Why can’t these TV-recording devices be a bit less shit?
I watch a fair bit of TV. I don’t really drink, don’t smoke at all, and I seem to have been broke for most my life so far. TV is a good, cheap hobby.
First attempt – Philips
Going back a few years, I bought a Philips PVR (Personal Video Recorder). It was essentially a DVD recorder, with a hard drive – but where it got cleverer than that, was that it also had an external bit that could change the channels on another device. You could plug it into a Sky box, and it would change the channels on Sky. It could record from anything it was connected to, and you could teach it to control any device.
From my point of view, I guess it was a bit like Sky+ (then in its infancy), except that while you could only record the channel currently being watched, you could burn off a DVD of it afterwards – which would be readable in any standard DVD drive.
Sounds great, huh?
I thought so. For 12 days.
On the 13th day of ownership, when I was burning a DVD (probably the second or third I had made), it locked up. I restarted it, but it thought it was still burning a disc. It never finished. There was no manual eject, no paperclip eject hole, and all the buttons were electronic. I returned it for repair, with the disc still in it, only to be told the model had been discontinued. Philips eventually replaced it with another model, which lacked the Electronic Programme Guide, and was twice the price.
A home-made PVR?
I got rid of Sky, and switched to Freeview, then started looking online at options like MythTV. It’s a free, open-source piece of software, that runs on Linux, and controls TV cards, records TV shows, etc. It has pretty menus, like you would get with something like Sky+.
“Screw these technology companies”, I thought. I’ll build my own.
I got myself a nice looking case (it’s got to look nice, if it’s going under the TV), built a PC, installed a version of Linux, then tried to use MythTV. I couldn’t get it to work. It could record, but the picture being recorded was degraded, and weirdly enough – upside down. Being an open source product, running on Linux, I found support for it pretty useless/difficult. This isn’t to say that all Linux users are like this, but I come from a Windows background, and it’s entirely alien to me. I think because it’s mostly used by scientists and programmers, the replies you get are not made into what I would deem “English”.
Linux users have always told me that the answers to problems are all out there. There’s online documentation and help forums. I tried both, and when I’ve openly admitted I’m a newcomer to Linux, it’s not helpful to be told to “just recompile the kernel”.
The fact that there is about 15bn (mild exaggeration, but only mild) versions of Linux doesn’t help either.
I tried a variety of versions of Linux, each time hitting a brick wall somewhere, due to poor documentation, or lack of support for hardware, but IF I had ever got myself to a point where I understood it, I’d have set myself up as a translator between ordinary humans and Linux programmers. Because fuck knows it’s a service that’s definitely required.
Needless to say, I looked at Windows options. The long and short of it is that at the time, there wasn’t one. There was software that did some things, others that did different, and none that did all of what I wanted. I eventually went for a combination of things, which worked. For a bit.
It would occasionally lock up when attempting to watch one programme and record another. I had some parts fail, gave it a second go, with a different configuration, more powerful, and with a better graphics card. I failed.
You’ll read online that people who have set up MythTV (or similar.. Sage, GB-PVR, ShowShifter, etc.) from spare parts from old computers, and blog about how it’s running flawlessly. This is (or was at the time) total bullshit.
You can try it yourself. Plug a laptop into a TV, and you’ll see instantly that it doesn’t look like the same quality as your TV. This is one of your biggest problems – making a computer’s output look like normal TV. I tried a variety of different graphics cards, and other hardware configurations, and found very few that looked what I would deem “reasonable”.
While all this was going on, a friend of mine had bought a freeview recorder, been incredibly unhappy and returned it, then later, bought himself a Topfield 5800, which was evidently the answer to my prayers. It was apparently a lot better than the other one he’d had.
It could record freeview, and two channels at once. You could watch a recording, while recording two things. Amazing. And it had a USB port, to copy things off. All sounds good?
Well yes and no.
From the start, I had wondered “why a USB port? Why not a network port?”
While the USB port allows you to copy programmes off, it is incredibly slow. I can’t copy it off across the network – I’ve got to have a PC plugged into it no more than a couple of metres away.
I guess this became a ‘nice to have’ type comment, rather than a problem.
Next problem. When I built my own recorder, it recorded in MPEG2. All you need to know about MPEG2, is that it is playable in pretty much anything. Windows Media Player will play it. You can burn it to a DVD, and your DVD player (ANY DVD player) will play it. My Philips recorder would record in something obscure, but then you could burn it to a DVD, so it’s all still readable.
Topfield records in the .rec format. Playable in Windows Media Player? No. Nor anything really. It plays in VLC, but VLC plays anything. And (and this isn’t being unkind) although VLC plays ANYTHING, it crashes often, and the picture quality is never that great.
There is software to convert .rec to another format, but it takes a long time, and is another irritating step in the process.
Topfield develops a fault
A few weeks back, I noticed something I was watching was jumping. I copied a programme off, and discovered that the jumping was on the recording, not the playback. Sometimes the sound cuts out, sometimes the picture breaks up, sometimes both.
I tried a Topfield forum, and was advised it might be the power supply. £25 for a repair on my power supply, and I discovered it wasn’t that at fault. The device was more responsive after it was repaired, but it didn’t stop the jumping.
So now what? I’ve got 150gb of programmes on my Topfield. Do I copy them all off very slowly, over USB, over the course of a week? Well, there is a quicker way. You can take the drive out and put it in a PC. Great. My girlfriend’s is sat here doing nothing.
So I’ll just put it in and copy it off? Think again, because Topfield drives aren’t formatted in the same way as Windows, or Mac. In fact, even Linux can’t understand their formatting.
I get another bit of third-party software from a Topfield forum, which recognises the formatting, and I can copy stuff off. So where the hell am I going to put it? 150gb of programmes? My Mac, laptop, and my girlfriend’s PC – combined – do not have enough free space for that. I copy a load of stuff off, until I run out of anywhere to put it. That’ll have to do, I guess.
I use the same third party software to run some tests, it discovered some faults and asks if I want to fix them. I don’t understand what this software is going to do, but what other options do I have at this point? I agree, then defragment the drive (then get told on a forum that I shouldn’t have done so), copy the files back, and put the drive back in Topfield, wondering if it is still readable.
I record something, and it seems better. For about half an hour, then it jumps again. Over the course of 24 hours, it jumps more and more, until it’s just as bad as it was before I started trying to fix it.
I delete a load of stuff off of it, put an old spare (smaller) hard drive in Topfield, to get it to format it, then put the old and new Topfield drives in girlfriend’s PC, to copy from one to the other. I’ll just copy everything off in the Windows software. This should work great, except that it insists it can’t do this, until I’ve checked/tested both drives with the software first. The same software I used above. I’m quite confident in it now.
I test both drives. It finds faults on the old Topfield drive, asks if I want to fix them I say yes. My drive is now almost entirely blank, except for about 30 small files described as “lost clusters”, which are not my recordings.
Which all rather begs the question of how I would stop this happening again?
Buy a new hard drive? That doesn’t fix the problem -it just delays it.
Buy a new model? No. The new model still doesn’t include a network port, and now has a 500gb drive (twice as big as mine). That’s even more files I won’t have space to copy off (and even if I did, would mean leaving it on all day and night, because the USB transfer is so slow, or invalidating the warranty by taking the drive out to copy it in another PC).
Even forgetting the “backup” idea, can’t they see that it might be good to be able to share these files? What about people in houses with multiple rooms. You could have one device where the whole family save, and then be able to watch it from different rooms. Seems an obvious addition, no?
It’s completely stupid really. All hard drives (and electronics) die eventually. And to have no decent way of backing anything up, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Imagine saving all your music on an iPod, binning all the original CDs, and never backing it up on your PC. That’s what you’re doing. You’re just setting yourself up to one day lose everything you’ve put on there.
They might as well put an 80gb hard drive in there, for all it matters. By using bigger and bigger hard drives, you’re just going to save more stuff, and lose more when the drive eventually dies.
It’s funny how attached you become to a device like this.
That ability to just pause TV. To start watching a film, realise you’re a bit tired, and just record the end to watch later. Recording two channels at once is very handy, because let’s face it – while the BBC is good, and 4od is almost there, the ITV Player is a bag of shite (the video and sound doesn’t even seem in sync for me), and FiveFwd (or is it DemandFive?..whatever it’s called this week?) has loads of adverts. In the past I’ve sat through two adverts and a sponsor message just to watch a trailer for an upcoming programme. Two adverts and a sponsor message, just to watch another advert!
I’m told this is the era of on-demand video. There’s the iPlayer and 4od. Why do I even still need to record anything? Well, my Internet connection is piss poor slow (thanks BT, no thanks to Virgin who tell me it is not cost effective to cable my road, despite the one off mine already being cabled).
The BBC has the iPlayer but in a lot of cases, you have to watch things within the week. American films/dramas – sometimes, just forget about it. They don’t get on there at all.
There was always a rival manufacturer to Topfield, called Humax. Their new device records FreeviewHD, and has a network port to copy shows off. Maybe worth a look when I’ve got money again. I won’t be buying from Topfield’s any time soon.