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The HD Tuner Card:
TV tuners have become increasingly more popular. If you purchase the right one you can record, pause, and rewind T.V. quality shows without a DVR. If you purchase the wrong T.V. tuner however, you could end up heavily disappointed. Don't go out and buy the cheapest model you can find in the hopes that some program is out there that has the ability to improve bad purchase decision quality. It is very difficult to tune T.V. channels and that is the main reason T.V. tuners cost as much as they do. As with all things, you get what you pay for. If you don't mind poor quality T.V. by all means purchase the cheapest tuner you can find.
Before continuing, I want to make perfectly clear that absolutely NONE of these cards will allow you to record (or watch, for the matter) any high definition programming on a “premium” HD channel. These channels would include HBO and Starz, along with every other HD channel that you pay extra for every month. These are encrypted, and no tuner can get them. Sadly, no home-built computer can either ... yet.
Now what these cards DO allow you to do is watch and record any channels that don't require a set-top box to watch. This includes any standard definition “basic cable” channels as well as the HD variants of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS.
Now then, if you want to record premium broadcasts over cable on an HTPC you have two realistic options:
- Invest in a computer from one of a handful of manufacturers that comes with a digital cable tuner installed. This tuner would accept a CableCard you would purchase from your local cable provider, which would decode all of the channels that you purchased. This tuner cannot be bought separately and is only licensed to OEMs for the foreseeable future.
- Contact your local cable company to determine whether you can connect a set-top box to you computer via USB or Firewire. It is apparently possible depending on the model though I have never seen it done. Likewise, it seems this may be the only way to get a satellite connection to work.
QAM stands for "Quadrature Amplitude Modulation." This is the format that digital cable channels are encoded with. In all likelihood you will need this feature in order to watch any cable broadcasts without the need of a separate cable box from your local provider. Obviously this is necessary for use as a DVR/PVR so the computer can set the channels by itself without relying on any other hardware. Hardware based decoding is better, but some cheaper cards have software based decoding. Don't confuse this for being a descrambler, because it's not.
Depending on your needs OTA (Over The Air) signals may be more than suitable. This is a great way to get local HD channels, though you may want to try and get a decently sensitive tuner and good antenna to ensure you get a strong signal.
Some cards offer dual tuners, which essentially means you can watch a program on one channel while recording on another.
While many people will likely use Windows Media Center there are many free operating systems available that are designed entirely for HTPC use. Unfortunately, most companies don't fully support Linux-based operating systems so you should ensure that drivers are available for your particular card if you intend to run Linux.
Now that we know a little about what certain cards can do lets start to look at some. TV tuners come in all shapes and sizes. There are three main interfaces PCI, PCIe, and USB. While other types do exist they are rare, and I will not be covering them.
- Hauppauge WINTVHVR1600 DUAL Tuner 1183:Hauppauge is possibly the most commonly used brand of TV Tuner. This card doesn't give the best quality, but it is a dual tuner. This gives you the ability to record shows while watching other shows. This can be very useful especially for an HTPC, and makes up for the slightly poorer quality.
- DIAMOND ATI TV Wonder HD 650:While this is a slightly older card, I'm including it because it was one of the best quality tuners I've used.
- ASUS My Cinema:While I've never actually used this card I've heard great things about it. With this card you can watch T.V. both over the air, and through coaxial cable at the same time. Although I'm not sure why you'd be paying for two different T.V. services it sounds like a sweet gig. This card is also a Dual tuner so once again you can watch and record, or record and record. Whatever floats your boat.
PCIe x1 Cards:
- Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE:This card is essentially the same as the Hauppauge listed in the PCI cards. The great thing about this one however is that it is both newer, and doesn't take up one of your PCI slots.
First of all, USB tuners are great if you'll be traveling a lot, because you can pack it with your laptop and take it anywhere. They do not however give the best quality. If your HTPC is going to permanently be in your house, which it should, I'd strongly suggest a more permanent tuner.
- eVGA inDTube:I used this tuner for a short period of time and I was not pleased. The picture on all channels were fuzzy, and at times it would skip around. However for a person traveling a lot with a laptop this tuner would be perfect.
- Hauppauge WinTV:Heard it's a good choice.
- AVerMedia:I've heard mixed reviews for this tuner. It supposedly can be fuzzy on certain channels. If you must have a USB tuner this one should also be taken into consideration.