Media Centres

The TV tuner

TV tuner

Nearly all media centre PCs will have a TV tuner installed in them. Having a TV tuner card allows the PC to act as a personal video recorder, much like the DVD/HDD combination recorders that are available as stand-alone units. TV shows can be recorded to the PC's hard disk and watched at will, or archived.

A TV tuner card will also allow time-shifting; that is, pausing and rewinding "live" TV. If you press pause while watching TV, the PC will buffer the show on the hard disk, allowing you to leave for that coffee or toilet break and come back and pick up exactly where you left off.

There are considerable differences in TV tuners. Some are internal PCI expansion cards; others are external USB 2.0 or FireWire boxes. Internal or external doesn't have much of qualitative difference (unless the external device is USB 1.1, which should be avoided).

Almost all TV tuners these days will have the ability to receive high definition broadcasts (HDTV). The biggest choice is deciding whether or not to get a card with dual tuners. Depending on the software that the card ships with, these types of cards will allow you to record one channel whilst watching another, or use picture-in-picture functionality. The other option is an analogue/digital hybrid card, which is able to receive either digital or analogue broadcasts. Currently, however, analogue broadcasts in Australia are scheduled to be switched off sometime between 2010 and 2012, so you won't be able to pick up analogue signals after the switch-off date.

One very important note: if you plan to use Windows Media Centre Edition (MCE), you cannot just stick any old card into the PC and expect it to work. MCE requires specific drivers, called BDA (broadcast driver architecture) drivers, and you need to make sure that your TV tuner has the required driver support. If your card doesn't have BDA drivers, it won't work with MCE.

Some TV tuners also support radio tuning, which allows you to listen to FM (and sometimes AM) broadcast radio on your PC. You can decide whether or not this matters to you. It's also worth looking at whether a card has an RCA input, which allows you to capture analogue signals from video recorders and cameras. RCA cables are analogue, so any video transferred through them will suffer from analogue interference - but they can be very useful to have.

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