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TV Tuners

Tech Tip 47 - TV Tuners

by Jason Kohrs - 06.OCT.05

There are many products available that make your computer seem less like a business tool and more like a home media center. Given this, the one component that may lack the popularity you might expect is the TV tuner card. There are sound cards capable of 8-channel surround sound stereo, high-powered speaker systems, and graphics cards displaying on high definition monitors/televisions.

TV tuners are becoming more common in computers as Windows Media Center Edition grows in popularity, but just about any computer with any operating system can tune in TV. This Tech Tip will look at some of the basics of computer TV tuners, including the interfaces, the technologies, and the performance.

1. Watching Programs

Watching ProgramsThe interface with most TV tuners should be familiar to anyone using one, as the manufacturers seem to do their best to make things look and act much like a standard television. Although features will vary from brand to brand, the on-screen display and controls generally look much like a basic television, but now we have the TV inside a window on your computer screen. You can run the TV application in one window, while surfing the web or actually doing some work in another. The size of the screen can be stretched to just about any size to fit your tastes, and most tuners offer the option to go to full-screen mode, where the image will take over the entire screen.

In addition to on-screen controls that can be manipulated with the mouse and keyboard, many TV tuners include a wireless remote control that could easily pass as the remote for a standard TV. This tuner from Geeks.com features such a remote control, and by enlarging the image on that page, you can see that it includes buttons for the basic operation of the TV. Changing channels, adjusting volume, and recording a program are just as easy on your PC as they are with your TV and VCR.

The things you are used to doing on a modern TV can be done here: assigning text tags to channels (i.e., making channel 36 show “ESPN” when selected), adding or deleting channels from the lineup, and so on.

2. Recording Programs

The interface for recording on most TV tuners is about as intuitive as that for watching programs. Taking the general functionality of a typical VCR or DVD player, onscreen and remote control based controls make easy work of recording any program.

Many tuners take advantage of an online programming resource, such as Titan TV, that make programming your computer to record a show about as easy as operating a personal video recorder (PVR), and generally much easier than operating an actual VCR. Titan TV provides program listings for just about all locations which can be browsed by the user, but more importantly they can be retrieved by the tuner in order to program a recording with ease.

The quality of the recording can be varied with most tuners to allow users to store the files with their preferred balance of audio/video quality, file size, and file format. It may be a process of trial-and-error to find which settings work best with your computer hardware and personal preferences, but the options are generally there. Shows can be recorded in rather basic modes that won’t take up too much disk space, in high quality modes that will require better computer hardware and more disk space, as well as many stages in between. It is best to seek out reviews, such as this one , that show what formats and qualities can be expected with specific tuners, as there are many variables that might need to be considered.

3. Capturing from Other Sources

Capturing from Other SourcesMany tuners are also listed as capture devices, as they do much more than just tune in television programs. In addition to having a coaxial connection for receiving the television signal, most include other ports (S-video, composite, or component) for hooking up items such as a video camera, VCR, DVD player, etc.

The software provided offers options for capturing from these various sources, much like it allows for recording television. The quality of the recording can be configured to suit your needs and computer hardware capabilities, and all your other video sources can be saved to disk (well, maybe not all, as some copyright protected content can’t be recorded legally).

Having the ability to capture from other sources is quite convenient as it can allow for old home movies or VHS tapes to be backed up to your hard drive. These files can then be watched on your computer, or with the appropriate authoring software, they can be burned to a CD or DVD for use in any DVD drive or standalone player. Tapes will eventually wear out, but being able to archive such recordings to disk can help preserve them forever.

4. Computer Interfaces

Computer InterfacesPCI – All of the tuners presently in stock at Geeks.com are of the PCI variety, and this may be the most popular configuration on the market. Most computers have at least one available PCI slot, and the speed of this aging interface is still more than adequate for the demands of viewing/recording TV. The technology in many of the PCI tuners available today is the same as it was years ago, but then again, the same can be said of your typical television, too.

External (USB/Firewire) – Some manufacturers offer external TV tuners that connect to a computer via a high speed connection such as USB 2.0 and Firewire. With the high transfer speeds possible, and the ease of installation, an external tuner is an excellent choice for any computer system. Where a PCI-based tuner can only be used in a desktop computer, an external tuner lends itself to being used with either a desktop or a laptop, make them a far more flexible option.

Some tuners are/were available as USB 1.1 devices, and the performance of this interface can hinder the quality of recordings and even playback. When selecting a USB-based tuner, it is important to make sure that it is specifically USB 2.0 so that you don’t wind up with choppy audio/video. The AverMedia UtraTV 300 is an example of a USB 2.0 based tuner for Windows systems, and the Elgato Systems EyeTV 20 is an example of a Firewire- based tuner for Macs.

AGP/PCIeATI manufacturers typical TV tuners for PCI and USB interfaces, as well as their line of All-In-Wonder (AIW) cards available for AGP, PCIe, and previously PCI. These AIW products combine a TV tuner with a graphics adaptor on one board, allowing you to save an expansion slot on your motherboard without sacrificing quality on either the graphics or TV tuning side of things. Some of the latest high-end graphics cards from ATI are available as standalone models, as well as AIW models, such as the Radeon X800XL.

5. TV Technologies

NTSC/PAL – The standard television signal in the United States, whether it is cable or antenna, is NTSC (National Television System Committee). PAL is a similar technology used in Europe, and the main difference between the two analog standards is that NTSC offers 525 lines of resolution at 60 half frames per second, while PAL offers 625 lines of resolution at 50 half frames per second.

If you want to view television programming from a standard cable connection or an aerial antenna, you would want an NTSC/PAL based tuner. Presently all of the tuners in stock at Geeks.com would fit this bill.

HDTV – It has been mandated that all US broadcasts eventually be in high definition (HD), and many areas already have over-the-air and cable HD programming. The quality of high definition video (and audio) is far superior to NTSC or PAL, as the signal is digital and resolutions can be expected to have either 720 or 1080 lines.

Just as a special HDTV is required to take advantage of the better picture quality, a special TV tuner would also be required to take advantage of HDTV on your PC. There are several HDTV tuners available, and the ATI HDTV Wonder is a PCI-based device that can tune in over-the-air HD broadcasts, as well as standard NTSC broadcasts from cable or an antenna. Note that it only handles HD broadcasts through an antenna, as most other forms of HDTV require a proprietary tuner from your cable or satellite TV provider.

Because computer monitors are capable of resolutions much higher than even HDTV signals, just about any monitor will work. The resolution may need to be adjusted though, as for example, 720 lines of resolution in HDTV would require the monitor to be capable of at least a native resolution of 1024x768. You just need the second number of the display’s resolution (the vertical component) to be equal to, or greater than, the HD signal you want to display.

6. Stand Alone Tuners for Monitors

Stand Alone Tuners for MonitorsIn addition to the devices mentioned so far, there is a similar type of product that can allow TV to be shown on a computer monitor. These devices eliminate the need for a computer, as well as the ability to capture video or record programs, but allow the user to turn any computer monitor into a television. The NextVision N6 from ViewSonic is an example of one of these devices that combines a cable box that outputs a signal compatible with a computer monitor, with a few other special inputs for use with other components like console game systems, DVD players, and VCRs.

7. Final Words

TV tuners add a whole new dimension to any PC, and don’t have to cost much to do so. With the ability to watch TV full screen or in a small window, as well a recording programs much like commercially available personal video recorders, they can be quite a convenient accessory to have.

 

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