While SnapStream Personal Video Station 2.0 still suffers from some of the problems we saw in version 1.5 (and introduces a few new ones), it's far less troublesome. For just $49.99, this software-based personal video recorder delivers many handy recording options, including a new program guide, at a third of the cost of TiVo. If you're short on cash and long on patience, give SnapStream 2.0 a try. However, if you have the dough, stick with TiVo. SnapStream still has some work to do.While SnapStream Personal Video Station 2.0 still suffers from some of the problems we saw in version 1.5 (and introduces a few new ones), it's far less troublesome. For just $49.99, this software-based personal video recorder delivers many handy recording options, including a new program guide, at a third of the cost of TiVo. If you're short on cash and long on patience, give SnapStream 2.0 a try. However, if you have the dough, stick with TiVo. SnapStream still has some work to do.
A tinkerer's dream
SnapStream 2.0 works with most major TV tuner cards on your PC. Before you install SnapStream, make sure your broadcast source (antenna, cable, or satellite) is hooked up to your tuner card. Install the application, and you'll be asked to select your card from a pull-down menu and to identify your broadcast source. SnapStream then scans for channels. We had an antenna connected, and SnapStream tested all the possible channels one by one, then compiled a list of those that worked based on our broadcast source. In CNET's tests, the installation went much more smoothly than it did with version 1.5. It didn't crash our system, nor did we have to reinstall anything.
As with the previous version, SnapStream runs within Internet Explorer. (SnapStream is still for Windows users only; there's no Macintosh version.) It's fairly intuitive for veteran browsers, but, unfortunately, pages take a long time to load, even SnapStream files stored on the local computer. However, once you get the program loaded, you'll be pleased by its simple interface. Buttons for the most common tasks (such as Watch and Record) run along the left side of the main window, and when you select a task, it appears in the center of the screen.
New program guide
In addition to basic task buttons, SnapStream now features a program guide powered by TitanTV, which makes scheduling recordings much simpler. You just click a program's name to add it to your schedule, instead of manually setting the time, date, and running time for every program, as you did with version 1.5. To use the guide, connect to the Internet, press Record from the left-hand column, and click the Program Guide tab in the center of the screen. Once you've registered for an account (you can register from within SnapStream; just plug in your city and state), you'll get a colorful grid showing the listings for your area. Click a title to get a program summary.
You'll need to leave your computer and the SnapStream application running in order to record a program, since SnapStream can't automatically wake a computer at the appropriate time. You can watch the episode you're currently recording by pressing the Watch Live Stream option in the left-hand menu. Only one application can access the TV tuner card at one time, so, for example, you can't simultaneously use the software that came with your TV tuner card. SnapStream offers nine quality levels for recording programs for PC playback and four quality levels for handheld computers. The highest recording level is near-DVD quality, and, in our tests, the movement on the screen was fluid.
TV to go
SnapStream has also improved its tool for saving programs to Pocket PVS for mobile TV viewing. Pocket PC devices from Toshiba (Genio), Compaq (iPaq), Hewlett-Packard (Jornada), and Casio (Cassiopeia) are all supported. The installation, thankfully, went much more smoothly than with the previous version. We encountered problems, however, because SnapStream doesn't work with Pocket Windows Media Player 4.x, which comes standard in many handhelds (you'll need to download a newer version), and SnapStream won't tell you when your handheld is too full to hold new programs. You'll have to delete old programs from your device by hand; even at the lowest frame rate, video takes about 1MB per minute, so it'll take a 32MB CompactFlash card to hold a half-hour program. When we played a video recording on our Pocket PVS, the picture wasn't great, either--forget about reading subtitles.
Not up to TiVo standards
Despite its new, convenient viewing guide, SnapStream 2.0 is still playing catch-up with TiVo. You can now use SnapStream to capture a particular program every time it comes on, but you can't set it to skip repeats as TiVo can. Worse, there's no way to fast-forward through commercials or watch one show while taping another, unless you have two TV tuner cards.
In addition to these limitations, we encountered several glitches while testing SnapStream, and most required a tech-support call to fix. For example, when we watched a program that was already recorded, the forward and reverse controls on the video player didn't work. This is true whether you're watching a program in Windows Media Player or within Internet Explorer.
SnapStream is a value-priced alternative to TiVo, but you'll spend a lot of time tweaking it. While its tricky configuration will deter many, it's a fun toy to use, once it's up and running. Version 2.0 has made great strides over 1.5, and we look forward to seeing what the next version brings.