Pre-purchase Step 1 - How much can you spend?

In the excitement to set up your Olymprecs (Olympics Recording) experience, you might rush out and spend on the first random things that turn up on a Google or Amazon UK search for recorders or PCs or TV tuners etc. This would be a huge mistake, because there's a fair amount of planning that has to go into your purchases before you start making any of them.

The very first thing that limits your choices is obviously finance. How much are you willing to spend in absolute total (including VAT and delivery charges)? I will tell you right now that the bare minimum will be about £255 (and this assumes the use of an existing computer monitor or TV even!), but note that this is still less than a Humax hard disk recorder and will have far better specs/functionality/flexibility than the Humax too. If you can't afford £255, then please don't even bother buying anything at all mentioned in this guide.

Clearly, the more you spend, the better your setup will be and there's nothing stopping you buying the cheapest setup just before the Olympics and then adding to it by asking friends and relatives for small items or gift vouchers for your birthday or Christmas to build up (or replace parts of) your recording setup over time. Remember that I'm only documenting the two setup extremes in this guide - the cheapest and the most expensive - you pick where you want to lie between the two with your setup.

Pre-purchase Step 2 - Freeview HD, Freesat HD or both?

Once you've determined your budget, it's time to decide what type of TV feed you want to use. If you have a good terrestrial aerial, then Freeview HD will be the cheapest route to take because apart from the media centre machine and a Freeview HD tuner, there's no other purchases needed in the bare minimum setup.

However, readers should be strongly warned that Freeview HD on its own is not a particularly satisfactory setup for viewing or recording the Olympics. There are several reasons why this is the case:

1. Freeview HD is limited in the bandwidth it provides, so there are only 2 HD Olympics channels at the moment (BBC One HD and BBC HD) with a few other SD channels (BBC Two, BBC Three, Channel 301, Channel 302) thrown into the mix and that's about it.

2. Freeview HD also broadcasts HD at a lower bitrate than Freesat HD does, so your picture quality won't be as good.

3. The likelihood that there will be last-minute EPG changes on Freeview channels is high (e.g. Andy Murray gets unexpectedly far in the tennis - expect BBC One HD/BBC Two to swap schedules at the last minute).

4. The killer reason - the BBC announced 24 HD channels streaming every second of every sport live but only on Freesat HD (and Sky/cable). No schedule interruptions - just solid blocks of EPG programmes that at worst could overrun (just record an extra programme after the last one of the night to cope with that!).

The snag with Freesat HD is that you have to have a dish on the back of your house (don't get it on the front - a sure sign of chavness) and many UK people are hugely snobbish about this (never mind that terrestrial aerials are actually far uglier than satellite dishes). So that's two purchases - a Freesat HD-capable TV tuner and a satellite dish - and that can put a lot of people off.

However, for Olympics recording, Freesat HD is vastly superior to Freeview HD and I would strongly urge you to pick this solution if you can only afford one. Note that Freesat HD USB tuner devices are actually cheaper than Freeview HD USB tuner equivalents, plus the recordings you can do will be much better in terms of both quality and quantity, so it's well worth it.

Pre-purchase Step 3 - How can I finance the initial spend?

If even £255 is beyond your means, there are ways to finance it (other than getting a second or better job!), though care has to be taken with interest rate charges. One might be a bank loan, though I'm not sure they'd approve of "Olympics Recording" as a reason for the loan - perhaps just say "a new TV" or something.

Another more likely route is to use your credit card for purchases - you may want to consider upping your credit limit (I did, but then promptly cancelled my credit card because of a dispute and switched to debit card for my purchases!). Try and pay as much as you can off each month on the credit card, because the interest charges on what's not paid off are extremely high. Personally, I've usually had enough to pay off my credit card in full, so I just set up a direct debit to auto-pay it off (the credit card people really don't like you doing that :-) ) which is the only sure way to avoid interest charges.

Pre-purchase Step 4 - Do I need to upgrade my existing setup first?

Before you actually buy the media centre hardware you need for recording the Olympics, you need to look at your current setup too and make some decisions.
Basically, it comes down to whether the rooms you intend to us are suitable to put a media centre solution in. To help you decide, here's a basic checklist:
  • Power sockets: You don't want to be running extension leads to another room at all - it's a serious safety hazard. Make sure all sockets work and also purchase at least a surge-suppressed 6-way mains bar, because you'll be plugging in at least 2 items initially - the media centre and the TV or monitor - and possibly more later.
  • Terrestrial aerial feed (Freeview HD): Does your terrestrial roof/loft aerial actually feed into the room you're putting the media centre PC into? If not, you may need to buy an aerial splitter/booster (often mains powered!) to get a second feed into the room. Don't try using an indoor aerial or the rubbish aerial they give you with TV tuner cards/sticks because the signal will be too weak to be reliable. Talking of signal strength, is your terrestrial aerial actually good enough for reliable Freeview HD (e.g. constantly high signal strength/quality)? Most TVs and hard disk recorders have a signal monitoring page in their UI - if it's fluctuating around 50-70% and not 80-100% on BBC Freeview HD channels (it's easy to get 100% on SD channels!), then seriously consider upgrading your terrestrial aerial.
  • Satellite cable feed from LNB (Freesat HD): If you have an existing Sky satellite dish, you may just be able to get a second cable fed off it (leaving any Sky cable alone) by a satellite installer and plugged into the appropriate card/stick on the media centre PC. However, if it's a very old Sky Digital dish, you may only have a single LNB, which you should get replaced with a quad LNB (and add a second cable if you're still using the old Sky Digital box) by a satellite installer. In either case, don't call out the satellite installer firm until you've completely set up your media centre PC and are ready to plug in the satellite cable (if you have a Sky dish, you can pre-test by unplugging the Sky cable temporarily from the Sky box, plugging it into the satellite TV tuner/stick on your media centre PC and run tuning software on the machine to scan for satellite channels).
  • Use an existing TV or monitor: Rather than buying a new monitor or TV for your media centre PC, you may able to use an existing one instead. You'll want it to have at least one spare HDMI socket on the back that you can easily switch between via a remote should other HDMI sockets be in use. If it's an analogue TV, do us all a favour and throw it away :-)
  • Think about audio: Do you want 5.1 or 7.1 audio or are you happy with stereo through HDMI? What about computer speakers if you've got a silent computer monitor? We're now getting into the realms of needing a desk or shelves to start putting gear on, so plan for that possibility (i.e. leave enough space for it!).
  • Wired ethernet: Can you attach your media centre PC directly to a port on your wireless router? Most houses tend to wire just one machine (the main desktop PC) to an Ethernet port on their wireless router and then run every other computer in the house as a wireless device. Wireless is pretty poor through walls and is not recommended if you want to HD stream from one machine to another machine in a different room. This sadly may mean drilling a small hole through the bottom of a wall between rooms (watch out for pipes and wiring!) and feeding a very long RJ45 cable between your wireless router and the media centre PC in the other room. Yes, you could move your router close to the PC, but there may not be a phone extension in that media centre PC room to be able to do that. If your wired ethernet ports on your wireless router are only 100Mbit/sec and you want to stream HD content to more than one room simultaneously, consider buying a new wireless router with 1000Mbit/sec wired ports (I recently bought an Edimax that does just that). It means comfortable simultaneous HD streaming around the wired network and leaves the wireless network alone for laptops/tablets/netbooks/phones.
Pre-purchase Step 5 - Final preparations

As you've been reading this, you should have formed an idea of exactly what your initial purchases should be. Now it's time to type them in or write them down and get an initial grand total. What you'll need for a minimal setup is:

1. Media Centre PC
If your budget is really tight, you can use your existing PC of course, but I really don't recommend it - see the Introduction page as to why I quickly ruled that idea out. For the cheapest setup, I went for an Acer Revo 3700 at £200 and for the most expensive setup, it was custom-built PCs that I'll document at a later date. There's nothing to stop you picking something other than a Revo or a custom PC - the choice is up to you.

Note that there is a cheaper 2GB RAM version of the Revo 3700, but if you want to upgrade the RAM, you have to break the screw seal and void the warranty! I like to use 64-bit OS'es wherever possible (gives you 10% performance improvement over 32-bit OS'es) and 2GB RAM isn't suitable for this, hence I bit the bullet on the extra £25 and got the 4GB RAM model.

2a. TV tuner USB stick (Freeview HD)
There are a lot of Freeview SD USB TV tuner sticks out there ("DVB-T"), but very few Freeview HD ("DVB-T2"). In fact, the only one at Amazon UK is this one at £55. I have bought one of these purely for testing but don't intend to actually use it for Olympics recording (PCI tuner cards are my preferred route for recording, but you can't put those in a Revo). Eventually, I may set up a Revo 3700 for a family member or friend and pass the stick onto them as part of the setup.


2b. TV tuner USB stick (Freesat HD)
Because I'll have an expensive Freesat HD recording solution at home, I've decided not to buy this USB stick solution (a PCI card solution is far superior in terms of number of tuners and cost per tuner for satellite recording). Hence, I'm afraid I'll have to be a little vague with this particular item. At a guess, I'd have initially said that this USB box would be the obvious cheapest solution at £48, but alarm bells ring at the scathing customer reviews. It apparently doesn't work well with the media centre software I'm intending to use and document here! I'll leave you to peruse Amazon UK's list of possible candidates (pick the USB ones, not the PCI ones) - as I said, I'm not buying any of them and can't be much help.

We're not finished yet - here's a quick list of optional things I've mentioned that you've probably forgotten you might need:
  • Audio: computer speakers, speaker bar for a monitor or 5.1/7.1 receiver/speakers.
  • 6-way surge-protected mains bar.
  • Terrestrial aerial upgrade for Freeview HD.
  • Splitter/booster for second terrestrial aerial feed for Freeview HD.
  • Satellite dish install/extra cable/quad LNB for Freesat HD. 
One final note - I recommend that before you buy a single thing, you register on Quidco and also Amazon Prime's 30-day trial to get next working day delivery on some items (remember to cancel it before the end of the trial because you get charged automatically if you don't!). Right, go off and buy your stuff and move onto the Cheap Setup page...

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