Al Bsharah Business Minded, Technically Inclined

SageTV DIY (Do It Yourself) DVR (Digital Video Recorder)

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I’ve spent considerable time on this “hobby” of mine, and I’d like to share with you some of the details…or at least cut-to-the-chase so you can avoid the hastles I ran into.

So…I made the decision about a year ago that I was done with TiVo.  Just not as flexible and feature-rich as I wanted it to be.  Upon making this realization, I began researching my options.  Low and behold, I found an entire world of software companies out there making their own DVRs!  In many cases, these are called PVRs (Personal Video Recorders).  But whatever…

After trying about 6 different flavors of PVR software, I landed on one and have not turned back.  It’s called SageTV and is quite likely one of the greatest things ever.  Not only does it record all my TV shows, as well as make some great recommendations on shows I’d never have found on my own, but it also houses my photographs, my own videos, my DVDs and Blu-Rays that I’ve ripped to disk, my podcasts (including video podcasts), and my music (and playlists).  Oh yeah, it handles HD too.  Everything through my TV, with one remote.  It’s beautiful!

The support community is massive, and direct customer service is quite good (responsive and knowledgable).  There are plugin’s galore available, from Netflix (yes, I can manage my queue and find movies with my TV now) to Commercial Skipping (yes, it automatically skips commercials!) to any number of other features you never knew you wanted.

Now, you do have to be a little computer savvy to pick up this “hobby”…because it’s not a no-brainer.  But, I’ll give you a little insight into what’s required, and what your options are…

Required Components

Server:  This is what takes a TV feed and records it, it’s where the brains are.  For me, this is a Windows XP Windows 7 PC (Mac and UNIX flavors are available) that has a video capture card in it as well as considerable hard drive storage.  HD video capture is tricky, because there’s encryption involved and many providers (Cable TV and others) will encrypt HD channels so your server cannot record them.  There is a HD PVR Product that resolves this issue, and it’s from a company called Hauppauge (no, I have no idea how to pronounce that).  It was released early summer of 2008.  Essentially, it will allow you to record from any HD source as it uses the Component (non-digital, non-encryptable) output.  It takes this analog output and converts it to digital on-the-fly so your PC can record and store it for later playback.

Client:  This is where you watch TV, Videos, Music, Photos, etc, from.  This can be a PC, but you’ll have to get a good video card/processor and do some considerable tweaking to get it to work right, *especially* if you’re planning on playing HD.  The other alternative, which I highly recommend, is a set-top-box manufactured by SageTV called an HD Extender (UPDATE: a New Extender has been released).  Simply put, you plug it in to your network, it finds your server, and you’re playing immediately playing any SD or HD content you need.  It’s a no-brainer in my book and I’ll never go back to a PC-based client.

Ideal Environment (easiest and least hassle, biggest bang for buck/time)

A server.  It’s required, no way around this.  But, it certainly does not have to be a high-end box.  My server is currently a AMD Athlon 3200+ (2.0GHz) machine.  I’ve run it on MUCH lesser hardware.  Yes, you read that right.  ANCIENT HARDWARE WORKS!  I’ve upgraded because my commercial skipping plug-in keeps the CPU pegged and it struggles to keep up…but it has worked great for a year.  Point being, you don’t need much for a server, it’s not doing much of the heavy lifting in the scenario I’m posing.  No high-end graphics card required, because all that’s done on the client side.

A video capture device.  As of today, that’s a card that plugs into your server.  There are many flavors, and Hauppauge has a ton of options.  Do your homework.  You will feed the output from your cable/satellite set-top-box (STB) into this capture card.  The other option is the HD-PVR mentioned above…it’s an external device that plugs into your server via USB.  This eliminates any encryption issues and just makes life a lot easier.

An IR (infra-red) Blaster/Repeater.  This essentially copies the commands from your remote control for your STB and allows the computer to command your STB to change channels.  So…when you click channel 25 on your SageTV remote, the server sends an  IR signal to your cable box to change the channel to 25.  Your STB outputs that channel and your capture card records the content.  Voila.

An HD Extender.  One for each TV you want content on (I have two).  All you need is to have a network cable nearby, and to plug this into your TV (it’s got component and HDMI outputs).

Total Costs (UPDATE: pricing as of posting, many discounts can be had)

Server – Old hardware or cheap hardware, deals can be had if you look around.  You’ll want considerable hard-drive space, but that’s cheap now-a-days.  You could build or buy a NAS for the purpose of storage (I built my own, but that’s a whole other story).  Single drives will likely be fine for most.

Video Capture – A card can be had for $100-$150, the HD PVR is about $250.

IR Blaster/Repeater – I think I paid $50 for my USB-UIRT.  The HD PVR comes with it’s own blaster, so won’t need need to buy a separate one if you go this route (but I’ve heard the quality of the HD-PVR blaster might not be that great…)

HD Extender – $200 each.  A no-brainer when you consider how difficult it is to build a stable PC to act as a client, especially for HD.  You simply can’t do it at that price.  Besides, who wants a clunky and noisy PC by their TV?


My Setup

So, my setup consists of the AMD Athlon server mentioned above…which now houses my SageTV Server, has my HD-PVR plugged into it, has my USB-UIRT IR blaster connected to it, and also acts as a NAS for file storage (RAID 5 system, 7TB of storage).  Lots of bleeding, sweating, and crying went into this over the past year and a half, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I also use skin called SageMC.  It’s much cleaner, prettier, and user friendly than the default skin.  Many folks agree that the SageTV interface isn’t the best of breed, but SageMC brings it closer.
SageTV has just released Version 7, which has a completely rebuilt interface.  Everything runs much quicker, and looks 100x better than the old interface.  It’s a departure from SageMC, that I’m used to, but I’m getting used to it and think it might be quite useable in the long run.


Conclusion

So there you have it.  The wave of the future!  Of course, it’s much more expensive than simply having your Cable or Satellite company send you their DVR…but you can’t record shows and move them around from PC to PC, you can’t watch your own DVD’s that you’ve ripped to disk, you can’t listen to your music or watch podcasts, view your photos through a slide show, modify your Netflix queue, skip commercials, or anything cool like that with a normal DVR.  Yeah, you pay for it, but it’s SO worth it.  Hell, commercial skip alone makes it worth it’s weight in gold!

About the author

Al Bsharah

Al’s been involved in multiple San Diego startups since 1999 after leaving the Detroit auto industry as an electrical engineer. He's started two of his own companies where he's raised capital from both VCs and angels, and sold one of them to both Seismic and Return Path. He resides on the board of Startup San Diego, is a Tech Coast Angels member, and has graduated both Techstars and Founder Institute accelerator programs where he now mentors. Al is currently the Vice President of Product Strategy at Seismic and in his free time he manages to play a little beach volleyball, trade stocks, and camp with his wife, son, dog, and friends.

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By Al Bsharah
Al Bsharah Business Minded, Technically Inclined