I've been flailing about for some kind of TiVo/DVR solution that didn't involve any kind of monthly subscription (either to TiVo or to a cable/satellite provider). We only have OTA TV and use Netflix for movies. I wanted something that could record TV shows while we were away, or record while we were watching something else.
There are a few prebuilt set-top DVR's (Channelmaster, Sony) but all are $300+ and are either unsupported (Sony) or extremely glitchy (Channelmaster).
I decided that building an HTPC was the better solution. Windows 7 Media Center gives you full DVR functionality with a TV tuner card, and would give me flexibility to build and reconfigure the system to meet our needs. Budget, howeve, was limited. Here's what I did:
1. HP Compaq dc7800 Small Form Factor
I wanted a form factor that wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb in my entertainment center (ie, no full size towers), but most of the HTPC-specific cases would necessitate a more expensive build. I came across this HP and it fit the bill -- the CPU is more than adequate for HTPC purposes, it had enough expansion slots, and while it's not exactly a NeXT cube, it's sleek enough to hide in my entertainment center. As an added bonus, mine came with an empty 3.5" drive bay instead of a floppy drive, which means I'm ready to add a hard drive for DVR storage.
The onboard video on the HP is probably adequate for most HTPC stuff, but for $40, this Asus Radeon card gives me HDMI which means I have a 1-cable solution for getting 1920×1080 video and sound to the TV. And while it'd be rather sluggish for gaming, it's perfect for HTPC purposes with silent cooling (no fan) and extremely low power requirements.
TV tuner cards seem to be a pretty glitchy category. There's not a single company or product that gets universally good reviews, but Hauppauge seems to be fairly well regarded, and the 2250 dual tuner card did everything I needed (while fitting into a low-profile PCIe slot). This package came with a IR receiver and MCE remote which should work until I decide to upgrade to a nicer remote.
This cable resulted in untold measures of frustration. I could not get a video signal from the HTPC to my TV no matter what resolution or refresh rates I tried. Finally I swapped the cable for an old Phillips HDMI cable I had kicking around and it worked immediately. I'm going to test it to see if it works with my XBox 360...if not, it's going back.
5. Scythe 2.5 Twin Mounter RC HDD/SSD
+ Rosewill 18" Serial ATA Black Flat Cable
I was pondering the storage issue for a while (after all, an 80GB HD won't hold much recorded HD video). External drives seem to be cheaper right now for some reason, so I considered either adding a USB 3.0 card to the HTPC, or cracking open an external drive to use internally.
Instead, I rooted through my PC parts box and came up with a 2.5" 250GB laptop hard drive. I figured for the cost of some 2.5"->3.5" rails and another SATA cable, it'd hold us over until hard drive prices come back down. We'll just have to be a little more diligent to delete stuff after we watch it until we can pick up something like a 2TB drive.
6. Logitech K400 USB RF Wireless Keyboard
While the MCE remote is great for controlling Media Center, I wanted something that would be more functional for non-MCE purposes. This is the perfect solution -- a laptop-sized keyboard with an integrated trackpad and mouse buttons, all for under $40.
For less than $350, I've built an HTPC / DVR that can pause, rewind, fast forward, and record TV programs. I can use it to play DVDs, stream Netflix or Hulu, or play any video file format. Media Center downloads a full TV program guide which means I can automatically record full series just like TiVo. It's so quiet that the case fan of the regular desktop computer on the other side of the room (a Dell minitower) is louder.
I'm extremely pleased with the result. I've long thought about building an HTPC, but never had the time or interest in doing an expensive custom-built solution (or paying for an ultra-expensive prebuilt solution). This setup was literally no more involved than opening up the HP and tossing in the video and TV tuner cards.
Future upgrades will include another stick of RAM (I think Win7 32-bit can only address another 0.6-0.7 GB, but if I find one for $10-15, I might as well do it), a much larger HD, and possibly a nicer remote if I get tired of the one that came with the TV tuner card. But the system is completely functional as it is. Last night our dinner plans took a little longer than expected; in the past we would have rushed to get it ready and then been forced to eat in front of the TV if we wanted to catch our show. Instead, I hit the power button on the remote, the system woke up in 5 seconds, I set it to record our show, and we enjoyed a nice relaxed dinner at the table. Lovely.