Traditionally, you'd use a VCR, although these have a few limitations (e.g. the maximum amount of storage space on one tape), and most companies seem to have stopped manufacturing them now.
If you're a Sky customer then Sky+ is quite nice: you can choose which programs to record by selecting them on the screen (rather than typing in the times directly), and you can tell it to automatically record every episode of a particular series. There's also plenty of storage space. I had a few problems with this in the past, when the playback would freeze randomly, but on the whole it worked very well. The main problem is that you have to pay an extra £10/month for it unless you're on an expensive monthly package. I think it's reasonable to pay extra money for the box itself, and if you want to record from two channels at once (or watch one while recording another) then it's fair enough to pay a bit extra for the second one. However, I'd prefer an option where you can just make a one-off payment for the box itself and then only watch/record one channel at a time.
This is where PVRs (Programmable Video Recorders) come in. This is basically a computer that sits between the TV signal (e.g. roof aerial or Sky box) and the TV itself, so you record TV programs onto the hard drive of the computer and then play them back onto your TV later. There are various different products available for this, e.g. the Tivo
My old VCR broke last year, and I decided to look for an alternate solution rather than getting it repaired. I specifically wanted to get a Windows Vista Media Centre PC, mainly because it helps my career if I can get extra experience in the new versions of Windows. I chose the Fujitsu-Siemens Scaleo EVi 2535, which I ordered from Play.com. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad idea, so if anyone else is considering this then I have to advise against it.
The problems started when I ordered the machine, since Play.com messed up the delivery (as described here). I can't blame Fujitsu-Siemens for that, but the "OOBE" (Out Of Box Experience) was terrible. If I bought a DVD player, I'd expect to get it up and running within about two minutes: just plug the power cable into the wall, SCART lead into the TV, turn it on, stick in a DVD, and done. Obviously a computer is a lot more complex than that, but there was a lot of configuration required. I had to start by getting the wireless keyboard working, and the instructions referred to a button which I couldn't find anywhere; it turned out to be on the bottom of the keyboard (i.e. you have to turn it upside down first). Then I had to manually configure the network settings; if I was running an internal DHCP server then that would be easier, but if I used a wireless network then I'd have to enter the WPA key (or whatever) so I think this will be fairly common. After that, I had to spend ages downloading and installing all the necessary updates; most of these were for the anti-virus software rather than for Windows itself. Finally, I had to go through the registration process. None of that was beyond my abilities, but the whole point of the box is that it's being marketed as a consumer solution rather than a geek toy, and I think that the average person would need help to get it up and running.
On the hardware side, it does look very nice, so it fits in with the other devices that go under a TV. The fan is quite loud when you first turn it on, but after a couple of seconds it's almost silent. I normally build my own computers, by buying all the parts separately and then fitting them together, but that would be difficult here due to the "form factor" of the case, e.g. the SCART sockets that are built into the back of it, so I think you have to buy a pre-made machine to get something this neat. The multi-card reader is useful, but the plastic front had a bit of flex, and I had to shove my CompactFlash card in quite hard before it would work. Still, that may just be my particular unit rather than a general problem, and I'd guess that it's easy enough to fix. I like having a remote control, since that's much easier to use than the keyboard/mouse.
One of the first things I tried was to play a DVD. Unfortunately, the drive in this machine is locked to region 2 and there's no room for a second drive; I'd prefer a multi-region version (like my old standalone player), but I can live with that. However, the more serious problem was that the playback was quite jerky. For instance, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine DVDs start out by showing a spaceship flying across the screen, just before the menu appears. On my standalone player, that's fine, and it looks perfectly smooth, but on the Scaleo box it paused several times. I think it's reasonable to expect a brand new machine to be able to handle the same load as the one I bought eight years ago! This isn't a Vista problem, because I was able to play the same DVD in my desktop PC without any trouble, and the hardware is a decent spec. After a while, I uninstalled the Norton Internet Security software, and DVD playback was fine after that. So, the machine itself is ok, but the default installation is flawed. I think the only advantage of the newer machine is that it can handle extra DVD formats.
This machine can also play videos that have been downloaded from the internet, e.g. film trailers, and it's nice to be able to watch them on a proper TV from across the room rather than on a computer monitor. However, it's annoying when the screensaver interrupts playback; this only affects Media Player, so presumably it's disabled somehow inside the main Media Center interface.
The main problem came when I tried to connect the machine to my Sky Digibox, so that I could watch and record programs through that. Basically, this just wouldn't work at all. The "Media Center" part of Vista has a wizard to help you through the process, where you can select what type of input device you have, and this includes "Satellite" as an option. However, that just shows a blank screen in the preview area, and I can't use the Scaleo remote control to change channels on the Sky box. As far as I can tell, the idea is to plug an infra-red emitter into the Scaleo machine, and then dangle that in front of the receptor on the Digibox, but it's very poorly documented, so I may have been doing that wrong. It's a shame that the main SCART cable isn't bidirectional, so that the PC could send a "change channel" signal that way. Alternately, a separate cable would also work fine.
As for the main link between the Digibox and the Scaleo, I started out with a SCART lead, but that didn't work. There are other sockets available on the front panel and at the rear, giving a choice between S-Video and Composite. I had to do a bit of digging on this, but apparently this is the hierarchy: Component (RGB) is better than S-Video, which in turn is better than Composite. Composite is where you have one yellow RCA jack which holds everything, whereas in S-Video the signal is split up into black/white and colour. Anyway, I tried out all the different options, with various different cables, but none of them worked. I confirmed that I could use the S-Video cable to connect the Digibox to my TV, so I'm confident that the cable works and that the Digibox was configured correctly; ditto for SCART. (As a side note, Composite = PAL in the Sky setup menus.)
At this point I decided it was time to phone for technical support; in theory, that's the advantage of buying a pre-made box, since I don't have to solve all the problems myself. In practice, this didn't work out very well.
I phoned Fujitsu-Siemens on Saturday 13th October (11 days after receiving the machine), and they said that they'd arrange for a local company to collect the machine and take it in for repair, so I should expect a phone call from them. A few days later (Tuesday 16th October), I was running a bit late, and I was just getting ready to leave the flat at 11am when a courier knocked on the door. He said that he was here to collect an item, but he didn't know what - "Maybe a computer, or a TV?" Since I wasn't expecting him, the machine wasn't boxed up ready to go, and I was a bit dubious about the idea of handing over an expensive machine to some random guy who could just be going door to door. I never heard back from the local repair company, but I did get a letter from Fujitsu-Siemens a bit later, saying that I needed to phone them back by 30th October, otherwise they'd close the support incident and I'd need to open a new one. I missed that deadline, so I had to try again.
I phoned again on Thursday 3rd January, and it took me a while to find the relevant contact number. In my warranty documentation, the software support line is "T.B.A.", and the other two numbers given are both in Ireland.
I then tried the Fujitsu-Siemens website, looking at their list of helpdesk numbers. The relevant category seemed to be "Consumer PCs", so I called that number: 08702 434390. The most relevant option in their voicemail system seemed to be "desktop PCs", and that told me to call 01483 407400. I called them, and they said that they're a support centre for Fujitsu-Siemens and Orange, so I need to call Fujitsu-Siemens first on 01344 475747. I called that number, and the guy I spoke to said that it was just for engineers, so I needed to call 08702 434390, i.e. back where I started! I told him that I was going in circles, and he suggested 08702 434398 as an alternative, although they both seem to go to the same place.
I called that number, and chose the "Other" option every time so that I could actually get through to a human being. I told him the problem, and said that they'd never phoned me (as promised) to arrange a collection date last time. He's created a new support call, and said that it would be "collect and return". It also has to be from the delivery address, i.e. home rather than work. He said that someone would phone me the following day (Friday 3rd January) to arrange a date/time for the collection; bearing in mind what happened the previous time, I asked him to confirm that, and he was quite sure that this would happen.
As it turned out, I didn't get a phone call, but I did have another surprise visit on Monday morning (7th January) from someone who wanted to collect the machine. They did it to me again! I told him that the machine wasn't ready, so he left, and then I phoned the support line again. This time, the person I spoke to said that I shouldn't have been promised a phone call (on either occasion) because they never phone in advance, they just turn up. I can't help feeling that this system isn't really aimed at people with full-time jobs (away from home).
On a more positive note, this person said that I could have the machine collected from my work address, so that would happen the following working day (Tuesday 8th January). I asked what they needed: just the main unit, or the accompanying manuals etc.? I don't mind how much I send back to them, but my concern was that if I sent them stuff that they weren't expecting then it would get put to one side and mislaid. The person said that they just needed the base unit, so I boxed it up and brought it into work with me.
Four days later (Friday 11th January), the courier actually turned up to collect it. I wasn't around at the time, but apparently he'd brought his own box, and wanted to use that instead of mine. I suppose that's a good idea in general, if it avoids people having to retain the original packaging indefinitely, although it would have made my life easier if I'd known about that before. Anyway, that went back to the support company, and I waited to hear from them.
Two weeks later (Monday 28th January), I got tired of waiting, so I phoned them again for a progress update. Incidentally, one thing I noticed every time I phoned is that they are described as "laptop support"; this implies that they don't specialise in repairing this type of computer. The person I spoke to said that they needed the recovery CD to re-install Vista, so I'd have to post it to them. Speaking as a Vista MCITP, this seems like a bit of a drastic approach; it also seems odd that they don't have their own copy available, to install onto a spare hard drive. Still, fair enough - I didn't leave any data on the hard drive, and I haven't done the "Anytime Upgrade" (yet), so it wouldn't cause me any major hassle. On the other hand, if they'd told me about this in the first place (when I explicitly asked) then it would have made life easier. Also, was it just luck that I happened to phone at the right time? I.e. how long would I have been waiting for them to contact me if I hadn't called? They sent me a letter afterwards to confirm their request, and I posted all the CDs/DVDs back to them on Saturday 2nd February (just to be on the safe side), which should have arrived there by Monday 4th. So, in fairness, that week's delay was my fault.
I phoned them again last Thursday (14th February) for an update, since I hadn't heard anything. Apparently their engineers were talking to Fujitsu-Siemens about the problem, and wouldn't be able to tell me anything new or predict a finish date until later. I thought that they were Fujitsu-Siemens, but apparently not; some kind of sub-contracting, I guess.
I then phoned up again today, since they've now had the box for six weeks. They had some news, although it wasn't good. Apparently Fujitsu-Siemens have said that the box can't record from SCART sockets, only from an RF connector (i.e. a normal aerial socket) or from the internal DVD drive. I spoke to the engineer directly (since the receptionist didn't know the technical details), and he said that Fujitsu-Siemens weren't very forthcoming, so it had taken a while to establish this information. So, from their point of view this means that there's no problem with the box, and they're ready to send it back to me. Apparently I had lucky timing again, by phoning them just before they could phone me to tell me this.
If they are correct, it does seem odd that I had to send the box to them in the first place; why did nobody say "It's working perfectly, you just can't do that by design". That would have saved me several months of hassle. I asked what the SCART sockets are actually for, and apparently their sole purpose is to pass through a signal from the Sky box, so that you can share a single SCART socket on the TV between two devices and watch Sky TV when the computer is turned off. I asked about the other sockets (e.g. S-Video), and apparently the same goes for them; they all link back to the same place, so you can't record from those inputs either. It does seem rather bizarre that you can't record from Sky. Actually, the engineer said that you can, but you just have to use an RF cable; I didn't try that, because I'd expect to get far worse picture quality.
So, where do I go from here? I've asked the support company to hold onto the box for now, until I can decide my next move. I think the magic words here are "fit for purpose". It clearly doesn't do what I wanted it to, but was I reasonable in expecting that, and did anyone mislead me? Looking at the Play.com description, they don't mention anything about Sky TV. As for the sockets, they say "SCART TV out" and "SCART Video In", but don't elaborate on that. There's a review on the PC Pro website, where they say "You could even plug this PC into a Sky box", but I suspect that their wording means that they never actually tried it.
Looking at the Fujitsu-Siemens website, they now have a data sheet (pdf) for this box, which says "1 x SCART loop through"; it seems to imply that you can get video in while the computer is powered on, but again there's no explicit reference to Sky. Mind you, that data sheet (or at least the latest version) is dated November 2007, i.e. a month after I bought the machine. I wonder whether the long delay could work in my favour, if the people who dealt with my request all thought that it was reasonable behaviour to expect from the machine?
I suspect that this is all a problem with the TV card, so maybe I could achieve something by replacing that; however, that's obviously an extra expense, with no guarantee of success, and my friends have used the phrase "throwing good money after bad". I haven't contacted Play.com yet, but their Returns Policy is only valid for 28 days from receipt of an item, so I'm long past that.
Any suggestions? And does anyone know of a card/machine that is compatible with Sky?
Edit: I've now spoken to Play, and they refuse to take the machine back because it's outside the 28 days; according to them, the description on their website is technically accurate and the machine isn't faulty. So, it looks like I'm stuck with it.