Review: Multiple TV Tuner Products for Personal Computers

Late 2014 Update: I've changed the name of this review primarily to reflect the fact that this review ended up discussing four products, instead of three. Pretty much everything here is rather thoroughly obsolete, although the contents of this page may still be useful to anyone who is looking at picking up the hardware or software mentioned here by way of the secondhand market. You will find some slightly updated commentary interspersed throughout this review.

I don't see any value in paying to watch TV, and my opinion remains that nearly all broadcast TV is worthless trash. When this review was written, the only television I watched--and on a highly sporadic basis at that--was from PBS. Ever since Cozi TV and MeTV have made the scene, I've watched them as well.

If you're looking at this review and thinking that you might want to use TV tuner card hardware to digitize your old analog home videos or commercially produced titles that haven't been re-released, my sincere advice to you is this: pick up a used MiniDV or Digital8 Sony Handycam with Sony's realtime A/V>DV conversion feature. You can play any video source into these camcorders and it will be effortlessly digitized. Models to look for include the DCR-TRV22, DCR-TRV33, DCR-TRV27, and DCR-TRV460/480.

If you live in a part of the world where PAL video encoding is the standard, you'll need to look for the "E" models of these camcorders. There are some other Sony camcorders that can perform this same function, but these are the units I've used with good results. All of these models also feature a highly functional, fully automatic time base corrector to clean up the various nasty aspects inherent in most forms of analog video.

Don't waste your time with VirtualDub, tuner cards, standalone TBCs, "easy" home video digitization devices or anything else. You'll just end up going down a road filled with stuff that's a cantankerous pain in the ass to use. By comparison, the realtime conversion function that Sony offered just works. There is a reason why these older video cameras have held their value.

You should use the best VCR you can get your hands on, and not delay doing this. Analog video format players--especially the less popular formats--are going to become hard to find in working condition. Some of them already have.

For want of a better name to call it, this is my review of four different TV on PC related products. All of them are related to the task of displaying and recording TV on a personal computer. The three products initially featured in this review are the Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600, WinTV version 6 software, and finally, SnapStream Media's Beyond TV 4 demo. A little while later, I tacked on an attempted review of MythTV.

I try to be honest in my reviews, so I'm going to be especially honest here. I don't have much use for broadcast television. I don't subscribe to satellite, cable or any other pay TV service. I don't watch much broadcast TV because I have a lot of other things to do. At work, I hear all about the stuff that's been transpiring on Desperate With The Stars, the CSI: franchise* and Dancing Housewives**. All the while, I feel something like a fish out of water and I can't help but wonder why these people don't have anything better to do with their time***.

However, TV tuner cards for computers make watching even the most pointless TV cool. Or at least they should.

The only reason I did this whole review had to do with the fact that I saw the Hauppauge card on the discount rack at a local computer store. A 30% discount on the already lowered price persuaded me to take it home after a cursory examination revealed that everything needed to use it seemed to be in the box.

The Computer

Most of my reviews reveal a certain amount of . . . frugality as you read them. This one is no different. When most people think of using a computer for watching, recording, or otherwise handling TV, they spec it out accordingly with a ton of disk space, plenty of processing power for transcoding shows and (typically) a dedicated graphics card for that extra little bit of performance.

I didn't do that. Instead, I bought a Dell OptiPlex 210L for $20 from a grain elevator.

The OptiPlex 210L is not the most ideal platform for handling TV. It's a business-class computer targeted at the budget conscious market segment. It can hold a decent amount of RAM, has SATA hard drives and plenty of slots for memory expansions. The one I got came with a 3 GHz Pentium 4 "531" CPU. However, it has no PCI Express slot suitable for use with an add-on graphics card, and the Intel GMA 915 graphics are not the most powerful thing in the world. These two factors could work against it.

However, it was the computer I had handy, and of the various contenders I considered for the job, it was also the most powerful. So into the mix it went.

Windows XP Professional Service Pack 3 was the operating system of choice.

First: The Hauppauge Card

Hauppauge (more completely known as Hauppauge Computer Works, a name that hasn't gotten any easier to type this far into the review) is well known in the PC TV tuner (and to a lesser extent, PC FM radio tuner) industry. Over the years they have marketed quite a few TV and radio reception products for many different computers with many different expansion buses. Some of their products even worked externally, using a connection such as USB.

If you're wondering about the company's name, turns out it's pronounced as "Hop-Hog". Their web site has some information about this. I only mention this because I (and so many others) have ended up pronouncing the company's name incorrectly--as "Hop-Page" in my case.

The WinTV PCI HVR-1600 card comes in a few different variants. All of them are largely the same basic idea, although some of them include an FM tuner, a feature I did not get on the card I reviewed. Some, including the card I got, also have provisions for a remote control and IR blaster. Common to all of the cards is the ability to receive conventional analog TV broadcasts, ATSC digital TV broadcasts and clear QAM cable TV. Although I have no familiarity with CableCards and similar access control mechanisms, there does not appear to be any way for the HVR-1600 to accommodate such things in order to receive encrypted QAM signals.

All of the cards are also based on a Conexant tuner platform that boasts hardware assisted MPEG2 encoding. In fact, you will find that there is an integrated ARM processor and some RAM on the card itself. However, this hardware assist only works on analog broadcasts. When you're recording or watching digital TV or clear QAM cable broadcasts, the computer has to do all the hard work of processing the video/audio stream and saving it. This is why, as Hauppauge points out in the manual, you should use a decently powerful computer if you are planning to watch digital broadcast TV or clear QAM cable.

Finally, you get a remote control with quite a few buttons on it as well as an IR/blaster receiver combination module. The remote control lets you operate the Hauppauge WinTV software from afar if your computer is set up as part of a home theater or entertainment system. It works equally well if you sit in front of your computer, but that's kind of pointless since the keyboard and mouse are probably also right there.

The IR blaster is a nice touch, although I did not have a chance to actually try it out. If you are watching a source external to the WinTV card, such as a VCR, a cable descrambler box or a satellite TV tuner, the IR blaster lets the WinTV software control that device. This can be very handy if you are doing timer-driven recordings that depend upon an external video source to work. The IR blaster simulates a remote control to the external device, and hopefully sends the proper commands to turn it on, tune it and make it play.

As far as installation goes, it doesn't get any easier than this. In my case, the WinTV card dropped right into place and the driver installation went off without a hitch from the included CD-ROM.

Picture quality, which you might say belongs further down under the software category, was very good on my 15" 4:3 Samsung Syncmaster flat panel. I have little experience with wide-aspect high definition TV because I watch all of my ATSC TV through converter boxes on older analog sets. Those old TVs cannot hope to resolve a high definition picture, but the converter boxes do seem to output video that is pretty sharp and clear. The WinTV card paired with the much higher quality computer display panel can easily top them, however.

Second: Hauppauge WinTV 5 and 6

Hauppauge Computer Works also provides software to let you use the card. I got WinTV version 5.0 in the box with the card.

WinTV 5.0 installed alongside the drivers, as the whole installation package is unified on the CD-ROM disc. When the installation had completed, WinTV 5.0 asked me to tell it about what kind of TV I receive (cable or broadcast) and what kind of TV channels I'd be watching. As I can receive only analog and digital broadcast TV, I only had to allow it to scan for analog and digital broadcast channels.

The channel scan completed within two minutes time and I had no problems with it. Analog TV played and recorded well at this time. Digital TV broadcasts were not so successful. The computer was very clearly struggling to play and it would not record them properly. Smooth playback was impossible, which seemed very odd given that a much slower machine had been used by Hauppauage to establish the system requirements. The little OptiPlex 210L was at least in theory up to the task given its 3GHz processor speed.

I often find that the best thing to do when software acts strangely is to look for a newer version. And sometimes I'll just skip straight to that part, especially for hardware like video cards. So out to the Hauppauge site I went. What I found was WinTV 6.0.

WinTV 6 was a massive improvement. Suddenly, playback of ATSC digital TV was smooth and without the constant "hiccuping" that seemed to plague the previous WinTV version. WinTV 6 would also record video properly, something that seemed to be an impossibility on the previous version.

WinTV 6 still had some quirky behavior. In particular, there were lengthy pauses when switching from the analog to the digital tuner. Sometimes it would take a bit to "sync up" picture and sound on certain ATSC channels. And perhaps the worst thing of all was the timed recording. It "worked" in the sense of "yes it will record a program" but its scheduling was lackadaisical when it came time to start recording. Oftentimes it would take a minute or more for the recording process to settle in and start working. Fortunately, that was easily worked around in the scheduler by setting the start time back by a minute or two.

In the time that has passed since this review was written, Hauppauge has released WinTV 7. Although freely available for download, WinTV 7 requires proof of ownership in the form of your previous WinTV software installation CD. If you don't have it, you'll have to pony up $10 or so for a CD copy from Hauppauge Computer Works. In other words, don't throw away your old WinTV CD!

It was at this time that I posted my experiences to the Usenet group. (You can read the thread here, since it has long expired from most if not all news servers and many ISPs no longer provide Usenet access in the first place.)

Tom Scales, a longstanding and well respected (at least so far as I know) member of made a suggestion for another piece of software I could use as a front end to the WinTV tuner hardware. That brings us to...

Third: SnapStream Media Beyond TV 4

SnapStream Media's Beyond TV 4 product was a software program that Does All Kinds Of Things With Your TV Tuner Hardware. Its capabilties were far reaching and include watching live TV, a built in TV guide that appears to be sourced from TitanTV, recording TV, rebroadcasting TV over the web (aka "Slingboxing"#), transcoding TV to other formats, stripping out commercials and burning DVDs. In other words, it's billed as being quite capable.

If having a TV tuner card in your computer makes you cool, then Beyond TV ought to turn you into an outright TV magician, time-shifting like crazy and stuffing commercials back into your hat after you've pulled the shows out.

Sounds like a killer application, right? As to whether or not it is, well...not so much.

Beyond TV installs easily enough, after you agree to the licensing agreement. In part, the license agreement states that SnapStream will periodically receive reports about the things you do with BeyondTV, although they don't ever get around to actually telling you what things you'll be telling them. I want to see the best in companies that do this, and I frequently do turn on such features when software asks me if I'd like to participate. Somehow, though, I didn't feel that way about SnapStream, probably because I could not opt-out of this data reporting and also because I was not told exactly what would or would not be relayed to them. The only thing they bothered to say is that information pertaining to times when the user was having trouble would be relayed to them.

When you've decided to accept the license agreement, setup goes on to install files and set things up. Then it runs a wizard to let you set up your channels. However, instead of basing on your telling it what channels you can receive, it asks TitanTV based on your zip code.

I ran into a problem with this aspect of setup. I live in a remote area where no local TV stations exist. Everything that comes in is from a bigger city. The guide suggested lots of stations that I couldn't receive, with no apparent way to remove them from the list of active channels.

The setup program then asked me if I would be willing to use my Hauppauge remote with the Beyond TV program. I answered yes to this question.

At this point, BeyondTV was installed and ready to use, so I fired it up. This was the best part of the whole experience. The beginning user interface was clear, with large type that would be easily read on a TV set or from a distance. My Hauppauge supplied remote control worked perfectly and could navigate to any place in the user interface. I was certainly prepared to be impressed.

When you want to watch television on Beyond TV, you go straight to the program guide (which is searchable) and find what you want in the list. The program guide is also very readable, although I was disoriented at times by the way it moved. Once you've found what you want to watch, you can confirm the selection with the remote or by double-clicking the mouse. The tuner will be set up and the program will start. Watching TV with Beyond TV is very straightforward. There was also no question that the TV programs played more smoothly than they had in any version of WinTV.

I only watched ATSC digital TV when working with the Beyond TV software.

Recording digital TV with Beyond TV was point and click simple--another win for the SnapStream folks. It was also very, very precise. Shows started and ended just about perfectly in the test recordings I made. Scheduled recording appears to be reliable, as I told the program to record several shows on a regular basis and it never once skipped a beat over a test period of a few weeks. The recordings were also very, very good quality.

This does, however, lead my noticing a serious problem. I wanted to burn a recorded TV show to a DVD, for later viewing on a larger TV attached to a standard DVD player.

Beyond TV needed to be restarted to find my Firewire external DVD±RW drive. This was not a big deal, nor was it particularly surprising. Upon restarting and trying to select a program that I wanted to burn to disc, I found that the option was unavailable.

"No problem!" I declared. "I will read the help system!"

The built in documentation that ships with Beyond TV 4 is poor. There was a chapter that discussed burning TV shows to optical disc. It never said anything about why I could not do so. It turns out that over the air ATSC digital TV is delivered in a slightly different format (an MPEG-2 "transport stream") than would be found on a video DVD. As with anything having to do with MPEG/MPEG-2, the details are not easy to understand. I never did find a good explanation of what makes a "transport stream" so much different from MPEG-2 data on a video DVD. All I can tell you is that "it is", obviously an explanation that I'm not at all happy with.

You have to transcode the MPEG-2 TS recordings that are captured from the airwaves by the tuner card into something that can be transcoded yet again into DVD video format. Beyond TV refers to this process as "ShowSqueeze". If you're keeping count, that's at least two steps of further transcoding, with lossy formats all the way around. This didn't look like it was going to be pretty.

A great deal of hair pulling has been elided from the preceding paragraphs. Suffice it to say that:

It wouldn't have killed SnapStream to put something that they surely knew about into the documentation or as a dialog box in the program!

What may not be immediately obvious is that while the above procedure works (you can transcode things repeatedly until you reach the format that you need), the results will be worse and worse after each transcoding if you use lossy compression. MPEG-2 is lossy compression. So were all the other formats that Beyond TV could transcode into. I finally chose the best setting available for Windows Media format, transcoded the shows I wanted to watch and burnt them to DVD.

They did play on a conventional DVD player after transcoding and burning (which entails yet another transcoding step, so try not to look too closely). After the initial transcoding, followed by another step when Beyond TV converted the previously converted video to DVD video format, there wasn't much hope that quality could survive. In fact, the quality was much lower than even some of the nastiest old VHS video tapes I own. It was really that bad--much worse than even old EP/SLP (remember those?) recordings made to VHS tape.

A beacon of hope presented itself in the form of the h.264 transcoding option that Beyond TV offers. I did try this with some other TV programs, but the conversion took Absolutely Forever And Ever  to reach 60% in the conversion process and seemed to stall out indefinitely after that. I gave up on it. Judging by the results of running the MPEG-2 TS files through my elgato Turbo.264, h.264 probably would have done less of a hatchet job on the video quality than did Windows Media compression and given a better quality result to the DVD video converter that SnapStream uses in Beyond TV. Why the process ran out of steam and stopped working I don't know.

Still, if they're going to have to do transcoding, it would have been much better to take the MPEG-2 TS data and just convert it directly to match the DVD video standard as opposed to using a completely unnecessary intermediary transcoding step.

It is also said to be possible to skip over commercials and breaks in programming with the so-called SmartSkip feature. I did get this to run against some of the programs I'd recorded. However, while it did place markers on the video, I never could figure out how to "engage" it and cause the marked portions to actually be skipped.

I know this has been the longest part of the review so far, but bear with me. I'm almost through.

Beyond TV can also rebroadcast TV over the web. This is akin to the functionality offered by a SlingBox device. With a little router reconfiguration (or possibly a router that has its UPnP support enabled), you could open up some ports to the outside world and watch local TV from anywhere there is a decently fast Internet connection. I did try this, both inside my local network (where you only have to configure the Windows firewall on the computer running Beyond TV) and from the outside world (this usually requires you to forward ports on the router from the Beyond TV computer to the public Internet).

Internally, it worked great. This functionality can be used with the Windows Media Player or Microsoft Silverlight to watch TV from afar. You can watch live TV or shows that you have previously recorded. It's also possible to examine the TV guide, and control some of the system configuration. And you can secure it if need be, to keep random outsiders from messing up your Beyond TV setup.

Externally (after forwarding the ports from my router onwards) I did not have as much luck. This probably had more with trying to do it from work (where the web is filtered and many ports/services are blocked) than it did the Beyond TV program. My only wish is that they would have gone with something like Adobe Flash for the video playback, so that the features would be available to more platforms than just Windows and Mac OS X.

And finally, there is Beyond TV's pricing and packaging. Back in 2009 when this was first written, you could buy a copy of Beyond TV 4 as a download for $99 or on CD for $109. SnapStream didn't offer everything you needed in that package--certain add-ons and the DVD burning function were available at extra cost, when they were available.

I don't like that sort of thing. When I go out to buy a license and a copy of some software, I want to get everything in case a need arises later on. (As I wrote in the original review, it's very possible that when the unpurchased options are later needed, the vendor won't be able or willing to supply them. This turned out to be the case. SnapStream no longer distributes BeyondTV or any of its add-ons, having moved on to the manufacture of some serious-looking commercial grade video management hardware. Hardware whose pricing starts at $10,000 plus a $1,500 per year "service" contract.)

With a little work and some consideration given to better usability, BeyondTV could have been excellent. It never got the chance to really shine.

MythTV & Mythbuntu

Back in March 2009 when I created this article, I mentioned MythTV as being a possible candidate for experimentation. I have an awful lot of respect for free and open source software. Yet somehow things never end up going well at some point when I'm working with Linux and affiliated software projects. Every time it devolves in a man-versus-machine screaming match that isn't at all pretty. Every time I ponder how anyone could get the key concepts of software usability, discoverability and sensible design so very, very wrong. And while I have yet to see an example that does get these things right, every time I tell myself "this time it will be different, things will work, people will have done better, you'll see". It has yet to happen.

MythTV is a Linux-based DVR system that does many of the things offered by proprietary software packages and devices. Its primary advantage is quite possibly the open source nature of the product, as anyone can contribute to the project. Not knowing much about MythTV, I could only assume that it was a complete Linux distribution centered around being a DVR. Which is a nice idea, it's just not true. MythTV is distributed only as source code.

If there were a warning sign that perhaps this software wasn't the most user friendly thing out there, "distributed only as source code" would be it. Fortunately, there exist some fully prepared MythTV distributions, one of which is known as Mythbuntu. Mythbuntu, as the name suggests, is a portmanteau (that's your word for the day) of MythTV and Ubuntu. I dutifully burned a CD of the 32-bit version and selected a computer upon which to install it. This time around I chose perhaps a more appropriate system in the form of a Dell Dimension XPS 400 that was given to me by someone on the verge of throwing it out the window. With its Pentium D CPU, Intel VIIV technology and a former life running Windows XP Media Center Edition, it ought to be up to the task. It needed only a power supply fan oiling and a new hard disk to go again.

I added the Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600 board and put the machine back together.

The first phase of the installation actually went really, really well! I was just sure this would work right off the bat, as the setup program had a great deal of polish, and clearly explained what it was doing. And then the path diverged, with a screen stating that installation had finished. The screen to which I had been taken stated that there were two things left to do--the first of which is to set up an account with an outfit called SchedulesDirect. SchedulesDirect is supposed to be a TV listings service to which users of MythTV and related products can subscribe for a yearly price of $20 (as of this writing in Feb 2010), a two month long period for $5 or a free trial period that lasts seven days.

That's all well and good, but I really didn't have any desire to create a SchedulesDirect account, not even on a trial basis. Mythbuntu delivered a warning that said using SchedulesDirect was a requirement, or many aspects of the program's functionality would be impacted. I'm sorry, but I just can't buy this. Is there some good reason why a sophisticated Linux based DVR system can't do what every VCR ever made can do, and accept simple start/stop times for recording? I hoped there wasn't, and skipped SchedulesDirect setup.

This Concludes The Good News Portion Of Our Broadcast

Although a numbered menu was the next thing to appear, the seemingly easy interface that it presented turned out to be nothing more than a superficial cover of a confusing and completely less than totally intuitive configuration tool. To make it worse, the only navigation supported was by keyboard, as the mouse had been disabled. It wasn't really clear what I needed to be doing here, or how I needed to set certain values. It gets better, though. There is explanatory text presented at the bottom of the screen to offer some information about what a given setting does. Which is nice, if you don't mind the fact that longer explanations are unceremoniously cut off.

Do these people do ANY kind of quality assurance on this stuff? Really? You mean to tell me that nobody noticed the explanatory text being cut off?

Whatever. Some of the navigation really doesn't seem to work properly. It's not always clear what object has focus, as not all objects change color. Nor is it absolutely clear when something is disabled, or how you might change the value of something that is a drop-down box with multiple choices. I tried to continue as best I could, and the software did reach the point where it was supposedly going to scan for active TV channels.

It seemed like Mythbuntu was aware of my TV tuner hardware, as well as how it was configured. So I started the channel scan, and immediately afterwards the screen started to fill up with errors about something not being defined.

Do these people do ANY kind of quality assurance on this stuff? Oh, crap...I repeat myself!

After that the graphical user interface seemed to fall over on itself, at least in part. The keyboard stopped being reliably responsive, highlighting was no longer being given to the item where focus had been directed and it just appeared that I was mired in Yet Another Linux Usability Disaster. Wonderful. Somehow I broke out of that mess. Mythbuntu asked to reboot and I let it.

Oh, the system rebooted. And then it landed a rapidly blinking textual Ubuntu logon screen after burping its way through an argument seemingly focused on whether or not the ntp client ought to be running. I really did try to log on, but the blinking of the console was clearly affecting the system, as I could barely get through to it. (Click here for the 150K 160x160 MPEG movie, somewhat dark but you can see what I saw...)

I yanked the power cord and walked off. It was either that or the XPS 400 would have been dangerously close to use as a projectile once again. I felt myself getting dangerously close to the need for some catharsis.

Now there are people out there who operate under the delusion (yes, that's what I said and what I meant) that everyone should fall to their knees just because these people bothered. There seem to be a fair number of these annoying bastards around open source software, and especially Linux. Guess what? It's not enough just to "bother" doing something. Make the damn thing work! If you're going to bother doing something, shouldn't that be the end goal? Shouldn't there be some pride involved here? I know there is when I go to make something...I do the best job that I am capable of.

I've never been able to get into computer programming. I think the tools and popular languages suck in so many ways...not the least of which is their arcane nature. If I were able to convince myself that I enjoyed computer programming, I'd try my hand at writing a TV management software package. I feel pretty safe in saying that I couldn't possibly do any WORSE than any of these people have.

I suppose there are working MythTV installations out there, as I suppose people more interested in television and more dedicated than I slogged their way through it until something worked.

There's that question again: do these people do ANY kind of quality assurance on this stuff? You people really have to do better than this, and that's not just directed at the MythTV folks (who are, it has to be said, probably the only ones who will should they ever see this).

All in all, it works out this way, for each product of the review:

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Copyright © 2009-2015 William R. Walsh. All Rights Reserved. Created 03/17/2009, updates on 06/21/2009 and 12/30/2014. MythTV review added February 8th, 2010.

Footnotes Of Interest:

* I do watch this one from time to time. However, it's been so seldom that 95% of the CSI: Miami episodes (seasons 1-5) one of my brothers has on DVD are new to me. You should also follow the Uncylopedia link above. I found it amusing, and you might too.

** Yes, that's deliberate. And you've got to admit, that it sounded much better than mixing up various other show names, most of which aren't on TV any longer.

** At this point, we don't discuss my growing collection of TV shows on DVD.

# Trademark owners don't like to see their product names used as verbs. Oh well, I don't like the assumption on their part that I cared.