Is TV on PC right for me?
The best reason to combine a PC and your TV is to save space. With 19" and 21" monitors common now at days, it is hard to cram both a CRT and a television into the same room. A dorm room or small apartment provides a perfect example. Not only do unnecessary displays take up space, they also cost money. If you already have a computer but don't have a television, it seems logical to use the computer display for both.
Watching TV on your PC also allows for quite a bit of additional functionality. Advanced features, such as time shifting (TiVo functions), programing guides, and the ability to record programs digitally, are all big selling points for TV tuner cards. These features really do make the act of watching TV more enjoyable and add a new level of interactivity to passive TV watching.
Naturally, there are a few downsides to bringing the TV to the PC. First off, since the monitors used on computer provide much a higher definition compared to a television, the artifacts present in a cable transmission are magnified when displayed on a computer monitor. Cable transmissions are far from flawless but the low resolution of televisions does not pick up on these visual artifacts, especially since television is typically viewed from a distance. When displayed on a much finer computer display, the flaws of the television transmission become more pronounced, especially as the resolution of the image is increased. Like a television, viewing the image from a distance helps minimize the amount of artifacts that the eye detects, but even at a distance television transmissions look better on the display they were designed for: the television.
Another caveat to TV tuning on a PC is that some of the advanced features are reserved only for powerful systems. Both video recording as well as time shifting require a considerable amount of CPU power and hard disk space. Time shifting is an extremely stressful function that requires decoding of a recorded video stream as well as encoding of live TV for recording. Minimum system requirement for time shifting typically involve at least a 600MHz processor with 128MB of memory and a few gigabytes of hard disk space free, but these specs do depend on the card and software being used. Naturally, this puts a damper on additional programs running at the same time as time shifting operations.
With the pros and cons laid out, it is now up to you to decide if bringing television to your PC is what you want to do. In many cases the answer will not come easily and unfortunately we can not help you with that. What we can do is help you choose the best TV tuner video card for your needs if you do decide to go with a TV tuner video card.
Although the TV tuning hardware for each of the products we are going to look at is relatively similar, the software packaged with the products varies greatly. Items such as ease of use, stability, and features are very different across the various TV tuner software packages. For this reason we will take a rather in depth look at the software packages that come with each card.
Since this review is of TV tuner video cards that are based off of already existing graphics processors, 3D performance of the cards will not be compared. For more information on the chips used to power these cards, we have included links at the start of each section that provide the product review of the TV-tunerless version of the cards. If gaming is important to you as well, please consider both the TV aspects of the video card as well as the 3D performance of the card when making your final decision.
With these points in mind, lets look at the contenders.