I’ve been testing BeyondTV 4 for awhile now, and I’ve found that it is a well thought out, fully featured program that is worth every penny, in my opinion. BeyondTV is a PVR program that gives a computer Tivo-like functions, whether it’s a standalone computer (recommended) or even your desktop PC. For the purpose of testing BTV, I built a computer from spare parts that included a 1.5 Ghz Athlon XP processor, Radeon 9600, and 640 mb of RAM. I went out and purchased a hardware TV encoder card, the Hauppauge WinTV PVR-150 ($149) and a 160gb Seagate hard drive ($109). The benefit to actually building a PVR instead of using an off-the-shelf box like a Tivo or ReplayTV is that you can configure it any way you want (you can add in as many tuners as your system will support, including HDTV and record multiple shows on multiple channels simultaneously), you can add as much storage space as you want (and record for a week straight if you want), and most importantly to me: the files that they produce are usually MPEG-2 files, which can be played back on your PC with no conversion required, and can also easily be archived to a DVD because they are just normal video files.
One of the most important things that every PVR user wants is ease-of-use. The user interface needs to be so simple that anyone can use it, even if they’ve never seen it before. BeyondTV wins here. The menu presents you with everything you need as soon as you start BTV.
Here’s a little on each option it gives you upon startup, and a screenshot of each: (click to enlarge)
SnapStream.Net Guide (the full screen program guide, lets you set shows up to record once, all episodes or all new episodes, and updates itself via the internet automatically so your program guide is always up to date)
Setup Recordings (lets you find/schedule shows by keyword, category, title and narrows your search down as you type via a keyboard or onscreen letters) and lets you see what shows it is set to record already
Settings (lets you set all sorts of options like recording quality, ShowSqueeze (which can compress shows automatically using the Divx codec so they take up less space) SmartSkip (which lets you skip commercials), and much more
When I bought the TV tuner card (WinTV PVR-150) for the BTV test machine, I noticed that it came with a remote and IR sensor. BeyondTV is set up to work with this, and just about any remote that comes with a tuner card that they support. I just picked the remote I had in the BTV setup and it has worked like a charm ever since.
Little things make all the difference. Snapstream has paid a lot of attention to this piece of software, and it shows. A few weeks back, one of our favorite shows, Stargate came back on the air with new episodes, after a few months of downtime… Of course it was also the same week that my girlfriend planned to go out of town, so the task fell upon BeyondTV to record it automatically. I set this up earlier in the week. My girlfriend realized that an episode of Law And Order:SVU was coming on at 8PM, grabbed the remote and set it to record. The only problem was that Stargate was also set to record at that time. Normally, when you try to set one show to record at the same time as a previously scheduled recording, BeyondTV will put a red “Record” icon on the side of it, and cross it out to show that there is a conflict. In this case, BeyondTV just put up a “Record” icon with no slash through it. I thought this was very strange, because I knew that I’d already set Stargate to record at that time. There should have been a conflict. I looked through the program guide to see what the upcoming recordings were, thinking that BeyondTV had just replaced Stargate with Law And Order and found, to my surprise that it had realized that there was a time conflict, looked to see if the same episode was playing later on (it was, 2 hours later) and just set that one to record instead. That’s good software.
A few issues I’ve experienced: When BTV compresses a file using ShowSqueeze, sometimes the aspect ratio is a bit strange. If you only play the files using BTV, it’s a non-issue because BTV automatically uses the correct aspect ration when playing the file. Only when I tried to watch the file on a different PC did I notice the problem, but if you pick the right aspect ratio in your video player, it looks great.
Also, BeyondTV comes out-of-the box set up to leave 2 mins before and after each show, to make sure that it records the entire show. I only have one TV tuner installed, so I noticed that when I had 2 shows set to record back to back on 2 different channels, BTV would consistently stop the first show 2 minutes early, switch channels and start recording the other show, causing me to miss the very end of the show. When recording 2 consecutive shows on the same channel, BTV would still cut off the last 2 minutes of the first show, but I could always find it at the beginning of the next show’s recording. That was a little annoying, but at least I got to see all of both shows. In any event, this can easily be fixed via an easily accessible option in Settings > Recording Settings > Padding. I have it set to 1 minute now and it works like a charm. Your mileage may vary, and 2 minutes of padding might work for you. If you do have that problem though, you know where to look.
I’d also like it if BeyondTV was a bit more customizable. It’s reasonably easy to change the background wallpaper.. just choose a wallpaper that you want, in whatever resolution you’re running BeyondTV in, save it as background_sml.png and copy it to the FSMedia\Images folder, found in the BeyondTV installation folder (on my system the full path was C:\Program Files\Snapstream Media\Beyond TV\FSMedia\Images). I still haven’t been able to change the icons for the menu selections though.
In conclusion, though…if you want to build a PVR with almost no fuss, great stability (I know, I know it’s running on top of Windows but it hasn’t crashed yet!) and ease of use (almost anyone can pick the remote up and use it), BeyondTV is a great choice, and is definitely my first choice when it comes to building a PVR of my own. I’ve tried a few PVR programs that run on top of Linux, such as MythTV with this exact same hardware and they were a pain to configure, even for an experienced user like myself, who has used Unix in the past for some pretty major tasks. In the case of MythTV, I finally got it set up, but then, without fail it started throwing up error messages that I could not get to the bottom of. I wanted a PVR that I could trust to actually record my shows and not just crash for no reason, so I decided to see what was available for Windows. BeyondTV does everything I’ve asked it to do and more. I highly recommend it.
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