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Beyond TV3

PC PVR Goes “Beyond TV?”

By Jim Bray

Standalone PVR’s are becoming increasingly popular, thanks no doubt to their convenience and efficiency. Perhaps their most lovable feature besides recording TV a la VCR is their ability to pause or rewind “live” broadcasts for those times when the phone rings or something else rears its ugly head when you’re watching that pivotal scene or play in a broadcast.

But what about people who don’t want yet another set top box hooked into their home theater, but who would like to get the benefits of PVR technology?

This is why PVR’s are also finding their ways onto PC’s these days, whether it be bundled into a “media center” PC or an aftermarket product. The advantage to using the PC is that you already have a hard disk drive there to exploit and the PVR, assuming you have some kind of TV tuner card, is basically just another software application that runs on the PC. And, of course, you can also continue using the PC for all the other PC-related stuff you already do.

The disadvantage is that you need to have your PC close enough to the TV (and your TV programming input, whether it’s cable, antenna or satellite) to make it work and PC’s (thanks to their internal fans) are a lot louder in your home theater than a standalone PVR.

You can get around the proximity problem with longer cables, of course, which is exactly what I did in my test of SnapStream Media’s $69.96US Beyond TV.3.

Beyond TV.3 is a PC-based PVR and it’s the best one we’ve tried so far. It can even give you programming listings for Canada’s satellite TV providers, the first product we’ve tried – including the standalone set top boxes and VCR’s – that offers that capability.

Beyond TV3

You get all the normal PVR features that let you watch, record, fast forward and rewind TV shows and the abovementioned free, integrated TV listings let you schedule TV recordings up to two weeks in advance (by which time the show’s likely to have been cancelled!). Other features include:

• SmartSkip – skip commercials or other parts of TV programs at the touch of a button
• ShowSqueeze – automatically recompress shows to Windows Media or DivX formats for easy transfer to Pocket PCs
• Integrated Search by Title – search for shows to record from the comfort of your chair with a PC-based remote control (Sold separately in some configurations)
• Transparent Program Guide Overlay – search for shows while watching live TV or recorded broadcasts
• Network Streaming – stream shows to other networked computers or TVs with media adapters

In our real world tests, we found the BeyondTV.3’s basic configuration to be very straightforward, though it does seem to assume (as most Windows programs seem to, now) that you have one huge C: drive. It takes a little prodding to point it to other locations to use for program file and temp file storage, but it can be done.

We liked the variety of interfaces. You can have windowed video to watch while you're working, full-screen video (to watch when you aren’t working), or use a web interface to program the thing for those times when you're at work and you suddenly remember there's a show on in five minutes you wanted to record.

BeyondTV.3 works with a variety of remotes, and can be set to control satellite receivers (to change channels at the appropriate time), though it doesn't support all receivers or remotes and you may have to purchase an “IR Blaster” or other cable to make it work. You’ll also have to install the remote's software before it'll work, and then remember to remove it from your Windows startup menu or it’ll want to take control from the Beyond TV software, which can be annoying.

The Web interface is nice, though as is common it’s very MSIE-centric (to the point where it doesn't work properly in other browsers). This forces you to use Microsoft Internet Explorer, which users of Browsers such as Mozilla are sure to find annoying. It probably won’t matter to most mainstream users, however.

In use, you may discover a short delay between the live video source and the on-screen display. This won’t bother you under most circumstances, but if you’re using an on-screen display such as for satellite TV it tends to make the signal source seem quite unresponsive. This is undoubtedly related to the on-demand features (i.e. the ability to pause “live” TV), and it’s easy enough to get used to. It’s also something we’ve noticed with another PVR we’ve tried, so perhaps it’s the nature of the beast.

You can save your video files in a variety of formats, including VCD-compliant MPEG-1 video as well as SVCD- or DVD-compliant MPEG-2. This means you can burn your recorded programs onto a CD or DVD and play them back using a DVD player. Not all players, mind you, but probably most of them.

The TV image quality of the recorded programming is fine. The TV tuner card SnapStream sent us to use with the BeyondTV software worked fine as well (and it also worked well with our All-in-Wonder Radeon), and the combination gave us pictures that are as good as we've seen from other such products. And that’s fine.

One thing we couldn't do with the product was use it to control our satellite-TV tuner box directly, since we didn't have the extra hardware required. So we had to tune the satellite box manually to ensure the PC PVR recorded the correct program. We didn’t find this a big deal, however, since that’s exactly how we have to use our satellite receiver for recording anyway, regardless of the recording device.

What you have to do, then, is tune twice: set the PVR to record, and set the source (satellite, cable box etc.) to tune to the right channel at the proper time. This adds a step to the process, but it isn’t difficult.

This does mean, however, that you can’t watch one program while recording another, one of the joys of the old fashioned VCR – but you can’t do that with a garden variety satellite receiver anyway, even if you’re using a garden variety VCR.

So this shouldn’t add any new hoops for satellite users to jump through.

Beyond TV3

As mentioned above, a workaround can include an “infrared blaster” or a serial cable that can transmit the PC’s instructions to the set top box. This could also require long cables if your PC isn’t in the same room and in our experience (admittedly limited) we've never really been happy with an IR blaster, which sits in front of the VCR and makes the installation look rather sloppy. But it can do the job.

One place the SnapStream product really shines is for PCs that already have a TV tuner card built in, since in that case all you need to do is buy the software and you’re off to the races (or whatever else you’re recording).

We really liked the Beyond TV.3 interface (which they call ViewScape). It eschews the look of a regular Windows app while giving you a series of easy-to-read menus that actually fade in and out. Not only that, but the channel guide is very good and even lets you record all episodes of a show with a single click.

There’s also a SmartSkip feature that lets you avoid commercials (in shows you've recorded – it doesn’t work if you’re watching “live”) by inserting chapter points where the scenes change. It’s reminiscent of the Commercial Advance feature used in many VCR’s from RCA and others.

And since the program is network friendly, you can log on and stream a recorded file – and as mentioned above you can even log on via the Internet to set it to record a show while you’re away! This is great for travelers or forgetful people!

• Product: SnapStream Beyond TV 3
• Direct Price: $69.99
• Requires: 733-MHz CPU or better (1.4-GHz recommended), 128MB RAM (256MB recommended), 2GB of hard drive space per hour of recorded video, 16MB video card RAM (32MB recommended), TV tuner card with Windows Driver Model support, Microsoft Windows 98 or later
• Company Info: SnapStream Media Inc.


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January 31, 2006