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Review: Software offers TiVo-like recording at lower price

By Powell Fraser

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(CNN) -- I have seen the future of television, and it lies within a computer.

The idea of watching TV on your PC isn't new. TV tuner cards for computers have been around for years. And TiVo and ReplayTV pioneered the concept of the Personal Video Recorder, or PVR -- allowing users to pause, rewind, and fast-forward TV broadcasts. But the price of the recording boxes -- around $250 -- and monthly subscription fees in the $13 range have slowed the spread of PVRs.

Now, new software promises to let you record programs on your computer and watch them at your leisure without buying a personal video recorder.

For about $60 for the software and another $80 for a tuner card, SnapStream's Personal Video Station 3 lets you record your favorite shows to your heart's content -- without the monthly subscription charges. InterVideo's WinDVR 3 software, which costs about $80, also offers subscription-free recording capabilities.

But there's a catch: you need a fairly new PC with plenty of processor speed to run this software properly. The company advises that your PC run at 733 megahertz or faster. Though these requirements are easily met by most new PC's, my older 650 MHz Dell desktop was unable to run SnapStream's software. Also, only a few of the newest PC's come equipped with a TV tuner card.

Getting the hardware

If you choose to use your PC to record video, you'll also have to worry about hardware installation -- something that you won't face with a plug-and-play TiVo. And you'll need a good command of basic Windows functions and the Internet.

You'll probably have to install a TV tuner card and the software it requires -- which is straightforward assuming Windows doesn't give you any hiccups. During my installation, I had to download newer, Windows XP-compatible drivers from the tuner card manufacturer's Web site before the card would work with the video recording software.

Once you're done getting the hardware you need, the software installation is fairly simple.

SnapStream easily wins the interface contest, providing a TV-like full-screen presentation of live and recorded video as well as a program guide, all operable by remote control and smoothly animated. You'll have to visit a Web site to see InterVideo's program guide, which is not integrated into the software.

Special features offered

SnapStream also includes a bundle of features that they say you won't find anywhere else. Their software contains a built-in streaming video server that allows you to watch live or recorded TV from any computer connected to your home network. If you're away from home, the software can stream recorded shows to you across the Internet using broadband.

SnapStream lets you encode archived shows into different formats, allowing playback on many gadgets including DVD players and PocketPC's. Users can e-mail shows to friends or swap them on the Internet.

The SnapStream software also offers a 30-second skip function -- which can be handy for skipping commercials.

One of the most heralded TiVo features, however, is missing from SnapStream's and InterVideo's software: recommendations. The software records only what you tell it to record. TiVo records additional programming based on its understanding of your tastes. While SnapStream's program can record an entire season of "Friends," TiVo can deduce that I might like "Seinfeld" as well, providing me with more episodes to watch whenever I want.

Time to update?

If it's time to update your PC, you might opt to skip buying the software or a TiVo and go for a system preloaded with Microsoft's new version of Windows XP. For about $1,500, the Media Center Edition PC comes complete with a tuner card and TV-recording capabilities.

More options for interactive TV viewing are likely to appear soon, as cable companies scramble to offer their own services as well.

In the meantime, SnapStream and InterVideo offer good software and plenty of functionality -- if you can get around the system requirements and installation roadblocks.

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