TV tuners have been on the PC for an extremely long time. Unfortunately, it wasn't until most recently that they were ever really taken advantage of.  In the past, TV tuner cards were useful for recording your favorite TV show, but mostly for just being able to watch TV on your computer monitor.  A PC armed with a TV tuner card was far from a full-fledged PVR, even though ATI came close numerous times with their Multimedia Center interface.  In the end, a TV tuner became a nice toy to have on your PC, but could hardly offer the type of functionality that a set-top box such as a TiVo or ReplayTV could offer. 

That all changed when Microsoft released Windows XP Media Center Edition.  Bringing the first true 10-foot UI to the PC, Media Center Edition (MCE) all of the sudden made a TV tuner less of a toy, and more of an integral component of a modern PC.  What Microsoft accomplished with MCE was creating a user interface that looked and felt like what you'd find on a normal consumer electronics device, not a PC.  By doing that, MCE became an extremely attractive, but expensive, alternative to set-top PVRs. 

Despite the high cost of entry compared to a cheap TiVo, MCE PCs are still quite popular - especially now that it is easy to build one on your own.  You can purchase a copy of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 through online vendors, along with a MCE remote.  With the software in hand, your next task is to assemble a PC. Components like your motherboard, CPU and memory are all easy to choose - you want the fastest that your budget will allow you to buy, and something stable too, since MCE puts a pretty big strain on your system.

Next up is your graphics card; if you are looking for a gaming machine as well as an MCE PC, then your choice is going to be something that obviously works well as a gaming GPU, but if not, then even a lowly GeForce FX 5200 will work just fine.  Both ATI and NVIDIA have MCE certified GPU drivers, which you will need if you're building an MCE box.

The final step is to pick out a TV tuner, and this is where today's article comes in.  Choosing a TV tuner for a MCE PC is a bit easier than just picking any TV tuner out there. The first requirement is that the tuner has official MCE support.  You'll need a MCE driver for your tuner to work with the OS, so if one isn't available for the card that you're looking at, then you know to look elsewhere. 

A major constraint to Media Center Edition is that it supports HDTV in a limited fashion, primarily in that it only supports over the air broadcasts - so none of your premium HD content can be viewed/recorded by MCE.  Even though the trend is to move towards HD, today's comparison is of standard definition TV tuners for MCE; even if you plan on having a HDTV card in your MCE box (e.g. ATI HDTV Wonder), you still need a SD TV tuner card as well.  Given that we're still talking about SD signals, which are inherently full of noise and aren't very high resolution at all, are there any differences between TV tuners or should you just go out and purchase the cheapest one that works?

For this article, we took 6 of the most popular MCE compliant TV tuners and pitted them against one another, trying to figure out if there's any difference between them all, and if there's one clear winner.  The cards included in this roundup are:

  • ATI's eHome Wonder
  • ATI's TV Wonder Elite
  • AverMedia M150
  • eMuzed Maui-II PCI PVR
  • Hauppauge WinTV PVR-250
  • NVIDIA's dual tuner NVTV
The Test
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  • office boy - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    Interesting that the NVTV card here got the worst review and over at tech report got the best.
    I wonder if it has something to do with one being a dual tuner and the other well not.

    Yeah bummer to not see the 150mce (and it's been in stock everywhere for a while, it's not in stock at newewgg cus they keep selling out, try amazon or buy.com)

    Also I have to question the reasoning behind using actual cable TV for testing. The quality can vary so much, and we of course can have no expectation of what type of quality could be coming from your cable signal vs ours.

    Use of some type of modulator to create a catv signal or a game system (like TR did) would seem to be a better choice to me, plus you could test with testing patterns.
    Reply
  • dgkulzer - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    Oh, I would also go to the following website if you have a hauppauge card: http://www.shspvr.com/

    This site has more current drivers for the Hauppauge cards, plus a pretty good forum with useful info. If you get the 'beta lite' cd packages for your card you get a easy to install driver package.

    Reply
  • dgkulzer - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    #48 I don't have digital cable but my understanding is that they can. The one thing you will need however is this: http://www.pcalchemy.com/product_info.php/cPath/38...
    and thats needed so you can change channels with the cable box.

    I have a pvr-350 with gb-pvr and I couldnt be more happy with it :)
    Reply
  • cer1 - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    Ok, I admit I'm a total noob when it comes to TV tuner cards. I've been looking at them for awhile, but can't get my ahead around what they can and can not do with regards to the signal source. I'm always a bit disappointed when TV Tuner reviews don't exactly describe the video source used for the tests (analog cable, digital cable, aerial, cable company, etc.).

    My impression, which in all probability is wrong, is that these cards require an analog source and that they can not be hooked up to a digital cable source (such as I have from Comcast). Is this true, or can these cards be used with a digital cable signal?
    Reply
  • ShadowVlican - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    i agree with the posts that 150MCE should've been included... great price/performance ratio for that card

    to the freak that said 150MCE isn't widely available.. ur a dumbass! i can even buy one RIGHT NOW in freakin CANADA...

    so yea Anand, ok review, but it needs 150MCE badly
    Reply
  • glennpratt - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    I swear no matter who reviews these cards, the results are always completely different. Some people find the NVTV cards to be terrible while other sites give em editors choice and the forums have equal amounts of hate and love for all the cards. Ugh, I'm ready for cablecards, I don't want to think about analog and IR blasters ever again... Cmon 2007! Reply
  • jamawass - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    Volunteer website? Do you know this site was valued at $100 million at one time? This is a business dude. BTW What happened to part 2 of the Myth TV review? Reply
  • WooDaddy - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    Just to let everyone know, the eMuzed Maui has NO third-party support other than MCE. I had one and couldn't get it to work with any other app out there including sage and snapstream stuff. I ended up picking up a Prolink TV7000 instead. Compatible with the Hauppauge PVR250. Works flawlessly, but difficult to find. Reply
  • DigitalWarrior - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    #36 (GoatMonkey) - For software to review, don't forget SageTV! This is superb PVR software.

    Good warning #28 (Kishkumen). A lot of 3rd party PVR software doesn't have support for ATI cards.

    Reply
  • airfoil - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    The PVR 150 should have been included in this review - it seems like the best tuner out there for MCE. I suspect the outcome would have been different if a '150 was tested instead of the 250. Reply

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