Buying a digital video recorder from TiVo Inc. or another firm can seem a waste to many technically inclined users.
That's not because these set-top boxes' capabilities, such as the ability to pause live TV, go unappreciated. Rather, it's because their massive hard drives cost as much or more than the even larger hard drives of most desktop computers -- storage that often goes unused.
Unlike all but a few digital video recorders, many computers also include DVD-recorder drives for cheap sharing and archival of recordings. They can also easily download new programming schedules off the Internet -- and therefore don't require monthly service charges for these updates.
So why not connect a video signal to your computer and put its hard drive to work storing your favorite programs? Two recent devices, SnapStream Media Inc.'s Beyond TV3 and Elgato Systems' EyeTV 200, do that basic task and add a wrinkle or two of their own.
With BeyondTV3 (Win 2000 or newer, $60 at www.snapstream.com), the key selling point is flexibility, at the cost of a some-assembly-required design that requires buying a separate TV tuner card -- some are sold at SnapStream's site at prices from $80 to $150 -- and plugging it into an internal expansion slot.
Once set up, BeyondTV3 lets you watch your recordings not just on your PC or a TV plugged into it (provided the TV tuner card has a video output), but also on other computers -- desktop, laptop or handheld -- thanks to BeyondTV3's ability to save recordings as smaller Windows Media Video files. Better yet, you can stream these Windows Media files to other PCs on your home network or even across the Internet.
Burning a recorded show to a DVD or Video CD, however, requires the use of third-party software; a function this basic should be built in.
SnapStream's own software, meanwhile, matches most of TiVo's best-in-category options and then some. For instance, you can skip commercials automatically and schedule new recordings from any Web-connected computer. Its recordings, however, don't look quite as crisp and clear, and it can't record surround-sound audio.
One other caveat: If you use digital cable or satellite services, you'll need to buy a controller cable, at $20 to $50, to allow SnapStream's software to change channels on the cable or satellite box as needed for scheduled recordings.
Elgato's EyeTV 200 (Mac OS 10.2.8 or newer, $349 at www.elgato.com) costs a lot more, but it also has one compelling advantage for some users: It works on the Mac.
This small gray box plugs into a Mac's FireWire port and receives a television signal via coaxial cable, RCA, or S-video inputs (the latter of which also let you make digital copies of old videotapes). The bundled software records programs at their full quality in MPEG-2 format, with excellent results.
Elgato's external box includes a tuner to receive over-the-air or unscrambled analog cable signals. But if you get digital cable, satellite or other services that require their own set-top box, forget about EyeTV; unlike BeyondTV, it can't change the channels on these boxes at all.
EyeTV 200 relies on the TitanTV Web site for looking up programming information, which brings one odd side effect: You can browse the schedule and set up recordings only with the mouse, not with the included remote control. The remote does work fine for channel surfing and viewing recorded programs, but suffers from several mislabeled or unlabeled buttons.
Elgato repeats SnapStream's mistake in requiring you to use other programs to save recordings to CD or DVD; the company suggests Roxio Inc.'s Toast Titanium 6, an $80 purchase in its own right.
Both the SnapStream and Elgato products do a fine job of proving that a computer can replace a stand-alone digital video recorder. But neither makes a great case for itself as the best tool for this task.