Media Centre PC vs PVR

My main requirements for my next move into digital TV, and doing away with the VCR:

  • Watch and record digital TV, record two channels at once
  • HD not essential (apart from ABC1 HD offering Sydney news, there’s no unique programming on HD at this stage)
  • Transfer recordings off to the PC for keeping
  • Quiet and compact and low power consumption while on standby

I had thought I might go buy a Topfield PVR. The 7100 model looks quite good, and meets all the other requirements above, including dual HD tuners. Best price I can see is $599. A Topfield 5000 is similar but in SD, for about $250 less, though a little harder to find these days. Other brands out there include the TviX, Beyonwiz and Panasonic (pricey but probably very reliable).

Some people I know swear by Windows Media Centre on a PC.

One forum discussion I read estimated the price for building a decent Media Centre PC is about $750. Buying one would be more expensive, possibly double that or more. One alternative might be a Mac Mini running EyeTV, which I assume would be a little more expensive (looks like about $780 for the Mac, $200 for the EyeTV).

My thinking at the moment is that although the PC option is more configurable and will do more things, it’s also going to be more expensive, space may be an issue, it’s going to take some work setting it up, and I’ve been bitten a few too many times by the perils of TV tuner cards, to the point where I’m sick of dealing with them.

But I’m willing to be convinced. (Cue Tony and Nathan and others…)

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

24 replies on “Media Centre PC vs PVR”

we bought a Topfield 7100 around Easter and it’s been great. The dual tuner mean you can often record more than 2 channels – e.g. ABC1, ABC2 counts as one channel; Seven and Seven-Two count as one channel, etc.
And you can always watch something on the PVR while “taping” two shows.
One annoying thing: Our model doesn’t display a clock.

A Tivo is pretty good – when used with the Tivo software, it’s quite easy to get your recordings off the unit too. They’re $599 now too. It’s by far the nicest unit to use with the least amount of weirdness.

I’ve used all the PVRs (Beyonwiz, Topfield, Homecast, Tivo, WIndows Media Center) in a quest for the perfect solution and ended up with a Mac Mini with EyeTV as it suits me best.

There’s also the option of a PS3 + PlayTV. The only downside of the PlayTV is that while it has a dual tuner, it only records one channel at a time (only lets you record 1 show whilst watching another – can’t record 2 at once).

I’m a recent convert to Windows Media Centre and now it’s the only way we watch television.

Just a few suggestions :

* Go HD now – you will eventually have a HD television so make the investment now. I have two $50 HD cards in my media PC and they work perfectly. HDMI out to my telly and it looks superb.

* The network features of Win 7 and Media Centre make it fantastic if you have a home network or laptop. Record on one, watch on another or record on one and take a copy with you on your laptop.

* Media Browser, a free plugin for MC, is great for organising downloads. All you have to do is put them in a folder for each series and it takes care of artwork, ratings, program descriptions, tracks what episode you are up – the works. It can also do the same for any DVDs you may wish to backup to your hard drive.

* If you build a media PC get a silent power supply and air cooled video card.

* Using a PC allows you to very easily increase storage or use a home server, my next step, for storage.

* MC allows you to control of your media including photos and music as well as television.

Come on over and check out our setup and get a feel for what it can do.

We have two Topfield PVRs.

7000 HD dual tuner maybe three years old. Slow to start, slow to shut down. Occasionally won’t recognise tv or vice versa. Occasionally loses all stations and a new search for channels is required. Runs quite hot. Slow to load tv guide. Has had two firmware updates. Features are brilliant. It has never lost anything recorded.

7050 HD single tuner, three months old. Fast start, fast shut down. Fast to load tv guide. Never failed in any area. Runs much cooler. Lacks many features that the 7000 has.

I can only conclude that the latest machines are much improved over earlier models. In spite of sometimes acting up, I like the old one for its features and the adjustments that can be made.

It seems everyone else has done my work for me ;)

Re the Mac Mini, it’s wonderful for us… though there is no WAF(Wife approval factor) in my house. If you need WAF I’d definitely go with Windows 7 Media Centre. We also have two external drives hanging off it as well, though it’s all MUCH quieter than the PC Tower we had previously!

Daniel, have a look at the Dell Zino HD. It’s a Dell box about the same size as a Mac Mini, starting at $599. you can spec it up including bluray as well.

We use our Mac Mini for TV viewing, downloading of… uh… “linux isos”, and listening to music, as well as web surfing etc. It’s very handy having a computer in the lounge room. But if all you want to do is watch TV, then a standalone PVR maybe a better option, regardless of if you use Mac or Windows. for your PC.

Probably falling into the geek category, I was looking at a fancy PVR like Beyonwiz, or a MythTv setup.

However we went for a Tivo, and it’s been great. It’s quiet, easy to use, no ongoing fees for program guides, and does everything we need it to. There is a very brief offer to get the home networking software for $10 instead of $100 if you buy it on a given day this month (can’t remember which but email me if you want the details). Although I have had trouble offloading programs onto the PC (a problem with the linux software in the tivo).

It definitely gets the Wife approval, which a complicated one probably wouldn’t. I suspect it is much cheaper than a PC, unless you want to add more storage (which we haven’t because we don’t “keep” programs).

Getting a PVR has been great in terms of using our time effectively. We watch less rubbish when that is all that is on (we watch stuff we have recorded) and the kids get expsoed to less ads, and there is always something suitable available cos it’s been recorded.

See, I knew this would get some good comments!

HD vs SD… honestly I can’t see myself getting a big HD TV in the foreseeable future. I’m not a fan of huge screens, particularly in my current house which has a relatively small livingroom. I would not go bigger than something like M+J’s 80cm Panasonic, on which there is no discernable difference between HD and SD. That said, if the extra cost is marginal, might as well go with HD as future-proofing in case there are extra channels launched in HD only.

I hadn’t previously considered TiVo, because I didn’t realise they could transfer recordings off onto the PC. The Home Networking Package makes this possible and it’s currently bundled with some models. (Neil, the $10 discount day is actually today.) Unlike the US, there are no ongoing fees for Australian TiVos, which makes it quite inviting. Looks like you can get the 160Gb model for about $499, though it may not include the same bundled wireless adapter. I really like the idea of programming it remotely via the Web, and it seems to happily play media from other sources too.

Love the look of the Dell Zino HD (and the Mac Mini). Shame the form factor would be spoilt by plugging TV tuners into the back of it!

Daniel, we have to be home tomorrow (Sat) afternoon for a tradie visit. You are more than welcome to bring Marita over for a cuppa and to check out what we have. Worth looking at options in someone’s house I think.

With the Mac Mini, all the stuff is hidden behind the TV cabinet we currently have, including the huge power brick that Apple mysteriously never shows in photos of the product (it’s about 2/3rds the size of the Mini itself!) I’d imagine the Dell would be the same or similar.

One feature that is on a lot of PVRs (and computer based media centres) but is missing from Tivo and anything with a Freeview logo is the ability to skip a section of a recording instantaneously.

My cheap Wintal PVR (about four years old) can skip five minutes with one button press. Then we rewind about half a minute and we’ve skipped an entire ad break in a few seconds.

On Freeview machines, including the Tivo, you have to use fast forward just as if it was a video tape. I hate that, so I would avoid anything with a Freeview logo.

Daniel don’t forget that if you go with the Win7 Media Center that if you happen to have an XBox that you don’t actually need the PC in the living room. I have my Media Centre in the office recording TV shows, and just connect to it from the XBox to watch things (including live TV through the tuner card on the PC). Only thing is you need an aerial point near the PC.

>> With the Mac Mini, all the stuff is hidden behind the TV cabinet we currently have, including the huge power brick

I’ve always found it odd the Apple TV is half as thick as a Mac Mini, yet has the power supply inside.

We love our Apple TV – it’s a TV version of an iPod so our music, photos, and videos all sync/stream with iTunes just like our iPods and iPhones. Shame no DVD/Blu-ray drive to watch discs too.

Have heard of people formatting their Apple TVs and installing the full OS X operating system on them – bloody cheap Mac for a couple of hundred bucks complete with HDMI and component. In that case you could plug in a tuner and use tuner for TV and Front Row to provide former Apple TV content. Never had the time to try – so many other projects, work, and now an 8 week year old to consume my time!

Then again, adding PlayTV to the PS3 sounds nifty.

Daniel regarding HD debate – for one don’t worry about new HD channels, there isn’t the bandwidth at present until they all switch to MPEG4 in a few years, but for another everything is HD now so whether you don’t need a new TV now or buy a small set later 99% chance it’ll be HD so why corner yourself unless you’re intending this tuner purchase to be replaced again later?

PVRs have hard disks. Hard disks fail. What happens when it fails – do you chuck the PVR out? A media centre PC can be built with n tuner cards, so if you need to record, say, three things at once, buy another card and do it.

You don’t need a super-silent PC either. I just run the cabling through the wall; the study gets all the hideous noise (and heat).

>> PVRs have hard disks. Hard disks fail. What happens when it fails – do you chuck the PVR out?

Can’t say I’ve heard of anyone “chucking out” a computer or PVR just because of a dead hard disk? Perhaps replacing the hard disk would be a more logical move.

I replaced the drives in my PS3 and Topfield simply to increase capacity.

No-one seems to consider that a dedicated media PC is 150 to 200 Watts of extra power consuption that you don’t really need.

Most PVRs would be around 10 Watts unless they’re actually recording or playing.

>> No-one seems to consider that a dedicated media PC is 150 to 200 Watt … PVRs would be around 10 Watts

Computers are getting very green these days – the Mac Mini being the record breaker presently at only 14 watts.

I’ve got the 7100 with icetv. My wife and I like it a lot. A few annoyances especially with icetv that we have learnt to work around/live with. Prior to that was a topfield 4400.

Despite being in IT I never considered building my own. I just wanted a black box that worked. It’s just TV after all :)

Just one thing – I’d always keep a functioning VCR player in storage so that you can play old family movies and the like; the day after you throw it out is the day you are going to find the massive stash.

After all, some of us still have projectors for that reason, and we still use them!

Once you’ve had Tivo, all the others pale in comparison. I had an early PVR back in the early days of digital TV in Australia, and once I converted to Tivo (oz Tivo initially, and now the real thing), you just can’t go back.

I’m onto my fourth or fifth Tivo – I’ve got a few sitting out with relatives, including my techophobic parents. We had two Series 2 dual tuners in the USA, which coupled with the US’s to-the-second scheduling, meant lots of programs could be taped. We regularly taped four things at once.

With a media access key, you can transfer shows between rooms (which we used frequently), and I transferred shows to my Mac for viewing whilst I was on the road.

All PVR’s in Australia, including Tivo, will suffer from the Channel 9 scheduling reality distortion field (RDF) problem. Channel 9 actively pump out fictional schedules, to the extent that most of their shows cannot be successfully recorded without jumping through hoops. You’ll learn very soon that the easiest solution is to stop watching Channel 9. Problem solved.

It’s no wonder Channel 9 have dipped into third place – it’s not 1956 any more – I WILL record my shows and watch them WHEN I have time. I don’t know anyone who settles into the 6 pm news and stays on channel all night. They’ve lost me as a regular viewer.

However, the other channels except for the public broadcasters have a similar but lesser problem, so make sure you can adjust the schedule to take into account the Channel 9 RDF issue. Channel 7 usually needs about 10 minutes extra, Channel 10, 5 minutes. ABC and SBS usually run to the second.

The Tivo’s season pass is one of the best I’ve seen at managing conflicts and automatically grabbing later airings so you don’t miss stuff. I also like its suggestions, but it can get skewed easily – just one viewing of a car rally will fill the drive with useless sports drivel. Use the thumb down three times to solve.

I just wish it could do Foxtel satellite so I could ditch the loathesome IQ2. At the moment, the IQ2 can’t even search let alone tell me what it is going to record on Wednesday. That must be the “Next Generation” – search so good it doesn’t function.


I haven’t watched enough to realise which channels are the worst with the programming, though I have noticed it depends a lot on what show is on before – Channel 7 used to be a nightmare for anything scheduled after one of those Dancing with the stars shows… at one stage I had mine scheduled to record 45 minutes over time!

I will say though that being able to program using a TV guide is great, and having browser access is great too – I can notice or be told something is on while I’m out, go to any PC with a browser and schedule it to be recorded. I like that flexibility. I also like being able to schedule a show by its name so that if the timeslot changes, or it is off air for a month or two, it automatically records when that show is on.

(I use MythTV, but I’ve been doing that since ~2003 when PVRs were either non-existant or extremely expensive. I run a dual tuner backend on my server in the office and use a nice cute quiet little mac mini (no tuners etc) running linux as my frontend connected to our TV)

Was thinking the other day – while I commented there won’t be any “new” HD channels due to lack of bandwidth with Australia’s current MPEG2 DVB, Ten’s “ONE” sports channel will potentially become exclusively HD in the future. They intend to launch another entertainment channel to compete with GO! and 7CRAP (err 7TWO), but in theory restrictions on the commercial networks would mean the only way Ten could do that would be to sacrifice their One SD channel? Likewise if 7 or 9 decided to launch another channel at some point then they’d likely scrap their simulcasted SD channel as well, making their HD channel an exclusive broadcast as well…?

Just a thought…

yeah, I’d been pondering similar issues. While earlier I’d been thinking SD was good enough, given the price difference isn’t huge, I reckon you’re right, more futureproof to get HD-capable equipment.

Comments are closed.