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November 18, 2004

Review: BeyondTV 3.5 Part 1

BeyondTV 3.5 offers a great combination of features and power, yet remains one of the easiest DVR products I've installed and used. As the first part of a two part series, I'll describe the BeyondTV 3.5 product, and in part two, I'll describe how other products like BeyondTV Link and MediaMVP can be used to distribute video throughout a household.

One of the things that drew me to Beyond TV 3.5 was an article Snapstream published on the Medusa, a 6 tuner-card monster computer Snapstream created as a technology demonstration. While the Medusa may be overkill even for an enthusiast like me, it got me thinking what the ideal DVR system would look like. With the soon to be released Beyond Media product on the horizon to support music and photos, the Snapstream product may very well fit the DVR nirvana many people like myself crave.

The Tivo system model works great for a single television, but expanding it to multiple rooms without hacking and finagling the Tivo is lackluster at best. Their design requires one to buy a Tivo for each room, suffer the additional monthly charges that imposes, and it decentralizes where things get recorded and stored. Not only is this a costly solution over the long term, but it is a painful exercise to get all the Tivos to work together to record the right things at the right time.

A better model which has been implemented on several products including BeyondTV 3.5, includes servers and clients. The idea is to separate out the back-end server from the front-end clients. You build one big server (or more depending on the DVR product) which can record and save your content, and then you use simple and quiet front-end clients to actually control the interface and render it on to the screen. Suddenly for a four person family, a 6 tuner computer doesn't seem all that far fetched. It is still probably a bit overkill, but you can devote 2-3 tuners to recording content and allow 3-4 tuners for watching television in every room simultaneously.

I was struck how easy it was to setup a system like this using BeyondTV 3.5. I setup my test server (2.0Gz P4 system) with Windows XP and installed 3 Hauppauge tuner cards (a couple of 150MCEs and a 250). With the low sub-$70 MPEG encoder cards coming out like the Hauppauge 150MCE and the AverMedia 1500MCE, multiple tuners don't break the bank like they used to. Based on the Medusa article, I also included a four way cable splitter with amplifier so that the television signal would not get to degraded from splitting it so many ways.

The BeyondTV 3.5 Setup Wizard is actually a joy to run compared to some products. It walks you through a set of simple questions and installs the system with a minimum of fuss. The wizard will configure the system to use a remote if you have one (I tested with the Firefly remote but there are many others including the Hauppauge 250 bundled remote that can be configured) and will walk you throught creating an account on SnapStream.Net, a service that lets you schedule a recording anywhere on the Internet. It also has a nice interface to configure all your tuner cards based on the source (e.g. cable, antenna, or sat.) to which they are attached. It's particularly useful to have the test screen available to make sure the tuner is working properly before you actually dive right into the product.

I did stumble a bit trying to tweak my settings. From within the BTV program, there is a Settings tab that gives you the basics but to do the heavy lifting, you need to find the web server interface that comes with the product. It's from within the web interface where you can specify which folders and hard drives to record shows, among many other customized options. I was too ansy to get goting that I bypassed the manual which, in retrospect, would have saved me some confusion. Still a link directly from the Wizard, the BeyondTV Setting Window, or the system tray icon would have come in very handy.

The web server that is included is very cool. If you have an always-on Internet connection and a DSL router, it's not too complicated to set it up so you can access the web pages outside your firewall, although if you do, make sure you password protect the web server from within the security options dialog. Not only can you change various settings from within the web interface, but if you are on the road traveling, you can transfer or stream shows via the Internet and watch them on your laptop, something that Tivo has been trying to do for months with its Tivo To Go feature.

I have a lot of content stored in XVID (MPEG4) format up on a file server. BeyondTV made it easy to add those video folders on the server just as easily if they were on drives on your computer. Now that I set it up, I have access to all those videos from within BeyondTV, and with it configured to work outside my firewall, I also have access to them from just about any place that has an Internet connection. While BeyondTV does not support MPEG4 format at the moment for recording, with the proper codecs installed, MPEG4 files play just fine from within it's interface.

Another great feature is ShowSqueeze, which will further compress shows that have been recorded. I use it to store shows that I want to keep permanently. ShowSqueeze will transcode the file in the smaller WMA format, automatically mark commercials with chapter headers, and move the resulting slimmed down file on to my file server. I'd love to see more work done on this feature because it is a bit limited; it only allows one to compress a show in WMA format and I have note yet found an easy way to specify which sub-folder to store a squeezed file. I'm very interested in this modification one developer has put together to compress things in XVID format, but I still hope SnapStream works on MPEG4 support as a future standard for the product.

It's hard to beat the interface in Microsoft MCE 2005 which is the gold standard in my mind, but BTV is functional, fast, and no slouch in its own right. The program guide is functional and easy to navigate. If your computer has enough juice, I recommend the 3D accelerated setting, which adds some panache by rendering the on screen display semi-tranparently over the video feed.

Finding content is pretty straightforward. You can use the program guide, search by title, or search by keyword. It would be handy to have a similar feature to Tivo's WishList which a nice way to save up repeated search requests and the ability to optionally record content automatically. It does an ok job of managing conflicts, and given the system I was testing, it did a good job balancing out what need to be recorded with the availability of each tuner. I mentioned briefly the SnapStream.net account that comes with the package, but it allows a user to schedule a recording from the Internet as if you were doing it from the comfort of your own home.

While this is a BeyondTV review, I should mention that I found Snapstream's Firefly remote to be outstanding and I would definitely consider it if you plan on building a BeyondTV system. It's a solid, ergonomic remote similar to the Tivo model and can be used with a variety of applications including BeyondTV. The big Firefly button is a little disconcerting for an old Tivo user like me since instead of going to the front page of the BeyondTV interface, it goes directly to the Firefly jump page. I can understand the logic of it, but the Tivo button is an old habit hard to break.

Snapstream has done a good job developing a product that is easy to install and use, but it still has a lot of advanced features for the geek in all of us. It's well designed and sensible, but if you have a few extra bucks to build the Medusa, it has the side benefit of filling your friends with tuner envy.

In the next few days, I will post Part 2 will include more on this product with a focus on how one can distribute the content from room to room.

Additional Info:

TVHarmony Product Tracker: BeyondTV

Posted on November 18, 2004

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