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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  • shplad - Sunday, May 1, 2005 - link

    Hey legalbob2:

    So my theory was right. We all have a bit of "closet geek" in us somewhere, it just takes the right stimuli to bring it out. Didn't know you were perusing these boards these days. What video equipment are you using?

    Watch out for that nasty broadcast flag. Unless Blockhead's brother can help you figure out a way around it. Me, I'm buying my TV tuner cards (to go into my MythTV machine) now before there are any legal issues.

    You should watch out where you post, you never know what kind of crazies your post might attract ;-)

  • wuhoo - Monday, April 18, 2005 - link

    any laptop tv tuner card reviews? with winodws media center, one could have a mobile dvr w/ laptops
  • gotsmack - Friday, April 15, 2005 - link

    maybe add in Pinnacle cards for the next review?
  • goinginstyle - Friday, April 21, 2006 - link

    When is the next review?
  • Sidescraper - Thursday, April 14, 2005 - link

    The Haupauge card pictured is nothing like the card I have. Haupauge MCE cards have an FM tuner. The non-MCE cards have an IR remote. The 350 has a MPEG decoder in hardware. See here:
  • Kishkumen - Thursday, April 14, 2005 - link

    #55 - That's correct. If the channels you care about require a cable box and cannot be seen using just your regular TV, then these analog tuners won't do you much good. I have heard of people being able to connect a serial cable to their cable box and use scripts to get their PVR software to change the channel on their cable box or satellite receiver, but that gets complicated.
  • cer1 - Thursday, April 14, 2005 - link

    #49 and #53

    Thanks for the info. In my case I'd be looking for to build a PVR to go with my Comcast Digital Cable signal. If I need to use the cable box to set the channels, then, as I understand it, using one of these cards would not be so useful to me. That is, the purpose is defeated if I can not program the PVR to record specific channels at specific times.

    In this review are the cards getting signal from a cable box or are they being used with an analog signal?
  • lapierrem - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    Not sure where you got the 350 being equivalent to the 250. The 350 has a hardware MPEG-2 De-coder, which may be redundant on faster systems, but would be a difference on a lower end MCE system, and the 250/150 don't have it. It's the 150/250 that are pretty much equivalent. Good review though.
  • Kishkumen - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    #48 - I am by no means an expert, but here is what I know about video sources in relation to the cards reviewed here. The cards reviewed here are only analog cards. They cannot take take a digital signal due to the tuners used. They can be used with digital cable, but the term as traditionally used is kind of a misnomer. Typically your cable company will have a basic package that includes a range of unencrypted, analog channels. You will only be able to use the onboard tuners of the various capture cards with these unencrypted, analog channels. After this, a cable company will often have what they term a "digital" package of a range of higher cost premium channels. The "digital" term tends to be kind of confusing. Typically these "digital" channels are taken from analog sources, digitally encrypted and then sent to a cable box which then decryptes the "digital" channel back into analog. The cards reviewed here will can then take that decrypted analog signal and convert it back into digital, but you will not be able to change channels with the capture card itself. You will have to use your cable box for that.

    After this, you have HDTV which is finally a true digital signal in the form of a transport stream. HDTV can be delivered either in high definition if the video is 720p or standard definition if the video is 480p or below. In reality, the transport stream is nothing more than a very high bitrate mpeg2 video. The capture cards reviewed here will not work with such a digital signal because they only have analog tuners.

    In addition to over the air HDTV, cable companies are starting to come out with HDTV cable. They use an encryption scheme called QAM which differs from the transport stream signal delivered over the air. The QAM signal may or may not be encrypted depending on your cable company. If encrypted you will again be required to rent or purchase a cable box to decrypt the signal.

    Anyway, I hope that clarifies things for you as far as source material goes for these cards.
  • Crucial - Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - link

    I might have missed it but did the review state what mpeg2 decoder was being used? This makes a big difference in the quality and should have also been tested. I personaly find the PowerDVD decoder to be the best.

    Major disappointment to not see the PVR-150. I have 2 of them in my HTPC along with an HDTV Wonder. I switched to the pvr-150 from ehome wonders after Windows MCE kept losing the ehome wonders requiring a reboot.

    Also why was there a mini review of the Winbook stuff thrown in? It was like a way to generate some ad revenue. I would have rather seen another page describing the difference between the mpeg decoders.

    Overall this article stunk.

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