Personal Video Recorders (PVRs), commonly known as TiVOs (think Kleenex and Xerox, brand names associated as product categories), have become the one of the hottest products in the consumer electronics world. Just as the Internet introduced us to on-demand access to information, the PVR has introduced us to on-demand television. With a PVR, we no longer need to schedule our time around our favorite TV shows — we can watch what we want, whenever we want.
Since a PVR records to a hard drive instead of a tape, it’s possible to save one hundred hours or more of TV at a time. You can easily delete old content, and never need to worry about which tape has which episode. You can even ask a PVR to record every episode of your favorite show but ignore the repeats.
While you can buy a TiVO or rent a PVR from your cable/satellite company, an increasingly popular third option is to buy a TV tuner card for your computer. These PC solutions don’t require a monthly fee, and it’s possible to take advantage of the hardware and hard drive that you already own. Today we’ll take a look at one of the best NTSC TV tuners for the PC, the NVIDIA DualTV MCE.
Features and Design
The DualTV MCE from NVIDIA is an analog dual TV tuner that transforms a Windows XP machine into a PVR. With dual tuners built-in, you can record two different TV shows simultaneously, while watching a third, previously recorded show. Or, if you’d like to use the first tuner to pause and rewind live TV, you’ll still be able to record another show in the background. With competing products such as the ATI TV Wonder Elite, you’d only be able to record one show at a time. If you wanted to pause/rewind live TV with the TV Wonder Elite, you wouldn’t be able to do anything else at the same time.
What really makes the DualTV MCE special is that it offers some of best image quality for a PC TV Tuner thanks to technologies such as 3D Noise Reduction, a 3D comb filter, an exceptional silicon-based tuner, a sophisticated ViXS XcodeII MPEG-2 Encoder, and the PureVideo Decoder.
The concept of GIGO “Garbage-In… Garbage-Out…” clearly applies to TV tuners. NVIDIA’s excellent image quality begins with their “Weak Signal Amplification Technology.” By pairing the high-end silicon tuners with a signal amplifier, the DualTV MCE is able to get better reception than other PC tuners. It is worth mentioning that NVIDIA’s decision to use silicon tuners means that while you’ll have better image quality, you’ll also have to wait a little over two seconds to change from one channel to another.
Even though the TV signal has been captured as cleanly as possible, there will still be some flaws in the image such as snow or noise (think film grain). This is why NVIDIA applies 3D Noise Reduction to the image to clean up the signal even further. The trick is to remove noise while preserving the details in the image. Again, NVIDIA DualTV MCE has a best-in-class performance for noise-reduction.
From this point, the signal is processed with a 3D Motion-Adaptive Comb Filter. The full technical discussion of this feature would take several pages, but basically, a comb filter reconstructs the color data found in the broadcast signal. The better the comb filter, the better image definition, particularly at the borders between different colors. The 3D Motion-Adaptive method used in the DualTV MCE is one of the best on the market.
With this clean signal, the video must now be compressed to MPEG-2. This process converts the raw data into smaller and more manageable files that can be easily stored on your hard drive. MPEG-2 encoding translates the video into mathematical equations that approximate the original source. The algorithms used in this process can vary from one MPEG-2 decoder to another, and that has consequences on image quality. The ViXS XcodeII MPEG-2 encoder happens to be one of the best MPEG-2 encoders in its class. One added benefit is that you can also choose a low-bitrate recording to get more minutes of recording time (think EP recording mode vs. SP recording) while still preserving good image quality. NVIDIA calls this “MediaSqueeze” technology.
Now you have an MPEG-2 recording of the television show. This can be stored on your hard drive, backed-up to a DVD, or … played back. To play back the recording, the data must be processed by an MPEG-2 decoder. NVIDIA bundles their PureVideo Decoder with the DualTV MCE, long considered one of the best of the industry.
The DualTV MCE’s image quality is certified by the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), but in fact, NVIDIA exceeds the minimum spec set forth by this agency. Essentially, while you can find competitors with similar quality features to the NVIDIA DualTV MCE, you won’t find a competitor which uses best-in-class technology at every step of the way.
In addition to best-in-class image quality, the DualTV MCE also has a complete feature set including a FM tuner, a wireless remote control, and the ability to record video from S-Video or composite video sources (such as a camcorder or video game console).
Image Courtesy of NVIDIA
Installation and Setup
The NVIDIA DualTV MCE comes with virtually all the cables and accessories you might need. The box includes:
Â· NVIDIA DualTV PCI analog tuner card
Â· NVIDIA PureVideo Decoder software
Â· Sonic MyDVD LE (convert home videos and photos to DVD)
Â· S-Video cable
Â· Composite to S-Video adapter
Â· Composite video and stereo-audio RCA cable
Â· Coaxial cable
Â· Coaxial cable splitter
Â· FM antenna
Â· Quick Start Guide
The DualTV MCE was designed with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 in mind. This operating system is pre-installed on most new modern PCs. Installation is very straightforward. After shutting down the PC, you physically install the DualTV MCE board into a free PCI slot. When you restart your computer, Windows will let you know that it has detected new hardware and ask you what it should do next.
The trickiest part of the entire installation is knowing to press cancel at this point (something very clearly explained in the product Quick Start Guide). Instead, you insert the install CD and follow the on-screen instructions. This part of the procedure is foolproof with the only exception being that you need to remember that the letters in the serial number have to be capitalized.
Once you’ve finished installing this software, you can launch Windows Media Center and continue on with Microsoft’s instructions. Here, the wizard will guide you setting up your computer to control a satellite box, choosing between cable TV and regular broadcast TV, as well as setting up the automatic download of the broadcast schedule in your area. That’s it. From start to finish, it shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes.
If you have a computer with the regular Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional, things do get a bit more complicated. While NVIDIA includes the MyDVD software needed to transfer your home videos to a DVD, NVIDIA does not include anything that will let you watch and record TV. You’ll have to use “Yahoo! Go for TV” or “Orb Media” (both free) or “SnapStream Beyond TV” ($80). Of the three, I’d recommend Yahoo! Go for TV. Some of the more advanced tuning options such as tuning the amount of noise reduction or picture mode will not be available with the regular Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional.
NVIDIA’s DualTV MCE is one of the most sophisticated analog TV tuners for the Windows PC. Does it give you the best analog TV picture quality possible? Yes. Does it give you the best TV quality? Unfortunately, no.
The one thing that’s missing from the NVIDIA DualTV MCE is HDTV support. Even in the best case scenario where the DualTV MCE was able to resolve 100% of the data being broadcast, the limit of broadcast TV ends up being somewhere in the range of about 0.3 megapixels (give or take). On the other hand, the resolution of HDTV is either 0.9 megapixels (FOX, ABC) or 2.1 megapixels (CBS, NBC, WB, UPN, PBS).
Even though most TV shows are standard definition, the majority of prime-time broadcast TV shows are available in HDTV. So, if you were interested in watching shows like CSI, Monday Night Football, Without a Trace, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, NCIS, American Idol, Law and Order, How I Met Your Mother, or basically anything on CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX that’s shown during prime time, and isn’t a reality show, game show, or news magazine, you’ll want a HDTV tuner to get the best possible image quality.
At $169 for the basic product and $219 for the version with the remote control, the NVIDIA DualTV MCE is a sizeable investment. On the one hand, the NVIDIA DualTV MCE is the best analog TV tuner for transforming your PC into a PVR. You won’t find better image quality anywhere else, and for the amount of technology that’s present in the DualTV MCE, it’s a good value. On the other hand, if you usually watch broadcast prime-time TV shows and are in a neighborhood where HDTV broadcasts are available, it makes more sense to go with a HDTV Tuner. These start at about only $120 or so, and while you’ll need two of these HDTV tuners to do the same thing that the NVIDIA DualTV MCE does, you’ll be much happier in the long run.
Â· Dual Tuners
Â· Great Image Quality
Â· Easy to Use.
- Does not support HDTV
- Need Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 for the best experience