SnapStream Beyond TV 3.5 Review

Review Date:12/01/04

Reviewed by: Erik Pettersen ([email protected])



Introduction:

SnapStream’s latest release of their PC PVR software solution, Beyond TV 3.5 offers some new features like multi-tuner support and a host of refinements to an already robust package. I put Beyond TV 3.5 through its paces in order to determine its place in the PVR software kingdom.




Review Hardware:



Test box 1: Athlon XP+1700, retail Hauppauge WinTV PVR 250, ATI AIW 9600XT, 256MB RAM, XP Home


Test box 2: EPIA VIA mini-itx M10000, WinTV PVR 350*, integrated video, 256MB RAM, XP Pro


*note: Beyond TV doesn’t support the TV out of the PVR350


Configuration:

Beyond TV 3.5 was very easy to configure and install. The pre-installer, for lack of a better name, scopes out your system and downloads any dependencies you might need (example: DirectX 9 if you do not have it already). Once the main dependencies are installed the main software installation starts, i.e. the copying of Beyond TV to your hard disk/etc. Then the setup wizard walks you through the configuration process.







The wizard was very easy to understand clear menu driven approach to getting the information needed to configure the tuner card for use with Beyond TV and to get the all-important EPG (electronic program guide) data. The EPG data is how your homebrew PVR will know what time the American Music Awards are on, and that channel 8 on your cable system is the ABC affiliate showing that particular program.







Beyond TV gave me a short list of the cable companies in my area based up on my zip code, I was able to select the correct one, and then the appropriate cable package (in this case extended basic). During this initial configuration process is where you could also specify antenna, external satellite/cable box (controlled via IR blaster available separately), etc as well.







Beyond TV supported the ubiquitous (for WinTV PVR-250/350 owners) Hauppauge silver IR remote control out of the box. I appreciated the integration, but for the long run, most people are going to want a better remote control option like SnapStream FireFly, StreamZap, or something from Niveus’ line. The Hauppauge remote works fine functionally (see my comments in pvr350 review) but my inner geek needs more buttons or flashy LEDs.









General Usage:





I had no issues bopping around the well laid out and pretty blue interface using the remote control. “Click Click” LiveTV. Channel guide, pause, “instant replay”, and Fast Forward were all a remote control button press away and intuitive to navigate. The PVR operations function and work just as you’d expect. Scheduling future shows or recording the current show you are watching was very straightforward. I added the equivalent of a “season pass” choosing only first run and Beyond TV blissfully recorded all the new episodes of “Drawn Together” and “MTV’s Ultimate Mashups” for me.








I did tweak the playback settings a little bit for optimal playback. I utilized the InterVideo NonCSS Video Decoder and the overlay rendering setting. Picture Quality was good, even using the somewhat marginal s-video output from the VIA EPIA M10k. It was roughly comparable to my TiVo’s PQ on a similar recording quality setting.





In general, I did not have any complaints about the interface and navigation. Sometimes, as a TiVo user, there’s a little bit of a UI hangover when using a PC PVR solution due to the subtle differences in navigation (you get used to hitting Peanut the “tivo guy” button). I only experienced this occasionally, and I am sure the functionality or remote control commands are configurable to make it conform to my idiosyncrasies.







Some Minor Gripes:

The advanced configuration options are not available from within the main Beyond TV interface. To access the advanced options (which included video file locations) you have to log into the Beyond TV web admin interface. Don’t get me wrong, I *like* the web admin interface. You can schedule/configure beyond TV via web browser, and I *like* having access to lots of minutia should I desire to tweak under the hood. With that said, I’d really really like to be able to access some of the configuration options, especially video folder locations, via the main interface via remote control. I store/record my video on a different partition than my OS install, and it didn’t take long for the default video directory to get filled up on me and although it’s documented in several places, it took me a while to realize that this was configurable via the Beyond TV admin web interface.



It’s difficult to weigh menu simplicity design and ease of use with making available advanced features for advanced users, but I think there should be a submenu where users can drop off the configuration deep end from their couch =)



I would have liked to see more/better HTPC-esque functionality/framework for managing my existing media like videos, DVDs, mp3s, photos, etc… Apparently I’m not alone, and SnapStream is looking to fill this feature request with the upcoming release of Beyond Media.





Playing with Additional Features:


As noted earlier I was more than satisfied with the base PVR functionality of Beyond TV. Beyond TV 3.5 does include a few tricks that deserve a paragraph or two of their own.



SmartSkip:


Beyond TV has built in commercial skipping functionality. SmartSkip creates chapter markers at the start and stop of a block of commercials. This is not an instantaneous event, SmartSkip analysizes the video file in the background. You can opt to have Beyond TV do this immediately after the program is recorded, or you can tell it to wait for an offpeak time to do the processing.




It’s a neat idea, and I like the inclusion of the functionality, but I prefer to do my commercial detection manually. The “cues” that commercial skipping engines (in general) use are sometimes thrown off by different editing styles. Your mileage may vary with the accuracy of the SmartSkip chapters processing/marking.



ShowSqueeze:


ShowSqueeze is another helpful background process that helps you get more out of your existing hard disk space by archiving your programs to the more compact .wmv format. There are a myriad of options for you to control when and if ShowSqueeze will shrink your MPEG2 shows to a more palatable size. A MPEG2 recorded program will take up about 2GB of space per hour at the “better” quality setting. ShowSqueeze can make that 2GB recording down to less than 1G, or depending on your picture quality snobbery, a svelte 600MB VHS quality .wmv file.



Remote Scheduling:


Remote scheduling is pretty straightforward and handy feature. If you have remote scheduling enabled, you simply log in to SnapStream.net with your credentials and you are presented with a TV guide grid that you can navigate to find the show you wish to schedule. Clicking on the show name gives you a popup where you can press the record icon to place that show on your remote recordings queue. Your Beyond TV software back at home polls snapstream.net every 15 minutes and asks, “do you have any new shows for me to record?” and then adds the show(s) you’ve added remotely to be recorded to it’s schedule.







It’s a handy feature for those times when you are at work, and while at the water cooler you hear of a cool new show, or that George Lucas (or what have you) is going to be on Oprah today, and since you don’t normally PVR Oprah you’re gonna miss it. With SnapStream.net and remote scheduling, you can run back to your desk and tell your Beyond TV application to record Oprah today. Disaster averted =)



Beyond TV Link:


Beyond TV Link is SnapStream’s client software which enables you to watch “LIVE” TV or your full prerecorded program library streamed from your main BeyondTV “server” to another computer on your network (wired LAN or 802.11g). The client machine doesn’t need a tuner or a full blown installation of Beyond TV for you to be able to watch TV from your laptop in the next room.



Beyond TV Web Interface:







I liked the local web interface (which is different from the SnapStream.net remote interface). Besides being able to configure all sorts of nooks and crannies in the software, you can stream .wmv’s right from the interface (if you ShowSqueezed a show), or download the full mpegs of your shows over the network to burn them to DVD. I was able to schedule and manage upcoming recordings via the web interface from my laptop with ease.



ATI All in Wonder Support:
Although I strongly recommend using a hardware encoding tuner card in any serious DIY PVR project, If you allready have an ATI All in Wonder Beyond TV is an excellent option that is light years better than the bundled AIW software. One benefit of software encoding is that since the encoding is software based it opens you up to different encoding options such as encoding directly to windows media format (.wmv). For those of us with a hardware MPEG encoder, there's always the previously mentioned ShowSqueeze functionality.



MultiTuner Support:
One of the most exciting additions to the 3.5 version of Beyond TV was the ability to install/use multiple tuner cards. This is important if you wish to record two different programs concurrently, or watch “LIVE” TV whilst recording a different show.



Even though it’s not officially supported or recommended, I was able to use a PVR250 as one tuner and an ATI All In Wonder 9600XT as the second tuner. In practice you are best off getting multiples of PVR-X50 cards because the software encoding AIW requires much more CPU power to encode the programming. Anecdotally there is something to be said stability wise for keeping the cards within the same driver set/manufacturer, as a general guideline.



With this unofficially supported multiple tuner configuration, I was able to record two shows concurrently, and watch one show “LIVE” with PVR functionality (pause, replay live tv) while recording another. The multi-tuner capability definitely gets two thumbs up!



Documentation & Support:

When you pay for software there’s a certain expectation for levels of documentation and support. Although I refused to look at manual for my installation or for general usage questions, looking at it after the fact the manual and documentation is clear and if you need the documentation it’s well laid out with diagrams, pictograms, and step by step information. Snapstream.com’s web support options, where I’m more likely to turn for help, rate high as well. The knowledge base has relevant information, fixes, answers, and was relatively easy to search. In addition there’s a vibrant user community on the SnapStream's forums with pleny of Beyond TV veterans too help. There’s the traditional support method of email, but I did not encounter any need for email support.





Conclusion:


SnapStream’s BeyondTV 3.5 does an excellent job at what it does best; giving a PC user enhanced TiVo-esque functionality in a sharp looking easy to use interface. The only thing holding back Beyond TV is the lack of integrated HTPC/home media functionality, but that should be addressed with the recent release of SnapStream’s HTPC Platform Beyond Media.



Score: 8 out of 10



Pros:

*Good looking interface

*Easy to use interface

*Remote scheduling capabilities

*Integrated commercial detection

*Integrated “ShowSqueeze” re-encoding archive functionality

*Support for software encoding TV card like the ATI All in Wonder (see supported card list)

*Supports a wide variety of hardware encoding tuner cards including the latest Hauppauge PVR150/PVR500 cards

*Integrated support for different remote controls and IR blasters



Cons:

*Lacks some HTPC integration (possibly addressable through utilizing Beyond Media or Meedio or the like)

*Limited PVR350 support (pretty much encoder portion only)

*Advanced configuration features only available from web administration (i.e. not in a menu accessible from the actual front end)