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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  • Denial - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

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

    I'll admit I was very suprised to see the PVR150 Left off the comparo...

    Anyways, if anyone's interested htpcnews just posted a 550 review / comparo between it and the PVR150 a few minutes ago.

    http://www.htpcnews.com/main.php?id=powercolor_t55...
    Reply
  • vailr - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Re:
    Quote: "what we wanted to see was a hardware MPEG-4 encoder from ATI and what we got instead was the promise of the best hardware MPEG-2 encoder ever".
    How about the Plextor ConvertX PVR, External USB?
    http://www.outpost.com/product/4279394?site=sr:SEA...
    Would MCE recognize this as a compatable TV tuner?
    Or, are only PCI slot tuner cards recognized?
    Reply
  • ViRGE - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    I agree with the comments about the PVR150; it was a good review as far as methodology goes, but the lack of a PVR150 is a very big oversight that compromises the usefulness of the review. No one is going to be buying a 250 these days, they'll be after the 150. Reply
  • krose - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    The Hauppauge PVR250 is not equivalent to the PVR500, the PVR150 is. The 500 is the 150 with dual tuners. The PVR150MCE can be had as OEM for as little as $65. It should have been used in the review. Reply
  • krose - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Reply
  • segagenesis - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Having used Hauppauge TV cards since 1998 I would have to agree with some other comments here. The PVR-150 replaced the PVR-250 line, and its $99 retail using the newer conexant chip... so really reviewing the original PVR-250 (which is nearly 2 years old?) is obsolete. And yes, the PVR-500 is dual tuner going for about $150 retail. I would say the PVR-150 is a better deal even if its sans remote.

    One factor unmentioned is the PVR cards are fairly robust when it comes to support, they will work both in Windows (outside of MCE with other apps) AND Linux with MythTV using IVTV drivers. They dont come with remotes which is a nice gadget addon for the ATI card but you can always get one seperate for the Hauppauge one. Also if the color oversaturation is really that much of a problem on the PVR cant it just be turned down?
    Reply
  • gbrux - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    My step by step to install the ATI HDTV Wonder in a new Windows XP Media Center Edtion 2005 box can be found in the Forums in the Operating Systems section.

    http://forums.anandtech.com/messageview.aspx?catid...
    Reply
  • Fallen Kell - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    It is an intresting review and pretty good, but I had a few issues with it especially with the price given for the Hauppauge WinTV PVR-250. I personally just bought the Hauppauge WinTV PVR-500MCE for $145 two weeks ago, so I know for a fact that the quoted price of $140-160 for the Hauppauge WinTV PVR-250 is well off spec of what it is really going for. Is this difference enough to change the recommendation, well I would say yes, since you get a dual tuner solution in a single card for the same cost as the ATI TV Wonder Elite, and you said it in your review that there was very little in turns of differences that you could notice other then some of the colors being slightly off. That issue is fixed by simply changing the settings on the card/decoder/encoder.

    Again, it was a great review, just simply has the wrong price data for certain cards. And you are correct the Hauppauge WinTV PVR-500MCE is simply two Hauppauge WinTV PVR-250's on the same card.
    Reply
  • Traire - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    The Saphire Theatrix 550, which is identical to the ATi card only with a different remote, can be found for ~$75. Reply

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