Using a PC as a Tivo-like DVR device can lead to a sometimes-bewildering array of software choices (to say nothing of the wide variety of TV tuner cards on the market). The most common DVR front end for PCs is Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE), largely because it's the default operation system for a big percentage of new PCs. SnapStream's Beyond TV is a popular choice for those who don't have MCE or who simply don't want to use Microsoft's app. The latest version of the $69.99 program ($29.99 to upgrade from a previous version), Beyond TV 4.3, is more of an incremental update than a radical change, but it offers a handful of new features that power users will appreciate, such as community statistics and DivX 6.1 support.
We loaded up Beyond TV 4.3 on a PC running MCE, but it will also work with systems running Windows XP Home or Professional (sorry, no Macs). We've had some trouble in the past getting DVR software, including Beyond TV, SageTV, and Media Center, to install and set up properly, but this time it was a breeze. Our only hitch was getting Media Center to give up control of the TV tuner hardware. (Go to Start > Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Services and right-click Media Center Receiver Service. Go to Properties and set Startup Type to Disabled.)
No one has yet come up with a DVR interface that is as elegant and well designed as Windows Media Center's, but with each iteration Beyond TV comes closer. Like most DVR programs, the Beyond TV interface features gigantic menu buttons that are meant to be navigated from a living room couch--a setup popularly known as the 10-foot interface. The top two options are for Recorded Programs and Live TV, taking you to either your list of previously recorded shows or the current live feed from your cable or satellite box (or antenna, if you're going over-the-air). Below that are menu buttons for the electronic program guide and setup options.
The program also offers more settings and configuration options than Media Center, such as four different recording-quality levels, and support for MPEG2, DivX, and WMV. Some users will love the choice, others might prefer the more basic foolproof set of tools in Media Center.