Introduction

It seems that now more than ever people are using their computers for a much wider variety of applications than in the past. For example, home theater systems are being centered more around computers now because of the versatility these systems offer. The level of quality being offered with computer home theaters is approaching - and in some cases surpassing - that of stand-alone components, and having one at the center of a home theater setup is looking more and more attractive for many users.

While your parents or grandparents may be more comfortable dealing with more traditional separate audio and video components, most people who are able to navigate around their computers well enough wouldn't have much trouble getting a home theater setup on it. There is a wide variety of hardware and software out there to make this easier for us, and at the core of a PC setup like this would have to be the video card, sound card, and a TV tuner card. This article will focus on the last of those components.

There are many TV tuner cards available right now, and we'll be focusing on one in particular from NVIDIA for this review. We have previously reviewed the Hauppauge PVR-250 and ATI Theater 550, and we concluded that those two cards are the best quality analog tuners at present. (We also provided a look at the Theater 550 compared with a couple HDTV options, and that article provides some insight on how many of us currently view the HTPC market.) In the past, ATI has been the one to provide these kinds of parts among the graphics chip makers, and they are still ahead of NVIDIA in this area. However, with the release of the DualTV MCE tuner card, NVIDIA takes a step forward in this department. Hauppauge has also been a staple in this market, but as we feel they basically offer equivalent quality to the ATI Theater 550, we will only be including the ATI card in this article.

TV and movie recording services like TiVo and other DVRs are popular right now, but many people find their subscription fees and recording limitations undesirable. Luckily, there is an alternative and more people are beginning to see the benefits of a personal computer TV tuner/recorder for recording and watching their favorite shows.

We'll be looking closely at the NVIDIA DualTV MCE and it's features, as well as comparing it to a couple of other TV tuner solutions available in competition with this card. ATI's Theater 550 Pro has been around for a while and is similar to the DualTV MCE as a stand-alone TV tuner card. Also, while not quite as similar, ATI's All-In-Wonder line of cards offer TV tuning and graphics acceleration in one package and we'll look at the pros and cons of a solution like this as opposed to the DualTV MCE. So first let's take a look at the hardware.

The Card
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  • nullpointerus - Friday, May 19, 2006 - link

    First, it was my understanding that MCE cards are sold sans PVR software. Frankly, I prefer it this way because I'd rather not pay the hardware manufacturer for developing crappy PVR software that I'll throw away in favor of something more serious like Sage. So there are people who view the lack of bundled software as a plus.

    Second, it's hard to understand why companies would be developing new analog tuners right now (at least in the U.S.). When the government-mandated switch to digital TV occurs, each of these analog tuners will require a converter box AND either a serial cable or an IR blaster just to keep working, right?

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've already said that CableCARD requires Vista, and as we know that OS won't be out until the holiday season or even later (depending on who you talk to). And without CableCARD, there simply aren't any digital tuners for the PC that can completely replace the analog tuners currently in use.
    Reply
  • GoatMonkey - Friday, May 19, 2006 - link

    quote:

    it's hard to understand why companies would be developing new analog tuners right now

    quote:

    there simply aren't any digital tuners for the PC that can completely replace the analog tuners currently in use.

    There you go.
    Reply
  • derekblankmccoy - Sunday, May 21, 2006 - link

    For those of us that live here in the first world, we have several dvb-t and dvb-s cards. I have a Sweetspot MCE in my machine, works like a dream, recieves Freeview, and if i want to watch and record 2 differenct channels, I just have to add in another one, simple! Reply
  • nullpointerus - Friday, May 19, 2006 - link

    Nonsequitor. nVidia didn't have to enter the analog tuner market; what we're talking about is whether it makes sense to develop new products to enter a collapsing market. Your selective quoting didn't bother to address that.

    Look, would you buy a 3D card right now if i told you that in six months you'd need an expensive dongle, some luck, and a bit of spare time just to get it to work almost as well as it did when you bought it? It's insane.

    I can't wait to see the tech support calls:

    techrep: Hi! blah blah blah What can I help you with today?
    user: Yes, my TV tuner stopped working a week after I bought it. I can't get no signal on any of the stations. It's all staticy.
    techrep: Can you verify that you still have cable on your other TVs?
    user: Yes, they're all working fine.
    techrep: I'll give you a ticket number. It's 493027583.
    techrep: Have you tried reinstalling the drivers?
    user: I don't understand what would have changed.
    user: Oh, sorry, I'll try that now.
    *lost connection*

    techrep: Hi! blah blah blah What can I help you with today?
    user: Yes, my TV tuner stopped working a week after I bought it. I can't get no signal on any of the stations. It's all staticy.
    techrep: Can you verify that you still have cable on your other TVs?
    user: Yes, my ticket number is 493027583.
    techrep: Oh...wait a sec.
    techrep: OK, I'm reading your chat log.
    *several minutes pass by*
    user: Hello?
    techrep: Yes, I'm still here. What software are you using to watch TV on your PC?
    user: Windows XP MCE SP2
    techrep: Have you tried reinstalling it?
    user: No, but I don't think that's the problem. It records OK - they're just static.
    techrep: I think you need to reinstall MCE.
    user: Isn't there anything else we can try?
    techrep: Can you play the files back in Windows Media Player?
    user: Just a sec.
    techrep: OK.
    user: Yes, they play back, but the sound and video is just static.
    techrep: I think your system has been infected by a virus. At this point, the only thing you can do is to reinstall MCE.
    user: OK, whatever.
    *several hours pass by*

    techrep: Hi! blah blah blah What can I help you with today?
    user: ticket number is 493027583
    techrep: Oh...wait a sec.
    techrep: OK, I'm reading your chat log.
    user: Reinstalling MCE didn't work.
    techrep: OK, I think I know what your problem is. In compliance with new FCC rules, your cable provider has switched from an analog signal to a digital signal. The tuner card you purchased last week can't handle the new signal.
    user: You mean I didn't need to reinstall MCE? Darn.
    user: So how do I update the firmware?
    techrep: I apologize for the inconvenience of reinstalling MCE. We're updating our support department on these new cases as we speak.
    techrep: There is no new firmware. The tuner simply won't work with a digital signal.
    user: What the...? I just bought the damn thing last week!!
    techrep: I'm sorry, sir, but it just won't work.
    techrep: Some people have gotten it to work by purchasing a serial cable or IR blast.
    user: Where can I get one of those?
    techrep: We don't provide any support for that.
    user: What?! How the **** am I supposed to fix this stupid ****?
    techrep: I'm sorry, but we don't support third party products like those.
    techrep: Is there anything else I can help you with today?
    *lost connection*

    What fun.
    Reply
  • GoatMonkey - Monday, May 22, 2006 - link

    It's at least 3 years away.

    I would hope that I wouldn't be using any video card for that long.
    Reply
  • NegativeEntropy - Friday, May 19, 2006 - link

    The mandate in the US to switch from analog to digital is for Over The Air only. Oh, and it is currently set for Feb 17 2009. It has already been pushed back several times. I think the original date was 2002.

    Cable companies own their networks (line sharing not withstanding) and thus can do whatever they want. Hence your worries will be all based on your provider, unless you're a big user of OTA broadcasting. I don't know about you, but the only people I know that use an antenna are:
    1) People that only want 4-7 channels total
    2) People that use it for local channels that choose to not or cannot get via sattelite
    3) People getting OTA HD (which is analog?)
    Reply
  • Trisped - Sunday, May 21, 2006 - link

    Of course the fact that my cable company has been tring for years to get us off analog and all onto digital doesn't do much for my desire to own another TV tuner. When they come out with one that does HDTV, DTV, and SDTV and uses a PCIe slot I will start looking into getting it, not before. Reply
  • nullpointerus - Saturday, May 20, 2006 - link

    Really? Man, I was terribly confused. Thanks for clarifying that!

    From what I can tell, OTA HD is digital, not analog. I've read about the signal either being on or off - IOW not staticy - and then there's this site which I found this morning:

    http://www.dtv.gov/consumercorner.html#howdoiget">http://www.dtv.gov/consumercorner.html#howdoiget

    ...which gives advice on how to get OTA DTV.
    Reply
  • gplracer - Friday, May 19, 2006 - link

    I thought that I read somewhere that the cablecard tuners will only come with systems made by manufacturers. If one is building a computer he/she will not be able to purchase this tuner. I find it hard to believe this will happen but who knows. Reply
  • nullpointerus - Friday, May 19, 2006 - link

    Oh, one more thing: As for why there isn't a version bundled with MCE, think of the support issues. People expect software bundled with a piece of hardware to "just work" when it is installed, but having to replace your OS or install it on new hardware? It's just too much work - MS should handle the MCE problems. This would be different if MS figured out that MCE is just an application and should be sold as such. Application solutions such as Sage or BeyondTV often sell software+hardware bundles through their store especially with Hauppauge cards. Reply

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