War of the tuners


5 Aug 2011
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The PC today has become a complete entertainment hub. Be it watching DVDs or listening to audio CDs/MP3s, it is the one-stop place serving your work and recreation needs. If you’re an audiophile or a movie buff, you can convert your PC into a mammoth jukebox with thousands of songs and a movie library consisting of hundreds of movies. And that too without any additional piece of hardware. However, if you want to add the functionality of a television and FM radio as well, you need a TV tuner card. Live television and FM radio are not the only features offered by a TV tuner card—that’s less than half of what you can actually do with it! A TV tuner card can actually do much more than a mammoth television set. You can record your favorite television shows and create a DVD out of it. If you don’t want to miss the news or a movie being aired while you’re out of your house or on the phone, you can pause live TV and resume after you’re back. During live telecast of cricket or football matches,it is impossible to watch each and every match without staying up late at nights. With a TV tuner card, you can schedule the recording and watch it later when you have the time. For radio lovers, it is possible to grab your favorite songs being aired and burn them onto an audio or an MP3 disc. You’re lucky if you have an LCD monitor; adding a TV tuner card to your PC can turn it into a full-fl edged LCD TV! You can even hook up a camcorder, DVD player or a game console to your PC using a TV tuner card. At present, the Compro VideoMate Gold Plus II, Pinnacle PCTV 110i and PixelView PlayTV are the best cards in the market from the respective manufacturers. To find out which one of them reigns supreme, we got our hands on them and put them to the grind. Go ahead and take your pick!

The remote control is the only device in a TV tuner where ergonomics lay a very important role. It is the layout and the tactility of the buttons which determine how good a remote control really is.The buttons should be laid out in such a way that the user is able to master the positions of the controls with great ease.
For example, functions like adjusting the volume, surfing channels, time-shifting, recording, and so on should be possible without looking at the remote control. Also, the buttons should be well-spaced to avoid clutter. If you observe the remote controls closely, the PixelView Play TV Pro2 features the most intuitive layout followed by the Compro VideoMate Gold Plus II.

We were a bit disappointed with the Pinnacle PCTV 110i since it features a panoply of over 40 buttons on its face. Pinnacle could have surely done a better job by providing all the functions with lesser number of buttons.

What to look for:

The cards were evaluated on the basis of their features and performance. Features which carry the maximum weightage are audio and video I/O, support for capturing formats and maximum resolution. Powerup scheduling is a must-have option if you want your PC to switch on by itself, log on to Windows and capture your favorite program at a scheduled time. Not all tuners deliver the same level of performance.

There’s a signifi cant difference in the quality of TV and FM reception. In addition to the quality of tuner used, the output quality depends solely on the strength of the decoder chip. A good decoder chip translates into crisp, high-resolution output and high videocapture quality. Since the overall control of the TV tuner lies within the software, the interface should be extremely intuitive so that even a first-timer can exploit all the features supported by the card.

Auto-scanning, fi ne-tuning of channels, adjusting the picture quality and capture settings should be a breeze even for someone who is new to TV tuners. The software interface score indicates how good the software is. Unlike a motherboard or a graphics card which need to be upgraded every few years, a TV tuner card is a one-time investment which will stay in your PC case for its lifetime. So if you plan to buy one, get the best one around.

The verdict:
If you take a quick glance at the table (previous page), you will notice that the Compro VideoMate Gold Plus II wins hands down when compared to the other two. Name a feature and it offers that. The Pinnacle PCTV 110i, which is the second best card took a slight hit in features and performance. If it has been your choice so far, think twice. You surely can get the best performer for a lesser price. The PixelView Play TV Pro 2, on the other hand, sports a good feature set but it is a complete disappointment with respect to its reception quality. With the richest feature set and the best performance, the Compro VideoMate Gold Plus II with the most powerful decoder chip is a clear winner and everyone’s favorite. So if you’re serious about buying the best TV tuner card, get this one without any second thoughts—it can’t get any better!

Test rig
Motherboard: Gigabyte K8NS, Processor: AMD Athlon 64 2800+, Memory: 1 GB DDR-400, Hard drive: Hitachi Deskstar 7K80, Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 6200 TC
Time-shifting :
It is one of the features in the application which comes bundled with the TV tuner card. Using this feature, you can pause and resume live TV or video playback. When you click on the pause button to begin time-shifting, the software freezes the playback and starts buffering the content in a video fi le on the hard drive. On releasing pause, it begins playing back the buffered content from the point where you paused. From the point you resume playback, the software has to multi-task until you stop the time-shift. While playing back the buffered contents, it has to buffer the live playback in the background. Since time-shifting requires buffering, it means you need atleast 512 MB of memory and a good hard drive, preferably SATA, or else you may experience jerky playback of the buffered contents.

Remote control power-on:
This feature enables you to turn on your PC from the “shut down” state using a remote control. It is the TV tuner card which must have the support to wake up the PC. This is present in the form of “power up” and “power switch” headers on the card. The “power up” header connects to the power button header on the motherboard with the bundled cord and the “power switch” header connects to the power switch cable of the PC case. In short, the PC’s power switch is routed through the TV tuner card.

Power-up scheduling :
If you’re out and you want the PC to turn on automatically at a scheduled time, record a TV show and then shut down, use the power-up scheduling feature. However, to use this feature, the TV tuner card must have the support to wake up the PC from the “shut down” state. Since the PC requires a few minutes to boot completely to the desktop, the power-up function intelligently powers up the PC a few minutes before the scheduled time for recording. The software which comes bundled with the TV tuner can be set to capture video for specifi ed time duration and shut down the PC automatically after capturing is complete.

Source : Chip magazine.
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