Build Your Own Personal Video Recorder 101: (Part1)

ABSTRACT: What the heck is a PVR and why you’d want to build one.

AUTHOR: Rampy (reviews AT

What’s A PVR?

A PVR is an acronym for Personal Video Recorder… sometimes it is referred to as a Digital Video Recorder (DVR). A PVR is like a very smart digital VCR on steroids.

Why would anyone want anything more than a VCR? Let me use myself as a usecase. I have a Tivo. The basic functionality of a PVR allows you to schedule recordings by program instead of just time/date/channel a traditional VCR offers. I can interact with the program guide to find details about upcoming shows so I can record only the “Seinfeld” episode where George tries to preserve his high score on a Frogger machine and NOT the Keith Hernandez episodes. I can make wishlists “queries” that tell my Tivo to record any shows/movies that a have a specific actor. The next time “Treasure of Sierra Madre” is shown it’s going to be taped, even if it’s 4 months from now at 3:45am on TCM. I can record only the NEW episodes of “CSI” or “Friends” and never see a re-run (unless I want to).

One big feature of PVR’s is the ability to time-shift. Granted a regular old VCR can time shift, but it’s a little different and better with a PVR. The optimal situation for PVR’ing is to identify a pick list of shows that you want recorded on a recurring basis (Tivo calls this a season pass). Build up a queue of recorded programs and you can pretty much pick and choose what you want to watch and when. You can store many more shows on a hard disk based PVR than you could on a video cassette, and get near instant access to any prerecorded show. No more messing with counters or rewinding and fast forwarding all around a tape trying to find the program you want to watch. If you were to tape as many programs as I Tivo you’d have to contend with switching tapes as well.

I can watch a program that normally takes an hour in about 35 minutes (give or take) because I can zip past the commercials (if you have a ReplayTV you can do this automagically via commercial sensing. With Tivo it takes near nothing to blip-blop fast forward past the commercials and blip-blop play to start the show again). That means I can spend less time in front of the tube and more time on the PC Monitor updating my site about PVR’s. =P

There are some other neat features such as the abilty to pause live television for those important pee and snack breaks (or to yell at telemarketers that call in the middle of “The Screen Savers”!).

OK PVR’s are awesome!! But…

So hopefully you “get” why people are so excited about PVR’s… Why would anyone want to build a homebuilt PVR when I can just go down to Best Buy or click my way to amazon and buy a Tivo or ReplayTV? Well, there is some merit to that. Commercial PVRs are stable, proven, and easy to use/setup. If you want a near instant out of the box experience maybe that’s the best route for that type of person.

So again, why would someone go to the trouble of building your own? PVR hardware unit costs have come down quite a bit ( at time of this article you can get one for 150 dollars after mail in rebate ) BUT you are still on the hook for the service. It’s anywhere from 9.99 to 13.99 a month for the guide service that is essential to make the PVR work (without the service a Tivo is a doorstop). Most commercial PVR units allow you to buy a “lifetime” (of the unit!) or prepay for a few years of services in one lump payment of around $300.

I’ll gladly pay 150 – 300 for some electronic entertainment gadget, but if I have to pay another 300 dollars above and beyond that for “service”, that bothers me. I’d rather spend the equivalent amount on hardware and build my own (the building and tinkering is half the fun to me, which is a point that shouldn’t be lost). It’s a question of value: I’d gladly (and actually do pay for) pay for the service, but it’s not worth 13 bucks a month… I’d be willing to pay maybe 36 bucks a year tops (if that!) But that’s just me, I’m cheap like that.

Another reason to build your own homebrew PVR is privacy concerns. Those of you paranoid tinfoil hat types may have noticed all the wonderful data that Tivo announced regarding the super bowl. Tivo (for example) has a privacy policy and supposedly none of your personal viewing habits that can be identifiable to you individually ever leaves your set top box… but if you have an ingrained distrust of corporations having access to your viewing habits (even if they promise they won’t, sorta) building your own PVR can ensure that YOU control what happens with the viewing data (if any) is collected. The men in the white jackets will never know that you tape bugs bunny cartoons and you constantly pause and rewind the love scenes in General Hospital.

Besides the love to build/tinker/mod PC’s, the BEST reason to build your own PVR is that you can add whatever you want to you PVR to extend the functionality beyond just watching and recording shows. People in the HTPC (home theater PC) community have been adding all sorts of neat functionality to their HTPCs. You can pull in RSS feeds of all your favorite sites to see what’s going on in a glance, grab weather dynamically (no more waiting for your local weather on the weather channel), you can play games (like MAME and othe emulators), surf, mp3 jukebox, DVD/DivX/MPEG movies/clips, digitial picture slideshow/viewer, phew! Roll your own digital convergance box!

I’m still skeptical…

Can I really build something that will work as well and be as easy to use as a Tivo? Yes you can for the most part. It might require some patience and tweaking to get your homebrew PVR setup just the way you like, but the end result is worth it. Building your own PVR is still a petty new endeavor and there are some growing pains. The good news is that the tools are getting better and better all the time (both software and hardware) making it an exciting time to be rolling your own PVR.

How do I get started?

Well you are in the right place! Browse/post in the Build Your Own PVR forums, and check out the article links in the BYOPVR link directory.

Continue on to Part 2 of Build Your Own PVR 101 where we outline some of the basic options for rolling your own tivo like home entertainment system.