Save TV on a Laptop

With one simple add-on card, you can turn your laptop into a digital video recorder.

by John B. Carnett

John B. Carnett

Make a Laptop DVR
****Cost:
$110
Time: 30 minutes
Easy | | | | | Hard

How It Works:

  1. Use the CD to install on your laptop the software and drivers for the Instant TV card. Restart, and plug in the card.
  2. Connect to a video source (cable box or jack, TiVo) using either the S-video plugs or composite (red, white and yellow) plugs.
  3. Open the Ulead InstaMedia software (the CD will also install a program called Instant TV, but it's clunky). Select "Settings." Choose your connection type, then choose the recording quality you want (a medium setting is fine for laptop playback).
  4. Sit back and watch TV. Hit "Timer Record" or use titantv.com to schedule a recording.

Digital video recorders--those set-top boxes from TiVo, ReplayTV or your cable company--are nothing more than single-purpose computers that store video on a hard drive. But you don't need a dedicated box for that; any computerwith a TV tuner and recording software can do double duty as a DVR. Although you can use any of a number of external devices to give your PC or Mac DVR-functionality, the Instant TV for Notebooks card ($110; adstech.com) does it straight from the card slot on the side of a laptop. Just plug it in, install the software, and connect your video source, and you can watch, pause, and record live TV on your laptop.

An onscreen program guide is included, but you need to use a third-party Web site (titantv.com) to schedule automatic recordings the way you do with set-top DVRs. (You can also manually input the time and channel, like you would with a VCR.) Depending on the quality of your connection (S-video is better than composite) and your laptop's processing power (at least a Pentium 4 2.0GHz is recommended), you may see some pixelation in your live video (my recorded programs played back perfectly). And you can output the video back to your TV only if your laptop has a video-out port.

That said, the card is an inexpensive and simple way to bring live TV to your office and save a few shows to take on the road with you. And unlike with a TiVo or cable box, you can do anything you like with the MPEG-2 recordings, including editing out the commercials, moving them to a portable player, or burning them to DVDs--a handy option for archiving, since each half-hour episode can eat up as much as one gigabyte of hard-drive space at a high-quality setting.