Diamond XtremeTV PVR 550 PCI Power Pack Review

Reviewed by: Erik Pettersen

On: 7/19/2005

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

The inclusion of SnapStream PVR / HTPC software is an important one, as I have long lamented the woeful VB6 looking quasi-PVR applications that come bundled with most other TV tuner cards. Partnering with SnapStream to provide good looking and solid PVR software that works well with their hardware really gives Diamond Multimedia an “out of the box” leg up on the competition.

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:

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).

The only confusing part of the install was that the FireFly driver/install was on a separate CD, so it did not seem as smooth as an install flow as it could be. I assume they use the same install CD for the non-power pack XtremeTV users, which would have no use for the FireFly driver install. I’m nitpicking a little here, but I’d like to see the drivers on the same CD and perhaps different install branches to make it a little clearer / automagic.

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.

My one beef is that it’s necessary to load Beyond Media Basic to get the full functionality out of the FireFly remote. I’d prefer a much lighter driver only with a configuration utility that only stays loaded in memory when you’re working on the config.

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(full)

 

 

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.

The interface is pretty slick and easy to navigate. Hot buttons on the FireFly remote allow me to jump directly to the photo album menu, music library, or DVD menu.

I like the weather.com weather menu, even if I don’t always like what meteorological curve New England is going to be throwing at me on a given day.

Also worth noting is the SnapStream “Spotlight” functionality. Spotlight is SnapStream’s gateway to internet content that they have created custom Beyond Media frontend screens to access this online content easily by remote control. You can pull down the latest highlight clips from ESPN motion, download/manage your Napster subscription, pull internet radio streams with Live365, or download feature length movies (legitimately) with CinemaNow or MovieLink.

I tried the MovieLink service out and really liked the experience; or rather, I really liked the concept of video content/movies on demand delivered over the internet. I just wish MovieLink was a little bit cheaper and had a bigger selection. They do have plenty of movies, including recent films you’ve heard of (Closer, Meet the Fockers, Incredibles, etc) but there’s gaps in the library. Although they get thumbs up for having Star Trek I – VI and Buckaroo Bonzai, and yes I’m a sci-fi geek. You might want to have your keyboard handy for username/password and credit card / billing details, and you may want to let MovieLink “remember” those settings to make it less painful next time (or if you’re paranoid, type it manual each time and stock up on tinfoil ).

One thing I’d like to see improved, specifically in the Beyond Media Spotlight MovieLink interface, is the ability to watch shows when they haven’t completely downloaded. You have this ability within the native MovieLink player that is external to the Beyond Media application (it’s really amazing how fast you can start watching a movie on broadband with only a few percent downloaded via MovieLink!), but for some reason you can’t play it back within Beyond Media until it’s downloaded in it’s entirety.

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

 

 


I’m going to take the easy way out and refer you to my previous review of BeyondTV 3.5 as well as HTPCnews’ review of BeyondTV 3.5.

There’s no difference between the full version of BeyondTV Subscribers Edition (SE) and the full blown version except for the nag screen reminding you to register, and the words “subscriber edition” below the logo.

Diamond Multimedia opted for providing a full 60 days of BeyondTV Subscribers Edition SnapStream.NET electronic program guide subscription. I’ve seen some other comparable bundles that only offer 30 days so the extra month to get hooked on the full EPG is welcome. After your trial period lapses you can still use BeyondTV, however, you won’t have any TV program listing data and will only be able to do manual (start time/duration/channel) recordings.

You can choose to either: subscribe on a monthly basis for $4.99/month, yearly basis at $29.99/year, or upgrade to a full lifetime subscription at $49.99 (One-time fee) which is a 20 dollar discount off the full version. Here’s the
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.

Since the FireFly remote is RF based it doesn’t require line of site. I can “zap” channel changes through my coffee table (which normally is in the way of my IR remotes). RF remotes can, within reason, penetrate/bounce around walls. I found it handy to take the FireFly with me to the dining room when I have the mp3’s playing and am able to go to the next song or the phone rings and I want to mute or pause it. The usable range for me was around 16 feet unencumbered by walls.

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.

Overall, I found the FireFly to be comfortable to hold and use in my hand. It felt “snappier” and more responsive than some of the other IR remotes that I’ve used in the past. Although on occasion it will take an extra button press to “wake up” after sitting unused for a long time. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the FireFly remote as it runs laps around my previous remotes and supplants the need for having a wireless keyboard handy.

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.

I was pretty happy with the video quality of the PVR 550 PCI card. If I switched between the programming recorded on the Hauppauge PVR 250 and the Diamond PVR 550 I really didn’t notice any significant difference in video or audio quality. Which considering the PVR 250 was the rock that DIY PVR foundation was built on, this favorable comparison is a good thing. Note: this is hardly a scientific comparison, and you should know that I’m not a super discriminating videophile that’ll necessarily notice the difference in white balance between two cards (or what have you).

So with those grains of salt dispensed: here’s my take on the PVR 550. It’s a solid card, that uses very little CPU, records solid quality MPEG2 encoded video/audio, and the resultant file picture quality is favorably comparable to Hauppauge’s line of WinTV PVR cards.

My one grudge with the card is that it has not been added to the supported card list to other 3rd party PVR software like SageTV or GBPVR. After all, if you’re BeyondTV SE subscription expires you might be tempted to take a poke at trying to launch another PVR software trial from Beyond Media for giggles. There’s no reason to think this card couldn’t be made to work with other software as it’s based on a popular reference card; it just might take some time for the software developers to decide to include the PVR 550 PCI as a supported card.

Conclusions:

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.

Pro’s:

*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

Con’s:

*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.

As usual you can ask questions or comment on this review in the byopvr forum via the official XtremeTV PVR 550 PCI power pack review thread.

Thanks to Diamond Multimedia for providing the XtremeTV PVR 550 PCI “power pack” for evaluation.