Recording TV

At home we still record TV the old-fashioned way – using video recorders. It’s all very 20th century and we should really think about updating our methods. Here are the things we’re considering.

  • Buying a hard disk based system, Something like a Tivo. You can’t buy a new Tivo in the UK any more, but they are available on Ebay. Alternatively there are many similar systems now in the shops and the prices are falling to realistic levels. Many of them also contain a writable DVD drive.
  • Getting one of the hard disk based systems that you can currently get from digital TV providers. I think that the only one currently available is Sky+, but NTL (who provide my cable TV) have one in the pipeline. As I understand it the advantage here is that because the system is tightly coupled with your TV provider, it ties in with your EPG and allows you to record more than one channel simultaneously.
  • A home made hard disk system based on MythTV or something similar. That will almost certainly be more flexible than the previous two suggestions.

And then there’s the idea that you don’t need to record anything, because it’s all available anyway. Some of these systems are still a few years away from being a good solution.

  • BitTorrent seems to be the current system of choice for sharing TV shows. Two potential problems with this, one larger and one smaller. The larger one is that not all programmes will always be available – tho’ friends that use it tell me that it’s rare not to find what they want. The smaller problem is that a lot of the available programmes come from the US, and less people seem to have widescreen TVs in the US – so a lot of the shows I’ve seen from BitTorrent aren’t in widescreen – even when widescreen versions are available. But, like I said, not a huge problem.
  • Digital TV providers have started to make available various programmes as “video on demand”. Telewest Teleport is a good example. HomeChoice has something similar. Again, you have the problem that not every programme will be available – but the selection can only get better.
  • is a homebrew version of a similar system. It just records everything broadcast by your TV provider, so you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want.
  • The BBC are starting to experiment with making programmes available for a week after the broadcast date. You can watch them using a program call iMP. If this is successful then it’s likely that other broadcasters will also start doing this.

So there are plenty of options. I’m convinced that in five to ten years this will have become a non-issue as we’ll just be able to download and watch any programme that we want whenever we want to watch it. But this situation is still a few years in the future so we need an interim solution which will probably be based around one of the hard disk systems. If anyone has any advice on which way we should go then I’ll love to hear it. Or, if I’ve missed anything out, please let me know.


  1. The advantage in a Tivo is (at least with the UK version) you control the content. You can record anything you want and the damn thing won’t decide to delete it (unlike the sky plus box that’ll delete pay for view films after a while, etc.) You can also tell it to use shitty quality for programs you don’t care so much about so you can fit 40hours of programs on the box if you really want. Oh, and if you’re prepared to crack the lid and modify it, then you can stick *lots* of storage space in it.The advantage in a sky plus box is that it’s really coupled into the decoder box. Yes, this means you can record one channel while watching the other. This also means the picture quality is perfect, because it’s recording the stream direct to disk without having to re-encode it first. And finally it means that you don’t have to use an IR blaster, meaning that you never accidentally record the wrong channel (which happens to me with my Tivo about one every couple of months.)One really really annoying thing with a Sky+ box. You can’t pause live TV and access the EPG. This means you can’t pause the current program and set it to record the other channel. It means you can’t find a program you’d *quite* like to see, pause it, then look at the EPG to see if there’s anything better on. Stupid user interface design. Drives me up the wall, glad I don’t have one.Both these solutions ‘just work’. The MythTV style aproach requires you to think a lot more. Also, you need somewhere to get TV listings from. This got a lot easier all of a sudden thanks to a couple of enterprising young hackers. Still, you need to HACK on these things. It’s not a case of unpacking it and plugging it in. When something goes wrong with my Tivo (rarely) I call up technical support and they tell me what to do. Not so with MythTV.Should you ever buy a PSP or iPod video, you’re going to want the MythTV box. You’ll be able to transfer tee-vee to it.You missed an option; You can always get a Freeview box with a hard drive in it. They’re a bit clunky and the user interface sucks, but they tend to be cheap and you’re not bound into paying a monthly fee. Like the sky plus box, they don’t re-encode (writing the mpeg stream directly to disk too) and some can even record one channel while you watch the other. The user interface sucks normally however, since they can’t know about any program before the over the air EPG starts broadcasting about it (which is normally about a week in advance.) This means that they normally don’t do things like “Record all episodes of *this* program”. Oh, and jerakeen has a box where you can’t tell it to record from the point where you’ve paused a live program. Which sucks.Along these lines, there’s always an eyeTV. I never use mine. My mac’s too busy being my mac to be a video recorder.It’s all much of a muchness. I’m sticking with the Tivo, not because it’s the best solution (though I might be able to make a case for that) but because I’ve got one already and eventually something better will come along, but for now I’ve got a working solution so I’m not going to be making any changes.

  2. The hacker solution is clearly the Myth box :-)I’m just in the process of buying the bits for one. It is *not* cheap at all. But what you win is almost infinite flexibility: as much hard disk space as you want; upgrade later when things become cheaper; a sensible backend-frontend split meaning you can have multiple front-ends attached to different TVs; as many tuner cards as you can afford/have PCI slots for; the ability to also play MP3s through it, browse your photos, check out the weather, etc etc etc.The program guide is a non-issue with DVB; the signal itself contains a program guide (although there are some advantages to teaching myth to go grab one from the web instead).

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