The line between computers and TVs has become blurred. On the TV side, advanced set-top boxes like TiVo record broadcast and cable television directly to a hard disk. On the computer side, services like Apple's iTunes Music Store allow you to download and view popular shows such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica . The advantage of this marriage between television and computing is that you can watch recorded programs at the click of a remote control or a mouse, instead of having to rewind or fast-forward through VHS tapes.
But most set-top boxes require you to sign up for some kind of subscription plan, usually with a cable or satellite provider, and Apple charges for programs on a payâ''as-you-go basis. For those who want the ability to watch TV on their computers and save it to disk without paying additional fees—or any fees in the case of free terrestrial broadcasts—the Plextor ConvertX PX-TV402U PVR (personal video recorder) may be what you're looking for.
The ConvertX is a stand-alone box with a USB 2.0 connector and a bunch of A/V inputs, the most important of which is a coaxial RF connector that can be hooked up to an analog TV aerial or cable feed. Both NTSC and PAL/SECAM versions are available for U.S.- and European-style TV signals. If you have digital cable or satellite, you'll need a separate converter to first create an analog signal.
Using software installed on either a PC or a Mac, you control the ConvertX's built-in tuner via the USB connection to select a TV channel, which you can then watch on your monitor, record to hard disk, or both. You can schedule recordings in advance and trade off picture quality against storage space using a variety of MPEG coding schemes: it should be noted that some of the coding schemes produce quite blocky results that are inferior to a typical VHS recording, but if you're just looking to stay current with the voting on your favorite reality TV show, they should suffice.
But—as they say on the best TV infomercials—wait! There's more! The system sets up a video buffer, so you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward back to the present moment while watching live TV. Another particularly nifty trick we did with our Mac-based system that's not in the owner's manual was to set up the computer attached to the ConvertX (my office G4 PowerBook) as a video server. This allowed other computer users on IEEE Spectrum's local area network (including those on PCs) to watch what was being received, and even change channels remotely (although, with only one tuner in the ConvertX, everyone on the network had to watch the same channel).
This trick required downloading some third-party open-source software, CyTV, the video server part of which is specifically designed for the Mac version of the ConvertX PVR software. Windows and Linux-based PC users who are willing to do some digging and tweaking should be able to set up similar systems, but I haven't tested these myself. Incidentally, it is because different PVR software is licensed by Plextor for Macs and PCs that the Mac version of the ConvertX costs US $30 more than the PC version, though the hardware is identical.
You can also hook up a video camera, VCR, and so on using the other A/V inputs provided. This is obviously useful to those with, say, camcorders that date from before the digital revolution who want to convert their old family videos. The bundled software that comes with both PC and Mac versions will help you create DVDs, saving memories otherwise destined for format obsolescence.
Bottom line: Plextor's ConvertX is easy to install, works as advertised, and gives viewers freedom in how they want to watch and record television. All that's missing is a free set of knives thrown in with every purchase.