Six PCI TV-Tuners Roundup

Today we are going to take a closer look at such an interesting device as TV-tuner. There is the whole bunch of these solutions in the market today, but we will discuss 6 of them to figure out the major peculiarities and functions of these devices and point out the most important things you should pay attention to when buying a TV-tuner for your system.

by Sergey Samarin
02/16/2004 | 11:05 PM

As the time passes any “future technology” turns into something quite common, which is of no surprise to the generation it grew up with. All the greatest innovations of the mankind one day turned into every-day things, so that we barely imagine our life without them. Ask a house-wife where the electricity comes from, and she will point to the wall-outlet. Ask about the car engine, and you will learn that there are gas stations where you can fuel your car to make it go. Mass consumers do not need to know all the ins and outs of the technologies: they just need to learn to use the fruits of civilization.

 

The situation with television is just the same. You come home, and hit the power button on the remote control unit of your TV-set, which is a window to the world for you. It is really hard to imagine how people could live without TV long time ago. What did they do on the long winter nights?

The statistics claims that today most of the info comes from television. And only a small part is delivered by the radio, PC and printed media. I am not talking only bout such info as political and economic news, but also about cultural life of the society.

I would call the today’s time the days of active development of global networks. Theoretically these networks are predicted to be ousting or replacing regular television one day, although no one knows when this is going to actually take place. Television is very unlikely to give in so soon. On the contrary, television continues developing, we see that they start using new digital formats and stereo-sounding, and are constantly improving these technologies day by day. Despite the forecasts of WEB-TV adherents, the situation will hardly change in the near future. And since there are a lot of TV-shows and other programs, then there should be a comfortable way to enjoy them. Today every family has at least one TV-set. However, if you have a small place, it might be a hard task to fit a second TV-set into the interior. But if you have a PC (and if you are reading this article on our site, then you definitely have one), you can equip it with a TV-tuner and this way solve some of your problems. Moreover, a TV-tuner in a PC offers much more flexibility than just a PC or just a TV-set. I am not talking about the digital quality, because over 50% of the price of any TV-set is the price of the television tube (or LCD panel), and in case of a computer TV you have the monitor to work as a TV-tube.

All in all, a TV-tuner is a very useful and interesting device. Today we are going to take a closer look at some models available in the computer market. But before we start introducing the actual solutions to you let’s dwell on a few general peculiarities of any TV-tuner.

What is a TV-Tuner?

TV-tuner is a receiver of a television signal, i.e. almost the same device as what any TV-set or video-recorder is equipped with (a video-player doesn’t have a TV-tuner). This type of radio equipment has not only a receiver like that, but also the whole lot of different functional modules (the type of these modules depends on the type of the device). The PC TV-tuner doesn’t have additional elements, as it is a kind of expansion of the PC video and audio system. And the way the TV-tuner communicates with your PC depends solely on the type of a TV-tuner.

As you may have guessed, any TV-tuner allows watching different TV-programs. However, this is not all. You can also capture separate frames, record videos on your hard drive, look through the teletext and do the whole bunch of other things. The remarkable thing about teletext is the fact that there are special utilities developed for teletext pages processing, which link the teletext information with electronic spreadsheets and make all the necessary changes once the data change. You will agree that a regular TV-set cannot do all this stuff.

Many TV-tuners are provided with an integrated FM-tuner. This is actually a very useful addition to the functions of a TV-tuner, especially if you are used to working on your PC with the radio playing in the background. Just like with the TV-programs, you can not only listen to but also record the radio tunes. By the way, the tuner can play video data not only when it is broadcast directly, but also when it is sent from such devices as consumer cameras and video players. In fact, most contemporary graphics cards come equipped with the video-In/Out, however, not all the cards are like that and not all the VGA card makers offer these functions. Moreover, they usually use RCA video connector and almost all TV-tuners also have an S-Video connector, which allows avoiding image quality worsening.

All in all, the use of a TV-tuner in your PC turns your computer into a TV and FM-tuner at the same time, and allows you to use the data on both: your computer and consumer video equipment.

TV-Tuners Variety

We could single out three types of TV-tuners available in the today’s computer market:

Of course, the very first classification that comes to mind is external and internal solutions. The internal add-in cards are installed into your system, while the external ones are connected to the external ports of your system and require additional power supply.

External TV-Tuners. They are connected between the monitor and the graphics accelerator of your PC. Of course, a solution like that has both: advantages and drawbacks (actually, any solution would have both). The major advantage is the ease of the connection: you don’t have to open the PC case and dig into the components and wires inside it. Also, the external tuner doesn’t need the system itself: all it needs is the monitor. I would also like to add the third important advantage: the external tuner will not be affected by EMI produced by other components of your system and is more sensitive, so it will produce a less distorted image. However, you have to pay for everything in this world, so the external tuner will definitely cost more and will boast fewer features than an internal one. In particular, it will not be able to capture any freeze-frames and to display the picture in a window (only full-screen mode is supported). This way, external tuners cannot be considered fully-fledged computer devices. I would include them among certain types of consumer electronics connected directly to the PC monitor.

Combo-Devices. These devices a kind of TV-tuners, which can also be classified into three groups. These TV-tuners are designed on the same PCB with a graphics accelerator. ATI Company has been offering solutions like that for a long time already (remember the old Rage Pro and Rage II?) Then this company introduced All-in-Wonder 128 on Rage128 chip, and today we all know very well ATI All-in-Wonder 9600/9800. Note that ATI specialists have already spent quite a bit of time to make sure that their Rage chips work fine with MPEG formats. The drawbacks of combo-devices are evident: TV-tuners do not get outdated as quickly as graphics cards. And it will definitely cost you much more to upgrade a combo-video card.

Internal TV-Tuners (Expansion Cards). Internal TV-Tuners are available as PCI add-in cards. These solution transfer decoded video data along a special bus using DirectX libraries. There used to be tuner-cards for ISA slots. However, since the latter bus no longer exists, the cards like that are considered a rare thing today and are no longer manufactured. Just for your information: ISA tuners were considered expansion cards only nominally, as they actually took only the power from their bus, while the data transfer was all performed via a special external connection cable.

The major drawback of any PCI-tuner is a very high workload it puts onto the system CPU and PCI bus, which has to transfer a huge amount of data. The minimal system requirements for a computer equipped with a TV-tuner include at least a Pentium III 500 processor and at least 128MB of RAM.

The sound accompaniment is usually provided by connecting the TV0tuenr to an external linear output port of your PC sound card. The corresponding connection cable is always included with a TV-tuner card. Some tuner models feature an additional connector located right on the PCB. This way the audio data can be transferred via an internal connection through AUX_IN of the sound card. If there is no sound card in your system, you can connect active acoustic sets to the linear out of the TV-tuner.

Universal Electronic Stuffing

In fact, the hardware insides of any TV-tuner solutions available in the today’s PC market is so unified, that I think it would make sense to produce one or two OEM models instead of the whole variety we have now. And the corresponding software could be included into a standard installation package for the operation systems. I can say free-heartedly that the software developed by the TV-tuner manufacturers is very often beyond any criticism (the “raw” and unfinished programs are a pretty usual thing, unfortunately), and the software by third-party developers, who do not have to bother about the hardware part, is usually very rich in all sorts of fine tuning options and small pleasant trifles. Well, since we came to speak about the hardware basics, I suggest taking a closer look at the heart of any TV-tuner first.

The first irreplaceable component of any TV-tuner is the receiver of the television and radio signals which is called Radio Frequency (RF) module. It serves to connect the antenna and the decoding unit. Today RF modules are produced by Alps, LG, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Temic and a few other companies. In my experience the most widely spread solutions are those from LG and Philips. All RF modules are covered with a special metal shield, which protects the signal against distortions produced by the EMI of other system components.

The second part of any TV-tuner is a decoding unit, which is often designed as a single-chip solution (we will talk more about it later in this article).

The third component is the so-called “other electronic stuffing”, where I would place remote control implementation and the programmable micro-controller (programmed by the manufacturer). These components are not of primary importance that is why I will not go deep into details regarding them.

So, let’s take a closer look at the exiting types of decoding units. I believe this is one of the most important parts of any TV-tuner, which determines the functionality of the end-product a lot.

Conexant Fusion 878A

Fusion 878A seems to be one of the most widely spread decoders. It is a fully-fledged low-cost single-chip solution and is responsible for processing signals coming from the television and radio companies. Fusion 878A is a kind of link between the PCI bus and TV-tuner card. It ensures high bandwidth for multi-media streams of data and should work with some other PCI devices as a component of their electronics. Fusion 878A inherited all the goodies of Bt878 chip and added a few new functions of its own to the list. The decoder meets the requirements of the PC98/PC99 specification and complies with PCI 2.2 standard.

Fusion 878A chip is similar to Bt878 not only in terms of its software compatibility, but also on the hardware level (here I am talking about the same internal chip layout, which makes it much easier to replace the Bt878 with a Fusion 878A without redesigning the pinout and PCB layout). Fusion 878A can also be used in a wide range of digital products, which need to manage MPEG streams. The worlds moves to digital technologies with new broadcast standards, such as ATSC and COFDM, and television recording is actively involving MPEG compression. From this point of view, Fusion 878A can be also used as a PC hub managing numerous analog and digital video formats via the PCI connection.


Fusion 878A flow-chart

Here are the major technical specifications of Fusion 878A:

The chip can be used in the following devices:

All above listed application fields for Fusion 878A show that it is a multi-fucntional chip, so you can see it not only inside a TV-tuner.

Philips SAA7130HL

An alternative solution is the SAA7130HL decoder from Philips. Although I would consider this chip not an alternative but the newest electronic analogue. It is also a highly integrated low-cost single-chip solution that suits perfectly for capturing analog and digital broadcast. It transfers different types of multimedia data via the PCI bus. The analog signal is received by a 9bit ADC, decoded by multi-string combo-filters and scaled along horizontal and vertical axes. The decoded image is displayed in YUV and RGB formats. Analog audio signal is transferred via the connection cable to the system sound card.

Philips decoder exists in four different modifications today: 7130HL (basic or the simplest modification), 7133HL, 7134HL and 7135HL. The comparative table below is a pretty interesting thing to check out, that is why I decided to put it here:

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that NICAM digital encoding is implemented only in 7134HL and 7135HL modifications. So, I believe it makes sense to pay special attention to the TV-tuners built on the latest chip modifications, because stereo is always better than mono.

Now I would like to list the major specifications of the Philips SAA7130HL chip:

Even by simply comparing the useful functions of the chips we can conclude that the solution from Philips is better suited for work with SECAM standard. In the long run it should result into better image quality in our case. The real tests will show though, how the things actually stand with the image quality. We will offer you captured TV images for all 6 TV-tuner models reviewed today, so that you could take a closer look and make your own conclusions about this or that card.

3DeMON PV951T (3Dvision)

It is so easy to start successful production of TV-tuner cards that some now very well-known Chinese companies start conquering this PC market segment. The tuners from noname companies can be easily distinguished from the branded ones by poor software bundle and sometimes the absence of the technical support page. But the relatively low cost of these products easily makes up for all these drawbacks. PV951T represents a model like that:

The multi-layer PCB complies with all the requirements from the manufacturers of devices like that. It is screened from both sides, so that the EMI effect from other system components could be reduced to the minimum. The decoder is based on Conexant Fusion 878A chip and the RF module is based on LG TPI8PSB12P (this is a pretty fresh modification). This TV-tuner model (PV-951T) doesn’t have any FM-tuner onboard. The modification with an FM tuner is called PV-951TF.

The bracket of the card features the following ports:

The colorful box contains:

I installed the tuner management software from the accompanying CD, just to make sure once again that this CD-disc can go directly into garbage. This software is not only primitive and poor, it doesn’t support most of the decoder features and has very miserable interface.

The software doesn’t allow capturing freeze-frames, that is why I had to use another utility. However, despite the origin of this tuner I was pretty happy with the TV picture quality provided by it. Taking into account that PV951T is cheaper than the competing products, this solution turns out a very attractive purchase. The screenshots below will give you a better idea of what this model is capable of.

  

  

AVerMedia AVerTV 203

This brand is pretty popular today and the TV-tuners from this company are quite widely spread in the today’s mass market. However, if the brand is popular, you have to pay for it. So, AVer tuners cost more than their competitors, which is their main drawback.

Most contemporary TV-tuners are based on Conexant Fusion 878A chip, and AVerTV 203 is no exception here. However, such a well-known company as AverMedia does not stick to a single solution for the entire product family. The TV-tuner card we are going to take a closer look at now is based on a different decoder chip. The AVerTV 203 doesn’t have an integrated FM-tuner onboard:

The bracket of the card features the following ports:

The package contains:

The software going with this TV-tuner is localized for the region where the product is selling. We received our model from the Eastern European market, so it was localized for Russia. All buttons are marked in Russian and the help info is also given only in Russia without any opportunity to set some alternative language.

The settings window is probably intended for an average user that is why you will find there only basic settings without any fine-tuning options. Taking into account the variety of settings offered by this software, I would consider this bundle pretty primitive.

The image quality provided by this tuner was not that pleasing at all. I could notice some noise on all TV channels we captured and there was no way to get rid of this noise by simply adjusting the frequency. Take a look yourselves, the sample frames are down below:

  

  

  

AVerMedia AVerTV Studio 305

AVerMedia Company updated their TV-tuner family by launching a new AVerTV Studio 305 solution. This model is based on Philips SAA7130HL decoder and Philips FM1256/IH-3 RF-module (the marking can be seen through the sticker).

This model features its own FM-tuner. In fact, you could have guessed it from the name of the product, because all AVer models with the word “Studio” in the name feature an integrated FM-tuner. Note that FM-radio can work perfectly well with the TV antenna and doesn’t require an additional antenna in the special jack. However, the software developed by third-party companies doesn’t allow receiving FM-radio via the TV antenna.

The FM-tuner of this model receives both: VHF and FM frequencies (from 62 to 108MHz). The radio is tuned just the same way as the TV. Depending on the country the model is adapted for, you can either scan the entire frequency range or simply download the data about the working frequencies of a given list of radio stations and their names. Those radio stations, which broadcast in CCIR format are played in stereo, which is definitely nicer than mono. By the way, you can arrange the stations list according to your personal likes (just like the TV channels).

The bracket of the card features the following ports:

The package contains:

The software for AVerTV Studio 305 is completely different from what we saw by AVerTV 203. The software is revised and updated with a number of new functional elements. I would like to specifically point out that the brand name management tool included into this software package is highly functional and implements almost all the hardware features of the product. Also note that you can shift between the TV and radio channels by scrolling the mouse wheel.

The TV-tuner settings window is divided into nine topical pages. You will easily find your way there, as the interface and settings arrangement is intuitively clear.

You will be able to set the teletext language you like from a given list, which is a definite advantage.

The image quality provided by AVerTV Studio 305 is better than that of the previous model. Just take a look at the captured frames, and you will feel the difference.

  

  

  

  

Genius Video Wonder Pro III

The retail package of this tuner is designed in Genius’ traditional style (this is why we all recognize genius brand). The product is quite competitive and known in the mass market. Wonder Pro III TV-tuner costs not so much that is why it looks very attractive against the competitors’ background, especially from the pricing point of view.

The tuner is based on the enhanced Philips SAA7134HL decoder version supporting NICAM. This is actually one of the reasons I would suggest thinking about this TV-tuner.

The package contains:

I should probably mention that the package is also bundled with a mini-jack/RCA cable, which is not a common thing to go with a TV-tuner card. It allows connecting your tuner to a corresponding sound system or multi-media center.

The bracket of the card features the following ports:

Genius’ own software is made in a very awkward way. When I installed the drivers the refresh rate for some reason dropped to 60Hz. The tuner management utility is not simple and convenient enough, which is a definite drawback against the background of the competing solutions available in the market.

The settings are so few that they all fitted into a single page:

I have quite a few products from Genius in my system. I work with a Genius optical mouse and Genius GM56PCI-L modem based on a Lucent chip. However, I never used Genius’ software for the latter, as the own software from Lucent is of much better quality. I am saying this to stress once again that it makes sense to get some third-party software for your genius TV-tuner once you get it. In fact, almost all genius products users have arrived at this conclusion, which you may often come across in various forums. Nevertheless, this TV-tuner solution is a pretty popular device.

Having checked out the scarce settings offered by the brand name software bundle, I decided to go for some other utilities and tools. Since Video Wonder Pro III card carefully follows the reference design (actually, it is as like as peas with FlyTV Prime 34 and FleVideo 3000 cards), it should work fine with the reference drivers, too. This is exactly what I did. Note that the image quality got significantly better after I installed these drivers. I will not show you the frames captured with Genius’ home software, but will go straight to the better ones saved with the reference drivers:

  

  

  

LifeView FlyTV Prime 34FM and LifeView FlyVideo 3000 (Model LR138)

      
FlyTV Prime 34FM box

 
FlyVideo 3000 box

I decided to discuss these two models together because they seem to be absolutely similar. Both models boast identical layout of the electronic components on the PCB and use the same software.

      
FlyTV Prime 34FM card

 
FlyVideo 3000 card

Both products are based on Philips SAA7134HL decoder and RF-module fromt eh same manufacturer. The RF-module supports PAL-B/G and PAL-D/K standards. Different RF-modules are the only distinguishing feature of the LifeView TV-tuner and Genius Video Wonder Pro III, which is designed for SECAM standard.


The bracket is laid out identically for both models

The bracket of the card features the following ports:


The package contents is identical for both models

The package contains:

The remote control unit looks a little bit unusual, differing greatly from the large units from AVer by its narrow width and elegant exterior. The unit comes without batteries. It comes with a preinstalled thin lithium battery which is activate after you remove the thin plastic band from the case.

The tuner control panel is designed in a very simple way, but at the same time it cannot be called intuitively simple. Note that when you resize the active screen, the window doesn’t get resized proportionally.

Simple software and imperfect driver, which doesn’t allow enabling any filters and lacks a few other nice features of the decoder, definitely tell on the quality of the channels setting. And not only on that, I should say. However, I was pretty happy with the picture quality. The screenshots below will prove my point.

Captured Freeze-Frames for LifeView FlyTV Prime 34FM:

  

  

  

  

Captured Freeze-Frames for LifeView FlyVideo 3000 (Model LR138):

  

  

  

TV-Tuners Evaluation Criteria

Such devices as TV-tuners are usually very hard to compare, as they are all very similar. Nevertheless, the image quality provided by various models may differ pretty tangibly. First of all, let’s not forget that the tuner functionality is determined by the decoder chip used in it. Secondly, the decoder chip only offers certain features, and the implementation of these features depends on the software developers working on the drivers in the first place. But the greatest differences between the TV-tuner models lie in a completely different field: the price range. The TV-tuner manufacturers have already understood that a TV-tuner appears more appealing to the customer if it goes with a  remote control unit, with a set of additional connectors and ports, and finally with good functional software bundle, which provides not only quality image but also quality recording options.

I am mentioning all this because it is very hard to carry out objective testing and comparison of TV-tuner devices. Actually, the best thing that can be done in this case is to capture a few freeze-frames, so that the users could visually compare the provided image quality and the price of the considered products and make up their mind.

Conclusion

Well, in conclusion I would like to give you some piece of advice, which might be helpful once you decide to go for a TV-tuner. So, what should your TV-tuner be like if you are planning to use it for quite a long time? Of course, it would make sense to buy a tuner card, which is not combined with the graphics adapter. The graphics card will get outdated very soon, while the TV-tuner will turn out a useless piece of plastic only when the PCI bus sinks into oblivion.

As for the additional features you should look into, I would suggest getting a device provided with a convenient remote control unit. If you have a big monitor and are planning to watch TV with your TV tuner quite often, then you will need a remote control unit for sure. Also, you would like to have teletext feature. Also if you have a digital video camera and are planning to edit your movies on the PC, then make sure your tuner card has the corresponding connector on the bracket.

And a couple more things. Take care of an antenna. The thing is that not every room antenna will ensure high quality of the reception, not to mention the teletext feature in this case, because if the signal is weak, it will take ages for the teletext page to load without any errors. If you connect your TV-tuner to the home wired antenna you may still encounter some problems, because you definitely have a TV-set in your place and each antenna splitter eats a bit of the reception quality.

If you are planning to use actively the video capturing functions of your TV-tuner then you should have a powerful system with a pretty large hard disk drive. The matter is that even short videos eat up a lot of megabytes, and contemporary TV-tuners allow recording TV-shows with DVD quality. You will need a very powerful CPU to be able to process such large video streams afterwards.

Of course, things develop very rapidly in the computer industry. However, there is a class of multimedia devices, which have almost stopped evolving though they haven’t become archaic at all. They are TV-tuners.