Perhaps it’s because we’re spending more time in front of our computers or simply because an Internet-connected PC has become the hub for storing media, but a growing trend among television fans is to watch, record and manage TV programs on your “other” smaller screen.
In fact, there are a few advantages of channel surfing on your computer: It can be more affordable if your PC can access free over-the-air HDTV channels with a snap-in antenna, and you can record shows to your hard drive like a digital video recorder does, without spending hundreds of dollars on a DVR for your TV.
In cases where space is an issue, like a small dorm room, it’s handy when the PC and the TV fuse into one solution.
And while many network Web sites (and places like Hulu) let you stream television shows — and hardware products like the Slingbox stream TV content to your PC or smartphone over the Net — if you’re interested in accessing and recording high-definition television programming on your PC, here are two ways to do it:
Windows Media Center
With some versions of the Windows Vista operating system — namely, Home Premium ($239.95) and Ultimate ($319.95) — the Windows Media Center program is included. This lets you intuitively navigate through your media, including music, videos, photos, and if you have a TV tuner built into your desktop or laptop computer, television content, too. Many of these PCs are shipped with a TV-like remote or the device can be purchased separately.
Viewers first download an electronic program guide (EPG) by typing in your zip code. Then you can change channels, use the powerful search function to find something to watch (by typing in an actor’s name, for example), use the DVR function to record an event or automatically record new episodes of a TV series.
Plus, you can burn DVDs of your recorded shows and watch them on a TV’s DVD player or a laptop while traveling. (Keep in mind, high-def shows are downgraded to DVD quality when burned to a disc). Unless you’re trying to receive free over-the-air HD broadcasts with an ATSC tuner, you’ll still need to pay for your cable or satellite service.
Run the coaxial cable from the back of your receiver box into the PC’s TV tuner. If your computer doesn’t have a TV tuner, an optional analog or digital tuner is required to play and record TV in Windows Media Center (see options below).
Windows Media Center can also sync with Microsoft’s portable Zune media players to bring the pre-recorded video content with you.
TV tuner cards and sticks
If your computer doesn’t come with a built-in TV tuner, there are a handful of aftermarket solutions for both laptops and desktops that would enable you to watch and record standard-definition or high-definition television on your computer.
The Hauppauge WinTV HVR 950 TV Stick ($99 online at Hauppauge), for example, is a hybrid television tuner receiver for both NTSC cable analog or over-the-air ATSC high-definition digital TV. This portable device accepts a standard coaxial TV cable in one end (or has a built-in antenna for over-the-air broadcasts), while the other end plugs into the computer’s USB port. It includes a wireless remote and is bundled with Elgato EyeTV lite software for Macs and Hauppauge WinTV (Version 6) for Windows PCs.
AMD’s ATI TV Wonder tuners (starting at $60 for basic model) come as either a PCI or PCI Express shape for desktop PCs or as a USB stick for Windows or Mac laptops.
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