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The Definitive Build Your Own Guide: PVR Components

Posted on 26 November 2012 by sam

If you want to build your own personal video recorder (PVR), you will need most of the items on the HTPC shopping list and on top of that, you’ll need some way to tune to your TV channels and capture it. That’s what this article is all about.

What makes a PVR distinct from a HTPC is its ability to capture live TV. There are many ways to do this, but all of them require a capture card, a piece of hardware that will pick op the video signal and send it to your computer.

These cards come in many forms and shapes, but the most important requirement will be compatibility with your TV service. So lets go over the options.

Analogue TV capture cards

While all countries are switching to digital TV, you can probably still receive a small amount of analogue channels. However, the outlook isn’t very good. Chances are good these kinds of cards will be outdated within a few years.

If you’re building a new machine, I strongly advice to skip analogue and go for any other solution below.

DVB

The digital video broadcasting (DVB) standard is used throughout Europe, and parts of Asia and Australia. As a general rule you will only find these devices for sale there, since they are useless in, for instance, the US.

DVB comes in a bunch of varieties, most importantly DVB-T (over-the-air), DVB-C (cable) and DVB-S (satellite).

The encryption on these channels is not standardized, but comes in the form of a smart card, provided by your service. Keep in mind that some cable companies lock the smart card to their own devices. Sometimes, it’s not possible to buy or rent a smart card that can be used in a DVB capture card.

Make sure you check before investing in any capture card.

As with all devices in this article, you can find them in both an internal and external version. The internal one is a PCI card that you plug into your motherboard. If your case has room for it, internal is much more convenient. External capture cards are usually connected via USB and take up extra space in your media closet.

QAM

Quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) is the North-American equivalent to Europe’s unscrambled DVB-C (I’m cutting a few corners, read here for the details).

These capture devices connect to your cable and allow you to watch any free channels.

Because it does not have encryption, the number of TV channels you can watch will be very limited. So unless you are really sure you can get the channels you want, this probably isn’t your best option.

Keep in mind that most QAM cards also support over-the-air ATSC (further down in this article), which might make them a good choice anyway.

CableCard

CableCard allows you to watch encrypted cable TV in North America.

It’s the choice that will give you the largest range of TV stations to record.

There is one catch: due to licensing issues, the support on Linux is limited. So if you plan on building a Linux system, you will need to figure out what stations you will be able to record.

Although every cable service should have CableCards available, you may encounter some resistance when you want to actually buy or rent them. Most cable companies prefer to sell you their own set-top boxes.

Over-the-air ATSC

Depending on your location, a number of TV stations will be available over the air (OTA) for free. These can be captured with an ATSC card. Since this standard is also used in QAM, most new capture cards support both.

The WinTV-HVR-2250 shown previously is a good choice for this.

IR Blaster and HD PVR

If all else fails, you can just record the signal from the set-top box of your cable company. The only issue is that you need to be able to control the device from your PVR.

That’s what an IR Blaster is for. It’s basically a computerized remote control.

It’s not something for the faint of heart and is probably not something for the first-time PVR builder. To get an idea of the steps involved, take a look at this guide for MythTV.

You will need to pair this with a capture card. If you want to record in high definition, your options are fairly limited. The Hauppauge is a fine, but external, choice.