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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  • 8steve8 - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    bottom line:

    if i want to watch/record hdtv channels like HBO and/or discover via a PC...
    im out of luck?


    those channels are not ota... are provided through a cable provider....

    i can do this once cable card finally comes around?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    HBO and most other movie channels are encrypted. Funny enough, some of the on demand channels seem to be picked up. For instance channels 101-1, 101-2, 102-1, 102-2, and several subchannels on the physical channels 93 and 94 all showed what amounts to random content. Movies, cartoons, and yes, even porn. If you tuned in to one of the channels, sometimes you would see it going to fast-forward mode, like the person watching the content was skipping ahead.

    Cable card is supposed to allow you to view encrypted content on TVs as well as computers without a set-top box. Until I see it in actual use, though, I'm not exactly sure how it's going to work. I would assume it will just store an encrypted TP file, and the cable card will contain the decryption logic.
    Reply
  • nullpointerus - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cablecard">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cablecard

    I've been waiting for decent HTPC CableCard products for ~2 years now. They'll probably come out very late in 2006, achieve their intended interoperability sometime between the second and third generation of products, and become practically flawless around the same time that they become obsolete. That's just a guess, mind you...
    Reply
  • Tujan - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    It was intriging because nobody has really compared the use of DIY HTPCs. With what limited parts are available.

    I wouldn't use a non-multicore processor for something dealing with HDPCs. Just the shear amount of graphics and screen space,the relative newcomer to its display of screen space,. The notorious 'switching between apps,and those running in the background,- much less using the PCI bus to do so.

    What I did miss out of this story,was a shot of a connected MYHD130 to its screen display. Kind of lost me there. With the connect ups to utilizing a screen,and the computers video card. See Im reading imagining toggling between user interface,remote,and what this means to the rigging of separate devices outside the computer itself.Caveat Emptor for/from them along side. And you mentioned that ATI was 'out-of-the-picture , for HDTV unless the components where hooked up. So to share that ATI graphics cards are not useful for the MYHD130.

    Would certainly make a wish list to the MYHD130 to put it onto the PCI-e lane.Get it off the PCI bus.

    As for those encrypted channels.Are you sure they would stay that way ? Think you could pick out your PPV (Pay-Per-view) channel from that list ? [ ]

    You mentioned your Monitor,that they have in common Overscan.I simply have the question included to involve just how a HTPC will correctly recognize a monitor (consider a 32 to 40" LCD TV) ,when most this involves the PNP feature Ive known for doing so.? [ ]

    ATI cards aren't any good with the DTV if using the DVI for/from them for the HD screens ? Think 32" to 42" LCD TVs here.[ ]

    - glad your doing the experimenting here.Good article.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    LCD TVs shouldn't have a problem with overscan. Any rear projection displays will have overscan, and I believe all DLP have overscan as well. There are some good DLP displays that only have 1% overscan, though -- too bad they're really expensive.

    If you want a picture of what the MyHD looks like when connected, let me see about uploading one and I'll provide a link. This is with the DVI daughter card:

    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/multimedia/tvt...">DVI Passthru Image

    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/multimedia/tvt...">VGA Passthru Image

    Hopefully that's clear - there's a lot of cable clutter, so I labeled the pertinent connections.
    Reply
  • Tujan - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    Thanks for reply. Even though I know a lot,Im still a novice. Know a lot of the acronymns,but dealing with things marketed off the top just keeps me on to them for a limited span.

    The picture there,the top card is the video card,with the lower cards being the TV tuners then.Im thinkin that somehow your giving up a controlled connection to your display from the computer by using the MyHD130 ? Or it limits the 'out of your video card when you only would have a single hook up on the Display.[ ]
    - I will go to there site to look for more.

    Encryption ? [ ] Mean if you subscribe to HBO via your home cable line,HBO will not be able to be seen if utilizing the HTPC with the QAM/HD TV cards ?
    Certainly the situation would be averted for the configuration of the cable to Display(cable box to default display) - since (T,F) the Display has an encryption chip within it to do so,(1),or (2) Encryption is handled via the cable box. With everything else dealing with something of the HDCP,HDMI type scenarios.... The encryption mechanism has got to work somewhere in the final render at the Display. Certainly the Cable Company isn't selling me the Display.....
    Of course this is a whole nother anchalotta.
    I pretty much just look for the configuration compatibility in the input,output for the hookups.And if the software will work/..how difficult to navigate them.

    Thinking everythings hunky dory after a large investment ...Again thanks for reply.


    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    Decryption of the encrypted channels is handled by the cable box. The cable card standard will allow other devices to do that decryption -- basically, the key/algorithm will be stored on the cable card. Of course, that means you need to have a TV and or computer that has a cable card slot. Hopefully they'll make a USB adapter. Reply
  • mariush - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    I'm a bit dissapointed that you have used Divx to test the analog recording. XViD would have probably been much faster, at least that's how it is on my computer.

    Also, I would probably either use XViD set to record with quantizer 1 (max quality) which takes about 6-10 MB/s at 768x576 25fps or I would use a lossless encoder such as HuffYUV (~12 MB/s at 768x576 25fps)
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    The DivX codec is officially supported by the MyHD software. Xvid was far slower, and that holds in general, unless there is a special setting to get it to encode faster. All the real-time encoding has to be done through a VFW codec, and I couldn't find a fast codec to handle that. The DivX codec is also the only codec that allows you to resize the video content, at least as far as I could tell. Otherwise you end up with an incorrect aspect ratio, as seen on the top left picture on page 15.

    If you download the videos, you might feel that the DivX codec results in a loss of quality, even on the X2 system. That video sample is actually very close to what you see when watching live analog content with the MyHD card. At best, it's decent analog video. Just about any analog-only TV tuner will produce equal or better output.

    Back to the codecs, if you really want to get a decent compression, while not losing a lot of quality, I would recommend using a second PC or re-encoding the videos while your computer is sitting idle. You could do the same thing with the TP files, re-encoding them using the Xvid codec with a data rate of around 1 GB per hour and the target, resolution of 720 x 480 -- or perhaps go for 2/3 GB per hour and target a 1280x1024 resolution.

    One of the benefits of the DivX codec is that quite a few consumer-electronics devices now support it as well. I'm not aware of any DVD players that can handle Xvid.
    Reply
  • xtknight - Wednesday, December 07, 2005 - link

    Sorry for the double post, but by the way, the program AVI.NET can encode xvid and divx for standalone players. That's the whole purpose of it: to use only the features standalone players support. I recommend you try it out. Reply

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