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The Tech-pert: Turn a Spare PC into a Free DVR

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 12:55PM Thursday June 30, 2011
under Money Saving Tips

Lately, more and more people have been asking me about "cutting the cord." No, this has nothing to do with childbirth; it's about ditching pricey cable TV--the "cord"--in favor of Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and other digital options.

Much as I'm a fan of those inexpensive alternatives, there are times when I want to watch--and record--live TV. A simple antenna connected to my TV's digital tuner takes care of the "watch" part, as I can tune in most of the major networks via over-the-air signals.

But what about recording? For that, I rely on a spare desktop PC (though a laptop would do as well), an inexpensive accessory, and Windows 7. Combined, they make a fantastic DVR for watching and recording digital, high-definition broadcasts.
The accessory in question is a digital TV tuner that plugs into a USB port. Your existing indoor or outdoor antenna plugs into the tuner. From there, you just run Windows Media Center, which comes standard with every version of Windows 7 except Basic. WMC gives you a complete program guide, just like a TiVo or cable-company DVR, but without the monthly fees.

There are many tuners that will do the job, but I'm partial to the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q, which you can grab from B&H Photo for just $66.49 shipped. The list price is $99.

The only potentially tricky part is connecting your PC to your TV. If your system has an HDMI port, you should be able to run an inexpensive cable from it to one of your TV's HDMI inputs. Alternately, look for a DVI or VGA input on your TV, then use the corresponding output from your PC.

Got an Xbox 360 already connected to your TV? You're in luck: it can double as a Windows Media Center "extender," meaning you don't have to physically link your TV and PC. Instead, your live and recorded shows will stream over your home network from the latter to the former.

I've just scratched the surface of this kind of setup. The upshot is that you can use a PC as a free DVR, provided you have Windows 7 and a digital tuner. To find out more, just head to Google and do a little searching.

Self-proclaimed cheapskate Rick Broida has been a technology writer for over 20 years. He has authored over a dozen books, including, most recently, "How to Do Everything: Palm Pre." Currently he writes the Cheapskate blog.