Introduction

Most of our readers have probably used a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) device at some point in time. TiVo was the first such device to gain mainstream recognition, but in reality, PC owners have been able to do most of what TiVo offered for a long time. ATI's All-In-Wonder line has had TV-In capability since the days of the old ATI Expert line with Rage graphics chips. Of course, the ability to do something like watch or record TV on a PC is not the same as the ability to do that well, and thankfully, we've made some serious progress in that area over the past decade. Our last TV tuner card roundup is almost six months old, and while much of the information is still current, we do have some new cards some might be considering.

Today, we have a trio of TV Tuners for review, and while they have some similarities, they're also quite different in features, software, and performance. Two of the cards are - as far as I'm aware - the only HDTV tuners currently available for Windows that will handle QAM decoding. The cards are the MyHD MDP-130 and the DVICO Fusion5 Gold. (Older DVICO and MyHD cards may have handled this as well, to varying degrees.) The third card marks one of the first truly interesting PCIe X1 cards to appear on the market, the PowerColor Theater 550 PCIe.

The MyHD and Fusion5 cover the "everything plus the kitchen sink" range of tuner cards, while the Theater 550 is more focused. Where the former offer QAM decoding, HDTV, and digital and analog capabilities, the Theater 550 is an analog-only card. At first, it might seem like this is an unfair match-up, as we have HD capable cards going up against a card that only handles SD analog TV. Unfortunately, reality tends to make the importance of HD functionality less important than most people would like, and the ability to receive and record analog channels well may actually be the more important factor for most people.

It's entirely possible that there are areas where most channels are available in HD, but at least in Washington, the options are rather limited. The major networks all have HD channels - ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC - but the amount of actual HD content is relatively limited. The USC games for most of this season, for example, were not available in widescreen - only the recent Bruins game was in HDTV. The vast majority of programming is still standard TV upsampled to HD resolutions. Generally speaking, if a broadcast isn't in widescreen format, it's not truly HD (though it could still be Digital TV). ESPNHD SportsCenter broadcasts provide a great example of the difference between native HD and upsampled SD, as the program contains both types of content. Watching a clip from a widescreen NBA game followed by another clip from a different game that is upsampled SD shows a dramatic loss in quality for the latter.


First, let's answer this question: Why is QAM decoding important? For those who live in areas where "terrestrial" or OTA (Over The Air) broadcast reception is poor or downright non-existent, cable or digital satellite is generally required. Cable companies use QAM encoding on their digital channels, and while no cards currently support playing encrypted QAM channels, being able to record/timeshift the unencrypted channels is a definite plus. Depending on your location, OTA Digital TV reception can be easy to get with something as small as the pictured Silver Sensor antenna, or you may need a large roof-mounted antenna with a signal amplifier. At my location, a small indoor antenna is not sufficient for receiving OTA DTV, and while a larger antenna mounted on the roof might work fine, that's often not an option on rental or apartment housing. Besides, there are certain cable channels that I would want regardless of how good my OTA DTV is, like ESPN, Discovery, Cartoon Network, etc. Since I'm already subscribing to a cable service and since OTA reception is a problem without investing quite a bit of time and money into a better antenna, that makes the capabilities of the Fusion5 and MyHD all the more interesting to me - and hopefully some of you as well.

I've been using all three cards for several weeks watching and recording broadcasts and now have a pretty good feel for how each performs, where it excels, and where it falls short. Initial impressions on some of the cards changed quite a bit over time, due in part to the learning curve associated with the technology as well as some hardware and drivers/software updates. Some problems that, at first, seemed like deal breakers ended up having a solution, while other areas that appeared to work okay ended up causing difficulty later. There may be areas that I overlooked, as I don't purport to know everything that there is to know about TV tuners. However, if something is difficult enough that I can't find a reasonable solution within several weeks, that's going to be a problem for many consumers. Let's see if one card can emerge as the clear leader, or if they all come up lacking.

We'd like to thank Digital Connection for providing us with the MyHD MDP-130 and Fusion5 Gold cards for testing. They are one of the few places to carry such cards, but they're reasonably priced and knowledgeable. They answered many of our questions and helped to give us a better understanding of the various software and hardware options. They have quite a bit of information on HTPCs and HDTV accessories.

System Configuration
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  • Brian23 - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    I'm supprised more people aren't talking about this. I haven't downloaded them, but I assume they are recordings of OTA broadcasts. If that's the case, then I'm suprised Anandtech posted them. In the news section they're always posting stuff about how people are getting sued for sharing movies. Most of the movies out there on torrents have been broadcast OTA at some point which would make them public domain. Everyone is so quick to judge someone when they post a torrent of something, but mysteriously no-one has said anything about this yet. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    They're basically 30 second clips demonstrating analog/HDTV videos. If anyone wants to come after me for posting sample content... wow, they have way too much time on their hands. I guess I didn't bother to get "express, written consent" though.... Reply
  • Brian23 - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    I don't fault you for posting this, and I don't think you need express written consent. I think the whole lawsuit thing over p2p file sharing is a bunch of crap. My point I was trying to make in my previous post was that I was suprised that no-one was was posting anything about copywrite violations. Normally the people here at Anandtech scream and yell if there's something being distributed that's copywritten, no matter what it is. I think people should be able to share stuff that they recorded from OTA. Reply
  • valnar - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    Perhaps I missed something in the review, but what's the point of posting screen shot comparisons of a transport stream? They would all be identical across all the cards, unless there were bit errors in the stream. Of course they all look good! They should also look the same too. The only way to show a difference would be through a video card, such as a particular ATI or nVidia in either overlay or VMR9 mode. Or with the hardware output of the MyHD series of cards, which is vastly superior to the software based cards. If you have an HDTV and have used the DVI or Component out of the MDP-1xx, they are fantastic. Of course, a screenshot wouldn't show that. Maybe a digital photo or something(?).

    It should also be noted that watching HDTV on overlay is a big no-no. The overlay was never meant to register more than 540 lines of resolution. While deciding between overlay or VMR9 for DVD (740x480/NTSC) watching is a matter of religious debate, overlay can never resolve HD properly. I would submit that the reviewer possibly didn't see any of those cards in their full glory.

    -Robert
    Reply
  • xtknight - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    Where is this overlay limitation stated and what happens when you go above said lines? I'm sorry but I find that hard to believe. SIL overlay vs. SIL VMR9 looks the exact same to me as I remember it. What does 540 lines mean? What resolution is the max (x by y)? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    I'm a little confused by this overlay limitation as well. I mean, obviously the Fusion5 only works through overlay, but the video stream is transferred digitally from the TV Tuner to the graphics card. There should be no limitation other than bandwidth, I thought? Maybe I'm using the term "overlay" incorrectly here?

    As for the HD images, I mentioned that they are all identical for TP captures. They were included to show people exactly how much data HDTV contains (and how much better looking HDTV is) relative to analog/SDTV. The upsampled SDTV image is also there to show how poor that looks in comparison to a real HDTV stream - and I get far too much upsampled content on most HD channels.
    Reply
  • valnar - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    These limits are discussed in all the usual forums, like avsforum.com.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    Link please? I just don't see how the hardware overlay interface on your video card could possibly be limited to only 720 x 480. Windows Media Player uses the overlay mode for playing video. Last I checked, it's fully capable of playing 1080I resolution. NTSC signals have nothing to do with overlay mode inside computers. Reply
  • valnar - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    It not limited per se, but you won't see much of an improvement at a rez above 540 lines horizontal. Everything (like WMP) can use the Overlay, but if you were to truly show a video in 1080P mode, for example, it wouldn't be as sharp - because of most video card overlay limitations. It's hard to explain, as the resolution of overlay is more an "analog" style of limitation, to use that metaphor inaccurately. It simply doesn't resolve the detail of HDTV, period. Get a 100" screen and a projector and it becomes obvious. Forgive me for not being able to articulate it, hence my recommendation to visit Home Theater/HTPC specific forums. Reply
  • xtknight - Thursday, December 08, 2005 - link

    I can't find anything about this limitation with google or avsforum search. Are you mixing up overlay with interlacing? It would be nice if you could provide us with a link because we effectively have no clue what you're talking about here... Reply

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