You don't have to buy a pricey Media Center PC or get a TiVo to record your favorite television shows. For as little as $89, you can outfit your PC with a TV tuner that will let you pause and rewind live TV and record shows to your hard drive.
TV tuners for the PC come in two flavors: PCI cards and external USB boxes. They make it a snap to watch full-screen, full-motion video on a monitor, or keep an eye on a show in a smaller window while surfing the Web. We tested two PCI cards (ADS Tech's $89 Instant TV +FM PCI and Hauppauge's $99 WinTV-PVR-150) and three USB devices (ATI's $124 TV Wonder USB 2.0 with optional remote control, AVerMedia's $99 UltraTV USB 300, and the $140 Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2). Both the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 and the ADS Tech come with an FM tuner and an antenna, but only the Hauppauge can receive FM signals via coaxial cable (assuming that your cable TV company provides the service). All of the devices have inputs for coaxial, composite, and S-Video cables. To test the tuners, we used live TV and coaxial inputs. All of them delivered acceptable video and audio: Though image quality varied a little, the differences were too slight to affect a buying decision. Still, the images might have been crisper if we had used a set-top box and connected via composite or, even better, S-Video. You can also use the composite and S-Video inputs to watch video from an external video source, such as a digital camcorder or a VCR.
Clutter-Free or USB?
You might expect that a PCI-based tuner would deliver smoother video and recordings with fewer skips than an external device. All five tuners, however, performed similarly on our test machine, a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 PC equipped with USB 2.0 ports. (Note that using a PC equipped with USB 1.1 ports might slow down the performance of a USB tuner.) So the choice comes down to a matter of cost, features, and preference.
If you want to keep your desk free of clutter, it's hard to beat a PCI tuner. Once you've installed it and closed your computer's case, it stays completely out of the way. Furthermore, as a general rule, PCI tuner cards are slightly less expensive than their external counterparts.
On the other hand, USB tuners are a great solution if your computer's PCI slots are full, or if you want to watch TV on a laptop. But some USB tuners are bulky enough to be ungainly, especially when they have a bunch of cables sticking out of them. This isn't a problem for the featherweight AVerMedia UltraTV USB 300. A bit larger than a deck of cards, it's the most compact of the three we looked at and the only one that didn't need an AC adapter (it draws its power from the USB port). At the other end of the scale, the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 is almost four times larger but comes with a base for standing it up on its side.
Setting up a USB tuner is quicker than installing a card, but the steps are roughly the same. (The AVerMedia is the only USB box with an audio output that connects to the PC's sound card.) After clicking through a few dialog boxes about your location and the input type, you're pretty much ready to start watching TV. But first the software needs a few minutes to scan your cable connection for available channels. Most of the software included with these products has a similar design, but there are some differences. For instance, though ADS Tech's Instant TV interface doesn't look as polished as some of the others, the controls it provides for volume and channel changing are intuitive. In contrast, merely finding the volume control on the overly slick ATI TV Wonder's interface turned out to be a major chore.