How To Turn Your Computer Into a DIY DVR

Posted by AfroWhitey | Computers,Home Theater & A/V,How-to | Tuesday 21 August 2012 10:30 am

Windows Media Center DIY DVR

This post has been on the back burner for a while. I didn’t want to post about it until I had actually done it myself, and it took me a bit to get all the necessary components. That said, once you have everything you need, it’s very simple to set up.

You’ll need:

  • A Windows Computer – Any computer built within the last few years should be plenty fast to use as a DVR. You’ll want it to have plenty of hard drive space (to store all your recorded TV), and any Windows newer than XP (Vista Home Premium, Vista Ultimate, or Windows 7). I used Windows 7 on a 3-year-old computer with 500GB of hard drive space.
  • A TV/Monitor – Anything that will connect to your computer is fine. Most flat-panel TVs have VGA inputs these days.
  • An HD Antenna, or a cable subscription – Most cable subscriptions these days come with DVRs, so chances are anyone reading this is looking to cut the cord and take advantage of the free over-the-air broadcast networks. Just about any Digital TV Antenna will do, it all depends on how far you are from your local repeaters. I use an outdoor antenna to minimize signal interference. Check out this article to know where to point it for best reception.
  • A TV Tuner card – Just about any card will do, unless you have cable (then you’ll need to make sure it’s a Cable Card). This article will help you pick the one that’s right for you. I used this one, it has a dual tuner, which allows me to watch/record 2 shows at once with a single connection.

Optional:

Logitech Harmony Remote for DIY DVR

  • An Xbox 360 – If you don’t want to put an unsightly computer in your TV room, or if you just want an easier-to-use interface than a keyboard and mouse, you can network your DVR-PC and stream it to your Xbox 360. This is how I’m set up, although my computer is still connected to the TV so we can watch Hulu on our TV without paying for Hulu Plus.
  • A Universal Remote – Let’s face it, using a keyboard and mouse while lounging on the couch is cumbersome. Most TV Tuner cards come with a remote, but do yourself a favor and get a remote that will do it all for you. Logitech has some very easy-to-set-up remotes in their Harmony line. I use the Logitech Harmony One (pictured above) and it simplifies things not only for my less-tech-savvy wife, but also for guests that visit. They just pick up the remote, push “Watch TV,” and the remote does the rest.

Windows Media Center Logo

The Setup:

The first thing you’ll need to do is install the TV Tuner Card in your PC. This may be as simple as plugging a USB card into the slot, or as complicated as opening your computer and plugging a card into an open PCI slot. Either way, I’m confident just about anyone can handle it, just follow the instructions that come with your card. There may be some drivers to install, but the instructions should walk you through that as well.

Next, connect your antenna or cable to the appropriate jack on the back of your card. You can then either install the TV software that came with your card, or use the built-in Windows Media Center. I use Windows Media Center because it’s necessary if you want to stream to an Xbox 360, but I found the WinTV software that came with my card very easy to use. Another advantage to the WinTV software was that I could program and watch my DVR from anywhere in the world through the internet. I haven’t figured out how to do that through Windows Media Center, though it may be possible.

Here are directions for setting up Windows Media Center on Vista, and here are directions for setting it up on Windows 7 (As of the date this post was written, Media Center is not supposed to be included in Windows 8, but there is supposedly a way to add it after the fact through a Windows upgrade). It’s a relatively straightforward, automated process. You can set it to download any graphics that pertain to your media, such as album or movie covers, tell it where to store your recorded TV, and even to only record new episodes of a series. Those articles also contain links to walk you through setting up your Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender, allowing you to use any Xbox 360 controller/remote to control your DVR.

That’s it! The computer will scan for available channels on its own and you are then ready to enjoy your new DIY DVR. You can pause live TV, record all new episodes in a series, and anything else you can do with just about any other DVR. You can add multiple TV tuners to the same computer and record multiple shows at once. My tuner is a dual tuner, so I’m able to record/watch 2 shows at once, so if I add another identical tuner, I’ll be able to record/watch 4 shows at once.

I hope this helps anyone who has ever considered setting up their own DVR. As always, feel free to ask me any questions here, or on Facebook, or Twitter. I’d love to hear your success stories or even pictures of your setups!