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TV/radio reception in PCs

This is some observations on TV/radio cards for fitting inside a PC (or connecting to it, mainly for laptops). It is out of date now while I'm writing it, let alone you're reading it.
Shown prices are what you pay, i. e. no v. a. t. to be added - normally at stalls at computer "fair"s; note that many stalls do not accept credit cards (some do, sometimes with a few percent surcharge).

This document contains no images:- it's intended to be saved for examination offline (though can certainly be read online). [It might be an idea to select landscape printing if you have it.]

Check cards for compatibility with your video card and the rest of your system (DirectDraw etcetera).

Since I started to produce this file, a couple of new types of device that can be used for video capture have appeared (or come within the price range most people can afford): video (and audio) only capture devices, and Firewire cards for use with digital camcorders. This document only covers devices incorporating an analogue TV tuner, all of which also include the ability to take in baseband analogue video, such as from an analogue camcorder (e. g. VHS, VHS-C, or 8), the analogue output of a digital camcorder, or any other source such as an ordinary video player.

(A further development has been the appearance of digital TV tuner cards for PCs, for either terrestrial or satellite reception; two of those [for terrestrial] is shown here.)

This was last revised 2004-1-2, so be aware it's already incorrect!
Figures thus were noted2003-11-8 inLondon
thus 2003-8-16
thus 2003-3-1Chelmsford PCW
otherwiseearlier(various places)

makemodel external video inputs maximum resolution multichannel monitoring NTSC & SECAM (all have PAL) NICAM stereoFM radio remote control price (£)  
namenumberS-VHScomposite
PINNACLEPC TV RAVEyes yes(?)no no 29.99
HauppaugeWinTV-GO607no yes1600 × 1200 16 39.99
WinTV-USB566yes 59.99 USB; need Windows 98 or 2000
USB-FM570yesnostereo USB
WinTV-NOVA-t usb908 no as broadcast(?) not applicable (DTV stereo radio as broadcast) no 99.99 USB; Digital Terrestrial; needs PIII (min 500 necessary)
(generic free-to-air digital TV card) 79
AverMediaAverTV(PCI) yes 720×57616yes no 37
AV-TV USB 45 USB; capture to 320 × 240
Note: a feature not shown in the above table does not mean it is not available on a particular card, unless I've actually said "no"; if it is just blank, it means I don't know.

Quick summary: if you just want to watch TV on your PC, all of these cards will provide that - in fact they usually provide Teletext as well. Paying more will get you a remote control, an FM radio receiver as well as the TV, NICAM stereo sound on the TV, or various combinations of these.

Explanation of column headings:

make

This one should be obvious.

model

The name the manufacturers give the product, and (in a few cases) the number.

external video inputs

As well as off-air, most cards also offer the facility to use an external video source, such as a video recorder or camcorder, as the source of pictures. S-video sources can give a better quality image (the colour and brightness signals are separate).

maximum resolution

The figures given are the maximum resolution the card can reproduce on screen and capture to still or video file (most of the cards offer both still and video capture, though the frame rate of the video capture may differ). Note that video capture files occupy vast amounts of disc space; they are usually in the uncompressed .avi format, rather than .mp[e]g or similar. Lower resolutions are usually offered, to occupy less space on screen and make smaller capture files. Note also that a video signal has 625 lines (525 in some parts of the world), and some of those do not contain picture information (being used for "flyback", "blanking" and so on, as well as teletext); in brief, the 576 vertical resolution will capture all the information there is in the original. In most cases, 768 is more than enough to capture all the horizontal detail as well; it is only in the case of a very good quality source - say, a studio feed, or feed from a good camera, or very occasionally a signal from a very good aerial - that more genuine detail (as opposed to noise) will be captured by a higher resolution than 768 × 576.

multichannel monitoring

To truly monitor multiple channels at once, the cards would need multiple tuners (and aerials!); in practice, they switch between channels - in other words, it is a feature of the software that is supplied with the cards, not the cards themselves. Nevertheless, the impression of multichannel monitoring can be given, though the picture on each of the channels (they are usually presented in a grid or matrix) is rather jerky. Many of the cards mention 16 channels, implying that the number of channels that can be monitored is fixed.

TV standards

All the cards are able to receive signals in the PAL format, as that is what is used in this country (and most of western Europe); it was not always clear whether the other standards (NTSC [north America, roughly] and SECAM [French and USSR influenced areas]) were usable on off-air signals or just direct video inputs.

NICAM stereo

TV stereo sound is broadcast in a digital form called NICAM (Near Instantaneously Companded Analogue Multiplex - there, I bet you've always wanted to know that!) in a few countries, including the UK and (I think) Spain; if the card has NICAM ability (and there is a NICAM-encoded transmitter in your area - most of the UK by now), you will get stereo sound with the TV pictures.

FM radio

Fairly self-explanatory - some of the cards have a (usually stereo) FM radio receiver incorporated as well as the TV. (You used to be able to get cards that gave radio only, but I have not seen any for some years.)

remote control

That's right - some of the cards come with a genuine remote control handset, just like you have with your TV and video! I am not quite sure what you'd do with it - after all, when using your PC, you're usually right at it anyway (using a PC just as a TV set seems rather expensive, and also it will not work quite as well as a normal TV set as there are features of the implementation - quantisation, refresh rate, phosphor persistence, etcetera - which may be noticeable with prolonged use). However, I daresay some people will find a use for it!

price

I was quite surprised that shop prices compared quite well with computer fair stall prices, for these TV/Radio cards; for most things, stalls are somewhat cheaper.

(other)

Some of The Hauppauge units are USB - and thus I presume are external units, intended primarily (?) for portable PCs, or other situations where it is not practical (or possible) to fit a card inside the PC.