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Tech Tip 87 - 5 Ways to Watch TV on the Computer

By Jason Kohrs

Over the last several years, computers have worked their way out of the office and into just about every aspect of our daily lives. Home computers are no longer boring beige boxes destined for a boring existence revolving around e-mails and personal finances. They can also be the key to our personal entertainment that allows us to immerse ourselves in games, music, movies, and television (TV).

This Tech Tip will focus on the television portion of the list above, and will take a look at five ways in which just about anyone can enjoy watching television on their computer monitor.


PC TV Tuners

The most common way to get TV or other video on your PC may be to use a tuner specifically designed to interface with your PC. These devices are available with a variety of interfaces and feature sets offering great compatibility with just about any personal computer (PC).

The basic principle of a PC TV tuner is that you connect the device to your computer, and then you connect your cable or antenna television source to the device, just like you would connect to any typical TV.

There is an interface to turn just about any available connection on your PC into a TV source, including: PCI, USB, Cardbus, PCI Express, and FireWire. So, it doesn’t matter whether you have a desktop or laptop, or if you are running Windows, Linux, or a Mac. You can find standard (NTSC/PAL) cable or HDTV tuners configured in single or dual tuner arrangements.

All of the tuning is done with a combination of hardware and software, so quality will vary from one tuner to another based on the quality of the tuner components and the design of the application and drivers. Watching television is the easy part, but the great thing about these tuners is the ability to record.

Higher-end cards will provide better video quality during live television playback, and in general will offer more options and capabilities when it comes to recording and saving programs to your hard drive. Having a dual-tuner card allows you to watch one show while recording another, or even record two shows at the same time. Even if you don’t have a dual-tuner card, you can create a similar setup by installing multiple TV tuners into one computer.

All of this, especially the recording and encoding, requires some reasonable computing power. Many times just meeting the minimum specifications published by the manufacturer will leave you less than impressed. In addition to a fast processor, you’ll need enough memory and a hard drive that is not only fast enough to keep up, but large enough to hold all of your recordings.

One big upside to this method of getting television onto your computer is the wide array of choices, interfaces, and price ranges. You can be up and running on a basic tuner for around $25, and since they are also available with USB and FireWire connections, your installation might take just a minute or so and doesn’t have to involve opening your computer case. Other strong points of this method are the recording capabilities, potential for high quality audio and video, portability when used with a laptop, and the ability to install multiple tuners in one system.

A possible downside to this method is that you need a computer with the horsepower to keep up with the demands of your tuner or tuners. Just watching cable TV might not stress a system that is even several years old, but trying to watch an HD broadcast while recording from another tuner might best be done on a more modern computer. Another potential downside is also related to HD, and that is that most HDTV tuners are for over-the-air high definition broadcasts only. There are tuners that can access HD digital cable, but the vast majority of HD tuners will require an antenna and also that you be physically located in the vicinity of an over-the-air HD broadcast.

Computer Monitor TV Tuners

Although the title of this section may not be the most technical term available to describe the product in question, it is a fair description. This type of TV tuner connects to your computer monitor directly, and does not require that your computer be powered up in order to enjoy television (or any of the other video input sources they may support). The device connects between your computer and monitor, and with a press of a button or click of a remote control you can switch between your computer display and your favorite TV show.

The TV Jockey and ViewSonic NextVision N5 are two examples of this sort of “PC-less” TV tuner that allow just about any computer monitor to be converted into a display for TV, DVD, and other video sources (security video on your PC monitor, anyone?)

One key advantage of this type of tuner is that you are not relying on the computer at all - you simply need a monitor. This way, you do not have to worry about any PC noise (the whirring of fans and droning of drives) hindering your enjoyment, there is no software to install, and you do not have to worry about your computer hardware meeting minimum specifications for proper operation.

The downside to this type of tuner is that you cannot use your computer to record, and since the tuner is not built into your computer, it will probably be a stationary device.

Watch TV Online

With high speed Internet reaching new heights in popularity and available speed, many outlets (such as YouTube) are taking advantage of it to share their video content. This includes pre-recorded content, but now there are a variety of programs available to watch TV online.

Some of the major broadcast networks now have programs available online, such as CBS and their CBS Innertube originals. Established online media portals now also offer television programming, like Shoutcast TV. Shoutcast has been streaming audio through Winamp for years, but now you can also watch television programs from around the world through the familiar Winamp interface.

There are also some websites out there that have sprung up to serve as portals to direct TV feeds from around the world. World Wide Internet TV and Beeline TV are just two examples that will let you watch things like the local news from sunny California or a soccer match from Eastern Europe.

The main advantage of this type of television is that it is readily available anywhere broadband Internet is available. Today, you can watch shows from around the world that you could not get on standard cable TV, and there is no additional charge over your Internet service fees.

The negative aspects of broadband TV are that the selection of shows is presently quite limited, and in most cases, the image quality is rather poor. Although people have more bandwidth than ever on their personal broadband connections, having shows stream in broadcast quality (or dare we wish for HD quality?) is generally cost and hardware restrictive.

Network Attached TV Tuners and The SlingBox

The SlingBox is the prime example of this type of device, which I feel will eventually become more refined and extremely popular. Computer Geeks often has the SlingBox in stock.

The basic principal of the SlingBox is that you connect the device to your television cable (and perhaps other video sources), as well as your wired local area network (RJ-45 connection). The SlingBox is then able to share cable TV over your network, and when properly configured, over the Internet. You can share the audio/video to your desktop PC wired to your local area network, your WiFi-enabled laptop, or even to your work computer whether it is 10 miles away or on the other side of the world.

The device is controlled from any computer with the software installed and proper login credentials. You can then not only watch TV, but you can also control it; change channels, video sources, and more. Special IR adapters included with the SlingBox allow you to control other items, such as DVD players and personal video recorders just like the cable TV function.

The biggest upside to a device such as the SlingBox is that you can share your home audio/video and television with any computer on your local area network or anywhere in the world with a broadband connection.

One downside is that video quality isn’t the greatest due to the restrictions of bandwidth, and it only gets worse when you go from local to Internet viewing. Another issue is that the present design only allows one computer to broadcast the SlingBox content at a time. You cannot set up the device to share a program and allow all of your friends to watch, so just forget about starting your own pay-per-view company with one of these devices!

Digital Cable Box

This may seem like an unlikely source for TV on your computer, but have you taken a look at the back of some of the digital cable boxes on the market today?

There are plenty of connections that make it look like a computer all on its own: Serial, USB, FireWire, S/PDIF, Ethernet, DVI, and more may all be found on the back side of the device you use with your traditional television. Scientific Atlanta is just one manufacturer with products designed to do far more than the typical cable box.

Although some of these familiar “PC” connections may not do anything for your computer, you could easily get TV on your PC in one way or another. Some cable boxes allow the streaming of raw data from the box to your computer’s hard drive via FireWire. You could then have an HD (High Definition) recording to play back or burn to DVD, sent straight from the cable box to your PC.

In addition to the various data connections, the video connections could be connected to either your computer or directly to your monitor. Connections such as component outputs on the cable box could be used to send video to a capture card or graphics card with VIVO (Video In / Video Out) support in the PC for watching and/or recording. The DVI connection could be used to go straight to your monitor.

The main upside of this method of getting television on to your computer is that the signal may be of the highest quality and look superb on screen and in recordings.

The main downsides are that it may not be particularly convenient and compatibility features will vary from one cable box to another. Also, while some equipment provides these connections for “future use,” in many cases their use is not currently documented or supported by providers.

Final Words on Watching TV On a Computer

Computers definitely aren’t all business any more, and have been key contributors to personal entertainment for years. The ability to use a computer to watch and record television in a variety of ways has helped reduce the divide between work and play greatly. There are a variety of ways to get television (and other video sources) onto your computer monitor and the five categories discussed cover your best bets for merging the two technologies.


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Computer Geek Humor

A young executive was leaving the office at 6 p.m. when he found the CEO standing in front of a shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.

"Listen," said the CEO, "this is important, and my secretary has left. Can you make this thing work?"

"Certainly," said the young executive. He turned the machine on, inserted the paper, and pressed the start button.

"Excellent, excellent!" said the CEO as his paper disappeared inside the machine. "I just need one copy."

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