TV Tuners for Your PC
Emru Townsend is a freelance writer in Montreal and is the editor of Frames per Second magazine. Eric Butterfield is an associate editor for PC World.
The impressive play and record features of the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 and ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0 help make them our top choices for putting TV on your PC.
You don't have to buy a pricey Media Center PC or get a TiVo to record your favorite television shows. For as little as $89, you can outfit your PC with a TV tuner that will let you pause and rewind live TV and record shows to your hard drive.
TV tuners for the PC come in two flavors: PCI cards and external USB boxes. They make it a snap to watch full-screen, full-motion video on a monitor, or keep an eye on a show in a smaller window while surfing the Web. We tested two PCI cards (ADS Tech's $89 Instant TV +FM PCI and Hauppauge's $99 WinTV-PVR-150) and three USB devices (ATI's $124 TV Wonder USB 2.0 with optional remote control, AVerMedia's $99 UltraTV USB 300, and the $140 Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2). Both the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 and the ADS Tech come with an FM tuner and an antenna, but only the Hauppauge can receive FM signals via coaxial cable (assuming that your cable TV company provides the service). All of the devices have inputs for coaxial, composite, and S-Video cables. To test the tuners, we used live TV and coaxial inputs. All of them delivered acceptable video and audio: Though image quality varied a little, the differences were too slight to affect a buying decision. Still, the images might have been crisper if we had used a set-top box and connected via composite or, even better, S-Video. You can also use the composite and S-Video inputs to watch video from an external video source, such as a digital camcorder or a VCR.
Clutter-Free or USB?
ADS Tech Instant TV +FM PCI: This low-cost unit has a remote control and an FM tuner, but its time-shifting could improve.
You might expect that a PCI-based tuner would deliver smoother video and recordings with fewer skips than an external device. All five tuners, however, performed similarly on our test machine, a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 PC equipped with USB 2.0 ports. (Note that using a PC equipped with USB 1.1 ports might slow down the performance of a USB tuner.) So the choice comes down to a matter of cost, features, and preference.
If you want to keep your desk free of clutter, it's hard to beat a PCI tuner. Once you've installed it and closed your computer's case, it stays completely out of the way. Furthermore, as a general rule, PCI tuner cards are slightly less expensive than their external counterparts.
On the other hand, USB tuners are a great solution if your computer's PCI slots are full, or if you want to watch TV on a laptop. But some USB tuners are bulky enough to be ungainly, especially when they have a bunch of cables sticking out of them. This isn't a problem for the featherweight AVerMedia UltraTV USB 300. A bit larger than a deck of cards, it's the most compact of the three we looked at and the only one that didn't need an AC adapter (it draws its power from the USB port). At the other end of the scale, the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 is almost four times larger but comes with a base for standing it up on its side.
Setting up a USB tuner is quicker than installing a card, but the steps are roughly the same. (The AVerMedia is the only USB box with an audio output that connects to the PC's sound card.) After clicking through a few dialog boxes about your location and the input type, you're pretty much ready to start watching TV. But first the software needs a few minutes to scan your cable connection for available channels. Most of the software included with these products has a similar design, but there are some differences. For instance, though ADS Tech's Instant TV interface doesn't look as polished as some of the others, the controls it provides for volume and channel changing are intuitive. In contrast, merely finding the volume control on the overly slick ATI TV Wonder's interface turned out to be a major chore.
TiVo Without the TiVo
The small, lightweight AVerMedia UltraTV USB 300 is well suited for travel, though it lacks a remote control.
Pressing pause or a dedicated time-shift button on these devices makes them time-shift just like a TiVo; they buffer the signal using the PC's hard disk. Unfortunately, this process didn't always work smoothly. For instance, while all the programs paused briefly when we hit the time-shift button, a few of them imposed a longer delay before we could pause or rewind--and the ADS Tech delayed for a frustrating 10 seconds. In addition, video became choppy with the ADS card when we set the capture parameters to standard DVD resolution (720 by 480).
The next time we installed the Instant TV card, we encountered no such delay, but other problems persisted. With both the Instant TV card and the AVerMedia UltraTV USB 300, when we tried to record time-shifted video at high-quality encoding settings, the video image degraded markedly. MPEGs on the ADS played back smoothly, but the AVerMedia's files looked choppy. In both cases, the lower video quality during recording and time-shifting made watching TV more difficult, defeating the feature's purpose.
Both of these products rely on software to encode video, but so does the ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0, which did not suffer from image degradation. It played back perfectly regardless of quality settings, and it has jog and shuttle controls for moving back and forth through time-shifted video at varying speeds. Hauppauge's products didn't show any image- quality loss while recording time-shifted video either, though they did require us to wait before we could pause or rewind such video. Both Hauppauge tuners perform hardware-based encoding.
Recording video is more straightforward. In all cases, just pressing the record button on the external remote control or in the on-screen control panel starts the process. The Hauppauge WinTV software has a one-touch-recording (OTR) feature like those found on many VCRs; repeatedly pressing the button increases the recording time in 15-minute increments. ATI TV's OTR feature lets you preset how long it will record, but you can't adjust the increment length from the control panel.
Scheduling a recording is reminiscent of scheduling on a TiVo-style personal video recorder (PVR). Most of the tuners work with TitanTV.com, a Web site that provides TV listings; the only exception is the ADS card, which doesn't work with an electronic program guide (EPG). The ATI comes bundled with GuidePlus+ software, which is tightly integrated into the ATI Multimedia Center software suite; a preview window within the listings window lets you watch TV as you navigate the schedule. The TitanTV schedule has no preview window. GuidePlus+ also provides listings for U.S. and Canadian stations, while TitanTV is U.S.-only.
Scheduling a recording was simple with both EPGs, but GuidePlus+ let us move more easily between the schedule and our TV window. In GuidePlus+, clicking on a program while it's showing pulls the program up in ATI's TV viewing window; there's no similarly easy shortcut in the Hauppauge or AVerMedia PVR software. We limited our testing to the EPG included with each device, but other options exist, such as Beyond TV and SageTV.
The AVerMedia UltraTV USB 300 is the only TV tuner here that performs picture-in-picture, allowing you to watch both live TV and playback of recorded video simultaneously. (It doesn't display two channels of live TV at once, however.)
The Burning Question
All of the programs that are included with these tuners can record video as DVD- or VideoCD-compliant MPEG files, which makes the devices useful not only for archiving your favorite episodes of Smallville but also for burning video captured from a VCR or camcorder. In case you don't already have video-editing or DVD-burning software, some tuners are bundled with one or the other. The AVerMedia is the only one here that comes with both (Ulead VideoStudio 7 SE and DVD MovieFactory 2 SE), though Hauppauge's WinTV-PVR-150 does include an MPEG file splitter for trimming unwanted footage (that is, commercials). The ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0 comes with neither editing nor DVD-burning software.
Set-Top Box Wrangling
Hauppauge's WinTV-PVR-USB2 comes with an infrared remote and FM tuner and simplifies capturing and managing stills.
If you have digital cable or a satellite receiver, you'll have to change television channels on the set-top box, unless the TV tuner has an infrared blaster--a cable connected to the TV tuner that beams channel-changing commands to the set-top box. Of the five tuners reviewed here, only the WinTV-PVR-150 comes with an IR blaster. The absence of this feature in other products in our roundup makes scheduling recordings a hassle: You must remember to change the channel on your set-top box prior to recording.
The ultimate TV convenience is, of course, the remote control. The AVerMedia UltraTV USB 300 is the only tuner here that neither comes with a remote nor offers one as an option. The ADS Tech and Hauppauge PCI tuners include an infrared remote. To use those devices, we had to plug the IR receiver's cable into the card and then place the sensor end in the remote's line of sight. The Hauppauge USB tuner has a built-in infrared sensor, so we had to keep the box in view.
We tested the ATI TV Wonder together with the company's optional Remote Wonder. This remote uses radio frequency, so it doesn't need line of sight (we could change channels from another room). The ATI remote costs $49 ($25 if you've purchased the company's USB tuner). It comes with a receiver that plugs into a USB port. The included EazyLook software boasts a slick interface that is designed for TV viewing and channel changing at a distance. The software defaults to a full-screen TV image, and the interface looks like that of any PVR we've seen.
These attractive features, along with undiminished image quality while the unit records time-shifted video, make the ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0 the best of the external tuners. If you have a set-top box and an open PCI slot, however, the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 should be your first choice: Its infrared blaster will ensure that your scheduled recordings don't go awry.Emru Townsend
HDTV Cards: Worth the Extra Cost?
ATI's HDTV Wonder displays high-definition broadcasts in stunning detail, but reception may be spotty.
Whether you should spend the additional money needed to purchase an HDTV tuner card depends less on the card itself than on your TV reception.
As we noted in our review of the HDTV Wonder, hills or other obstructions may impede reception. In our offices in downtown San Francisco, where we tested two HDTV tuner cards, we received 15 digital channels over the air on a weekday afternoon. Only 4 of the 15 broadcasts were high-definition, but those channels had very crisp picture quality.
We tested the $190 ATI HDTV Wonder and the $175 DVico FusionHDTV 3 Gold Q on a Dell Dimension 8400 PC with a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 and 1GB of RAM, and viewed the transmissions on a 17-inch LCD. Both of these cards come with an external remote control, but only the HDTV Wonder also includes an antenna.
We watched the same baseball game on HDNet with both cards. The picture looked tremendously sharp in both cases. Movement appeared choppy on the HDTV Wonder card; on the DVico, motion seemed smooth but dropouts of video and audio were more frequent. When we launched additional programs, those applications ran more slowly than normal, and sometimes the DVico application crashed. Both HDTV programs use a lot of CPU bandwidth, a factor that could limit your ability to check player stats and send instant messages while watching a ballgame.
In view of the current dearth of high-def broadcasts, however, you'll want a backup plan. The HDTV Wonder has a second coaxial input, so you can connect both the antenna for digital broadcasts and your terrestrial cable TV feed. You do have to use two different applications--one for digital TV, another for analog TV--and they won't run simultaneously. But ATI's Multimedia Center software offers more features than DVico's FusionHDTV program.Eric Butterfield
TV Tuner TweaksChoosing the right settings can ensure that your recorded video files will look good on DVD without hogging your entire hard drive.
Save hard-drive space. To strike a balance between preserving drive space and maintaining video quality, select the right combination of file format, image size, and compression. An hour of VHS-grade MPEG-1 video at 352 by 240 resolution consumes about 600MB, while an hour-long DV-encoded AVI file can gobble up 13GB. The MPEG-2 format--the middle ground used for encoding DVDs--uses anywhere from 1GB to 4GB per hour. But don't go too far: Though you can save plenty of hard drive space by recording video at 320 by 240, stick with 720 by 480 to get an image that's sharp enough and large enough to make watching it enjoyable.
Encode for DVD. You must dial down the bit rate to fit a movie onto a single-layer DVD: Working in MPEG-2 format at 720 by 480 resolution, a disc can hold an hour of video encoded at 8000 kbps, or 90 minutes of video at 6000 kbps. To fit a 2-hour movie onto a disc, you'll have to encode it at 4000 kbps.
Convert wisely. The smartest thing you can do when encoding is to avoid re-encoding. MPEG is a lossy compression scheme--that is, it discards some image data (and thus, degrades image quality) whenever you recompress the video. Most DVD burning applications offer you the option of not re-encoding an MPEG file--but only if the file's bit rate matches the burning software's settings. For example, in Ulead DVD MovieFactory 3 SE, which comes with the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150, click the Project Settings icon (the gear in the lower left corner), and then click the Change MPEG Settings button. Click Customize, and select the Compression tab. Set the video data rate to Constant, and enter the bit rate at which your TV tuner software encoded the MPEG file. Make sure that the Do Not Convert Compliant MPEG Files checkbox is selected. This command instructs the software not to convert (and thus re-encode) MPEG files whose bit rates match the project settings. If your MPEG file is recorded at a constant bit rate, your project settings need to be set that way as well. As a bonus, avoiding re-encoding reduces the time required to burn a file to your disc.Emru Townsend