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TV-Anywhere Guide

Check out the latest entrant to the TV-anywhere craze: hands-on software from SageTV.

What is it with this passionate TV-anywhere craze?

Folks can't seem to live without their own private TV feed -- their own "Oprah," their own "Sports Center" -- routed to them anywhere, anytime, on the Web.

I don't get it. TV-anywhere feeds look terrible.

The image quality is like a pointillist's first painting class -- a splotchy mess.

And forget the audio. Sometimes you hear the words as the lips move, sometimes you don't.

But there is no denying the success of TV-anywhere: Started by

Sony's

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Location Free TV back in 2004, units like the Slingbox are hot sellers. Whispered figures put total sales for 2006 at about 100,000 units.

And major network operators like

Verizon

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are offering TV-anywhere service as part of their next-generation call management tools.

Its product called Iobi, for example, has demonstrated TV-anywhere capability in closed testing. And Verizon plans to roll out the service nationwide in a coming release.

Competitors are crowding into the TV-anywhere market, and the latest entrant is a bit of software called SageTV.

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Computer Life

SageTV takes TV anywhere to another level.

Its code turns your PC into a really smart TV. Think of it as a Windows XP Media Edition or Mac operating system iLife software suite, which can also stream content on the Web.

Assuming you have a tuner card, SageTV lets you watch TV on your PC, gang the other media on your computer into a single menu, and store and play back your content just like

TiVo

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or other personal video recorders do.

And if you have multiline inputs to your computer, as I do, running the latest AverMedia E508 tuner card, SageTV can handle multiple media inputs, as well. Impressive stuff.

Getting started is easy enough. SageTV is available for disc delivery or download ($80-$100) on the

Web. There are several choices for downloads. Grab Media Center, the Placeshifter application and the TV client software -- you will need them all.

Installation quickly bogged down. After entering the insanely long product key and my country of origin (let's see, Vatican City or the United States?), it was clear that SageTV expects a high level of expertise from its users.

There is a client and server mode that must be negotiated; several remotes to be configured; locations to be found; inputs to be organized; cable lines and audio feeds to be run; composite, s-video and TV tuner options to be teased out; and did I mention the audio inputs to manage? For some reason, sound is a big deal on SageTV.

The software does pull off some interesting tricks for the hassle: The system automatically libraries and configures your TV content by market; there's no need to ever read the paper for TV listings again. SageTV even notifies you of the local weather.

But if you are frightened by concepts like video partition size, directory setups and firewall prompts, SageTV may not be for you.

Turn It On

Once I had it running on my late-model laptop and AverMedia tuner, though, SageTV showed some fine programming chops.

The program does a solid job of integrating local broadcast and channel data. The tuner works flawlessly and the media management tools toggle seamlessly between various feeds: The Jets almost losing to the Lions, my season two finale of "The Wire" and my weird wonderful Web video of the guy who made a flaming musical instrument out of plastic pipe and natural gas. Your computer really can turn into a smart TV.

But then there is the TV-anywhere application.

This is where SageTV really falls into the geek chasm. Yes, you can watch your TV on another PC anywhere in the world -- in fact very nicely, thank you -- but get ready to earn your IP networking merit badge doing so.

SageTV Placeshifter is no picnic to set up.

You have to load software on the remote PC from where you'll want to watch your feed. You have to load software on the PC doing the original encoding and transmitting. You will need your IP address and/or a machine identifier to set up the connection between the two. You will need to understand the difference between a client and server to make that connection. You must know how your firewall works, and finally what "port 31099" is. No kidding.

Once it's up and running, however, SageTV Placeshifter works well. The controls are very subtle. And image quality was surprisingly good.

But I still have to question whether a combined media system on a PC is any better than a well set-up Fujitsu Plasma with a good Time Warner Cable personal video recorder and Slingbox tossed on?

With all due respect to SageTV, I have to say no.

If you're looking for an inexpensive way to turn your PC and TV tuner into a media device that has some nice functions, by all means a hundred bucks for SageTV is a good buy.

But I don't know about you -- I would rather spend $8,000, get a real display and TiVo, and if I must mess around with feeding it all on the Web, a dedicated service like a Slingbox or Verizon's Iobi.

Honestly, who's got the time the mess around with something like SageTV?

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.