Recently I've heard from a number of users who are looking for a way to cut that pricey cable-TV cord, but don't want to give up on watching and recording their favorite network shows.
Turns out there's an easy and very affordable solution, one that eliminates cable (cable-TV, anyway) service entirely and frees you from monthly fees.
It's called Windows 7. This may come as a surprise, but Windows packs a very powerful TiVo-like DVR system called Windows Media Center. When paired with an inexpensive TV tuner and a decent antenna, it lets you watch and record broadcast television--in high-def!
The PC part is up to you. It can be a laptop or desktop, as long as it runs Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate. (Windows 7 Starter doesn't come with Windows Media Center, nor does Windows 7 Enterprise.)
You'll also need a reasonably large hard drive with a decent chunk of free space. A one-hour recorded TV show can easily consume 7-8 gigabytes, so if you're envisioning recording multiple episodes of multiple shows, make sure you have ample storage to spare.
Before we talk tuners, make sure you live in an area that gets decent over-the-air (OTA) reception of local channels. A site called AntennaWeb.org can answer that question for you and tell you what kind of antenna you might need to get. (If you're already watching OTA shows on your TV, just without a PC in the mix, you're all set.)
Your antenna will screw into the tuner, which in turn will plug into one of your PC's USB ports. Then you'll run Windows Media Center and walk through the TV setup process.
So, what kind of tuner should you get? I recommend sticking with a well-known brand like Hauppauge, just to ensure proper compatibility with Windows Media Center. I've had good luck with the WinTV-HVR-950Q, which has a list price of $99 but routinely sells online for around $75.
The tuner enables the PC to display and record broadcast TV shows. How can you watch those shows on your HDTV instead of your laptop or desktop monitor? That's a discussion for another day (namely, Wednesday, so tune in then!).
In the meantime, if you've had any experience using your PC as a DVR--good or bad--tell me about it in the comments!