It's a common complaint from Sky+ HD owners: with an ever-increasing number of hi-def channels on the platform, the Sky PVR just doesn't offer enough room to record everything you want to watch.
This is in part due to the fact hi-def recordings demand greater disc space than SD ones, exacerbated by the fact that half the available space on the PVR's HDD is partitioned off for Sky's anytime Push VOD service, leaving only 160Gb for user recordings.
But a new accessory from US company Hauppauge (pronounced 'hop-hog' because that is what the Native Americans called the town where the company is based) could solve HD space problems for ever. It's the first gadget which allows users to liberate hi-def recordings from the walled-garden of a Sky box.
For some time, devices from Pinnacle, Archos and Neuros have been able to copy DVDs for portable play; VGA-to-TV converters capture iPlayer content; Slingbox and Slingcatcher put video on a home or internet network. But all of these devices have worked in standard-definition only. However, earlier this year, at a preview of new electronic gadgetry, the inevitable happened: Hauppauge debuted a small box connected to the HD component output of a PS3.
'You can capture HD gameplay,' the demonstrator explained. 'You could record Blu-ray movies... as long as it is for your own personal use.' And now the Hauppauge HD PVR is available in the UK, priced at £180. In addition, And we're one of the first in line to test drive one.
No onboard storage
First up, the Hauppauge PVR is not a PVR. It has no in-box storage. What it has is huge processing power which lets even a low-spec PC behave like professional studio gear. By digitising an HDTV signal 'on the fly' it allows it to be burnt onto ordinary DVDs using the AVCHD format more commonly associated with hi-def camcorders.
The HD PVR connects to a hi-def source, such as a Sky+ HD box or Blu-ray player, by standard component leads, and to the PC by USB. While 'passing through' the component signal to a TV set for normal viewing, the box converts 720p or 1080i analogue to H.264 digital video. Analogue or digital audio is converted to AAC digital audio (currently PCM only, but bitstream Dolby Digital and DTS are promised with the next software update).
After capture, the stored H.264/AAC recording can be converted to AVCHD, which is most easily done with the Arcsoft TotalMedia extreme PC software that comes free with the box. The box will also work, though, with other programs (Sage TV and GB-PVR) and more (such as BeyondTV) will be supported in the near future.
Capture/recording can be monitored on the PC, but on older PCs the video in the preview window may be jerky because monitor quality is intelligently sacrificed to ensure the best possible recording quality. The Arcsoft software is very simple to use and I found that it worked well even on an old XP PC; I only had a couple of crashes (probably caused by the PC trying to start automated maintenance routines). MP4_ Creator software (also supplied) converts files into .MP4 format – playable on an Xbox 360.
The package is relatively flexible. If capture is set to 5Mbps average, around two hours of 1080i AVCHD can be burned to a blank single-layer 4.7Gb DVD to make what Hauppauge calls a 'Blu-ray DVD'. This will then play on most modern Blu-ray players, including the PS3.
At 5Mbps the picture is softer than the HD original, with some artefacts on fast motion, but nevertheless, the 1080i still looks pretty darned good. Higher capture rates give better pictures, with shorter playing time, but the software supports 8.5Gb double-layer DVD blanks – or Blu-ray blanks.
For Sky+ HD subscribers who have struggled with the space restraints, the HD PVR may well prove a godsend. HD recordings could be backed up to a PC for later viewing, or even archived to disc. It could theoretically allow a good deal more of Sky's hi-def programming to actually be watched by subscribers.
Arghh, me hearties
Initially, Hauppauge promoted the box as being able to connect to 'any video source', but now refers specifically to 'cable TV and satellite set-top boxes'. However, it does not take a genius to see that if the box is used to transfer Blu-rays and Sky HD movies to DVDs, it offers pirates a whole new illegal opportunity – stripping regional coding to offer low-cost UK versions of American Blu-rays that play in HD from a PS3.
Admittedly, the PVR captures only what is seen on screen, so navigation menus are not grabbed in working form. And extras can only be copied when played – but pirates never bother with extras, anyway.
Although commercial piracy is clearly illegal, the legality of hi-def PVRs is a grey area because they are intended primarily for innocently time-shifting TV. And Hollywood has created a dangerous precedent by turning a blind eye to the widespread sale of devices that copy ordinary DVDs and other standard-definition content for portable play.
That, of course, may change in future – and Hauppauge, like HCC, is certainly not advocating piracy. Rather, while it is clearly open for abuse, this extraordinary device could well be an AV awakening for Sky+ HD owners.
First published in Home Cinema Choice, Issue 164
Now read First look at Sky+ 3D