Turn Your PC Into a DVR

Category: Television

I've found that it's almost impossible to buy a standalone DVR to record broadcast TV programming, and I don't want to rent one. I understand there is a way to build your own, but I'm fuzzy on the parts required. Can I turn my old computer into a DVR?

How to Build Your Own DVR

The digital video recorder (DVR) has revolutionized television watching. In January, 2006, a survey by A.C. Nielsen found 1.2 percent of U.S. households had a DVR; by February, 2011, that number had mushroomed to 42.2 percent.

A DVR captures television signals and stores them as digital video files on a mass storage device. A DVR may be a standalone appliance; circuitry embedded in a set-top box or the TV itself; or a home-brewed version consisting of a PC, TV tuner card, and the right software.

Sure, DVR units can be rented from TiVo and cable or satellite TV companies. But why rent when you can build your own? If you have an older computer sitting idle, this is a great way to put it to good use. It's also a fun project that doesn't require much in the way of tech skills.
Turn Your PC Into a DVR

To build a DVR, you need a PC with a large hard drive (500+ GB); a TV tuner card that receives and decodes television signals; and DVR software. These components can be purchased separately or bundled together in different ways. You can build your DVR on a Windows, Mac or Linux computer. Here's what you will need.

DVR Software and Hardware

Windows Media Center is Microsoft's DVR software. It comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate editions. If your Windows 7 version lacks Media Center, you can buy an upgrade from Microsoft.

Alternatives to Windows Media Center include the $79.95 SageTV and Snapstream's $99 Beyond TV. Free DVR software includes the open source MythTV and NextPVR, formerly called GV-PVR. All are Windows-based, with the exception of MythTV, which runs on Linux, Mac or PC.

Some of their common features include the ability to pause, rewind, and fast-forward live TV broadcasts; record and store programs for later playback, record multiple TV programs at once using multiple TV tuner cards; burn DVDs of your TV recordings, and support multiple simultaneous viewing on different displays. BeyondTV also has commercial-skipping technology built into it.

TV tuner cards include the Hauppage WinTV HVR-2250 Media Center Kit, KWorld PC150-U Hybrid ATSC Hybrid HDTV Tuner Card with FM radio receiver, the PCTV HD Card 800i, and the isiontek 900355 ATI All-in-Wonder MC Edition TV Tuner Card - Radeon H. Some TV tuner cards come bundled with DVR software. Prices range from $40 to $100.

You'll be able to access any local free over-the-air TV broadcasts, and (if you are a cable subscriber) certain cable channels that are broadcast "in the clear" (known as Clear QAM) by your cable provider. You'll have to find out from your provider if they offer any Clear QAM channels.

SageTV offers a compact appliance that includes a TV tuner and its software for around $150. It has no fan, so there's no noise, and it's easily set up to work with your PC. It also supports HDMI 1.3 and Dolby TrueHD for better sound quality. It even comes with a remote control and supports wireless keyboards.

"Place-shifting" is another benefit of DVR technology. Once you capture your favorite TV shows via a DVR, they become ordinary files on the hard drive. You can copy the files to a laptop or smartphone to view anywhere and any time you like. You can even access your personal video library through a Web browser if your DVR software includes a server function.

Have you built your own DVR? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Turn Your PC Into a DVR"

Posted by:

Jan Owen
03 Jun 2011

Thanks, Bob. I can't think of a better way to put an old computer to good use. I am assuming an external hard drive will work? My old computer only has 200 gigs of hard drive space.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, that should work fine.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2011

I have Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1250 cards in each of my two old Windows XP computers. They're hooked up to a roof-mounted Channel Master 4228 "flyswatter" antenna--no rotor required to get 45+ local channels. I use the bundled WinTV 7 software and WinTV Scheduler plus listings from Zap2It dot com. Haven't been tempted to try other software.

I routinely use VideoRedo TV Suite to edit out the commercials before viewing. It's that fast and easy to use.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2011

Regarding your article "Turn your TV into a DVR", I built my own PC/DVR unit long ago and it worked just fine. But, that was in the days when the TV signals that came over Comcast's cable were analog. Are the signals that come of Comcast's cable able to be tuned in and recorded now that they are digital? That is, aren't the digital signals from Comcast encoded in such a manner that only their DVR/Tuners can read those signals? I was under that impression and further, the only digital signals that can be tuned in or recorded are just the non-encoded digital signals that are broadcast over the air. Would appreciate your help on this matter.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This applies to free over-the-air TV broadcasts, and also certain cable channels that are broadcast "in the clear" (Clear QAM) by your cable provider. You'll have to find out from your provider if they offer any Clear QAM channels.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2011

This sounds straightforward if you are using a roof mounted antenna. This is great.
Can you add more to support those that are currently connected to digital cable or satellite like Dish Networks? Next steps on the details showing how you connect a receiver with your DVR-PC would be fantastic?

Posted by:

03 Jun 2011

Since the question continues as - what is the viable and least expensive alternative to renting or buying a DVR to record HDTV signals in HD?

I subscribe to satellite TV programming, and recording in 1080i or 720p is the desire. What are the hookup details to get the HD signal into the computer or device that can record in HD? Hence, I do not have or need a TV tuner, since the only received signals need to come from the satellite box, as over-the-air signals are not available here.

Currently, the receiver box outputs via HTML to the HDTV, and the only other outputs from the box are - composite and S-video, F-connected video/audio, and component. Can one of these alternative outputs be used to record from, and if so, than how? I do not have an expensive outboard Blu-Ray recorder.

Thanks for your input.....Bob

Posted by:

04 Jun 2011

You forgot to mention FREE linux mce which is head and tails beyond anything windows has to offer, check it out.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2011

Comcast has a pretty good lockdown on their signal.
QAM is barely available, if at all anymore.
Is it possible to build a DVR that acts like their DVR? $30.00 a month to rent theirs(2 of them) when I have a spare PC seems ridiculous.

Posted by:

17 Jun 2011

We bought a Silicon Dust HD Homerun tuner and hooked it up to a laptop with Windows 7 Home Premium. Works great. The Homerun is capable of capturing two channels. Unfortunately, it does not record from Dish. But, it is helpful , provided there is a strong signal. (We use rabbit ears.)

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