How to Buy…A TV TUNER (Part 1)

11/26/2012 9:14:35 AM

You probably already watch TV on your computer, so why not take the next step? We investigates the TV card market

Now that entertainment has gone digital, it’s easier than ever to receive TV broadcasts on your computer. Sure, you can stream it off the Internet, or download programs directly from online stores like iTunes, but nothing quite beats the convenience of having TV equipment actually in your PC, delivering television programs the way they were intended to be seen: interrupted by adverts every 15 minutes.

Adding a TV tuner to your PC is actually surprisingly cheap and simple to do. It’s only when you’re deciding which route to take that things get confusing. There are loads of ways to get your computer receiving television, from simple USB pass-through devices to larger, external units, and even internal TV tuner cards. Far from making it easy to pick the one you want, the variety of choice means that selecting one can be a bit of a nightmare if you’re not sure what the difference between them is.

In fact, the difference is fairly easy to understand. Internal tuners connect to your PC through a PCI expansion slot. This means they’re discreet and space efficient, but not necessarily convenient if you’re hoping to use them in more than one system. By comparison, external tuners have a larger footprint, and sit out on your desk like a router or USB hub might. Because they connect to a computer over USB, it’s easy to quickly link one up to various different PCs, and they’re also easier to set up (no screwdrivers!). However, external tuners are also slightly more expensive than comparable internal models, and require a lot more cabling.

The third kind of TV tuner you might spot on the market is the USB key option. Although their simplicity may be attractive, be aware before you buy one that they tend to be cheap and low-quality. The reason they’re so compact is because they’re often just an interface for the aerial signal. Thus, the majority of the processing that internal and external tuners do in hardware gets moved to software, meaning that they’re slower and cause more of a drain on processor resources in your system. That isn’t the case for every USB key tuner, if it’s fairly bulky there will be some hardware processing being undertaken by the device itself, but the general rule is that the smaller they are, the worse the hardware you’re getting.

Be sure to double check that any card you buy has a digital tuner in. Now that the analogue TV signal has been almost entirely deactivated across the UK, you should take care not to buy an analogue TV tuner. It’s unlikely you’ll find one being sold by any UK retailers, but not impossible, and you may also still find these cards being sold on second hand. They do still have some applications, but they’re useless for actually watching TV!

So now you know how each type differs from the other, but we still need to tell you what else to look for…

How Much Should You Spend?

TV tuners range in price from about $48 for the cheapest digital cards, to $208 for the most expensive external devices with extra features, such as built-in DVR and multiple tuners. While your buyer’s instincts might suggest that aiming for somewhere around the mid-point of these two extremes is probably a good idea, the truth is that you shouldn’t have to spend much more than $80 to get a perfectly serviceable piece of equipment - one with Freeview support, DVR capabilities and extras like a remote control, scheduling software and FM radio support.

If all you want is to watch TV, you can buy the lowest-end components without worrying

Once you get above $160, specs are geared towards specialist equipment, such as including built-in satellite TV decryption - something that you’re only likely to need if you have satellite TV equipment but no set-top box or signal divider for your existing hardware.

Indeed, if all you want is the ability to watch TV, you can safely buy some of the lowest-end components without worrying too much!

What Make/Model/Manufacturer Should You Look For?

Undoubtedly the biggest name in TV tuner manufacturing is Hauppauge, which has pretty much cornered the market since it sprang into existence some 15 years ago. The company does almost nothing but make video interfaces for PCs, and that, combined with a reputation for good products, has made it difficult for almost any other company to crack into the same field.

Description: WinTV Nova

WinTV Nova

That’s not to say there aren’t any; companies like Compro and PCTV do make TV tuners for desktop and notebook machines, but they’re generally poorly received, and their makers lack the years of experience Hauppauge can boast. Unless you have a need for a specific feature, or have compatibility troubles, we can only suggest Hauppauge as the company to go for.

In terms of their specific models, anything branded ‘WinTV’ is likely to offer a robust set of features that’ll suit any casual user. In particular, anything branded ‘WinTV Nova’ is likely to furnish the buyer with all the power they’d expect from any standard TV tuner, as well as several additional features in software. Many of the company’s current models are branded ‘WinTV HVR’, but hybrid receivers (which is what the HVR line comprises) are all but pointless in the UK these days, so don’t specifically pay extra for one.

If in doubt, check whether the device is free view compatible, as this will indicate that it has the digital capabilities you’ll need to actually decode the signals

Speaking of Hauppauge’s software, another good reason to choose their range of devices is that their applications they bundle are light years beyond the competition. The cheapest devices will probably require you to view the television streams through Windows Media Centre, but Hauppauge’s current suite, WinTV 7, packs in hundreds of features, allowing you to fine tune everything from channel position to time delay to the type of codecs and filters applied to your video. No other company comes close to being as good.

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