TV on your PC is an excellent proposition, and the contemporary TV-Tuners handle the task very well indeed
More and more people are viewing the PC as a source of entertainment. The television remains the major home entertainer, but for many PC users, nothing beats the convenience of TV right on the PC.
After a hiatus of two long years, we bring to you this, our fresh shootout of TV-Tuners available in India. We take a look at tuners of all shapes and kinds, and will help you decide what suits you best. If you haven’t thought about TV on the PC, trust us, once you’ve tried it, you will not be able to live without it!
There are quite a few players in this category—veterans such as AVerMedia, Compro, PixelView, and Pinnacle, as also new players such as Hauppauge, Leadtek WinFast, and Tech-Com. Of the 25 TV Tuners that arrived at our Test Centre, there were 12 PCI TV-Tuners, nine external USB ones, and four set-top TV-Tuners. We assure you these are the choicest solutions available in India!
The most popular and the oldest kind of TV-Tuners are those that fit inside the PC cabinet—the internal TV-Tuner. These cards fit in a free PCI (or in some cases, PCI-E or AGP) slot of the motherboard. These are the most inexpensive, and are generally richer in features.
The chipset around which a TV-Tuner is built is a basic thing that anyone should note before venturing to purchase it. The chipset determines the absolute highest quality that a TV-Tuner card can deliver. The ageing yet reliable Philips chipset is one of the most popular amongst manufacturers; this is because of its splendid performance thanks to its 9-bit ADC (Analogue to Digital Converter) and its amazingly low price. But there are differences to note here: the Philips SAA713x series can only deliver mono TV sound, while the rest are capable of stereo. The AVerMedia AVerTV Go 007 FM Plus, Compro VideoMate TV Gold II, and Pinnacle have such chips.
Then there are 10-bit ADC chips from Conexant (the CX2388x series) which also deliver excellent video quality, albeit at a much higher price. Hauppauge, Leadtek Winfast, and PixelView sport such chips, and are all stereo TV sound capable, including the PixelView PlayTV Pro 2, which has the older Conexant Fusion 878A chip.
Hardware MPEG-2 encoding offloads the CPU from the task of MPEG-2 encoding. This is not of much relevance these days, though, because computers have ample horsepower at their disposal. The Leadtek WinFast PVR2000 is the only one that has a Conexant MPEG-2 encoder chip.
All the cards had FM radio, except for the Pinnacle PCTV Stereo and Tech-Com SSD-TV-670. FM Radio is not an expensive implementation, and is a great value-add.
All the cards have S-Video inputs, while all but the Pinnacle PCTV Pro PCI and PCTV PCI do not have composite inputs. Connect your old camcorder or a VCP to these inputs and you can capture and convert old analogue memories from tapes to digital format on your hard drive—a reason strong enough for some people to buy a TV-Tuner.
The Remote Control
All the TV-Tuners came with remotes. Remote controls come in all shapes and sizes, some as large as police batons (the PixelView PlayTV P3000), while some were card-remotes that will fit in your palm.
Unlike the last time we tested TV-Tuners this time round, the remotes presented better features such as recording and timeshift along with media player controls. Only the Tech-Com SSD-TV-670 has a remote without timeshift.
|How We Tested|
|The test bench comprised an AMD Athlon64 3800 processor on an MSI RS480M2 motherboard with 1 GB of Corsair DDR RAM running at 400 MHz and a 250 GB 7200 rpm Seagate Barracuda SATA II hard drive. The video card was a GeForce 6600, and the sound card was a Creative SoundBlaster Audigy 2 Platinum. Windows XP SP2 along with the latest versions of all necessary drivers as well as DirectX was installed on the testbed.|
We created a System Restore Point, which would serve as a reference point to which we would restore the system after testing each TV-Tuner. This is done in order to avoid possible driver conflict issues: many TV-Tuners that featured the same chip had drivers that consisted of similarly-named files, but which differed in the version number.
We noted the various features of the TV-Tuners such as the chip, presence of a hardware encoder, whether FM radio is supported, and whether the sound was stereo or mono. We noted the number of input/output ports. We also rated the bundled accessories such as a remote control and its functionality, cables, and the software package. Where PVR software was provided, its functionality—such as whether timeshifting was available and whether MPEG-1/2/4 capture facility was provided—was noted and rated. Windows XP Media Center Edition compatibility and Vista readiness were also noted.
The ease of installation of each device was noted and rated. In the cable TV channel detection test, we deliberately created a cable TV point with weak signal strength. This was achieved by introducing joints in the cable that caused signal strength drops. The TV viewing utility provided with the TV-Tuner was used for determining the number of channels each TV-Tuner detected. (There were a total of 90 cable channels available) We also noted whether channels required fine-tuning.
After this test was done, we rated the visual quality of the detected TV channels on a scale of 10. This was a subjective test, so we looked for artefacts and anomalies such as the feathering effect.
Other issues such as crashing of applications and drivers were also noted. Finally, the features, performance, and price together determined the final scores, and thus, the winners.
Cables and Accessories
In addition to FM aerials, IR, and audio cables, there were very few accessories. The Compro VideoMate TV Gold II comes with an internal audio connector as well as a power cable that goes to the motherboard, so the remote control of this TV-Tuner can be used to switch the PC on or off.
Likewise, cards from Leadtek Winfast and Pinnacle, and the PixelView PlayTV P3000, have internal audio cables. These do away with the jungle of external audio cables.
The AV-in cables that come with the Leadtek Winfast cards present a very good opportunity for people to brush the dust off their old camcorders or VCPs and connect them to these cards.
The Software Bundle and PVR
All the TV Tuners come with PVR software that not only lets you view and record TV programs, but also use the timeshift feature. Timeshift is a feature that lets you pause or even rewind live TV, so you can watch an action replay as many times as you wish to. This is a resource-hungry feature, requiring at least a 1.6 GHz CPU and a 7200 rpm hard drive, both of which are standard on any PC these days. This feature is supported by all but the Tech-Com SSD-TV-670. MPEG-1/2/4 recording is standard in all PVRs, except some such as those which come with the PixelView PlayTV P3000, which do not support MPEG-4, and the one that comes with the Pinnacle PCTV PCI that does not support MPEG-2.
Recording requires oodles of free space. While most PVR software can hold their own against each other, some such as the WinFast PVR shine because of features such as PIP (Picture-in-Picture), which lets you view live video in the background and captured video in a window.
Leadtek Winfast PVR2000
The Undisputed King
The Compro VideoMate TV Gold II and Leadtek Winfast PVR2000 are bundled with software that consist of premium video editing software like Ulead’s DVD MovieFactory and VideoStudio. Pinnacle PCTV Pro PCI is the next best, with Pinnacle Studio QuickStart 10—a lite version of their deluxe software.
Windows Media Center Edition and Vista Media Center Readiness
Windows Media Center and Vista Media Center have the same basic requirements, and most of the TV-Tuners cannot not fulfil these. The Leadtek Winfast and Pinnacle are the only ones that qualify in both the above criteria, and are therefore future-proof. The Pinnacle is only Windows XP MCE ready card.
Ease of Installation and Use
Installing the TV-Tuners was very straightforward. Driver installation was also hassle-free, save for the PixelView cards, which took a considerable amount of time because they had drivers for too many cards on the same CD.
Some PVR software are very elementary in appearance. A good example would be the one that came with the Tech-Com TV-Tuners, and also the HonestTech PVR that comes with the PixelView PlayTV Pro 2. Some such as the ones from Hauppauge, Leadtek Winfast, and Pinnacle not only have all the functionality but also a beautiful interface.
The Field Tests
A TV-Tuner is expected to be able to detect all the channels a cable operator has to offer. Of the 90 channels that our cable operator offers, the Compro VideoMate TV Gold II, Leadtek Winfast cards, and the Pinnacle PCTV Stereo PCI could detect 87; most of the other cards were somewhere behind in the 80s. The Tech-Coms were far behind everyone, managing to detect just 68. We expected no card to reach 90, as we had weakened the signal strength to a great extent. A card that manages over 80 is just about as good as any card can be. It is therefore no surprise that fine-tuning was necessary for all the TV-Tuner cards.
Leadtek Winfast TV2000 XP Global
Visual quality is an important parameter for judging a TV-Tuner card. We would like to state that compared to the last TV-Tuner shootout, the visual quality has dramatically improved. Though the chipsets are essentially the same, the improvements in the drivers and the PVR software seem to have done the trick. All the TV-Tuners were decent in this respect, though we would pick the Hauppauge, the Leadtek WinFast duo and the Pinnacle PCTV Stereo, given a choice. The Tech-Com duo was once again behind the lot, though we can safely attribute this to their poor PVR.
|Windows Vista: Media Center|
|Vista, the latest avatar of the world’s most popular operating system, has been released. For those of you eagerly waiting to hear about the much-touted Media Center in Windows Vista, there is good as well as bad news. We shall go with the bad news first.|
If you expected Vista Media Center would be more generous in its acceptance of TV-Tuner types, you are in for a disappointment: it has exactly the same requirements as Windows XP Media Center Edition. The TV-Tuner must have certain features such as a listed at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/partners/dfw/ tvtunercardsreq.mspx, which is niche. Not only are such TV-Tuners expensive, they are really hard to find, especially in India.
The good news is that Vista Media Center is extremely easy to set up. It has Wizards—very similar to those in its predecessor—that guide you through the setup process, and everything is well-explained. Vista Media Center is seamlessly integrated with the OS and therefore appears as an extension of it. It is not just another PVR software: it is a whole multimedia entertainment suite that includes a music player, DVD player, and so on.
Unlike Windows XP Media Center Edition, which only comes bundled with Media Center PCs and cannot be bought as a separate OS, you can pick up your copy of Vista off the shelf. Compatible TV-Tuners, such as one from Hauppauge, are already appearing in the market, and it will not be long before their prices go down.
Microsoft launched the MCE program early last year, and has already made available features such as EPG (Electronic Program Guide). An EPG provides you not only informative program schedules for various channels, but also lets the Media Center schedule recordings of programmes when you aren’t around. Being seamlessly integrated, it has one of the best interfaces you may see in PVRs (Personal Video Recorders), and it also performs remarkably well.
One can record HDTV broadcasts. Unfortunately, neither this broadcast standard nor the supporting TV-Tuners will be available in India at least for the next few years. All of the Media Center can be controlled using the remote bundled with the TV-Tuner.
External TV Tuners
For those who happen to own a laptop (and there are quite a few), an internal TV Tuner is not an option. Some find opening a PC, a daunting task, or some motherboards may not have a free PCI slot to accommodate an internal PCI TV Tuner card. In such cases, an external TV Tuner is the only viable solution. There are certain advantages that external TV Tuners have over internal ones, such as its better image quality, thanks to the reduction of interference from internal PC components. External TV Tuners are further subdivided into two categories: External USB and External Set Top TV Tuners.
External USB TV Tuners
External USB TV-Tuners can do everything an internal TV Tuner can do. They connect to the PC via the USB 2.0 interface, which sports an ideal data throughput of 480 Mbps. The bandwidth of USB 1.1 (11 Mbps) is insufficient for the data passing between the TV-Tuner and the PC. External TV-Tuners come at a premium, and are bundled with a lot of cables and accessories.
FM radio in an external USB TV Tuner was something we’d never seen before. This time, we actually received two such products: the Compro VideoMate Action Pro and the Hauppauge WinTV-USB-FM.
Hardware Encoder And TV standards
Like FM radio, we had not anticipated a TV-Tuner would boast of a hardware MPEG-2 encoder, but the Leadtek Winfast PalmTop TV has this feature. As already explained, this offloads the CPU from the encoding task. All the TV-Tuners except for the Leadtek Winfast and Pinnacle PCTV USB2 (which support only PAL) support both PAL and NTSC. This is not much of a concern, as NTSC is non-existent in India.
Leadtek Winfast Palm Top TV
Dual Channel PIP? Wow!
Being the most popular of I/O ports for video, S-Video is present across the category. The exceptions are the Compro VideoMate U890 and U900, and the Tech-Com SSD-TV-812Plus. A Composite port is present only in the Compro VideoMate Action Pro and the two Pinnacle PCTVs.
The Remote Control
It’s hard to understand why, but the Hauppauge TV-Tuners do not have a remote. Recording and timeshifting are features common to all the TV-Tuners, but PIP in the Leadtek WinFast make it stand out.
Cables and Accessories
Compro made it a point to provide all the required cables with the VideoMate U900 and the VideoMate Action Pro. The Tech-Com SSD-TV-812Plus also has all the required cables. Compro also bundles coaxial converters with the U890 and the U900, though it is not needed with the U900, which has a coaxial port compatible with Indian standards.
Software Bundle And PVR
PVR software is standard with all the TV-Tuners, and they are more or less similar in features. Some, such as the WinFast PVR that accompanies the Leadtek Winfast, feature PIP (Picture-In-Picture), but with a major difference: it is capable of displaying two channels at the same time!
Compro and Leadtek Winfast bundle heaps of premium video editing software such as Ulead’s DVD MovieFactory and VideoStudio. Pinnacle bundles Studio QuickStart 10.
Looks And Build
The external TV-Tuners came in all shapes and sizes, and we would like to mention a few notables. The Compro VideoMate Action Pro is, without a doubt, the most rugged of them all, with a strong metallic casing. The sleek VideoMate U900 is shaped like and as small as a cigarette lighter. The U890 has the appearance of a USB thumb drive. The Hauppauge TV Tuners are housed in elegant translucent casings.
Windows Media Center Edition and Vista Media Center Readiness
Windows XP Media Center Edition compatibility and Vista readiness exists only on the Leadtek Winfast Palmtop TV, while the Pinnacle PCTV to go is only XP MCE compatible. We would like to make it clear that when we speak of compatibility and readiness, it does not mean that only those TV-Tuners that are “ready” for these operating systems can be used with them. With the proper drivers and their own PVR, non-compatible TV-Tuners can work without a problem, but they will not function with the inbuilt PVRs of these operating systems.
Ease Of Installation And Use
Driver installation was hitch-free in all the cases. The PVR software provided by all the TV-Tuners were functionally almost on par; only, the one that comes with the Tech-Com does not have an interface as good as the others.
The Field Tests
In the channel detection test, there was not too much of a variation. The Compro VideoMate Action Pro detected 86 of the 90 channels, while the Leadtek WinFast PalmTop TV was very close, at 85. The Tech-Com did 75, which is not too bad a figure. Fine-tuning of channels was necessary in all the cases.
As far as image quality goes, there were several contenders for top spot. The Compro VideoMate Action Pro, the Hauppage duo, the Leadtek Winfast, and the Pinnacle PCTV to go are the best. The Tech-Com is at the lower end, its image quality can still be called decent.
External Set Top TV-Tuners
Many people—such as those who leave their homes and stay at rented accommodations in another city—have a computer that is used for study or work. Recording is not of importance to them, and they’re not too technically inclined—and also do not want to get themselves a TV set. For such people, there are External Set Top TV-Tuners, which don’t need a computer: all they need is a monitor. These are TV-Tuners that offer the best video quality amongst TV-Tuners of all kinds.
Compro VideoMate Action Pro
Missed by a Whisker
The maximum resolution of the TV-Tuner determines the sharpness and detail of the image. The maximum resolution of three of the TV-Tuners in this category is a healthy 1280 x 1024, which is as high as what most 17-inch monitors can handle. Only the Tech-Com SSD-TV-715 has a resolution of 640 x 480, which is low by any standards. If you’re using an LCD monitor, this is a concern, because LCDs display fuzzy images when not using their native hardware resolution. The other three TV-Tuners can handle as many as eight different resolutions, one of which would surely be that of your LCD.
Picture-In-Picture is present on the AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 and the Tech-Com SSD-TV-722. Using this feature, you can continue working at your PC, while the TV window will be perched unobtrusively in a corner of the Desktop.
AVerMedia AVer TV Box ?
Bet you can't get anything Better than This!
Being external set-top tuners, these did not lack any of the necessary inputs such as S-Video and Composite. The Zebronics has a port that looks like the USB port, but we found it’s there to accept a connection via the AV cable from an external AV source such as a DVD player. The AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 even has a headphone socket.
The Remote Control
The remote controls accompanying these TV-Tuners are very much like those of a regular television set. This was because of the fact that these tuners are functionally very much like a TV set, except for the display and speakers, of course. Some additional features such as Picture-In-Picture—in the case of the AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 and the Tech-Com SSD-TV-722—can be controlled using their remotes. The Tech-Com SSD-TV-715 has a Menu button to access functions such as inbuilt games, which are of the most elementary kind.
Cables And Accessories
These TV-Tuners are placed between the computer’s display adapter and the monitor, if you’re using a PC. If you wish to switch between PC and TV on-the-fly, the tuners connect to the monitor and also receive input from the display adapter. An audio cable is another accessory to get audio from the unit to the sound card’s Line-In. The Tech-Com SSD-TV-722 comes with an MMI (MultiMedia Interface) cable, while the Zebronics comes with an AV cable to get video and audio inputs from external sources such as a DVD player. This way, you can play a DVD without the need for a PC.
Looks and Build
The AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 is the most rugged, and it comes with a stand that allows it to stand upright. This not only adds to visual elegance, it also conserves desktop space. The Zebronics has a better build than the Tech-Coms. Overall, these look dull compared to the Box7.
Ease of Setup and Use
Setting up these TV-Tuners is, again, extremely easy. The accompanying manuals have easy instructions in any case. Using them is as easy as using your TV set. Of all of them, the AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 is the easiest to use.
The Field Tests
We had high expectations from these as compared to TV-Tuners of the other categories, because these can be disconnected from the PC and its interfering radiation. True to our expectations, these tuners performed remarkably better.
The AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 was ahead of the pack, detecting 88 channels. The Tech-Com SSD-TV-722 could manage 84, while the remaining could do 82. But as we’ve already mentioned, this is not a bad figure at all.
Nothing came even close to the AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 as far as image quality goes. Even at the same resolution, the Tech-Com SSD-TV-722 and the Zebronics lagged in this respect. The Tech-Com SSD-TV-715, which has a resolution of 640 x 480, was way behind the former three, owing to its much lower resolution.
Even with the same chipsets, we saw that many TV-Tuners performed differently and exhibited variation in image quality. Therefore, it is not only the chipset that matters, but also the PCB design and the PVR. Most TV-Tuner manufacturers go by the reference board design, but an innovative few dare to invest in R&D and make design improvements. It is therefore fair that such manufacturers charge a premium for their products.
Good Value For Your Money
In the internal PCI category, the Leadtek WinFast TV-Tuners stole the show. These have all the features one would expect from a TV-Tuner, and they are also compatible with Windows XP MCE and Vista. The PVR2000 is the only tuner with an MPEG-2 encoder chip, and comes well-endowed with a useful software bundle. Both these cards excelled in performance as well as features, and come with all the necessary cables. The Digit Best Buy Gold therefore goes to Leadtek WinFast PVR2000, while the Digit Best Buy Silver goes to the Leadtek WinFast TV2000 XP Global in this category.
In the external USB TV-Tuner category, the Leadtek WinFast PalmTop TV exhibited performance par excellence. It is the lone card with features such as hardware MPEG-2 encoding, PIP with two channels simultaneously, and MCE compatibility. At Rs 3,900, this is without hesitation the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold in this category.
The Compro VideoMate Action Pro has good video quality—as good as the Gold winner—and with it comes the most extensive and useful software and cable bundle. Priced just right at Rs 3,395, this is rightfully awarded the Digit Best Buy Silver.
Nothing came close to the AVerMedia AVerTV Box7 in terms of performance, and it rode ahead of the rest with the best channel detection score and video quality at a high resolution of 1280 x 1024. It has all types of connectors, enabling you to connect any AV source to it. Though priced a bit too high, this is as close to TV you can get on a monitor, and it is therefore the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold in this category.
At a fraction of the cost of the Gold winner, the Tech-Com SSD-TV-722 has most of the features you would expect from any TV-Tuner option in its category. We award it the Digit Best Buy Silver.
While Digital Television in the form of DVB-T has been in India since 1999 (See box Digital Television), it has been limited to the four major metros. Then there is DTH CAS (Direct-To-Home Conditional Access System, a pay-per-view cable system), which again is limited to the four major metros at present. But with satellite television providers such as DishTV and TataSky making strong forays into the market, the Indian consumer outside of the metros will finally get to see what digital television looks and sounds like.
The problem here is that these providers install a dish receiver and a set-top box tuner. What this means is that the tuner in your TV or your PC becomes obsolete (along with your trusty remote), and the sole function of a TV set or TV-Tuner is to accept the audio and video signals of the channel descrambled and tuned by the set-top box. We hope that in the near future, TV-Tuners that can descramble video signals and also tune channels from these providers.