Choosing an TV Tuner

Mark says, I want to buy a TV tuner card for my home PC. What feature should I be looking for? Will I need to increase the RAM on my system (currently 512 MB)?
If you don’t have an immediate need for the tuner, my best advice is to wait until CableCARD tuners start shipping around the end of this year. Current TV Tuner solutions require a convoluted wiring scheme to make using a remote control with the TV tuner and cable guide on the computer feasible because you still need a digital cable box in the mix. The remote functionality is necessary for both changing channels for viewing and using PVR software to record shows. CableCARD integrates the digital cable box function into the TV tuner, making everything work seamlessly. If what you’re looking for is an immediate solution for recording shows, you can find a number of reasonably priced options to carry you through the end of the year. Before deciding on a specific TV Tuner, you need to decide how you want to use it.

HDTV Tuning

If you have an HDTV, over-the-air HDTV tuner cards provide the only means of viewing and recording HDTV on your computer. These over-the-air tuners rely on an external antenna to receive HDTV broadcasts, with available programming varying widely depending on where you live. Major metropolitan areas have a wider selection of offerings than small markets.

Standard Definition Tuning

If you aren’t planning to watch or record HDTV, there are at least 100 options. Ideally you want to look for tuners that use hardware encoding, which offloads the recording functionality to the TV tuner, keeping the heavy lifting away from your processor. The WinTV 250 and WinTV 350 from Hauppauge are both solid choices for hardware encoding. ATI’s TV Wonder Elite provides what I consider the best looking picture in the class.

Software Compatibility

One thing to watch for in choosing a TV tuner card is software compatibility. Most of the cards include some kind of PVR solution, but they are generally inferior to third party solutions. My three favorites at the moment are Beyond TV, SageTV and Windows XP Media Center Edtion. The best guide for finding a card remains the Designed for Media Center Edition list provided by Microsoft. I haven’t found a card on that list that isn’t also compatible with other apps, although it’s still a good idea to scan the list of supported cards for the software you plan on using.

Record Format

Windows Media Center Edition and its competitors all record in MPEG-2 format by default. As I pointed out above, getting a hardware encoding solution with MPEG-2 support is ideal from a computer resource perspective. MCE competitors like Beyond TV and SageTV both support recording in DivX format with compatible tuner cards and SageTV also supports MPEG-4. The files sizes of MPEG-2 recordings are considerably larger than MPEG-4, which is the big downside to opting for MPEG-2 recording options. Plextor makes three cards with MPEG-4 recording capability. Regardless, make sure you have plenty of drive space for recording shows.

Before You Buy

The bottom line in buying a tuner card is to:

  • Decide whether you will record Standard Def television, HDTV, or both
  • Avoid software encoding
  • Pick a card compatible with your software
  • Choose a card based on the format you want to record