PVRs and the Democratic National Convention

During the Democratic National Convention, I’m working on a project that requires me to record the five hours of convention coverage each night in a format that can easily be read by computers and transmitted across the Internet. In order to do this, today, I went out and obtained a Pinnacle PCTV HD Ultimate stick.

This is a cool device. It is like an oversized USB Memory stick, with a mini USB port on the side and a coax connection on the end. The software is stored on the stick, and there is about 2 gigabytes of memory on the stick that can be used for recording onto.

There are a few different options for setting this up. The first option was to use an antenna that comes with the device, or connecting up to a rooftop antenna. My first pass was to connect the supplied antenna, but that did not give me any usable signals.

The second option was to use my cable connection. Since I was planning on doing this in my office, I installed a cable splitter just before my cable modem and tried connecting that way. It claimed to have found something like 69 different channels, but I couldn’t get any of them to play. It may be that this is because I was in a rush and didn’t spend enough time trying to figure out how to get it to work.

The third option was to capture from a Cable or Satellite Set-top box using either composite video or S-video. I got the S-video to work, which was a relief. However, I hadn’t figured out the software well enough to figure out how to record off of the S-Video channel. I suppose I could get the Remote to do that for me, but I hadn’t set up the remote.

Hopping back to the first option, I tried taking the channel 3 output from the cable set-top box and feeding it into the PCTV stick. This worked well. However it meant that I needed to watch the same channel on the TV as I was recording on the PC. That is a viable option, but not as good as I was hoping for. I tried shifting around the connection in different places, between the set-top box and the DVD/VHS player, between the DVD/VHS player and the TV. Finally, I found that I could successfully split the cable signal coming into the set-top box and get the analog channels on the PCTV stick. This is the best since it allows me to record on one channel on the PC while watching a different channel on the TV. I also found that I could take the S-Video output from my DVD/VHS player into my memory stick. This will make it easier for me to take some old VHS tapes and digitize them and store them on YouTube, Blip.TV or other sites.

With the wiring working a bit better, I went back to see if I could get any of the digital signals to work. This would be nice, since the PCTV stick supports digital HDTV, but our regular television is an old analog SD TV, so we can’t watch digital HDTV channels.

Unfortunately, I still couldn’t find and HDTV stations. I’ll try that again a little later. I’ve been told that Cablevision does weird stuff with their HDTV signals which makes it harder for people to pull them in without a set-top box.

Now that the basic functionality was working, my next test was to record shows using the stick. There are about ten different formats that can be saved, using various resolutions of DivX, MPEG 1/2 or 4. I’ve set up a bunch of recording sessions to see what the resolution looks like for each of these as how much space they take up. Once this is done, I’ll start testing various things that can be done with the files in these different formats.

I did end up installing DivX and Quicktime on my laptop so I can view the files in different format. This is also supposed to work with the Windows Media Center, so I may try working with as a future test.

So, initial impressions are that you can turn a PC with Windows XP or Vista into a Personal Video Record fairly easily for around $100.

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