Coolest gadgets in the world of convergence can turn a PC into a TV

July 28, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

LOOKING BACK into the dusty computer archives of this newspaper, I see that I first mentioned the word convergence about a decade ago.

It's a gloppy term that refers to the blending of computer, telephone and television technology into a hybrid something that can change some part of our lives -- great or small.

In those days, I predicted that convergence was just around the corner, and for many of us it still is. But if you're using the Internet to make phone calls, or your kids hook a portable MP3 player up to the family stereo, or you read e-mail on your cell phone, you're performing an act of convergence (which is legal in most states).

One of the coolest convergent gadgets I've found turns a personal computer into a TV with the equivalent of a TiVo attached -- a neat trick for $150 or less. If you've never TiVo'd, the term is the brand name of a popular personal video recorder (PVR) that hooks up to your cable or satellite feed, searches for and records programs on a hard drive, skips over commercials and even pauses "live" broadcasts so you can make a beer or bathroom run.

For college students and others in cramped quarters, a PC thus armed morphs into a sophisticated entertainment center. This is especially true with today's popular laptops, which have much improved 15-inch and 17-inch displays.

Until recently, good TV performance required installing an internal tuner card in the case of a desktop computer. But in the past few years, PCs have come equipped with high-speed USB 2.0 ports that can move enough data to store a TV signal in real time -- orders of magnitude faster than the original USB.

Manufacturers have followed with external tuners that plug into your cable TV feed on one end and into a computer's USB port on the other. Besides being a snap to install, especially on a laptop, these gadgets can be moved from one PC to another, or left in place when you take your laptop on the road.

I've tried two of these devices, both of which worked remarkably well, with almost no installation hassles. One is the Diamond XtremeTV PVR600 USB ($120 to $150 on the street), and the other is the ADS Instant TV Deluxe ($140 to $200).

Both bundle an external tuner about the size of a paperback book with the appropriate cables, a remote control that also can manage a cable or satellite TV box, and a copy of Snap- Stream Media's Beyond TV 3. This extraordinary program, now in its third release, is what turns the computer into a PVR.

Both require Windows XP or Windows 2000, a processor running at 800 MHz or better, 256 megabytes of memory and at least 15 gigabytes of hard-drive space if you plan on storing more than a minimal amount of video. The faster your computer, the better it will run.

The main difference between the two is a more extensive software bundle in the ADS package, including general video capture software and programs for sharing video over a home network and creating and recording DVDs.

Those versatile add-ons might be worth the extra money, but if you're mainly interested in watching and recording TV, either will do the trick. For simplicity's sake, I'll describe setting up the Diamond system on an IBM Thinkpad with a 1.4 MHz Pentium M processor -- a nice lightweight laptop with midrange power.

I began by connecting the tuner (a silver box) to one of the PC's USB ports. Then I connected the tuner's coaxial antenna input directly to a cable outlet. (The tuner also accepts RCA and S-Video input from a VCR or cable box. However, if you want to control a cable box directly, you'll need the remote control and a gadget called an IR Blaster, also included.)

After that, it was a matter of installing the software driver for the PVR 600 and then the Beyond TV software. If you want to use the bundled Firefly remote control, you'll have to install software for that, too. The remote requires another USB port, which won't leave room for other gadgets on most laptops, which have only two USB ports.

Like TiVo, SnapStream requires a subscription for its online TV programming guide (which assumes you have an Internet connection, too). At $5 a month, $30 a year or $50 for a "lifetime" subscription, it's less than half the price of TiVo's service, and there's a 60-day free trial period.

Of course, you can watch live TV and schedule recordings by time and channel without a subscription, but the programming guide is what makes it easy to find shows by title or keyword, with a variety of options such as recording all episodes of a show over a two-week period.

Remember to be careful about hard-drive space. With its standard MPEG-2 encoding, Beyond TV uses about 2.2 gigabytes of real estate to store an episode of Desperate Housewives.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.