Reviewed by: Erik Pettersen
The Diamond Multimedia XtremeTV PVR-550 “Power Pack” is an intriguing new entry into the DIY PVR marketplace. For $130 they manage to package nearly everything you would need (sans PC) to make your PC into a PVR / Media Center.
The PVR550 Power Pack comes with:
• Conexant “Falcon” hardware MPEG encoding tuner card
• FireFly RF remote control & batteries
• BeyondTV Subscriber Edition
• Beyond Media (full)
• Misc A/V cables
There were a bunch of other small touches, like the inclusion of the commonly used A/V cables that will invariable save most people from a late night trip to Radio Shack. Nothing is worse than being a stereo mini-jack to RCA adapter away from completing your PVR project, and thankfully, one was included.
Installation was straightforward. Pop open your case, slide in the PVR550 PCI card into a free PCI slot on your motherboard, tighten the backplane screw, and close the case. The FireFly remote instructions make it abundantly clear that under no circumstances should you plug the USB RF receiver in until prompted to do so by the driver software (i.e. install the software before pluging the USB receiver in).
Beyond Media Basic / FireFly Driver
Beyond Media Basic is a “lite” version of the Beyond Media HTPC suite as well as a means for configuring and tweaking some of the FireFly remote settings and behavior. It normally comes free packaged with FireFly if you were to purchase it as a standalone item.
I asked SnapStream directly about this and they acknowledge that some users would prefer to have a “lite” driver that is not depended on Beyond Media Basic and that they are working on an update that would be addressing that issue for future release. They also suggest the excellent PC / Remote automation software Promixis Girder as another method of getting full functionality out of the FireFly remote without loading the Beyond Media Basic.
There’s little point to spending more time on Beyond Media Basic as the full version of Beyond Media is included in the package; it’s requirement is a little redundant. Hence, my earlier wish for separating it from the FireFly driver as it’s just taking up memory.
Beyond Media is the HTPC framework / “front end” and media player for launching all your media and media related applications. In non-tech speak: Beyond Media is a pretty interface for playing DVD’s, mp3s, photo’s, internet video, BeyondTV programming, and launching other programs all without ever reaching for your keyboard or Windows Start Menu.
It might help to preface this with my preconception on Beyond Media and other “Media Center” type HTPC applications before I started the evaluation. I just was not that into the idea. I had more of a meat and potatoes mindset; I want PVR functionality and I want to perhaps playback mp3’s or an occasional downloaded/ripped divx video. The idea of having an all in one solution to my media just did not appeal to me.
Fast Forward to present day where my wife has to wrestle the FireFly remote from my hands because I insist on watching our wedding photos with the Star Wars “Imperial March” or “Taps” mp3’s playing in the background. Suffice to say, I have really come 180 degrees around on the value and utility of having a good HTPC “media center” front end software package.
Just in case it hasn’t been thought of before, hopefully someone is writing a Spotlight plugin for the upcoming Google Video service as that could be an excellent new source for online video content.
Beyond Media has the ability to add other applications to the menu, which is handy if you wish to launch an external application like a classic video game emulator ( MAME ). There is also a rich developer and plugin community to add even more functionality like movie times, comic strips, or my favorite the “Beyond Drunk” bartender’s guide plugin.
My one complaint is how BeyondTV (the SnapStream PVR application) is integrated into the system. It just does not feel very connected or seamless. It’s more like launching an external application than being truly integrated into BeyondTV. Again, I took my beef to SnapStream and again they’ve taken to heart some of the user feedback and are actively working on a more integrated incorporation of BeyondTV within Beyond Media menus.
BeyondTV Subscriber Edition
subscription sign up page for more info.
FireFly RF Remote
The FireFly remote is a RF based remote control for PC. RF (radio frequency) is an interesting option over the IR (infrared) remote controls you may be more familiar with. As you probably know IR remotes are line of site and the infrared signal coming out of remote control needs to be on more or less direct path to the IR receiver “eye” on the device you are controlling. If you are used to extending your arm and pointing the remote emphatically at the TV/VCR/DVD you know what I am talking about.
It has a built in mouse mode that you can enable to use the arrow keys to control the cursor, but ideally you will rarely have to do this. Mouse mode is a little bit arduous to navigate with, but it is a nice feature to have if you need it occasionally. There are a lot of thoughtfully dedicated buttons like a minimize/maximize button and application close button as well as the usual volume/channel/video transport (play/pause/rewind/fast-forward/etc), “arrow” keys, type controls.
PVR 550 PCI Tuner/Encoder Card
The PVR 550 PCI card is based upon the Conexant “Falcon” reference design (more info than you could possibly need is available via this Conexant Falcon specification PDF ). The PVR 550 PCI uses the common Conexant CX23416 MPEG encoder. This is the same encoding chip that is used in the Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 & newer revision PVR 250 cards. The PVR 550 PCI uses the Conexant CX25843 Audio/Video converter which is also the same one used on the WinTV PVR150.
I don’t have a PVR 150 handy, so I’m using a PVR 250 for comparison’s sake. I’m outputting to standard definition TV via S-Video out of an All in Wonder 9600 XT. I’m using Nvidia’s latest DVD software decoder.
The PVR 550 PCI card like most tuner cards with dedicated hardware MPEG encoding uses barely any of my modest AMD Semperon 2200’s CPU. By my off the cuff peeks at windows performance monitor, the BTV recording process uses less than 10% cpu time while performing unattended recording on the PVR 550 PCI card.
Diamond Multimedia has put together an excellent bundle with nearly everything you’d need to get started with your homebrew Tivo project at a very reasonable $130 retail price. The inclusion of “A” grade SnapStream PVR and media center software (BeyondTV & Beyond Media) with the solid PVR 550 PCI hardware encoding tuner card instead of the usual batch of less than sexy OEM software, gives the Diamond Multimedia XtremeTV PVR 550 PCI power pack an edge right out of the gate. The inclusion of a RF remote of the caliber of the SnapStream FireFly just adds an extra layer of frosting to this already yummy DIY PVR cake.
*includes 60 day trial of BeyondTV / Full
*includes RF FireFly remote
*solid hardware encoding PVR card performance
* nearly everything (except a PC) you’d need to get started
*SnapStream needs tighter integration between Beyond Media / BeyondTV
*Need to keep loaded redundant Beyond Media Basic for FireFly driver
*Losing friends from excessive digital picture slide show usage in Beyond Media =P.