It’s hard to believe we’ve had streaming video for over 70 years. Well, ok, we don’t normally think of television as streaming video—but I’ve found it hard not to think of TV this way since I added it to my PC.
I remember my first glimpse at what we currently call streaming video. I downloaded the Real Media Player, and the video was sort of like TV, only tiny, pixilated, and endlessly buffering, buffering. Early streaming video was sort of like watching TV with a VCR. You could watch it when you wanted, pause the video, move around in the action with a slider. All in all, it was pretty bad. I had no idea at the time that a PC would become a better place to watch television.
When TiVo arrived, I snatched one up right away. TiVo is basically a PC in disguise, which brought the good features of streaming video to my television, with some added intelligence about program schedules and my personal viewing preferences. After using TiVo for several years, I noticed the DIY PVR software like Freevo, and MythTV popping up. I was always tempted to try them so I could have even more control over the video. I consider myself a technical person, but I’ve never compiled my own Linux kernel, so these options seemed out of reach for me. Which brings me to the point of this review: SnapStream has put together PVR software for mere technical mortals.
I’m very familiar with TiVo’s interface, so finding my way around Beyond TV was second-nature. The interface is set up for all-remote, push-button access—you wouldn’t even need a keyboard or mouse attached. (Though they are handy for speeding up the search/record process if they are attached.)
Like the TiVo Series 2, you can view your shows by series, or as a list:
Because all shows are simply files on your machine, the list mirrors what you’ll find if you browse the SnapStream shows folder:
And because all of the shows are standard mpeg files, you don’t even need Beyond TV to view them. Here’s a look at an episode of Futurama playing in the open source Media Player Classic:
For me, the best part about this is if I’m going on a trip, I can simply copy some of these files over to my laptop and view them with a lightweight player. Instant Futurama on the plane! Not to mention opening the files in an editor so I can quote video clips on my weblog, or share clips with others. (I’m talking about fair use only here, of course.) Saving video files in a completely accessible format gives me the control over the video I've been looking for.
Beyond TV has season-pass style recording. You can search by keyword or title:
Or browse the lineup.
Clicking a program will give you the option to record the episode, or set up a recurring recording for the series:
All of the channel guide info comes from SnapStream, and is updated every few days. Beyond TV differs from TiVo in a key way: there are no continuing subscription fees for program guide data. The one-time fee of $70 for the software is all you pay to have continuing access to the guide.
Another nice feature is Skip Forward. Instead of hiding the commercial-skipping option as a back-door feature, Beyond TV has skip forward as a customizable feature in the settings. You can adjust the skip forward button to jump ahead as many seconds as you’d like:
Because Beyond TV is remote-centric, it’s almost a necessity. The video capture device I’m using is Hauppauge’s WinTV PVR USB-2, which ships with a fairly standard remote:
It’s not as nicely designed as the TiVo remote, but it works perfectly with Beyond TV. The only feature I found missing was instant-access to the full schedule of programs—there’s no “Guide” button.
Beyond TV supports multiple tuners, and I was lucky enough to test drive a two-tuner setup.
Basically this means I could record one program while I watched another, or I could record both shows at the same time. This worked well, and I didn't even notice the hard drive grinding away at the extra work. The drawback to implementing this, of course, is the cost of the extra tuner, but it's a nice option.
The final perk is that Beyond TV itself is also a web server. If you open up port 8129 on your home network's firewall, you can access most of Beyond TV's functionality through a browser from any location with web access. I can see that this would be handy for setting up last-minute recordings from the coffee shop, but I haven't actually used this feature yet.
A Note of Caution
There are a couple of caveats to consider before you rush out and replace your TiVo with a Windows box running Beyond TV. Be sure to check out the hardware requirements very carefully. I tried to install the program on a four-year-old laptop without much success. Beyond TV needs the latest and greatest .NET framework and Windows Media Player 10, so you'll want to be sure your Windows software is completely up-to-date before installing. Also, the video quality of the Hauppauge PVR isn’t as crisp as my television, and the Beyond TV picture is only as a good as the capture device can provide. Beyond TV has a free trial version, and you should definitely try it out first.
I’m not ready to replace my TiVo, but I will be using Beyond TV in addition to TiVo. Piping cable into my computer feels like the next step in streaming video, and Beyond TV makes this 70-year-old technology feel like something new.