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Hardware MPEG2 TV tuner round-up

PVR for all

PCs ARE SLOWLY creeping into every room of the house, particularly the living room, where home-theater PCs (HTPCs) have become popular among enthusiasts seeking to integrate multiple audiovisual devices into a single system. Personal video recording (PVR) features have also become an increasingly popular feature for HTPCs, a trend that has not gone unnoticed. Microsoft recently eased licensing restrictions on its Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system to allow any system builder to purchase the OS. However, Media Center Edition still has strict video requirements. To take full advantage of MCE’s features, a system requires a TV tuner with hardware MPEG2 encoding and a DirectX 9-compatible graphics card.

DirectX 9-class graphics cards have been available for some time, but a year ago, hardware MPEG2 TV tuners were only widely available from Hauppauge. This situation changed recently with the release of ATI’s TV Wonder Elite and NVIDIA’s NVTV, both of which offer hardware MPEG2 encoding. Hauppauge has also been busy revising and expanding its PVR lineup with products specifically designed for Media Center Edition 2005. But which hardware MPEG2 TV tuner reigns supreme? We've rounded up ATI’s TV Wonder Elite, NVIDIA’s NVTV, and Hauppauge’s PVR-150MCE-l.p to find out.

A trio of hardware MPEG2 tuners

At a glance
Before we dive further into the specifics of each card, let's take some time to compare some of their key features.

 ATI TV Wonder EliteeVGA NVTVHauppauge PVR-150MCE l.p.
Hardware encoderATI Theater 550 ProLSI DVXPLOREConexant CX23416
TV decoderATI Theater 550 ProPhilips SAA7173HLConexant CX25843
Tuner typeDigital siliconDigital siliconAnalog
Slot typeFull-height PCIFull-height PCILow-profile PCI
BundleRemote Wonder Plus, Cyberlink PowerCinemaNVDVD decoderNone

Although all three cards feature hardware MPEG2 encoding, each uses a different encoder chip. Of the three cards, ATI’s TV Wonder Elite is the only one to use an MPEG2 encoder that was developed in-house. eVGA's NVTV takes a different approach and uses LSI Logic's DVXplore, which is a part of NVIDIA's reference design for the NVTV. Hauppauge has a history of using Conexant chips, and the PVR-150-l.p. integrates Conexant’s latest CX23416 low-power MPEG2 encoder.

Since MPEG2 encoders can’t decode cable signals on their own, TV tuner cards also need a decoder. ATI’s Theater 550 Pro integrates the MPEG2 encoder and TV decoder into a single chip design, while the NVTV and PVR-150MCE-l.p. use Philips and Conexant decoders, respectively. A single-chip design can reduce board complexity, but shouldn't offer any tangible benefits to end users over two-chip designs.

Since decoder chips need a signal to decode, each card has a tuner to interface with cable TV, over-the-air, and FM radio signals. ATI and eVGA equip their cards with silicon tuners, while Hauppauge uses an old-school analog tuner. Silicon tuners can theoretically offer superior image quality to analog tuners, but we’ll have to see if this proves true for the cards we've assembled today.

While we're looking at tuners, note that all of these cards use standard-definition TV (SDTV) tuners that cannot decode over-the-air high-definition TV (HDTV) signals. This limits each TV tuner’s input quality to 480i, as regulated by the FCC.

All three cards in this round-up are physically low profile in height, but the PVR-150MCE l.p. is the only card with the appropriate back plate for low-profile cases. It may be possible to modify the ATI and eVGA cards to fit inside low-profile enclosures, but probably not without voiding their warranties.