Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Recording HDTV: What are the options?

I currently have an HTPC that records my SD content, but I'd like to be able to record HD content. I pay handsomely for it, in both hardware and content subscriptions, so why not record it? TV is now on our schedules, right? So, there are many ways of accomplishing this. They could be cheap or expensive, easy or difficult, so let's run through them.

OTA vs. Pay

If you don't wanna pay for television content, you can receive and record over-the-air digital SD and HDTV content cheaply and easily. This content is not encrypted, and there are several hardware manufacturers like Hauppauge that make ATSC tuners that record in HD. Simply build or buy a cheap PC that is capable of playing back 1080i smoothly, add a tuner/capture card, and you're all set. there are also stand-alone set-top boxes that can do this without a PC. If you pay for cable/satellite/fiber though, the solution is not so easy. In order to record your pay channels in HD, you have to use one of the methods discussed below.

Hardware: CableCard vs. HD-PVR

There are 2 ways one can record pay HD content. The first is to record from a set-top box over component cables into a device like the Hauppauge HD-PVR. This method makes use of what's called the Analog Hole. Pretty straightforward. GB-PVR, BeyondTV, SageTV support this. Windows Media Center does only through a 3rd party plugin. Content owners hate this, but oh well. We paid for the content, right? The other method is recording via a set-top box or PC containing a CableCard. This is a card fits into the back of a set-top or PC and acts as a cable box to decode channels. Windows Media Center plays well with this, as does TiVo. Providers chage a fee of a few dollars a month for this, usually the same or less than the cost of an actual box. Either option is costly for the hardware, usually > $600 plus possible monthly fees.

Box Options: TiVo vs. Provider DVR

If you chose CableCard, then you have another choice to make. You need a box. A TiVo Series 3 or TiVo HD would do the trick. The hardware is a bit high, as is the monthly fee, but it's a great solution. There are other set-top and HTPC makers that sell this type of equipment. Shop around. You could conversely rent your TV provider's DVR solution. This is a good relatively cheap solution, because you don't have to buy the box. Don't expect a lot in the way of features or reliablity though, as these devices are in their infancy.

Software: WMC vs. Other

Windows Media Center (formerly XP Media Center Edition) is probably the most popular and best DVR suite available, along with TiVo. It's got a great UI, free program guide, and just works. Windows 7 specifically has the killer version of this, with support for h264 recording. If you don't wanna go this route, get a 3rd party app like GB-PVR, BeyondTV, SageTV. You might have to pay a subscription fee for the program guide, depending on who you go with.


Since I have Verizon FiOS, I'm going to wait for the next firmware update for the current generation of FiOS DVRs, which currently seem buggy and unreliable, before I take the plunge. This seems to be the cheapest and easiest, although not the best, way of recording my HD content.