How to Buy…A TV TUNER (Part 2)

11/26/2012 9:14:37 AM

What Technology Should You Look For?

As already noted, make sure that the card you’re looking at has either a digital or a hybrid digital/analogue tuner in. Without access to a digital tuner, you won’t be able to watch TV in the UK at all (except if you’re in Northern Ireland, and even then, you’ve only got until October).

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. The proper term for this is DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcast - Terrestrial) so if you see that listed, it’s the right kind of TV tuner for use in the UK, under current conditions anyway.

Description: 7inch color TV/Digital video Broadcast Terrestrial

7inch color TV/Digital video Broadcast Terrestrial

Similarly, if you want to use FreeSat for HD free view channels, it is possible, but you’ll need a tuner which has DVB-S or DVB-S2 compatibility. Note that these cards cannot be used to decode Sky TV (you’ll need an official set-top box for that), but you can use Sky’s hardware and a DVB-S tuner device to receive the free satellite channels even without a current premium subscription.

One potentially confusing industry convention is that that a pair of digital/analogue tuners is specifically called ‘hybrid’, but a pair of digital tuners is referred to as ‘combo’. Thus, it’s possible to think you’re getting two tuners when you’re in fact getting a hybrid device, in which one tuner has become basically unusable for anything except radio broadcasts since the analogue TV signals were deactivated.

However, combo devices which feature two digital tuners offer additional benefits, such as the ability to record one channel while watching another or the ability to boost a signal by combining the input from two antennae. In both cases, you will need a pair of aerials for this to work, though, so as well as costing more, combo tuners potentially require an additional spend for you to get the most out of them.

One extra that you probably won’t have to pay money for is DVR recording. Although it relies on hardware processing and capture (which rules out most USB key tuners), most internal and external TV tuners allow you to capture digital video to watch at a later date. The same features can be used to capture inputs from all manner of sources, including games consoles, camcorders or old VHS tapes, so if you’re hoping to digitize your collection of home movies, it’s worth looking for as a peripheral feature.

Many tuners also contain an FM radio receiver. This is more common in devices with analogue tuners, because the FM radio spectrum is easy to pick up using the same equipment, but some digital tuners also include an FM radio receiver simply because they’re cheap. Digital TV tuners can also pick up DAB digital radio, so whether you have an analogue or digital tuner, it’s likely that it’ll pick up radio just as well (if not better) than it picks up TV.

Remote controls are a must, as well. You may think you can live without them (and if you’re watching while sat right at your PC, that may even be the case) but if you’re watching from across the room, you’ll soon come to rue your decision if you go for a model without one!

Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

Pretty much! At present, there are no major innovations due which could render a new TV tuner obsolete with any unreasonable speed. Admittedly, PC based TV tuners don’t tend to include capabilities for thing like 3D TV or Quad-HD, but then neither of those technologies is likely to become common for a few years, if at all. Even the fact that the digital switchover is virtually complete ensures that there are no more potential hurdles that you might have to overcome in the future.

Description: WDM-compatible TV Tuner card on your PC system

WDM-compatible TV Tuner card on your PC system

If anything’s going to impact the purchase of a TV card, it’s the increasing pace of alternative technologies, like IPTV services and broadband speeds. After all, if you can get a perfect signal watching TV over the Internet, why worry about having a dedicated tuner in your PC?

Forces affecting the TV tuner marker are long term, glacially paced and not worth basing your purchase decisions on in the short term

We’re not quite at the tipping point yet, though, but the longer you wait the less sense it’s likely to make. It’s even possible that prices will start to go up as the hardware becomes more and more specialist! Generally speaking, though, the forces affecting the TV tuner marker are long-term and glacially paced, not worth basing your purchase decisions on in the short term.

What Are The Technical Constraints?

The biggest technical requirement of placing a TV tuner in your PC might seem obvious to some, but it’s also the sort of thing that might catch you out, and that’s availability of an aerial. Just as you can’t watch your TV without a source for the picture, the same is true of the internal and external TV tuners you use for your PC. Most will come with packaged with an aerial in the box, but if you want to get a good picture, we recommend you go out and buy a good-quality portable one or, better yet, split the signal from the one on your roof to your new device!

In terms of other hardware requirements, you’ll need a fairly good PC to handle the processing, especially if you opt for a simpler pass-through unit, but as long as you adhere to the system requirements on the box there shouldn’t be any trouble. There’s certainly no need to worry about things like power drain or hard drive space! Yes, the USB key style TV tuners will almost certainly have higher spec requirements, since they have no hardware processor, but they still won’t cause too much trouble to any PC purchased in the last couple of years.

What’s The Alternative?

The alternatives to buying a TV card tend to be software-based, rather than hardware-based. Rather than using TV-receiving hardware in your computer, you could simply stream television over the Internet, whether from first-party sources like BBC iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4OD, or from third party alternatives such as the brilliant TVCatchup.

a TV card

You’ll save money by doing this, but there are problems associated with it. Online streams can be low quality, and suck up connection bandwidth you might prefer to use elsewhere. They’re also prone to error and failures, at least by the standards of near-infallible broadcast television. All things worth keeping in mind if you’re hoping to snag the next episode of your favorite show.

Of course, if you want to get the benefits of hardware-based TV reception but don’t want to open your PC or use an external card, you could try buying a PC monitor which also contains a TV tuner.

The low cost of external TV tuners mean that combo monitors are rare, but they do exist. These are very like (but not identical to) actuals TVs. They have the higher resolutions associated with computer monitors (TVs are capped at 1080p) as well as extras like built-in USB hubs and DVI or DisplayPort inputs, but they also allow you to receive broadcast television at only a little extra cost.

Of course, the downside is that if you want to use it to pick up Sky or other non-freeview broadcasts, you’ll need an external decoder anyway, so they’re only useful in a limited number of circumstances when you want a stand-alone freeview TV and a computer in the same place.


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