so you don't have to monkey around inside your PC.

Either way, it's not expensive technology: Internal tuner cards start at $50, external gadgets at $70 or so. That makes them good for college dorm rooms, many of which are wired for cable. Some high-end PCs come with video adapters that have tuners built in.

SnapStream PVS works with many common TV capture devices from Hauppage, ATI, nVidia, Pinnacle and other manufacturers - but not all of them. If you have a tuner card, or you're considering buying one, check with SnapStream's Web site. They're also happy to sell you a compatible tuner online.

I tried this release with a Hauppage WinTV card - a reliable, no-frills tuner that rarely produces a problems with video capture software.

Setup depends on how you're receiving a TV signal - from an external antenna, analog cable TV signal, a digital cable tuner or satellite TV box. I hooked mine into the standard cable TV outlet in my home office. Snap- Stream's configuration program walked me through the process. Once I told it I was using Comcast in Baltimore County, it automatically downloaded the schedule - a major improvement over SnapStream's original, third-party listings. Unlike many stand-alone DVRs, Snap- Stream doesn't require a monthly schedule update fee.

Once it's running, Snap- Stream offers three viewing modes - windowed, full-screen and Web-based (which allows you to change your configuration settings). Windowed and full-screen modes are identical, other than the display size.

Because computer monitors have higher resolution than TV sets, the software has to adapt the signal, which makes full-screen mode much grainier than windowed mode. Either lets you browse through the TV schedule grid and select a program. SnapStream will record that episode, all episodes or only new episodes. So you can record a dozen Simpsons reruns with a single keystroke.

You can also watch any show in progress. By default, PVS records while it's playing, so if you give yourself a 15-minute head start, you can rewind a show in progress, start watching from the beginning and fast-forward through commercials with a one-key, 30-second skip feature.

Here's the first of my two major complaints: Both windowed and full-screen mode are designed for operation from the keyboard or by using a remote control with a receiver that plugs into your computer's USB port (a $35 add-on). Neither responds to the mouse, which is frustrating.

Second gripe: To search the schedule for a particular program, topic, movie or actor, you exit the normal play modes and switch to SnapStream's Web interface. You can schedule a recording from the Web page or even watch a live show, but the video pane in the browser window is too small for anything but closeup viewing. This arrangement is awkward and unnecessary. There's no reason these features couldn't have been built into the program's standard interface, too.

Unlike the original Snap- Stream's software, PVS 3 gives you a choice of recording formats - standard MPEG-2 (producing files with an .mpg extension) or Microsoft Windows Media Video (.wmv files). MPEG requires a lot more disk space - about 1.1 gigabytes for a one-hour episode of The West Wing. The Windows Media format requires only 330 megabytes. If you record in MPEG format, which produces somewhat better quality, you can recompress it later for streaming over a network as a Windows Media file. Either choice requires hard-disk real estate - I'd recommend having at least 15 gigabytes free before you start.

Having recorded a show, you can replay it, burn it to a CD or DVD, or stream it over your home network to another computer (provided you tweak any firewalls running on either PC to allow the exchange). If your home network has file sharing enabled, you can play a recording stored on another PC, finding its directory on the host machine and double-clicking on the file name.

The program does require some horsepower - at least a Pentium III running at 733 MHz - but SnapStream recommends a Pentium 4 or comparable Athlon chip. My PC's Athlon 2100 is at the lower end of that spectrum, and the program ran flawlessly in the background, with little impact on system performance.

Bottom line: If you want a Digital Video Recorder on your desktop, SnapStream PVS 3 is a good way to get it.

Information: www.snap- or 713-644-6240.

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