The addition of a TV Tuner card turns your PC into a full “DVR” – a Digital Video Recorder. For those familiar with it, your PC becomes just like a “TiVo” box providing high quality record and play-back options from broadcast TV.
This tuner card also brings in all the available FM Stations.
In the US there are a wealth of stations to tune into and each of them has an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) transmitted along with the picture and sound and picked up by Windows Media Center for presentation in WMC on-line TV Guide.
The EPG is an essential part of a recording system because it provides a schedule of up-coming programs and allows you to schedule the recording not just of the show itself, but every show in the series (like all the episodes of “Family Guy” ) – you can even instruct the guide to record episodes of the show even if they are seen on different channels and at different times.
In New Zealand (where I live) broadcasting sophistication hasn’t quite caught up with this innovation as yet, and while the FreeView channel guide is available for download, the Sky channel guide isn’t publicly available. Several local enthusiasts have tried to publish the Sky data independently, but Sky continues to withhold the information and has even sent “take down” notices to local web sites that published the information free of charge.
Fortunately, with a bit of work and a few software automation tricks, a full schedule of programs for both FreeView and the Sky channels can be collected by your PC and made available to the WMC guide. There are also tools that make this guide more valuable and attractive.
With a full EPG the TV Program Guide provides a scrolling view of the available TV channels, a logo for each channel (if available), the programs on at the given times, a description of the selected program (along with a thumbnail for that program if available) and a colour code for the type of program. Shown above are light-blue for kids, green for sport, and purple for drama.
A click on the show will bring up more options:
Most of which are pretty self-explanatory, but the “Search” facility deserves a note. It’s still very rough, and largely dependent on the proper classification of the shows as they tagged within the EPG, but simple searches, like the search for movies below, can offer some real value.
There are roughly 100 channels to choose from in Auckland, less if you remove the channels you don’t wish to scan, and still fewer if you remove channels you don’t have access to (Sky channels you don’t subscribe to) and even fewer if you remove the channels you are sure you won’t have any interest in viewing (the Parliament channel comes to mind).
Even at that, taking into account viewing preferences of other family members (one of whom may actually want to view the Parliament channel) you may still be left with 30 or 40 channels to contend with. In North America I’m sure this number is considerably higher. The built-in colour codes provide a key for program organization, and the “Categories” bar to the left of the guide are an easy way to filter the current show listings by these categories.
Clicking on the “Movies” filter, for example, provides a listing of just those channels showing movies at the moment.
You can even build your own filter to include only those channels you want to scan. Each family member can have their own.
Clicking on an individual station will show all the programs coming up for the foreseeable future (all the programs available in the guide anyway – typically that’s 8 days worth of programs – in this case 230 shows just for this channel.
Many of the options related to TV shows are again presented on the show detail page as well.
Finally, clicking on the show itself reveals another great feature of a DVR – the ability to pause live TV and resume viewing later. The bright white part of the progress line in the show below indicates the about of “pause” time available, and this time is only limited by the amount of disk space you choose to allocate for this purpose.
Disc space is also the limiting factor (combined with picture quality) in determining the number of episodes that can be held on your system at any one time.
And one last bit of magic –
If the program supports this feature, you can hit the “Mute” button and the dialog for the show will appear on-screen. This is great if you are watching your favourite show and your partner gets an important business phone call and has to take it in the lounge – it’s not so great if you mute the TV sound to avoid the annoying commercials and then are forced to read their sales pitch instead of just hearing it.
One shortcoming for this section that I must mention is that the signal quality on SKY TV, when passed through your TV Tuner card. While the digital signal from the FreeView stations is dramatically clear, the analog signal from a standard Sky decoder is unfortunately a bit fuzzy. This situation might be mitigated by spending more money on hardware (specifically a “MySky HDI” decoder and perhaps a better TV Tuner card) but that experiment must wait for another time. I doubt that few up north will even remember what an “analog” signal looks like.