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I'm going to college. My college supplies a coax connection for TVs. I'd like to connect my computer to this connection so I can watch TV on my computer rather than having a separate TV.

I've been looking at TV Tuners on Newegg, but I'm confused. Many offer ATSC/clear QAM, others offer NTSC, and yet others offer both (here's one that offers them both and FM).

From what I can tell, many are set up to be connected to an antenna. I'm not sure what I should look for for my connection. NTSC? QAM?

Basically, what should I look for in getting a TV Tuner that can work with wired cable?

[EDIT] I'm not asking what interface I should look for. I am planning on using a free PCI-E x1 slot.

[EDIT 2] I'm also confused about the difference between "Hybrid Tuners" and "Dual Tuners." Is this even related to my question?

[EDIT 3] My college just says to bring a TV and plug it in...so not very much help there. I've also been noticing some tuners say "Combo Tuner." Is that some sort of mix of Dual/Hyrbids?

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clear QAM is for receiving unencrypted 'Over-the-Air' signals, so it isn't really related to the coaxial connection from the cable company. You can get several additional channels by having this, depending on what's broadcast in your area. –  Fosco Aug 18 '10 at 18:25
    
Also.. I've had 3 Hauppage brand cards over the years.. not one of them was stable or reliable, hardware or software. Just my 2 cents. –  Fosco Aug 18 '10 at 18:34
    
@Fosco : Over-the-air means you connect an antenna to your TV to receive signal, but QAM is only used with digital cable, so your statement might cause confusion. A Clear QAM tuner can receive unencrypted digital cable channels, and often only the local channels are unencrypted, which might be a clearer way to say what I think you meant. (When you use cable, the local channels are ones you could otherwise get via antenna, plus a few other local government, public, and education channels unavailable via antenna.) –  Bavi_H Aug 19 '10 at 1:49
    
"Just bring a TV and plug it in" suggests your college is using NTSC. (Using QAM would mean residents would have to use digital TVs with QAM tuners or add mini cable boxes to their analog TVs, and they would definitely warn you about that.) –  Bavi_H Aug 22 '10 at 2:01

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Well, you really need to know what is going to go trough the antenna cable.

ATSC is the new American digital television standard. As far as I know, they are shutting down analogue TV in America, so it would be smart o look for a card that has that.

NTSC is old analogue television standard primarily used in US influenced countries mostly in Asia and America. It's the good old TV you've had for decades. I would be nice to have it, but I don't know for how long it's going to be used. As far as I know, they shut down all NTSC transmitters in US back in 2009 and same trend is same in the rest of NTSC region.

QAM is a modulation technique where two analogue or two digital signals can be emitted over two carrier waves which are out of phase by π/2. I'm not so good with telecommunications, so I won't elaborate further on what it's used for, but it's very common.

FM means frequency modulation, but in this context it is used to represent analogue voice transmissions using frequency modulation on ultra-short waves. It is very commonly used for radio broadcasts. It would be nice to look for Radio Data System when looking for cards with FM. Many radio stations use RDS to transmit additional data together with music such as name of the station, name of the song, album, artist, time of the day and so on.

You won't be able to find a good answer to your question until you do some research. If you are unsure, go ahead and buy card which has all three.

Also, interesting things to look out for are:

Hardware encoders, which means that you'll have better performance when recording video in format which is supported by encoder.

Number of bits in chipset: Video will be of higher quality if you use chip with higher number of bits.

Number of chips: Some cards have hybrid chips which menas that you can look at analogue TV OR digital TV but not at the same time. Some have analogue and digital chip which means that you can look at both at the same time and some have multiple hybrid chips which means that you can look at several analogue o digital channels at the same time. Another interesting point is does card have separate FM chip? If it does, you'll be able to watch TV and listen/record radio at the same time, but I haven't seen many cards which can do that.

Another VERY important point in my opinion is driver support and programs used for watching TV. I think that buying card from a tested brand name manufacturer is important. I've had bad experience with drivers and TV cards in past. It's not uncommon that TV cards have good divers only one version of windows for example or that programs have compatibility issues with newest versions of windows or similar.

Another interesting point is remote control. Some cards have remote controls which work only with their programs, others come with windows media center certified remote controls which should be able to work with WMC too. The certified RCs are better from compatibility point of view.

I can't think of anything interesting at the moment.

EDIT

Hybrid tuner means that the TV tuner chip on the card is capable of receiving both analogue and digital television, but not at the same time. You can only watch analogue television or digital television using that one chip. Cards which come with single hybrid chip are cheaper that some other available options which I will address later.

Dual tuner means that there are two TV tuner chips on the card. It's like having two cards in one. They can work independently, so you can watch one channel and record other or watch two channels at the same time.
This is where it gets complicated and why reviews are important: Some cards have two chips where one is analogue and can only receive analogue television and other is digital and can only receive digital television. Such cards are more expensive than cards with single hybrid chip. There is other option too: Some cards may come with two hybrid chips which means that you have two hybrid cards in one. You can watch or record two digital channels, two analogue channels or one analogue channel and one digital channel at the same time. These cards are of course more expensive than single tuner cards, but are nice if you can afford one.

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Thanks for this information. You mention finding a good manufacturer. Who would you recommend? Also, I'm running Windows 7 x64, so are there any specific manufacturers I should look for who are known to have good compatibility with that OS? –  NickAldwin Aug 18 '10 at 18:49
    
@NickAldwin Well, I heard from some friends that Haupauge is good, but it's very expensive here. I had experience with Gigabyte (can't remember model now :() and it was crap from the beginning (only drivers on GNU/Linux worked! I never managed to get anything with Windows drivers!). I also had a Leadtek card which was fine for a while, but they tend to remove old driver versions from their site. They updated drivers and new drivers brought bunch of problems, so I had to stop using it. Unfortunately, I can't help you more. Do read as much reviews as you can! –  AndrejaKo Aug 18 '10 at 20:14

North American TV transmission formats in a nutshell:

  • NTSC is for analog channels either over-the-air or via cable.
  • ATSC is for digital over-the-air channels.
  • QAM is for digital cable channels. A Clear QAM tuner can receive unencrypted digital cable channels, but often only the local channels are unencrypted.

All major over-the-air channels in the USA are now transmitting in digital. In some areas, a few low-power or repeater over-the-air channels may still be analog.

Cable companies can choose if they transmit channels in digital, analog, or some of both. If they do carry analog channels, cable companies will usually be planning to switch to all digital channels in the future, since they can carry more channels that way.

However, in private cable systems used in hotels, or in a college's arrangement with a local cable company, analog channels may be preferred so older analog cable-ready TVs can receive channels without needing additional equipment.

I'd recommend you look on your college's website for a tech support page or a housing FAQ. They will probably have information on what signal format is used on their cable system and examples of what TV equipment you can use.

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+1 for organizing your answer for the lazy –  digitxp Aug 21 '10 at 3:57

Make sure you pick the right signal type for what is piped down that coax socket. If it is standard definition analogue NTSC then you need a TV card that understands SD analogue NTSC. Ask the college - they should be able to tell you the standards present.

Don't bother with an internal antenna of your own unless the college is in a very strong signal area - you'll probably get better reception from the provided coax socket. Having said that, in my limited experience the large number of devices plugged into communal arrangements like this can cause much interference (unless the system is very well designed and built) so get a good card rather than any old cheap junk (really cheap cards don't cope with iffy input signal well in my experience) and you might need to consider a signal booster too.

"Dual Tuner" usually means the card has two distinct tuners so you can watch/record any two channels at once with a single card.

"Hybrid Tuner" could mean several things so check with the manufacturer's specs. The most likely meaning is that it supports both analogue and digital signals, but it could also mean less useful things like it supports both PAL and NTSC.

If you plan to use the provided software search for independent reviews to make sure it is any good (there is a lot of bad software out there for these things). If you plan to use something like MythTV make sure that the card you pick is one that is known to work well with that.

If you know anyone at the college, ask them. In fact the college admission/accomodation admin's might have a short list of devices that are known to work well so try asking them. Failing that find an email address for the current student reps or similar as they are likely to be helpful if they can.

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+1 for independent reviews! In my experience, they are extremely important in TV card market. –  AndrejaKo Aug 18 '10 at 17:58
    
Wow, thanks for this detailed review! Fortunately, it's the newest building on campus, so I'm hoping the signal strength won't suck that much. But thanks for the info! –  NickAldwin Aug 18 '10 at 18:47

One very important point that I don't see mentioned here yet is the native file format that the encoding chip supports. For the best output you want to get a card that supports uncompressed MPG recording with an on card processor. Nearly all of the cheaper cards use the PC CPU for encoding compressed files, usually AVI. You will get much lower quality with that kind of setup. If you have limited drive space you can always compress the MPG files after the recordings are completed.

Keeping this in mind just look for an NTSC tuner that has the requirements that I mentioned and you should be able to find any number of cards that will suite your needs.

Once you have a setup that you are happy with you may be interested in installing Orb on your PC. With Orb you can stream live TV, recoded shows or even music to other PCs on your local network, or even over the internet. This has really added to value I get from the many different tuners I have had over the years.

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Actually, I did mention hardware encoders, so it's not new :). –  AndrejaKo Aug 19 '10 at 18:39

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