Need advice on HDTV tuning? Look here.
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This FAQ has been updated as of 09/15/09. Major updates include the changes with Windows 7 MCE and CableCard tuning.
What are the different ways I can receive live HDTV signals on a PC?
This question is easy to answer. Currently
there are four options: ATSC tuners, QAM tuners, CableCard tuners, and Firewire/IEEE 1394.
What is the difference between this four methods?
ATSC tuners can only receive over the air (OTA)
transmissions. Most local TV stations now broadcast, at a minimum, using the ATSC DTV format. Out of the channels that do, most major network affiliates broadcast in HD when the source is available in HD.
QAM tuners take this method a little farther. There are main types of QAM signals: encrypted and unencrypted. Furthermore there is QAM 64 and QAM 256. *NOTE* Other variations of QAM do exist, but are rarely used by CableCos for broadcast. Unencrypted QAM, otherwise known as Clear-QAM, can also include SD DTV transmission. Most HD Clear-QAM will be limited to your local network affiliates.
CableCard tuners are expanding in the market. Previously a pre-built PC with a CableCard tuner and Windows Vista and the actual CableCard from your CableCo was required. Starting with Windows 7 you will be able to install the tuner yourself. The average cost for renting a CableCard is $5 (or below) US. This option will allow you to view all channels you pay for.
Firewire/IEEE 1394 recording is a bit trickier. The two requirements are a computer with a FW/1394 input and a set top box (STB)
with an activated FW/1394 jack. To record/view shows through FW software must be installed. This software 'tricks' the STB into thinking a digital recorder has been connected. The major pitfall of this method is that most CableCos rent the STB with 5C enabled, potentially preventing recording or even tuning of certain channels.
So which one is best for me?
That's a tough question to answer.
If you have satellite and don't want to convert to cable, or can't, then an ATSC tuner is your only option.
If you have cable, but don't pay for any premium channels, or don't want the HD package, then QAM remains a valid option. If you do have premium (IE:HBO) or higher-tier (IE:HD-Net) channels then consider buying Windows 7 Premium or Ultimate as well as a CableCard tuner.
The FW/1394 option requires you to already have a STB in your possession. Out of all the options, it's actually the easiest to try if you already do have one.
So out of these four options, what products are available?
ATSC tuners are abundant. Hauppauge, Pinacle, ATI... the list goes on. The only real trick is to make sure you find one that has the latest generation tuner, and make sure your computer meets the specified minimum requirements.
Most ATSC tuners for computers on the market can also perform Clear-QAM tuning. So who's left out of the party? XP and non-OEM Vista Media Center Edition users. Windows 7 MCE now supports QAM tuning/recording. QAM tuning under Vista is available through an OEM pack. As with ATSC tuners, make sure that you check the minimum system requirements. If QAM tuning is not listed on the product specifications, then check with the manufacturer, or back to this thread.
With Windows 7 MCE you can now purchase and install a CableCard yourself. This may be more expensive, but it's worth it overall to be watch and record all your paid channels.
As mentioned previously, FW/1394 requires software to perform the tuning. (Google CapDVHS)
What are the average system requirements?
Various manufacturers quote various requirements. Expect to need a 2.4 GHz (2 GHz for AMD) or faster processor. 1 GB of RAM with XP, 2 GBs for Vista.
For playback of recordings, the faster CPU, the better. Watching HD live on a tuner is smoother due to the decoding taking place on the card. On average HD recordings use 9 GBs of space per hour, so the bigger the HDD the better.
For even better playback, use a GeForce 8400/8500/8600 series, or a Radeon HD 2xxx/3xxx/4xxx series.
If you want to test your computer's playback capabilities you can download free test files
It is unknown what the system requirements for the new CableCard tuners will be at the time.
What codecs are recordings captured in?
The official (H)DTV codec is MPEG2. However
most files will be either .TP or .TS, in other words, transport streams.
These files are the MPEG2 video wrapped in meta-data containing information about the signal, and possibly even sub-channels.
So how do I play these files back once they are recorded?
A number of software players can playback .TP/.TS files, including, but not limited to, VLC and Cyberlink PowerDVD. The software that comes with the card will often include the ability to play back these files.
Some tuning software will output the recordings in MPEG2 natively.
There is also a free program called HDTVtoMPEG2
that will perform this function for you.
Can't I just go from my CableCo's STB to my tuner?
No. At least not if you want to watch/record in HD. The output from the STB will be NTSC.
What about satellite?
Currently in the US there are no legal satellite tuners for computers available.
Intel was working with DirecTV to potentially bring a tuner to the market, but it looks like that platform has been canceled.
You mentioned something called 5C earlier. What is it, and why should I be worried?
5C was the content protection scheme developed early on when FW was still be considered as a genuine display connection for HDTVs.
If 5C is present, it dictates if the program can be recorded, and if it is recorded how many times it can be copied, if at all.
In the past various lobbyists attempted to have the government require 5C to be present in all ATSC/QAM tuners. This was shot down at the time, but it might be pressed in the future.
The file is on my computer though, so how can the 5C dictate this?
In reality it can't. However, 5C can prevent you from recording the program in the first place.
What about CableCard recordings?
With Windows 7 MCE the DRM restrictions are being eased up. You will be able to play back recordings on MCE extenders, and some programs will be portable to other media devices.
So get to the point. What product do you currently recommend?
For QAM tuning: The HDHomeRun
It provides ATSC/Clear-QAM tuning/recording to any computer over your wired
For CableCard tuning: check back in the future. The next wave of CableCard tuners will be available at the end of 2009/beginning of 2010.