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Product Review
 

SageTV PVR (Personal Video Recorder) Software

June, 2005

Gabriel Lowe

 

Specifications:

  • Installs on PC

  • Codecs: MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX

  • You Can Use Your PC for Other
        Functions While Recording TV
        Programs

  • Stream Recorded Programs Through
        Your Network

  • Access By Album, Artist, or Playlist

  • Multiple Tuner Support

  • Uses Frey Programming

  • MSRP: $79.95 USA for Software
        Alone; $229 USA with Dual Tuner
        PC Card and Remote Control

SageTV

 

www.sagetv.com 

Introduction

The term “convergence” had always been nothing more than a buzzword in the world of Home Theater until very recently. Within the last couple of years, the Media Server has transformed convergence into a reality.

SageTV is one of the media server applications that you can purchase for your Windows-based PC. While the name implies a dedicated TV product, SageTV actually has added capabilities of being a music, picture, and video server as well as a fully functional PVR (Personal Video Recorder, sometimes also called a DVR or Digital Video Recorder). But that’s not all. SageTV has many additional features and functionality that make it quite a robust solution for your whole-house digital needs.

SageTV, LLC (formerly Frey Technologies) has really thought out their product well. It caters to both the casual user as well as the hard core tweaker. It can be used as a simple PVR, or it can create an entire home media distribution system. The standalone product is complimented by the SageTV client, which adds all of the same features to remote PCs even if they don’t have their own TV tuner cards.

Were you like me? Did you think you could never afford a whole-home media distribution system? Well that has all changed with this product!

Initial Installation and Configuration

SageTV requires a Windows 98 or better operating system, a compatible TV tuner card (an approved list is available at SageTV's website), a decent video card, and modest RAM and CPU specs. For this review, I used a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 system with 1GB of dual channel DDR RAM, an nVidia GeForce 6600 GT PCI-x video card, 650GB of storage space (including external network storage), a Hauppage WinTV PVR150MCE tuner card, and a Snapstream FireFly RF remote control.

Before configuration, I made sure that all of my hardware was already installed, and that I tested the tuner card with the Hauppage-supplied software. This is the recommended practice to avoid unnecessary troubleshooting steps later. Installation is as simple as installing any basic Windows application. Upon completing installation, you are presented with the SageTV interface:

It features a very intuitive layout with easy navigational controls. If you have a wireless keyboard and mouse, you can use the many keyboard shortcuts pre-programmed or create your own. You can also use PC and non-PC based remote controls, as explained later in this review. In order to get the system to a basic, usable configuration, you enter the Setup menu, and choose the Setup Wizard. This guides you through configuration of the TV tuner card and your TV service provider. SageTV allows you to use antenna, satellite, and cable, even if you have set-top boxes.

Once configured, the system asks you for your ZIP code, which allows it to find your available TV service providers. You select your provider, and then SageTV downloads your appropriate Electronic Program Guide (EPG) data, which will allow you to view, record, and schedule television viewing based on the familiar grid layout. This service is provided as part of the system; no additional fees are required. The EPG data supplied through SageTV are only available for the US. However you can still get data for other countries with a third party plug-in such as XMLTV. You can even write your own! Since it is primarily a TV application, the wizard ends there. All other configuration is done through the Detailed Configuration menu in the Setup screen. This includes things like where you want to store or record your media (which hard drive), audio/video settings, and other advanced configurations.

PVR Functions

The heart of SageTV, of course, is its PVR functionality. The grid guide is a familiar and extremely easy interface with which to do all of your recording, viewing, searching, and scheduling. It displays 1½ hours at a time, and allows you to see up to two weeks in advance, depending upon the data available from your service provider. It also allows you to continue viewing your station while you peruse the guide. The included guide information about each show is also very comprehensive. It displays the actors, the synopsis, the category, the original air date, and other things that may be useful to you. Recording a program is as simple as clicking on it and choosing record. The guide has color-coded borders to reflect a show’s recording status (for example, yellow means the program is recording, as shown in the graphic below). The cells themselves are color-coded as well, green being sports, purple indicating movies, and brown representing news. This is a nice touch that enables you to quickly identify those genres in the guide.

All of the standard PVR functions are present, including pausing live TV, rewind, fast forward, manual recording, etc. However, unlike a “traditional” PVR (it’s amazing we can already call a PVR traditional!), you can drag the slider anywhere in a buffered or recorded program. Meaning, instead of having to hold a fast forward button down to go 5 minutes ahead in a program, you can click the pointer that indicates your current position in the timeline, and move it 5 minutes ahead. I ended up using this feature quite a bit, since when you return to a program that is recorded or buffered after going to, say, the music jukebox, it picks up where you left off instead at the live point in time. If you want to get even more into customization, you can configure skip-ahead and skip-back shortcuts of specific time intervals (build your own commercial skip!).

I really appreciated the advanced recording features of SageTV. You have the ability to set up recording favorites. Unlike some other PVR systems I have used, this one allows you search by criteria like actors, categories, and keywords. You can schedule what amounts to TiVo’s Season Pass by selecting the show and adding it as a favorite. You then have some excellent options for your recordings. You can tell it to skip reruns, which the system can differentiate, based on information from the EPG. You can tell it to record the program only when it is on a specific channel, which is useful if a show still in new production is in syndication as well on another station. You can configure the length of time to keep the program in storage. You can modify the start and stop times of the recording to make sure the beginning or end of a program does not get cut off. Finally, you can set recording quality on a per show basis. That may not sound like an important feature, but if you want to record the news every day, you probably don’t need it to be at the same quality level as your favorite movies. That way, it will take up less space on your hard drive.

Another thing that is different than any other PVR or guide-enabled device I have used is that you can actually go backwards in the guide. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can always go back and see what was on TV earlier in the day, and in fact, can even watch that program if you had been buffering that channel. On the other hand, it can become a bit confusing to get back to “now”. However, once I became accustomed to the interface, I was glad they included this ability.

SageTV supports multiple tuners as well, meaning that if you have more than one tuner card in your PC, you can record and/or view two different stations simultaneously. In fact, the SageTV server allows as many tuners as you have PC slots available for TV Tuner cards. This not only supports the gluttonous ability to watch one live event while recording several others, but coupled with SageTV Client, you can use any PC device as a PVR without local TV hardware, which I will discuss in more detail later.

Do you want to record a football game and the NASCAR race on Sunday at the same time? Perhaps. Do you want to record all four of the major networks’ feeds of the State of the Union Address simultaneously? Probably not, but this is just some of the flexibility afforded to you with multiple tuner cards.

An interesting feature I found useful was Intelligent Recording. As SageTV learns your viewing habits, it begins finding programs that it thinks you will like and records them for you without any intervention on your part. Since I began testing this system during the NCAA Basketball tournament, it quickly learned that I liked basketball. I would come home from work, and there would be several games sitting on the hard drive ready for me to watch! When my favorite team actually played some good games, I wanted to archive them to DVD, which was very easy to do since the system outputs MPEG-2 files. Once you have those MPEG-2 files, most major DVD burning applications (I used Nero 6 Ultra Edition) will allow you to create a viewable DVD-Video with them. In addition, you can tell the system what programs you don’t like, so it will learn what not to record as well.

A quick note about the next three sections of this review: All of your media files, be they pictures, music, video, etc., can be accessed from anywhere on your network. In the detailed configuration menus, you tell the system where to look for all types of media (meaning you do not have to specify different paths for different file types). The files are then collated into one large logical directory in the picture, music, and video libraries. Any subfolders you have will appear in both the picture and video libraries, but will be organized differently in the Music Jukebox, which is explained below.

Music Jukebox

The Music Jukebox is an excellent feature to have, although I think its design and implementation can be improved. First of all, only MP3 files are supported for playback in the jukebox. The vast majority of music in my library was ripped in MP3 simply for compatibility’s sake, even though the newer codices like AAC and WMA have proven to be better at lower bit rates. However, for those of you who have been shopping at the iTunes music store, or similar online music boutique, you will not be able to play those files in this system. What does it say about DRM and the recording industry when we can’t play our legally downloaded music on another vendor’s system, but we can play the old MP3 files we downloaded “illegally” in Napster years ago? This, of course, is not SageTV’s fault, but they could have included the ability to play unencrypted files of those types for people who have ripped their entire libraries with iTunes or Windows Media Player. I have read through some of the SageTV forums (an excellent resource for those of you who wish to tweak and customize the system), and some people have gotten other formats like OGG to work, but out of the box, MP3 is the only ticket for audio.

Once you launch the Jukebox, you have the option to sort through your music by album, artist, song title, playlist, or even a text-based search for tracks. If you search first by album, you then have the option of sorting the albums by artist. If, however, you choose to search first by artist, you can’t then organize by album. This has the adverse effect of grouping all tracks by a particular artist into one listing. The Jukebox feature also includes visualizations and will display album art.

As I mentioned above, the Jukebox feature can use some significant improvements and enhancements. It seems to have been added more as an afterthought than as a component of the digital media server system. I would imagine much of this will be addressed in the as-yet-unreleased version 3 of SageTV.

Picture Library

Picture viewing on the SageTV system is rather basic, but at the same time, straightforward and easy to use. You can view individual pictures, or view them in a slideshow. You can also customize the slideshow’s transition speed and duration for each picture, or even set it to advance manually. The slideshow will default to using the pictures in your current directory, so if you want to limit the show to only one group of pictures, you need to have them grouped into a folder. Like the Music Jukebox, this is more of a bonus add-on type of feature with little in the way of configuration or customization. It serves its purpose and not much else.

DVD and Video Playback

The video playback system is far more useful and flexible than the picture library or music jukebox. For one thing, you can play back a variety of formats, including all of the MPEG variants, AVI, DivX, as well as DVDs. Now, according to the overreaching definitions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA, or as I like to call it, the CTYDRAA – Congress Takes Your Digital Rights Away Act), ripping DVDs to your hard drive is illegal, even if you own them. However, should you happen to accomplish that task (which you cannot do inside of SageTV), the system will allow you to play them and manipulate them just as if they were DVDs in your DVD-ROM drive. All DVD menu features, soundtracks, and bonus materials are there, intact. I will touch on the implications of this later in the present review.

Video quality with SageTV’s built in filters is excellent. SageTV supports the VMR9 video renderer, which is superior to the traditional video overlay method that older video cards employ. You can tune and tweak to your heart’s delight, and improve the quality even more. The system supports the use of any audio and video filters you have installed on your system, such as Cyberlink, FFDShow, or WinDVD, in addition to those included. You can also use the popular open-source de-interlacer DScaler which allows for even more tweaking.

In practical application, the video playback system could be immensely helpful. For example, let’s assume you live in an area where you can't receive Fox’s HDTV broadcast over the air, and you really love the show 24, which airs in HDTV. Furthermore, the analog standard-definition cable feed of the darkly-lit action-drama looks atrocious, so you have a dilemma. Next, let’s say I have recorded the show in HDTV and have the ability to encode it in DivX or Xvid, I can then send you the show, and SageTV allows you to watch those files on your HDTV screen in excellent quality with full transport control. All of these alternatives leave you thinking that putting in a standard 5 inch disc is so old school!

Advanced Options and Features

This is where SageTV really shines in terms of the value for your dollar. The customizability, available plug-ins, and advanced feature sets truly take some skill and time to use and implement, but if you are so inclined, you will find a plethora of potential uses for SageTV. Since there are many possibilities, I will cover just a few of the major ones that I find to be most interesting.

Remote Control – SageTV can be controlled with the Hauppage and Streamzap remote controls out of the box, as well as several IR receiver products, such as Evation’s IRMan. However, you can use software plug-ins and third-party applications, such as Girder, to broaden your remote control options. I own a Snapstream’s FireFly, and can confirm that it works beautifully in SageTV with Girder. Additionally, you can use IR Blaster/Repeater products to control cable and satellite set-top-boxes or other home theater equipment.

Adding Channel Logos – You can add channel logos to the grid interface to make for a more colorful and easily read guide. It is a bit time consuming, as you have to acquire the logos and format them for use in SageTV, and then assign them to the correct channel. This may be more trouble than it’s worth for some, but if you spend the time, your system will look much more professional.

Custom Filters – As mentioned earlier, you can use whatever filters you want for video. If you have used the excellent FFDShow encoder/decoder in the past, you know how many configuration options there are, and how much you can tweak your video to perfection. While this is not an intrinsic feature of SageTV, the ability to use third party filters to improve performance is part of what makes this system great.

The SageTV Client – Finally, my favorite thing about this whole system! In a network environment, the main SageTV system runs the server service. This is the engine that interfaces with your tuner cards, and provides connectivity for the SageTV Client. The client runs on any Windows-based computer, but has less stringent hardware requirements, especially the one about not needing a tuner card. It has the exact same interface as the main SageTV server. For each tuner card you have installed in the server, you can access different live programming from a SageTV client. Even if all available tuner cards are in use, you can still access all of your other media through the client interface.

Here is my quick analysis of how this system can maximize your cost/benefit ratio. If you wanted to have a PVR in four rooms in your home, typically you would pay around $200 per hardware device, any installation costs for additional coaxial cable in your house, and a per-PVR fee if using a TiVo, ReplayTV, cable, or satellite provider’s leased equipment. In the case of the latter two, you would also only be able to watch locally stored content, and that doesn’t include DVDs ripped to a hard drive, pictures, or music. Using the SageTV client/server system, and assuming you will incorporate computers you already own, the server software costs $80, and each client license costs $30. That is a pretty small price to pay for a whole-house PVR system. Even if you wanted to add an inexpensive laptop to the mix, you are able to have functionality for a price that is well below some of the Home Theater-only designed systems that are out there.

To take it a step further, and to expand on my comments about the DVD portion of this review, think of what a Kaleidescape system costs at retail: in the neighborhood of $25,000. If you purchase a 400GB hard drive (roughly $300), you can rip somewhere between 40-80 DVDs, depending on encoding methods and disc sizes. Voila! You have a network DVD library available to you anywhere you have a computer with SageTV client installed. Watch Return of the King in your home theater? Check! Watch an episode from Quantum Leap Season 1 while you work in the office? Check. Sit on the deck with your laptop and listen to your favorite concert DVD? Check! SageTV can do this for you at a very low cost.

The plug-in system allows for even more customization. While no weather, internet browser, automation system integration, HVAC, or other such modules ship with the product, savvy users can write their own (or pay someone to do it for them). This should make SageTV a hit with custom installers as well.

Conclusions

As you may have guessed, I am happy to highly recommend this product for its versatility, quality, and ease of use. You can use it just as a simple PVR, or as a full blown house-wide media distribution system. There is a thriving user community forum at sagetv.com to help you with any questions or problems you may have along the way. It is even frequented by SageTV developers who answer questions and solicit opinions on how to improve future releases. If you are looking for an excellent Windows-based media system, SageTV offers an incredible feature set for an excellent price.
 

- Gabriel Lowe -

Related to the article above, we recommend the following:

 

Building a Home Theater PC - Part I

Building a Home Theater PC - Part II

HTPC Part III: Software DVD players in Review

 

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