Most of our readers have probably used a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) device at some point in time. TiVo was the first such device to gain mainstream recognition, but in reality, PC owners have been able to do most of what TiVo offered for a long time. ATI's All-In-Wonder line has had TV-In capability since the days of the old ATI Expert line with Rage graphics chips. Of course, the ability to do something like watch or record TV on a PC is not the same as the ability to do that well, and thankfully, we've made some serious progress in that area over the past decade. Our last TV tuner card roundup is almost six months old, and while much of the information is still current, we do have some new cards some might be considering.

Today, we have a trio of TV Tuners for review, and while they have some similarities, they're also quite different in features, software, and performance. Two of the cards are - as far as I'm aware - the only HDTV tuners currently available for Windows that will handle QAM decoding. The cards are the MyHD MDP-130 and the DVICO Fusion5 Gold. (Older DVICO and MyHD cards may have handled this as well, to varying degrees.) The third card marks one of the first truly interesting PCIe X1 cards to appear on the market, the PowerColor Theater 550 PCIe.

The MyHD and Fusion5 cover the "everything plus the kitchen sink" range of tuner cards, while the Theater 550 is more focused. Where the former offer QAM decoding, HDTV, and digital and analog capabilities, the Theater 550 is an analog-only card. At first, it might seem like this is an unfair match-up, as we have HD capable cards going up against a card that only handles SD analog TV. Unfortunately, reality tends to make the importance of HD functionality less important than most people would like, and the ability to receive and record analog channels well may actually be the more important factor for most people.

It's entirely possible that there are areas where most channels are available in HD, but at least in Washington, the options are rather limited. The major networks all have HD channels - ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC - but the amount of actual HD content is relatively limited. The USC games for most of this season, for example, were not available in widescreen - only the recent Bruins game was in HDTV. The vast majority of programming is still standard TV upsampled to HD resolutions. Generally speaking, if a broadcast isn't in widescreen format, it's not truly HD (though it could still be Digital TV). ESPNHD SportsCenter broadcasts provide a great example of the difference between native HD and upsampled SD, as the program contains both types of content. Watching a clip from a widescreen NBA game followed by another clip from a different game that is upsampled SD shows a dramatic loss in quality for the latter.

First, let's answer this question: Why is QAM decoding important? For those who live in areas where "terrestrial" or OTA (Over The Air) broadcast reception is poor or downright non-existent, cable or digital satellite is generally required. Cable companies use QAM encoding on their digital channels, and while no cards currently support playing encrypted QAM channels, being able to record/timeshift the unencrypted channels is a definite plus. Depending on your location, OTA Digital TV reception can be easy to get with something as small as the pictured Silver Sensor antenna, or you may need a large roof-mounted antenna with a signal amplifier. At my location, a small indoor antenna is not sufficient for receiving OTA DTV, and while a larger antenna mounted on the roof might work fine, that's often not an option on rental or apartment housing. Besides, there are certain cable channels that I would want regardless of how good my OTA DTV is, like ESPN, Discovery, Cartoon Network, etc. Since I'm already subscribing to a cable service and since OTA reception is a problem without investing quite a bit of time and money into a better antenna, that makes the capabilities of the Fusion5 and MyHD all the more interesting to me - and hopefully some of you as well.

I've been using all three cards for several weeks watching and recording broadcasts and now have a pretty good feel for how each performs, where it excels, and where it falls short. Initial impressions on some of the cards changed quite a bit over time, due in part to the learning curve associated with the technology as well as some hardware and drivers/software updates. Some problems that, at first, seemed like deal breakers ended up having a solution, while other areas that appeared to work okay ended up causing difficulty later. There may be areas that I overlooked, as I don't purport to know everything that there is to know about TV tuners. However, if something is difficult enough that I can't find a reasonable solution within several weeks, that's going to be a problem for many consumers. Let's see if one card can emerge as the clear leader, or if they all come up lacking.

We'd like to thank Digital Connection for providing us with the MyHD MDP-130 and Fusion5 Gold cards for testing. They are one of the few places to carry such cards, but they're reasonably priced and knowledgeable. They answered many of our questions and helped to give us a better understanding of the various software and hardware options. They have quite a bit of information on HTPCs and HDTV accessories.

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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 8, 2005 - link

    Just to clarify, I'm speaking of overlay mode in general. The MyHD card overlay mode is limited to 720 x 484 reason. It does hardware decoding, which means it's generating the uncompressed HDTV stream on the card. A 720P compressed signal is up to 15 Mb per second. That presents no problem for the PCI bus. Uncompressed 720P, on the other hand, requires more bandwidth than the PCI bus can handle.

    1280 x 720 = 921600 pixels per frame
    4 bytes per pixel = 3686400 bytes per frame.
    60 frames per second = 221184000 bytes per second.

    The PCI bus is a 32-bit bus, running at 33 MHz, giving a maximum bandwidth of 133 MB per second. Uncompressed 720P would require about 211 MB per second. This is one of many reasons that the AGP slot was created. The CPU can render into an AGP cards memory at up to 2133 MB per second, at least in theory.

    So there is a reason that the my HD card doesn't render the overlay mode in anything more than 720 x 480. That doesn't mean I have to like that limitation. :-)
  • Crucial - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    I don't understand what the point of this review was. Why would you test a hardware based analog card with 2 cards that have software based analog? The addition of the theatre 550 card was completely unecessary and frankly makes no sense at all.

    A more effective test would have put the 2 HD cards up against the ATI HDTV wonder and another seperate test putting the 550 against the Hauppage pvr150 and an Avermedia card.
  • The Boston Dangler - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    Good one
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    The review was because I had the cards. We've had complaints about putting out single item reviews. We've already looked at the HDTV Wonder, and it doesn't work for me - no QAM support and I don't want to get an expensive OTA antenna for a rental home. The whole article is a "state of the TV Tuner market" as well as individual card reviews, or at least that's how I intended it. Besides, the Theater 550 PCIe is really just a PCIe version of the PCI card we've already looked at, which is good to know.

    Previous analog tuners have been reviewed, and the ATI HDTV Wonder has also been reviewed. If you can get good OTA DTV reception, you probably have no need for something like the Fusion5 or MyHD. For people like me, though, the choices boil down to forgetting about DTV, getting a DVR upgrade to my cable box, and/or getting one of those two cards.

    After playing with all the cards, I would say your best bet for quality is to get two cards, one of analog and a second for DTV.
  • Ceramicsteve - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    Hey can you include a Mac based HDTV tuner in your round up? The only one I know of is EyETV from Elgato systems and it comes in a form of a breakout box.
  • scott967 - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    I take it none of these tuners support HDCP on the digital out?

    scott s.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    That's correct, though I may have screwed up when I talked about my TV. I don't know if it has an HDMI or an HDCP port. I thought it was HDMI, but I could be mistaken.
  • Olaf van der Spek - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    > Using the Sempron 64 running at 2.50 GHz was more than sufficient for everything but the MyHD analog recording.

    There are no Semprons that run at 2.5 ghz.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 7, 2005 - link

    I had it overclocked -- I was trying to see if I could get it to work OK for the MyHD card.
  • Olaf van der Spek - Thursday, December 8, 2005 - link

    It may be a good idea to mentioned you were overclocking.

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