TV Tuner Cards

How it works

Digital TV Tuner cards for computers are relatively simple pieces of hardware: in essence, they include a regular coaxial aerial connector, a RF tuner, and a decoder. The signal hits the antenna, is passed down to the tuner and then to the decoder. The information is then processed by either a dedicated MPEG-2 decoder or the computer's processor. A basic digital TV tuner kit will include a TV tuner card and some software to record and watch TV.

Most mid-range TV tuner bundles also include a remote control and infrared receiver, which is used to drive the tuner software. These will often include a digital radio tuner, too, which also allows the user to receive digital radio broadcasts. Basic models often forego the remote control, but if you're planning on using the computer as a TV, it's a crucial component.

Interface: Internal or External

The first choice to make after deciding to go with a digital TV tuner card is figuring out whether you want to opt for an internal or external solution. Digital TV tuners are available as both internal cards that fit into a PCI slot or as external USB devices.

An internal card requires a spare PCI slot, as well as a desire to open your computer up to install it. This isn't technically challenging, just a little daunting if you've never done it. PCI Express models are also available that take advantage of the PCI Express bus found on newer motherboards. These are functionally similar to the internal PCI models but are designed to fit the PCI Express slot instead. Internal cards tend to be cheaper than their external brethren, but they're a little less flexible.

3G

Internal cards start around $99 and go up to $250. Generally, a basic model will include a card, some tuner software, and little else. The card will include a coaxial aerial connector, but you'll have to go shopping for coaxial cable yourself, and if you're serious about watching TV from a distance you'll also have to add a third-party USB or Serial infrared remote control. These cards are generally adequate for recording shows though, and if your primary goal is to be able to watch TV while sitting at a PC this solution is ideal. Higher-end models will generally include more cabling, a wider range of connectors, a remote control, richer software bundle, as well as extra filters to clean the image. As a result, they'll offer a slightly superior picture to less expensive models, but the difference isn't enormous.

Some high-end tuners will even include analogue inputs, allowing the user to record footage from a VCR. This sort of device can do double duty: it can be used to receive and record broadcast TV and also for converting old VHS, Super 8 or Beta tapes into a digital format.

An external device is the only viable solution for notebook users while also favouring those that don't want to mess around opening their computers. Better yet, they're portable. You're generally looking at a slight price premium to move from an internal to external solution. When buying an external tuner, the best bet is to go for a USB 2.0 or Firewire model. This is because the limited speed of USB 1.1 (11Mbps) isn't adequate for the data passing between the tuner and the PC. To avoid any playback glitches, Firewire (400Mbps) and USB 2.0 (480Mbps) of bandwidth respectively, which is plenty to cover the demands of a digital TV tuner. External tuners start at around $120 and go up to $300. Like their internal counterparts, the more expensive models feature extra software, cabling and often ship with a remote control.

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