Review: Multiple TV Tuner Products for Personal Computers
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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
The Hauppauge Card
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
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.
Hauppauge WinTV 5
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
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.
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 alt.sys.pc-clone.dell
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 alt.sys.pc-clone.dell made a suggestion for another
piece of software I could use as a front end to the WinTV tuner
hardware. That brings us to...
SnapStream Media Beyond
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
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
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
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,
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
- The Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600 hardware is top notch, easily
installed and gives very good results.
- WinTV 5 didn't really work like it should, and while 6 was
an improvement, it still had some quirks and features that were less
than easy to use.
- SnapStream's Beyond TV 4 had a lot of potential. I'd feel bad
if I'd have paid $100 for this software, especially after SnapStream abandoned it.
- MythTV is another Linux
based option that lets you use a computer as a TV watching and
recording system. It is, at least when this review was originally
written, a nonfunctional and fussy piece of garbage. I haven't managed
the desire to try it again, and I doubt that I ever do.
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.
* 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
# 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.