December 8, 2013

Build Your Own DVR

A bit ago I bemoaned how I should have bought a Tivo.   SteveD commented how he was getting $500 of PC parts and a SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime tuner.   The HDHomeRun is a device I've looked at myself as a interesting alternative to set top box DVRs.      If you buy a Tivo or use your cable company DVR then you have to pay for the service.   But if you build your own DVR then there are no service fees.   A Tivo plus lifetime subscription currently runs about $700.   You can instead build your own DVR for around $500.

The basic idea here is to get a TV tuner to hook up to your computer and then use computer software to act as a DVR.   You connect your computer to your TV and now you have DVR functionality via your computer.  On the computer running Windows 7/ 8 you can use Windows Media Center to view and record TV.   That functionality is built into the OS.   I'm not going to go into all the details of how to setup a DVR since thats a giant topic in itself.  

You'll need a TV tuner

The SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime is a TV tuner box that uses a CableCard adapter to receive your cable TV signal.   The HDHomeRUn then sits on your homes computer network and can broadcast 3 streams of TV to different connected devices within your home.       The Prime model uses the CableCard which allows you decode all the cable channels including encrypted stuff like HBO.   Some cable or satellite providers encrypt everything now so you may need a CableCard to see any any of your channels.   They also have a standard HDHomeRun that can receive broadcast TV via antennae and decode the unencrypted cable signal.    HDHomeRun isn't the only option out there for TV on your computer, but it seems to be one of the better reviewed choices and I like the flexibility of their stand alone network connected box.  

HDHomeRun is not the only option though.   You could also get a Hauppauge WinTV DCR-2650 Dual Tuner Cable Card TV Tuner for $123.

If you ONLY have an antennae and no cable subscription then there are even cheaper DVR options.  One example is the AVerMedia AVerTVHD Duet PCTV tuner  PCIe addin card for about $40.   Or if you have a laptop then they have USB version too for $48.   These tuners will handle both over the air TV as well as clear-QAM (unencrypted cable).


Assuming you use something like the HDhomeRun Prime then you need to get a CableCard.   The CableCard comes from the TV company.   There might be a small fee for the card and those policies vary depending on who you get your TV from.    Once you've got all the parts you'll have to setup the CableCard and that will likely require a phone call to tech support for the cable company and I've heard sometimes getting it all setup might be a hassle.

Simple system configuration :

Basically what you need is a PC and the HDHomeRun tuner.   You could use your existing computer and just get the HDHomeRun box.   That would the absolute cheapest route.  However that would mean tying your computer to the TV or connecting/disconnecting it all the time.  It would be easier to have a dedicated computer to act as your DVR.

You could get those off  shelf by buying :

Dell Inspiron 660s for $300
SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME = $147

total = $447

If you want to upgrade to a 660s with an i3 processor and 1TB drive then that would be another $100 for $547 total.

DIY PC option

You could also build your own computer to give yourself more flexibility on parts and upgrades.  Now I've said before that building your own entry level PC isn't going to save you money and I stick by that.  But You might want to consider it here to give yourself some flexibility to pick the exact combination of parts specifically for your DVR.  

Example Part list :

SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME = $147
Seagate Barracuda 1 TB HDD ST1000DM003 = $64
ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burner= $17
Crucial Ballistix Sport 4GB DDR3 1600 = $33

Foxconn H61S Mini ITX Motherboard = $50

Intel Celeron G1620 2.70GHz Processor = $43
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (OEM) = $89

Logisys 368 SOHO Case with 480 Watt Power Supply = $35

Total cost = $478

Most of those parts are from Amazon since thats where I found the cheapest prices.   The DVD burner and RAM are at Newegg because they were cheaper there.    Shipping should be free on all these parts.  

There is nothing too fancy in that HW list.   I tried to pick good brands with acceptable performance for cheap.   But you can of course mix/match however you want with other parts.   I'm honestly not sure if the system specs above will have adequate power for a good DVR.     The minimum specs for the HDHomeRun are met with the system build so it should be good enough.  But I've not tested it so I can't say for certain.  I tried to find examples of HW builds on the net to see what other people are using with HDHomeRun's and couldn't find much of anything.

Windows or Linux?   : If you build your own and want to get your total price down to $389 then you can use Linux instead of Windows.   Linux is free and they have DVR software.  MythTV is a popular option for DVR on Linux.   Most people however will find it a lot easier to use Windows and if you're not familiar with Linux nor itching to learn all about a new OS then I'd recommend you cough up the extra $89 for Windows.

That gives us Several options : 

Use existing PC and buy the tuner = $147
DIY PC with Linux = $389
Simple Dell + tuner = $447
DIY PC with Windows = $478
Better Dell = $547

Pros / Cons versus Tivo

Is it worth it to build your own?   Maybe or maybe not.  The basic pros / cons are compared to simply buying a Tivo are :   

Tivo is definitely easier
DIY DVR will be cheaper over all
DIY DVR is more expandable

If you want to spend a bit of time and effort you can save some money.   Thats usually the basic game in frugality though isn't it?   If you just get a tuner you could save about $550 versus a Tivo with lifetime.   Thats pretty big savings.


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