Tune That TV

Published Date
01 - May - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2005
 
Tune That TV
In the recently concluded India-Pakistan cricket series, cricket fever was at its pinnacle. You may think, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could capture and preserve those memorable moments (read: sixes, catches, wickets, or Afridi's superb annihilation of our bowling attack in the fifth ODI), so I could re-live the entire experience again?"

To add to your woes, that obsolete piece of hardware known as your VCR is no longer operational. Rejoice then, for it is that time of year again-time for the TV Tuner shootout.

TV tuners today have become so inexpensive and feature-packed that, by the time you are through reading this article, chances are you will have made up your mind to go and grab one that suits your needs.

This time around, we went looking for both internal and external TV tuners. External TV tuners were of two types-USB devices and set-top TV boxes that are in-line gadgets that connect between the PC's analogue VGA-out and the VGA-in of your monitor.

Internal PCI TV Tuner Cards
This category is the most popular, mainly due to lower prices, good quality, features, and the fact that these cards sit inside the PC cabinet and don't occupy valuable space on your desktop.

We received 11 internal PCI TV Tuner cards. The companies that sent us cards included AVerMedia, Compro, Mercury, MSI, Pinnacle, PixelView and Tech-Com. MSI and Tech-Com were the newcomers this year.

Features
We noticed a major shift in the manufacturers' choice of TV tuner chips this year. Last year, the Conexant (Brooktree) Bt8x8 chip dominated the TV tuner market. This year, the Philips 713x ranked high among most manufacturers.

All the cards came with bundled PVR software of some sort that supported at least   MPEG-1 video capture. Time-shift was also supported by all the cards, with the exception of the Tech-Com Super TV SSD-TV-670.

Barring the Compro VideoMate TV Gold II, Pinnacle PCTV Stereo, MSI Mega TV Tuner card and the Tech-Com Super TV SSD-TV-670, all cards featured an FM radio tuner. The TV tuners based on the Philips SAA7130HL chip supported only mono TV audio. This really doesn't make a difference, since India does not have stereo cable TV signals.

The remote controllers that came with the TV tuners varied in size and functionality. Many came with remote controllers the size of a credit card. The Compro had a medium-sized remote controller, while the PixelView MediaCentre PlayTV@P3000's was big enough to club someone to death with, though it was definitely the most feature-rich of the lot-with exotic features such as zoom and DVD playback control.
All the TV tuners came with connecting cables. Some, such as the Tech-Com card, came with an S-video to S-video and a 3 to 1 AV cable in addition to the stereo cable, while the PixelView MediaCentre PlayTV@P3000 came with just a stereo cable. The software packages also varied; while many TV tuners came with just the drivers and no-nonsense PVR software, some, such as the Compro VideoMate Gold Plus II, came with Ulead's MovieFactory 2 SE and VideoStudio 2 SE DVD software.

The MSI Mega TV Tuner Card came with InterVideo WinCinema Suite-a great software package.

All the cards came with PVR software that had MPEG-1 and 2 capture capabilities, with the exception of Mercury-it could not capture to MPEG-2. Some cards, such as the AVerMedia, PixelView PlayTV Pro 2 and Tech-Com, also supported MPEG-4 capturing.

As far as looks go, the Compro Videomate Gold II and Gold Plus II stand out from the crowd with their gold plating. The Pinnacle and MSI cards had sleek looking tuner units-the Pinnacle was the sleekest. This is an advantage because a sleek form factor leaves more room for air circulation between adjacent cards and the cabinet on the whole.

How We Tested TV Tuners 
We noted various features of the TV tuners, such as the chip, whether FM radio is supported, and whether the TV sound is stereo or mono. We noted the number of input/output ports, and higher points were awarded when a higher number of ports were featured.
We also rated the bundled accessories such as remote controller, cables and software packaging. Where PVR software was provided, its functionality, such as whether time-shifting was available, and whether MPEG-1/2/4 capture facility was provided was noted and rated accordingly. The ease of installation of the TV tuner was also noted and rated.
The test bench comprised an AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 processor on a MSI K8T Neo motherboard with 512 MB of Corsair DDR RAM running at 400 MHz and a 120 GB 7200 rpm Seagate Barracuda SATA/150 hard drive. The video card was a GeForce FX 5700LE, and the sound card was a Creative SoundBlaster Audigy 2 Platinum. We installed Windows XP SP1 and installed the necessary hotfixes. We then installed Directx 9.0c and the latest drivers, and created a System Restore Point to get a reference point to which we could restore the system after testing each TV tuner.
This was done in order to avoid possible driver conflict issues, as many TV tuners that featured the same chip had drivers that consisted of similarly-named files and only different version numbers.
In the cable TV channel detection test, we deliberately created a cable TV point with a weak signal strength. This was done by introducing joints in the cable, which caused signal strengths to drop at each point. The TV viewing utility provided with the TV tuner was used to determine the number of channels that the TV tuner could detect.
After this, we rated the visual quality of the detected TV channels on a scale of 5. This was a subjective test, and we looked for artefacts and anomalies in different channels.
Next, we tested the TV tuners to capture content using both cable and S-Video as the input sources. We used VirtualDub 1.6.5 to capture content from the S-Video input in uncompressed raw AVI format (RGB-555) with PCM uncompressed audio.
We noted the number of frames dropped, and checked the quality of the captured content without any compression, made by either the hardware or software. We used VirtualDub, since it uses the minimum system resources.
We also used the TV tuners to capture regular cable content using the applications and software supplied by the manufacturers. This was done to check both, the quality of content, and also the real-world performance of the TV tuner. Any other issues, such as crashing of applications and drivers were also noted. In short, features, performance and pricing were considered to choose the winners.
Performance
Almost all the cards performed well. The ease of installation of the drivers and PVR were noted. We were very disappointed by the Mercury card, as we had a tough time installing the drivers and PVR software.

Time Shifting 
The telephone always rings at the wrong time, doesn't it? People only think of calling when you are in the shower or while you are watching your favourite show on the telly. When it comes to the shower, you're on your own, but you never need miss another minute of your favourite TV shows.
Wouldn't it be cool to be your own third umpire when watching a cricket match? No need to wait for the replay: just replay the last ball automatically on your own! Perhaps you would also love to skip or       fast-forward advertisements?
All the above is easy with a TV tuner card. All you need to do is invest in a TV tuner card that offers time-shifting features. Previously, this was only possible using a set-top box such as the TiVo. However, today, PVR software is all you need.
So, how does it work? While you watch your favourite show the audio and video is saved to your hard disk in real-time. But this is where the similarity between video capturing and time-shifting ends. Time-shifting lets you view the recorded content while the recording is being done. Thus, when you pause the video, the recording continues, and when you press play, the delayed video is played back.
However, the quality of the time-shifted video always seems to be inferior to live video. This quality depends on the video capture format selected in the capture settings of the PVR software. A better capture format such as MPEG-2 at DVD resolution would result in better quality, but would need a high-end system to run.
Also, the time duration for which a programme can be paused depends on the free space available on the hard drive. Time-shifting is critically dependent on processor speed and hard disk speed, but today, with even entry level PCs being shipped with sufficiently high processing power CPUs, this has become a non-issue.

When we installed the Pinnacle PCTV Rave on our other test machine, it couldn't initialise properly after the driver installation, and hence refused to work. The device manager showed that it had a problem. You have to be careful when buying such a card.

The PVR application bundled with the PixelView cards hogged system resources so much that they brought our test machine to a virtual standstill for a few minutes. The Pinnacle PVR application interface needs a face-lift, while the application provided by Mercury can be best described as vanilla.

In the channel detection test, all cards fared well except for the Pinnacle PCTV Rave, which detected a miserably low 27 channels, and the PixelView PlayTV Pro2, which detected just 54 out of the total 87 available channels.

The problem probably lies in the bundled PVR application, because when we tried to use a third party PVR application, we could detect a lot more channels with both cards.

After the channel detection part of the test was over, we observed the visual quality of the channels, and found that the Compro VideoMate PVR/FM had the best image quality, followed by its more expensive siblings-the Compro VideoMate Gold II and Gold Plus II.

A point to be noted here is that the TV tuner cards with the Philips SAA713xHL chip offered a much better image quality than the ones featuring Conexant chips.

In the capture test, which determines the number of frames dropped. Here, the PixelView PlayTV Pro2 scored the lowest by dropping seven frames-the maximum  number of frames dropped.

The Mercury TV tuner card dropped six frames, and came second last, but the Compro TV tuners that performed flawlessly, and never dropped a single frame.

External TV Tuners
A PCI TV tuner card has inherent downsides. The tuner unit is situated inside the PC cabinet, and hence, is prone to interference from various PC components, which effects quality.

When a tuner is at work, it heavily loads the PCI bus. Also, some motherboards might not have a spare PCI slot to accommodate the PCI TV tuner card, and those with laptops just cannot use one.

In such situations, using an external TV tuner is a good solution. Remember, external TV tuners are sub-divided into two categories: USB and set-top tuners-which use a loopback cable from the VGA-out of the display card to the unit and from the unit to the CRT. The Digit Test Centre received three TV tuners in each of these categories.

External USB TV Tuners
TV tuners of this type connect to the USB port of the PC. Due to the high data rate required for the transfer of information from the TV tuner to the PC, all the tuners of these type work on the USB 2.0 interface, which ideally supports a data throughput of 480 Mbps. AVerMedia, Tech-Com and Pinnacle sent us TV tuners of this type.

Features
All the tuners in this category had the necessary input/output ports.  The Pinnacle PCTV MediaCenter came with just a single USB cable, whereas the others came with a few more cables.

The AVerMedia AVerTV USB 2.0 did not come with a remote, which is a must for any TV tuner. The Pinnacle PCTV MediaCenter came with the most feature rich remote, and was comfortable to handle.

The build quality of the AVerTV USB 2.0 was the most rugged, with its aluminium-like finish and compact, square form factor.

The Pinnacle MediaCenter was the most elegant looking of the three, with its cool blue LED and a nice curved shape.

When it came to bundled software, the Pinnacle PCTV provided the best PVR software, with all the necessary features. It also came bundled with Pinnacle MediaCenter. 

The Tech-Com SSD-TV-811 came with a PVR known as the TV Jukebox, which supported MPEG-1/2/4 video capturing. The PVR software provided by AVerMedia supported MPEG-4 capture in addition to MPEG-1 and 2 capturing.
Jargon Buster 
PVR: Abbreviation for Personal Video Recorder, this software allows a TV tuner to record video content in real-time.
Timeshifting: Timeshifting is a feature of PVR that allows you to pause, replay or skip a portion of a live TV programme. You have absolute control over how you watch on TV.
MPEG: MPEG is a group (Moving Picture Experts Group) that develops standards for digital audio and PVR: Abbreviation for Personal Video Recorder, this software allows a TV tuner to record video content in real-time.
Timeshifting: Timeshifting is a feature of PVR that allows you to pause, replay or skip a portion of a live TV programme. You have absolute control over how you watch on TV.
MPEG: MPEG is a group (Moving Picture Experts Group) that develops standards for digital audio and video compression. There are several versions of this standard, including MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4.
MPEG-1: This standard was designed to code progressive video at a transmission rate of 1.5 Mbps. It is used in video CDs, but gave way to the new MPEG-2 standard.
MPEG-2: This standard was designed to code transmission rates above 4 Mbps, and is used in DVD and digital broadcast TV. It is superior to MPEG-1 in terms of picture quality and sound clarity.
MPEG-4: This is a relatively new standard, and is aimed at converging streaming media from different sources.
NTSC: This stands for National Television Standards Committee, which developed   the protocol for colour television   broadcast transmission and reception        in the US.
As a matter of fact, NTSC signals have been used in the US and Japan since 1954, and have hardly been altered since their inception, except for the addition of new parameters for colour signals such as Hue and Tint control.
Also, NTSC signals are interlaced, and an NTSC TV image has 525 horizontal lines per frame. Every other line is dropped, and thus it takes two screen scans to complete one image. 29.97 frames are scanned every second.
PAL: Phase Alternation Line is the standard that was developed in Germany is used in India and Europe.
In the PAL standard, the horizontal image has 625 horizontal lines per frame. 25 frames are scanned every second. A slight colour variation is seen between the PAL and NTSC standards.
SECAM: This stands for Système Électronique Couleur Avec Mémoire and was put forward by Henri de France in Paris. SECAM is prevalent in some parts of Europe-mainly in France, Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union where it was adopted in 1967.
In the SECAM system, the luminance information is transmitted in the usual manner, the chrominance signal is interleaved with it, and the colour information is reproduced with minimal errors.
NICAM stereo: This stands for Near Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex, and was developed by the BBC Research Centre in the early 1980s.
NICAM stereo was first transmitted with the PAL colour broadcasting system in Britain. Interestingly, this technology improves on the sound quality of the transmitted TV signal.video compression. There are several versions of this standard, including MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4.
MPEG-1: This standard was designed to code progressive video at a transmission rate of 1.5 Mbps. It is used in video CDs, but gave way to the new MPEG-2 standard.
MPEG-2: This standard was designed to code transmission rates above 4 Mbps, and is used in DVD and digital broadcast TV. It is superior to MPEG-1 in terms of picture quality and sound clarity.
MPEG-4: This is a relatively new standard, and is aimed at converging streaming media from different sources.
NTSC: This stands for National Television Standards Committee, which developed   the protocol for colour television   broadcast transmission and reception        in the US.
As a matter of fact, NTSC signals have been used in the US and Japan since 1954, and have hardly been altered since their inception, except for the addition of new parameters for colour signals such as Hue and Tint control.
Also, NTSC signals are interlaced, and an NTSC TV image has 525 horizontal lines per frame. Every other line is dropped, and thus it takes two screen scans to complete one image. 29.97 frames are scanned every second.
PAL: Phase Alternation Line is the standard that was developed in Germany is used in India and Europe.
In the PAL standard, the horizontal image has 625 horizontal lines per frame. 25 frames are scanned every second. A slight colour variation is seen between the PAL and NTSC standards.
SECAM: This stands for Système Électronique Couleur Avec Mémoire and was put forward by Henri de France in Paris. SECAM is prevalent in some parts of Europe-mainly in France, Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union where it was adopted in 1967.
In the SECAM system, the luminance information is transmitted in the usual manner, the chrominance signal is interleaved with it, and the colour information is reproduced with minimal errors.
NICAM stereo: This stands for Near Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex, and was developed by the BBC Research Centre in the early 1980s.
NICAM stereo was first transmitted with the PAL colour broadcasting system in Britain. Interestingly, this technology improves on the sound quality of the transmitted TV signal.

Performance

Not only did Pinnacle provide the best PVR application, the application also detected the most number of TV channels-73. The AVerTV and Tech-Com lagged behind with 67 and 66 channels respectively. Pinnacle also had the best image quality.

In the capture test, the Pinnacle dropped no frames, while AVerTV and Tech-Com dropped three and four frames respectively. Thus, once again, the Pinnacle MediaCenter emerged superior to the other two.

External Set-top Tuners
An external set-top TV tuner does not require a PC at all. All they need is a CRT monitor to display the video, while the inbuilt speaker delivers the audio. If you need better audio quality, connect the line out from the tuner to an amplified speaker system.

Tuners of this type display the best quality video on a CRT monitor as compared to the previous two solutions, especially when the PC is off, because the RF interference from the PC is also shut off.

As you might have guessed, these TV tuners are only meant for TV viewing and cannot be used for capturing.

We received three tuners in this category, two from AVerMedia and one from Tech-Com.

Features
The AVerMedia TV tuners came with an easy-to-use remote. They also featured a function known as PIP (Picture-In-Picture), which displays TV video in a corner of your screen, while you use the rest of the desktop for your work. We tried to use this feature but failed. We even tried using different resolutions but it just did not work.

Both AVerMedia models looked very elegant with their silver finish and nicely placed buttons-which gave good tactile feedback. The difference between the two was that while the Box 5 supported a maximum resolution of 1024 x 768, the Box 9 model supported a maximum resolution of 1280 x 1024.

The Tech-Com SSD-TV-712 has not been mentioned in this section because, quite frankly, it is a no-frills device and there was nothing noteworthy about its features. All three TV tuners featured decent OSDs.

Performance
Unfortunately, very little can be said about the performance of the external set-top TV tuners. The only tests carried out here were the number of channels detected and the image quality.

The Tech-Com and the AVerMedia Box 9 detected all the 87 TV channels, while the Box 5 could manage just 54. The image quality of the Box 9 was the best, with Box 5 not far behind.

The Broad Picture
We tested 17 TV Tuners in this test. In the internal TV tuner cards category, the Compro cards outperformed every other card. There was somewhat of

a neck-and-neck competition between the Compro VideoMate PVR/FM and the Mercury TV tuner card. Each had their own positives and negatives.

While the Mercury card was priced at a rock-bottom Rs 1,499, the Compro was not too expensive either at Rs 1,995. However, due to better image quality and PVR features, the Compro PVR/FM emerged the Gold winner whereas the Mercury won Silver.

In the external USB TV tuner category, the Tech-Com did make itself notable by pricing its SSD-TV-811 at Rs 2,999, as compared to nearly Rs 7,000 for the other two candidates from AverMedia and Pinnacle.

However, since this segment is primarily aimed at laptop users, the price factor isn't as important as the features and performance.

Moreover, most laptop owners probably would not mind spending a few extra bucks for better quality. Performance-wise, the Pinnacle and AVerMedia were the only contenders for Gold. Due to better image quality, channel detection and video capture score, the Pinnacle PCTV MediaCenter 100e was adjudged the winner in this category.

The last category included the external set-top TV tuners. Here, the AVerMedia Box 9 tuner performed exceptionally well-better than the Tech-Com tuner in the image quality test.

However, the AverMedia     Box 9 was priced high at Rs 8,250-You should be able to buy a decent colour TV for the price of the AverMedia Box 9! The Tech-Com SSD-TV-712, on the other hand, was priced at a very low Rs 1,999.

Due to huge price difference, the Tech-Com SSD-TV-712 easily won first place in this category.

Most home users are opting for a TV Tuner card nowadays because of the flexibility it offers. Unlike earlier TV cards, today's cards are more user-friendly and offer an unbelievable array of features.

If you find yourself missing out on your favourite programs, or are interested in recording content from your TV to watch later, nothing beats a TV tuner! 


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