Walt Mossberg

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Windows Computer as DVR

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about turning off tabbed browsing in the new Internet Explorer, ripping DVDs into iTunes and transferring contacts from one computer to another in Outlook and Outlook Express.

In your column on high-definition digital video recorders last week, you compared the latest TiVo model with a Comcast recorder. But can’t you also record high-definition programs with a Windows computer?

Today, a Windows XP Media Center computer can receive and record high-definition programs, but only those broadcast over the air. Starting next month, there will be some computers equipped with Microsoft’s new Vista version of Windows that will be able to receive and record high-definition programs from cable channels. The upside of this, compared with TiVo and many cable-company DVRs, is that there’s no monthly DVR fee beyond your regular cable bill.

However, there are some downsides. As with the new TiVo, you will have to call your cable company to have them send someone out to install gadgets called “Cable Cards” in these computers. And, as with the TiVo, these Cable Cards don’t allow the Vista PC to support certain interactive cable features, like on-demand programming.

Also, you will either have to connect this new PC directly to your TV — something relatively few people have been willing to do in their living rooms; or buy an additional “extender” box; or buy an Xbox game machine, which can act as an extender box. These extenders connect the PC acting as a DVR to your TV, over your home network.

Finally, unlike a TiVo or a cable-company box, these TV-connected Vista PCs will have to be maintained like any normal Windows computer — with all of the software updates, security alerts and the like, things people don’t normally associate with their TV experience.

Can you explain what is the best way to convert old VHS-C tapes to DVD?

You have a couple of options. You could send the tapes to a service that performs such conversions. One that I have tested and like is called YesVideo. It operates through retail photo stores, where you drop off the tapes. Information and store locations are at yesvideo.com. Some other companies let you ship tapes directly for conversion to DVD. One is called NetTapes, at nettapes.com. However, I haven’t tested nettapes and can’t recommend it.

The other option is to buy a combo VCR/DVD unit that has the ability to record — or “dub” — from the tape side to the DVD side. I have tested some of these, and they work OK. Just make sure the one you get can handle VHS-C tapes.

I have a Windows PC at work using Outlook, which syncs with my Palm Treo 650. I am using a Macintosh at home. Do you have any suggestions about syncing with the Mac? I am not really happy with the Mac version of the Palm desktop, which is all that Palm’s Mac software allows.

There’s a Mac program called The Missing Sync that will allow you to synchronize a Treo with Apple’s own calendar and address book. It can also synchronize photos, music and folders and files between a Mac and a Treo. It works either wirelessly or via a cable. Information and downloads are at markspace.com.

There’s also a version of The Missing Sync that allows synchronizing a Mac with a Windows Mobile device, including the Palm Treo 700w and the Motorola Q.

And, if you want to sync a BlackBerry with a Mac, you can use a program called PocketMac, available at pocketmac.net.

I have tested The Missing Sync with a Treo, and it worked fine for me. I haven’t tested PocketMac or the Windows Mobile version of The Missing Sync and thus can’t recommend them.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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