Building an HDTV version of "TiVO Like" PVR with DUAL TUNERS and DVI or HDMI output
by Joe Mehaffey Release: 11/7/2006
With a list of HDTV tuners and video cards NOT to buy

I bought a TiVO (TV Personal Video Recorder) PVR system in about 2000 and it has changed the way we watch TV.  It has actually allowed us to watch LESS TV than before, because now, we can watch our favorite programs when we want and do not have to sit through unwanted programs to watch the one(s) we want.  I note here that the ability to "zip" through commercials is a boon in itself!   Now,  with the advent of HDTV, it was time to move on to an HDTV version.   In the fall of 2006, I set about to assemble a PVR to work with my new HDTV.  Below is a report of these efforts.

I have used a Tivo model 1 for years and love it. But when it came time for HDTV, I decided to try a "build your own" PVR using SageTV or Beyond TV. I have done so and, to make a long story short, I just bought a Tivo Series 3.

Problems with the Beyond TV and Sage TV approaches?

1) Tuner cards with drivers not compatible with running two cards together (Dvico).

2) Tuner cards that cannot accept cable cards and so limit you to OTA HDTV and analog cable channels.  I now consider this THE major unresoled limitation in trying to build a PC version PVR to compete with a Tivo Series 3.

3) Don't buy Tuner cards without a hardware encoder on analog channels. This causes excessive CPU utilization and can result in stuttering video when recording two analog channels and watching a HDTV channel. This with a dual core 4200+ghz cpu and this was better than two other MBs I tried.  Note: Recently, ATI has introduced the ATI Theater 650 chipset based tuners  which ARE reported to have a hardware encoder for analog TV channels.  I would recommend this tuner as a starting point for any future PVR build efforts.

4) SageTv has lots of features for "geeks" but is missing lots of features.. Such as an easy way to tell the software to pick HDTV channels instead of non-HDTV channels that are presenting the same program.

5) BTV has a pretty good GUI and good remote controls. Still, it suffers from stuttering and pixelation when recording two analog programs while watching an HDTV program. This is really a hardware problem (3 above) but I was not able to overcome it at the time. I  needed a PCI or PCIe HDTV+analog TV tuner which included a hardware encoder for the analog capture mode.  BTV has about the worst technical support of any software company I have ever worked with.  But the software works pretty good.  Their refusal to give me a "baseline hardware configuration" that they KNEW would work with Beyond TV software and  two HDTV tuners should have been a red flag that I was going to have problems.

6) I had to go through three video cards before I found one that would give me dual displays while playing back HDTV. Even so, none of the ATI or Nvida based video cards would allow operation of the TV set as the secondary display.  This was a result of the huge CPU load generated when  making the HDTV display the secondary display and the computer display the primary.  I finally settled for a configuration where I used ONLY the TV display and made it the primary display.

So.. After spending three months of elapsed time and about two thousand dollars buying hardware and software to experiment with,  I decided to give up and buy the $800 Tivo series 3 PVR with the $199 lifetime subscription transfer price. Expensive, but I spent considerably more (and a LOT of time!) trying to get a dual tuner HDTV alternative to work and .. I failed to come close to Tivo Series 3 features and  performance.  Until December 31, Tivo series 1 and 2 owners who have a "lifetime" update deal can transfer this deal to a series 3 for $199.  This seems excessive considering that BeyondTV and SageTV give "free" TV Guide service "forever" as a part of their software purchase..  That was one of the attractions to these two software packages.

In summary.. A lot of people appear to get BTV and SageTV to operate acceptably in specific applications.  A lot of other people have a multitude of problems with their configurations.  I simply could not find a combination of hardware and software that would work "without video stuttering under some conditions" with dual HDTV/Analog tuners.  The failure of both SnapStream (Beyond TV) and Sage TV to publish even ONE "baseline hardware configuration" that is guaranteed to work under all circumstances with dual tuners makes me very suspicious that such a configuration is unknown at this moment in time.  Let buyers be aware.

Details of my efforts
As of July 2006, there is no HDTV version of a PVR available commercially from TiVO or anyone else.  There are three (and more) competing companies who offer "TiVO Like" software that can be used to build your own HDTV PVR.  The ones I investigated were Beyond TV (SnapStream), SAGE, and MythTV.  My view of the three is, as of this date, that Beyond TV has the overall best package but with  almost zero technical support and customer service.  SAGE has a package almost as comprehensive as BeyondTV and SAGE has pretty good technical support and customer service and MythTV (Linux based) has fewer features but is thought by many to be a great system.  

Then there is the matter of WHICH HDTV TUNER and VIDEO card to use.  This is all pretty much leading edge (sometimes bloody leading edge) technology and things are moving fast.  But the following are my thoughts for the moment.  

BeyondTV has a listing of HDTV TUNER cards which have proved compatibility with their software.  NOTE:  BeyondTV will NOT confirm that any PAIR of these HDTV tuners will work in a SINGLE MOTHERBOARD at the same time.  Neither would they state which video display card(s) would work best with their software in a PVR application.  The following tuners were said by Beyond TV to operate in a SINGLE tuner setup in consort with the Beyond TV software.
These include:

 (#) My experiments show that ONLY ONE of these can be used in a dual tuner motherboard due to problems with the current 3.41 and 3.50b2 Dvico driver software.  A single card works very well.   Whenever I tried to use TWO of the Dvico PCI tuners in a motherboard, I had either IRQ conflict or driver conflicts which could not be resolved.  Using ONE Dvico PCI tuner and ONE ATI HDTV WONDER PCI card in the same A8N-SLI PREMIUM motherboard DID work fine as described below.
(##) My experiments with BTV and the ATI HDTV Wonder tuner showed that it worked fine in a system with ONE Fusion HDTV5 Gold tuner BUT only one of the two antenna cable ports could be activated (at one time) by BeyondTV or SageTV.  I loaded the latest ATI drivers for the HDTV Wonder card and then the ATI program could use both coax cable inputs (but not at the same time) but Beyond TV and SageTv could not be made (by me) to get but ONE (DTV or CATV) ports to work using the BTV or SAGE setup programs.  I think this will eventually work, but more software driver work is necessary.
(###) This is the card I would try two of if I was starting over.  But then, this does not solve the CableCard problem so as to be able to receive cable HDTV and digital programming.

Building the PVR system  with  two Dvico Fusion HDTV5 LITE/GOLD DUAL TUNERS:  There were some problems.
The Dvico Fusion HDTV5 LITE and GOLD cards had a good reputation and so I purchased one of them to try out.  I built up a system using the Fusion HDTV5 LITE card and used BeyondTV software and it worked beautifully.  This using an ASUS P4S800D-X MB, with two SATA 300GB drives in RAID configuration and a Sapphire GeForce 6200A AGP VGA/DVI card for display.  I was very pleased with the result and ordered a second HDTV5 LITE tuner card.  I installed the second card but due to IRQ and other resource conflicts, the system failed to function properly and multiple consults with ASUS and Dvico tech support could not solve the problems.  Dvico told me that I should buy two FUSION GOLD cards to fix the problem.  I did buy the GOLD cards and while I no longer had address conflicts, the IRQ conflicts could not be resolved.  Dvico then said if I would buy a MB with a "genuine INTEL" chipset, my problem would resolve.  I then bought an INTEL D865PERL MB.  To make a long story short, this new MB did NOT resolve all the conflicts and I still was not able to get a DUAL TUNER system operational with this second MB.  

I then started visiting a multitude of multimedia related Internet forums.  I found a LOT of users who were having similar problems to mine and I also found a number of people who said they were successful in getting systems working.  I decided to ask people to tell me their system configurations where they had been "immediately successful" in getting a Dvico Fusion HDTV5 system with two (or more) tuners working.  I found three people who had built essentially the system listed below with variants of the ASUS A8N motherboard system.  The consensus was that "most any" CPU with speed above 2.5Ghz would work.  But I had occasional "video stuttering" when operating with a 2.5Ghz chip WITH JUST ONE TUNER and so think that speed is a little too low for satisfactory operation in a high quality multimedia system.  I believe you are more likely to achieve trouble free performance with a CPU in the range of 4Ghz and the price of those has come down to half what it was a year ago.  I suggest that users be very skeptical of people who say that TWO of the Dvico PCI cards can be operated successfully in a single motherboard with currently available drivers!  

My latest configuration with AMD Athlon 64 (4200+ MHz CPU) demonstrates no stuttering on playback even when both tuners are recording HDTV during HDTV playback.   But, I sometimes had stuttering when two analog channels were recording and I was watching a HDTV program.   This was the most successful configuration I managed to assemble.  For me, ANY routine video or audio stuttering is unacceptable.

This final configuration I chose to build up consisted of the following parts:
(&&)  I have problems with the Gigabyte NV76g256D-RH (GS7600) PCIe VIDEO card. While it is fanless which is highly desirable,  it is unable to display the TV image on one display and the computer desktop image on the other at the same time. Neither would it display the TV image on the NON-PRIMARY display in CLONE mode.   I had to operate this card in single display mode to get satisfactory operation.  Then colors are beatuiful UNTIL you bring up the BeyondTV (TV program)  picture and then the images are too RED and were slightly on the dark side.  I had not had this problem with the PCI NVIDA Gforce 6200A board in my previous system.  I am told by Beyond TV tech support that many NVIDA cards are not 100% compatible with Direct-X when operated with BeyondTV in Overlay mode and that is the cause of the dual display feature not working properly.   The 6200A video card worked fine in dual mode but the fan was so loud I could not have stuck with this model in any event.  I found NVIDA and GIGABYTE both unresponsive when I put in a trouble ticket about the failure to display the TV picture on display 2 in a dual mode or CLONE mode.  A beyond TV technician and several forum members that told me that the NVIDA drivers had problems in dual display mode if you wanted to display the TV picture on the secondary display.  They sure are right! Late NOTE: I downloaded the version 91.33 (beta) drivers from the GigaByte website.  These drivers improved dual display mode up to "tolerable".  Now you can get the TV picture to display on BOTH the primary and secondary screens.  However, the BeyondTV "on screen" GUI will display only on the PRIMARY display when  in TV program playback.  But the TV picture and regular BeyondTV GUI pages DO display on BOTH displays.  This in CLONE  mode.  It would be nice if Nvida would get this problem completely fixed!  I finally optioned to stop trying to get dual displays to work and settled for a single display (my Panasonic TV).

At last I got dual turners to work in my system in HDTV mode.  I installed ONE Dvico Fusion HDTV5 PLUS tuner card and got it working fine.  Then I installed a ATI HDTV WONDER card as my #2 tuner card and it went in, Beyond TV recoginized it properly and I went through the BTV setup wizard without a single hitch.  My system is now working properly with these two HDTV tuners.  UNfortunately, if recording two analog channels and watching one HDTV channel, I get stuttering video on playback.  This performance is not acceptable.

If I had not already purchased the HDTV5 GOLD card and the ATI HDTV WONDER tuner cards,  I would  select the new ATI Theater 650 chipset based tuners.  These MIGHT operate recording two analog TV channels and playback HDTV without stuttering.    

Had there been a FANLESS PCIe video card with VGA+HDMI outputs, I would have chosen that instead of the 7600GS model above.  In fact,   In a multimedia computer, you want to have the power supply and chassis fans as quiet as possible.  I chose one of the black Antec Sonata 0761345-15138-2 cases which has a 380 watt PSU and very quiet fans.  With the DVI output, you have to use a separate audio cable to your HDTV set whereas with HDMI the audio and video can travel the same cable to a HDMI input on your HDTV.  I suggest you check to see if you can find a video card with VGA+hdmi+fanless design+PCIe and when available, buy that model for the above system configuration.  I am next going to try a PCIe version of an ATI dual display and fanless video card and see if I can get dual display to operate properly on one of those.  Sigh!!

As I have "played" with Beyond TV and SAGE TV, I have found that users experience MANY problems that I have not (yet) seen.  I am thinking that a great many of these problems result because of a) driver incompatability with certain MBs,  b) IRQ conflict problems,  c) Inadequate CPU processing power for the job.  In addition, many motherboards that can perform very nicely with a SINGLE TV TUNER simply fail to perform when confrunted with multiple TV tuners.  These tuners cards are very complex devices with multiple software drivers.  The Dvico HDTV5 and ATI HDTV cards have a total of FIVE different drivers required for EACH tuner card.  These drivers must be compatible with the motherboard and bios AND with Beyond TV or Sage TV.  The drivers themselves must either support reentrant multiuse of the driver or multiple copies running in the same computer to support multiple boards.  Such software structures cry out for rigorous motherboard and CPU compatibility testing which, at this time, is not possible considering the resources of the (mostly) small companies doing the tuner cards and software development.  

This compatibility problem seems to be even more acute when multiple Dvico brand TV tuner cards are used.  Much of this is easy to understand if you consider that a) this multiple TV Tuner technology is in its early stages and b) the tuner designs are being done in many cases by engineers and software designers in very small companies.  Such groups do not have the resources to collect hundreds of different computer motherboard types and CPU types and qualify each one to run with their tuner hardware.  THEREFORE,  I cannot emphasize too much that a new experimenter would be well advised to pick a KNOWN TO WORK motherboard+CPU+TV Tuner combination before purchasing hardware.  This is especially desirable if the intent is to move up to multiple TV Tuners in the future.  Buying a MB with inadequate CPU power, or one not previouly tested (by someone!) to work  with a particular multiple tuner multimedia setup and running Beyond TV or SAGE TV  has a very high probability of failing to perform as in my own case!  I am now on my third MB in an effort to find a workable combination.  This last time, I opted for a "known to work together" hardware combination and...  I still have problems with dual Dvico Fusion  tuner configurations as noted above.  The existing drivers simply are not able to keep the cards functions separated when more than ONE card is used.  This in all three of the motherboards I have tested.

I notice that a lot of Beyond TV and Sage TV users Opt for the Client/Server approach.  There ONE computer does all of the recording and ANOTHER computer does the display task using data transferred via the ethernet link between the two machines.  

Not to scare anyone, but BeyondTV has an extensive  knowledge base of miscellaneous problems and potential solutions and a documentation help file which are very useful when you go and set up one of these systems.   And almost none of the problems listed involve CPU/Motherboard related problems.  SnapStream (BeyondTV) does not even list ONE "reference configuration" that they know works.  They appear to assume that the system builders are knowledgable enough to "just know" what motherboards will work and which ones won't.  But the below list is a start in the direction of what motherboards will and will not work in making up a Personal Video Recorder.  Good Luck!  Remember:  A motherboard that will work with ONE tuner card type MIGHT or MIGHT NOT work well with some other tuner card model.  Let the buyer be aware!

Motherboards KNOWN TO WORK without problems  with MULTIPLE PCI TUNER CARDS.


    These MB ARE  known to work OK with just ONE Dvico Fusion PCI tuner card. (*)

*1)  This is the BEST of the three I tried.  However,  I have not been totally  successful with the above listed ASUS A8N-SLI PREMIUM MB using one ATI HDTV WONDER tuner and one  Dvico Fusion HDTV5 GOLD tuner.  This because of video stuttering when recording two analog programs while watching a HDTV program.   I was UNsuccessful with any pairing of Dvico PCI LITE/GOLD tuners in a single system.   It appears that while SOME people claim to have make this Dvico combination work but I have tried these on the THREE different MBs below and ONE Dvico Fusion tuner card works fine, but I have been UNsuccessful in getting  TWO or THREE cards to work with either Dvico's own software OR with Beyond TV's software.  Neither Dvico Tech Support nor Beyond TV can provide me with ANY benchmark configuration that they KNOW works with a pair of the Dvico cards.  My advice?  Do NOT try to use Dvico Fusion cards for more than ONE of the tuners in your system.
*2)  ASUS P4S800D-X with P4-3Ghz with multiple  Dvico HDTV5 GOLD or LITE tuner cards
*3)  INTEL D865PERL with P4-3Ghz with multiple Dvico HDTV5 GOLD or LITE tuner cards.   This Intel board had to have updates from the Intel Website before I could get Windows XP SP2 to install on it using the RAID system.  The shipped MB drivers on the kit CD were dated 2003.  Maybe that is why I like ASUS and GigaByte MBs.

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