Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Originally published 2003 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


PVRs kick arse. It's a shame that we Australians can't use 'em.

Well, we can, kind of. But it's a big pain.

A PVR, for those of you a few inches behind the nerdly cutting edge, is a Personal Video Recorder. That's one of the dumber names of our time; last I checked, there was no law prohibiting personal ownership of VCRs. PVRs are also known as DVRs, Digital Video Recorders, but that covers digital tape recorders as well, which PVRs aren't. They record video to hard disk, generally in one or another MPEG format.

A computer with a video capture card in it will serve as a basic PVR, and every rinky-dink TV tuner card on the market today comes with software that'll let you do VCR-ish tricks with your PC. Better models give you basic PVR features too, like pausing live TV. The computer records the live signal continuously, and lets you watch it at your own pace; make a cup of tea early in a show and you'll come back late enough to be able to skip all the ads.

Proper PVRs, like the market leading TiVo and ReplayTV, can do a lot more. They can, for instance, automatically record stuff you seem likely to enjoy. Tell your TiVo to record Enterprise and Stargate SG-1, and it'll start recording B5 and Farscape as well, assuming those shows don't clash with anything else you've told it to record (mainstream PVRs can still only record one channel at a time).

The stuff-you-might-like matching is deep enough to be able to notice that you liked Dragonheart, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock and The Name of the Rose, and to thereby have a hunch that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might, for some reason, be right up your alley.

PVRs don't figure out what's on by mental telepathy, of course. They have to get program guide data - including all the metadata about who's in what, genres, episodes in series and so on - from somewhere. The "somewhere" is an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) service run by the PVR company, or one of their affiliates. The PVR accesses the EPG by dialing in with a built-in modem in the wee small hours now and then or, for newer models, by using your broadband Internet connection.

EPG services cost money (usually regular payments, sometimes one big lump sum), and they're how the PVR companies make their money.

This is all very much the outside scoop for readers in the USA, but not for those of us who live in most other countries. PVRs still have pathetic market penetration here in Australia, because there are no local commercial EPG services, and no company seems to have any plans to provide them.

When people talk about EPGs in Australia, they're usually talking about the what's-on-now and what's-coming-up displays provided by digital TV (which I wrote about some time ago, and which hasn't really advanced much since then). This kind of EPG is close to useless for PVR purposes, because there's no way to suck down a reasonable list of what's coming up. And some days, one or another channel just gets the EPG wrong, usually by labeling a big block of consecutive shows as one thing.

You can buy a PVR or two here - Samsung's Dual Vision DVD-H40A for more than $AU1000, for instance, or $AU2500 or more for a DVD-recorder-equipped Panasonic DMR-HS2. Some cheaper models are trickling onto the market now for less than $AU1000; Digital Broadcasting Australia has a couple of digital-tuner-equipped models listed here. Those ones can access the EPG info in the digital signal, but I don't think they'll ever be able to see more than a day into the future, and nobody seems to be stampeding to get genre and cast list and series meta-data included in the DTV EPGs.

The alternative to all this is to import a TiVo. There's a whole "OzTiVo" site devoted to this activity.

Local program guide data for TiVos is, surprisingly, available, thanks to the efforts of unpaid volunteers who screen-scrape data from online TV guides like eBroadcast Australia.

The EPG data's no good if you can't tune channels, though, and an imported TiVo probably won't be able to, without modifications. It's relatively easy to get a US, NTSC TiVo to understand PAL video input and act as a dumb tuner-less digital video recorder; the "palkit" from here does that. This doesn't fix the NTSC tuner, though. If you want a US TiVo to work properly in Australia you need to install a PAL tuner in it, and that's mildly hairy (DOC format version here).

UK TiVos don't need this mod, but they're not being made any more and are thus hard to find.

And there's a further problem with Aussie PVRing. If you just want to record free-to-air programming - and that's all most Australian TV viewers watch, much to the dismay of Foxtel and Optus Vision - you have to contend with the mystic ability of the Aussie commercial networks to run shows at times other than those promised.

It happens all the time, these days. A show or two runs over-length for some reason, pushing everything after it ten, twenty, thirty minutes late, until the slack's pulled back in by dropping one of the Butt-Bender Super Exercise Hamster Wheel For Humans ads at three in the morning (but never, never the televangelists an hour or two later, of course).

As a result, people who programmed their VCR to record the Formula One at 0200 hours, and neglected to buy a five hour tape and use the whole darn thing to record a two hour event, get a sinking feeling when they discover that a movie-length episode of "Silk Stalkings" hadn't quite started yet when the race was meant to be kicking off.

A cynic might, uncharitably, suggest that this extraordinary programming sloppiness is deliberate. Not to screw up PVR users - there aren't enough of them yet for the networks to care - but just to annoy VCR users, who're likely to fast-forward through the ads.

Commercial networks do not like you doing that.

I'd pay money to see a PVR enthusiast try to persuade Kerry Packer to tighten up scheduling, so that people can more easily skip his ads. They'd never find the freakin' body.

You can get around sloppy scheduling with fat ugly recording margins on either side of each timeslot, of course, but then you can't record consecutive programs on different channels. And there's not much else you can do.

Grabbing TV shows via your friendly neighbourhood legally dubious P2P client is not a PVR alternative. Sure, you can get your hands on stuff that hasn't screened in Australia yet, or catch that episode of South Park you forgot about. But P2P program hunting, like fooling with VCRs, takes time out of your day. PVRs give you time back, assuming you don't fall victim to their siren call and end up watching lots more TV than you used to. Even if you do, at least you're having fun.

And then, of course, there's the tiresome problem of finding Australian TV shows on US-centric P2P networks.

Aussie broadband download limits are, at least, being relaxed, so it's no longer such a big deal that a 45 minute TV show often comes as a 350Mb DivX AVI. If you're on dial-up, of course, you aren't going to be downloading a whole lot of TV.

Things'll get better. Australia may never be a big enough market to get a proper full-featured commercial PVR, but a generally applicable local EPG with all the features of the TiVo one is not impossible. All you really need (says the man who does not have to do it) is eBroadcast and IMDb tied together with a wad of Perl code. Add accompanying software that works with various popular tuner cards - even with multiple tuner cards, so you can record more than one channel at once - and you're in business.

More and more commercial and free home-theatre-PC software's turning up, which can only make the above task easier. SnapStream's Personal Video Station, for instance, and MythTV and myHTPC (say that five times fast); even Freevo is approaching user-friendliness.

If you're an Aussie who's holding your breath for an easy full-featured PVR solution, though, I think you're going to be very blue indeed before you can chuck your timeshifting tapes.

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