In our how to rip anything series, Jenneth Orantia and Mike Le Voi show you how to (legally) copy, rip or download virtually any form of media so you can enjoy it permanently.
VHS may be obsolete, but the desire to have a copy of your favourite TV show is still alive and kicking — especially now there are so many ways to play that video content back.
The cheapest and easiest way to record TV programs is by using a PVR (personal video recorder). This is the modern-day equivalent of a VCR, only you don’t have to memorise any bizarre button combinations to set it up, nor do you need to futz around finding a video cassette to tape over or check the paper’s TV guide to ensure you’ve set the right time on the recorder.
PVRs record TV shows as digital video files, and these are saved to either an internal hard disk (on the more expensive devices), or a flash drive you connect to the PVR using a USB port. For the purposes of this feature, the latter type is preferable, as it makes it easier to transfer the saved recordings to your computer — although you’ll also need to factor in having a sufficiently large flash drive or powered external hard drive of at least 8GB (if you’re recording in high definition) to save the recordings to.
If the PVR has more than one TV tuner built-in (like the TiVo, mentioned below), you’ll be able to use one tuner for recording a program and the other tuner for watching a different channel, or record two channels simultaneously.
All PVRs come with a seven-day electronic program guide (EPG) built in, so instead of consulting a paper TV guide and inputting the start and end times of the program you want to record manually, you can simply select the program you want to record through the EPG. Of course, the EPG is subject to the vagaries of each individual network, and the broadcast start and end times of each show may not be exactly consistent with the times advertised in the EPG. To that effect, most devices also let you specify a buffer zone of a few minutes either side of the scheduled times to ensure you don’t miss the start or prematurely stop recording before the program is finished.
EPGs are typically only available for seven-day stretches — if you want to record something further out than that, you can manually specify the date and time of the recording using the PVR’s timer recording feature — a function you may be familiar with already from back in the VCR days.
PVRs have come down in price significantly in the last couple of years, and models that can record in high definition start at around the $50 mark, although these tend not to have built-in hard drives. The Kogan HD Digital Set-Top Box with PVR
, for example, sells for a reasonable $59, with support for powered external hard drives up to 1TB, recording at 720p or 1080i resolution (with smaller resolutions available to reduce file size), and an HDMI output.
The Ferrari of PVRs is the Foxtel iQHD box
, as you can record two channels while watching a third channel, and it includes extra features like Series Link (which automatically records all the episodes of a particular TV series) and Remote Record (letting you schedule recordings over the internet or an iPhone/Android app).
However, it’s not designed to let you archive shows you’ve recorded on the built-in 320GB hard drive. While it’s possible, we wouldn’t recommend it as the PVR of choice if you’re looking for a cheap and easy way to save your favourite TV shows into your personal video library.
The next best thing is the TiVo
and, unlike Foxtel, it’s a one-off hardware purchase that doesn’t require continuing subscription fees, as it’s designed for recording free-to-air shows only. The TiVo, available for $499, comes with a 320GB built-in hard drive, two high-definition tuners and a seven-day EPG.
Some of the unique features of TiVo include Season Pass (similar to Foxtel’s Series Link feature, which automatically records all of the episodes of a particular TV series), TiVo Suggestions (a feature that learns the type of programs you’re interested in and gives you recommendations on similar programs), WishList (a feature that automatically records shows based on criteria you’ve entered like favourite actors, directors, categories or keywords) and remote scheduling over the internet.
To transfer recordings stored on the TiVo to your computer, you’ll need to purchase the Home Networking Package separately, which will cost you another $99. There’s also an optional Wi-Fi adapter for $69.95.
There are cheaper PVRs with similar features to the TiVo, but these tend to record to a proprietary format, making it harder to get recordings off the hard drive in a format that your PC can read. If you want to transfer recordings on a regular basis, this approach is typically more trouble than it’s worth, and you’re better off springing for the more expensive TiVo, or grabbing a cheaper TV tuner card for your computer (see below).
Digital TV tuner cards
The final option for recording live free-to-air TV is with a digital TV tuner card on your computer — either as a built-in option, or using an external card connected via USB. This method effectively cuts out the middleman, as you record shows directly to your computer’s hard drive rather than having to transfer them over from a PVR.
PC users have more options than Mac users as far as TV tuner cards go, and devices range from the single standard-definition digital TV tuner cards to the dual high-definition TV tuner devices.
USB dongles with a single HD tuner start at $50, and come with their own software for watching and recording free-to-air broadcasts. The supplied software tends to be light on features though; to get more functions like an EPG, series recording and manual timer recording on a PC, you’re better off ditching the vendor software and using the slicker Windows Media Center app that’s built into Vista and Windows 7.
We tested the Hauppauge WinTV MiniStick
($69) on a PC and found it integrated seamlessly with Windows Media Center. Recordings are saved in the Windows Recorded TV Show format (WTS), and average around 3GB per hour of recording.
This isn’t a widely supported format, however, and you’ll run into trouble if you try to play it on non-Windows devices. To transcode the WTS recording to other formats, VLC Player
should do the job nicely using the ‘File > Streaming/Exporting Wizard’.
The EyeTV Diversity
($229) is a step up from the Hauppauge WinTV MiniStick, with dual DVB-T tuners, letting you watch two different channels using the picture-in-picture mode, or watch one channel while recording another. The bundled EyeTV software is significantly better than the Hauppauge software too, with a built-in EPG, series and manual recording functionality and an option to stream live TV and recordings to an iPhone or iPod over Wi-Fi and 3G.
The stick also comes with a free three-month trial to IceTV (usually $99 a year), which adds TiVo-like features such as remote recording and a wish list. The EyeTV software records uncompressed video using the MPEG-2 codec (which equals around 6-7GB per hour), but you can export saved recordings to a smaller format using the ‘File > Export’ function.