electronics: the return of the VCR!

I don’t pay for cable or satellite TV. I use a cutting-edge technology that delivers dozens of HDTV channels, wirelessly: the technical term for it is “rabbit ears.”

It’s great, but the feature we lost in the transition to all-digital is a box that will record TV programs for later playback. We should have taken our $40 coupon from government during the digital TV transition so that our old VCR would continue to record, but it would be fiddly and confusing and very low-def. It should be a simple job for modern electronics: take the decoded digital broadcast you’re about to show on the TV screen, and compress it and write it to a file just like a digital camera does. Surely there’s a replacement for the old and unloved VCR?cassette stuck in VCR

Sadly, not really. ReplayTV would sell you a box to record TV broadcasts, but they’re more or less out of business. Magnavox and some other companies briefly sold similar boxes, but it seems the market for this is tiny. Tivo can probably do it, but you pay by the month for their program guide. Maybe people are so brainwashed that they don’t realize that the ability to record programs doesn’t have to come in a box from your cable or satellite provider along with a monthly charge.

You can put this together yourself, just buy a digital TV tuner card or USB dongle for your computer and hook it up to software. I looked at using the free MythTV or XBMC software, but all the hardware recommendations for them in A-V forums are for people assembling quad-tuners networked over Ethernet to back-end storage servers accessed from front-end home theater PCs – I just want a box with a record button! At the other end of the scale are hackers using a Raspberry PI or other cheap bare-bones computer board, but there’s dispute whether they’re powerful enough to do it and by the time you add a case, power supply, and remote, it’s not cheap.

product imageThen I found out about the HomeWorx HW-150PVR. It’s an external digital TV tuner like any other, but it has a USB port on the front, and you can plug a USB hard drive into that and press the record button! I ordered one, it’s as flimsy and cheap as you’d expect for only $46, but it does the job. The remote is a confusing mess, but you can fast forward and rewind through commercials up to 16× speed without any tape noises. Like a VCR it has a poor interface to program it to record in the future. (I’m disappointed it doesn’t have a function to flash 12:00 just for old times’ sake.) Unlike a VCR each show you record is a separate file named after the station and time, you can rename these files and delete them, and if you unplug the USB drive the files should be editable and playable on a computer using a media player like VLC. No more hunting through a 180-minute tape for the good bit, or accidentally overwriting stuff.

What’s strange is my TV has a digital TV tuner and a USB port, and similar software for browsing media files on an external drive. Why doesn’t Samsung add the simple function to write movie files to a USB drive?

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