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

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

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.

Rick Broida has spent the last 25 years writing about technology in all its forms. A self-proclaimed cheapskate, he authors an eponymous blog for CNET. He is also a contributor to CNET's iPhone Atlas and Ehow Tech. Broida's book credits include the best-selling "How to Do Everything with Your Palm Handheld" and the more recent "The Cheapskate Rules: 21 Easy Money-Saving Tech Secrets."

There are 9 comments for this article
  1. Geeky1 at 6:13 pm

    Even better is MythTV, a free Linux HTPC (Home Theater PC) software. I tried building an HTPC with MythTV to use as a DVR 3 years ago so I could quit paying for cable and the forced upgrade bundle for a DVR. I think my main problem was reception with since that was before the official cut-over to full digital and most stations were still broadcasting at low power. I’ll have to give it a try again soon.

  2. Raindeer at 6:26 pm

    I down loaded Wonderfox after reading your artical about it and I have not heard from them about the free key. I always looked to Cnet for good deals and good advice,tips.ect but I dont think this is going to turn out to be one. I just hope I will be able to delete the program from my PC. I have had bad luck with some free programs when it came time to try and get rid of them.

  3. rightonryan at 6:37 pm

    When setting up you old PC as a DVR make sure the processor and video card can handle the digital stream from the tuner. My experience is that at a minimum you will need a dual core processor in that old PC. Also the DVR won’t work with XP Media Center Edition as it will not recognize the Digital tuner. You can however install the Win TV program that comes with the Hauppauge 950Q tuner.

  4. oldguy at 8:27 am

    been doing that for almost 5 years now .
    I read your articles for new ideas …never mind everything is obsolete by the time it hits the market.

  5. maximillian at 11:03 pm

    just because “YOU” have been doing something he mentions for years,does not mean that others know about it. if you don’t have something positive to say about them trying to share something with people to help – just shut up.

  6. ChuckG at 1:32 am

    I think this is a most interesting idea, but I stated in your later article I wouldn’t do it because I want to chill in front of a big screen tv and forget about the computer. My computer reminds me of work, not play, so unless I’m playing an online game it feels like work, even if it’s a show. I think if I had a large computer monitor it would make more sense to me, and a sofa in this office-like room, and maybe a mini-fridge.

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