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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  • overclockingoodness - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    #7 (kjohnson): Did you not read the article? He said CNN and Weather channels are the only two channels that repeatedly show same programming in a given time frame. For CNN it's every 30 minutes.

    What's up with the "I hope that is not an indication of your ideology." statement. So, Anand can't even watch CNN and post screenshots because some readers don't like it. Why don't you just concentrate on other, more important parts of the review than worrying about stupid things like what he watches and what not?

    I have never found Anand's ideology to be wrong, so even if he does watch CNN - I don't think it matters. Stupid people, stupid comments...
    Reply
  • scott967 - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    If you do this in the future, I would like to see a test of OTA ATSC reception for tuners. It seems to be a common problem with getting consistently good reception of the UHF band signal most broadcasters are assigned.

    Also, I found use of the terms "SD" and "HD" confusing. I have both NTSC and ATSC (8VSB) tuners, and the ATSC tuner receives either / both the SD format and HD format depending on the broadcaster. (The local FOX affiliate provides both feeds on different subchannels). ISTM that reception of the SD resolution is a little easier (fwerer dropouts) than the HD. I guess if you are talking cable, the SD/HD thing is not so confusing. At least on OTA, HD format can contain either SD material with pillars or HD, depending on what the network is providing.
    Reply
  • gbrux - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Fine piece, Anand.

    However, the real excitement is high definition TV in the Windows XP Media Center Edtion 2005.

    Last weekend, I watched on the Masters tournament in high definition from my local CBS station from my WMCE box. I have the ATI HDTV Wonder installed, and it has performed flawlessly sinced I installed it about four months ago.

    I say, buy one of the cheaper standard TV tuners that you have reviewed, and buy the ATI HDTV Wonder (at about $150 some places) to build that WMCE box.

    Incidentally, I'm going to put up a thread in the Forums with a step by step procedure for installing the ATI HDTV Wonder in a new WMCE box.

    It'll be there in about an hour.
    Reply
  • creathir - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    kjohnson
    FoxNews all the way!
    Reply
  • kjohnson - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Great review. But why watch CNN? I hope that is not an indication of your ideology. Reply
  • CigarSmokedByClinton - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Good review, but IMO this review without the 150MCE makes it almost worthless....

    The 150MCE is at least equivalent to the 250 but comes in at $65, the low end of the price range.
    Reply
  • DigitalWarrior - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Interesting article, but it doesn't consider the Hauppauge PVR-150MCE card which only costs about $65 from pcalchemy.com (http://www.pcalchemy.com/product_info.php/cPath/21...

    According to this article (http://www.htpcnews.com/main.php?id=pvr_150_1) , Hauppauge was able to reduce the cost of the PVR-150MCE by using a new A/D chip that could handle both the audio and video conversion functions with better image quality than the PVR-250.

    I just built a HTPC using three of these PVR-150MCE tuner cards, and I couldn't be more pleased with them!
    Reply
  • DigitalWarrior - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    Reply
  • ranger203 - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    BTW, Great article Anand... Hard to find anyone that spends teh time to rate tv tuners. My MCE 2005 Box works great... Reply
  • ranger203 - Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - link

    What, no PVR-150, or PVR-150MCE??? I can't tell the difference between the 150 & 250 models. And, everyone always likes price: $75 for teh MCE version... Reply

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