Thursday, February 22, 2007

Media PC: Tuners

You are probably thinking of buying or building a media PC. With the advent of Vista, I foresee a rapid increase in the use of media PCs in the living room. That's if anyone buys Vista of course.

If you have digital TV broadcasts in your area, then get a DVB-T tuner. Forget about analog - the price difference make it a no brainer, and analog will be switched off pretty soon. Hopefully. So all that frequency space can be freed up and used for something better.

How many tuners? Well there are 7 free-to-air channels where I am, with content on about five of them that I would watch. Still, for that many channels, I'd say two is the minimum, and three would be good.

Now you may be thinking - well hold on, I managed perfectly well with a single VCR, why would I suddenly need to be recording 3 shows concurrently? How often would that happen?

The thing about switching to digital recording is that your whole approach to TV will change. If you have regular shows that you would watch, you'll find that you will watch almost all of them "time-shifted". The first thing you do when you get your MPC set up is to go through the programme guide and tell it to record all your favorite shows. You are likely to get a overlap here. And you may be thinking, well I can just watch one show live, and record the other...

The thing is that once you get used to having all your shows recorded whenever they are on, you will become more flexible about when and how you watch them. You'll no longer be timetabling your life around what is on (you do this right?) - everything gets recorded, and you watch when you can, or when you want. So the show that you used to watch while the other show was being VCRd on the other channel becomes a hassle, and you'll want both of them to be recorded. Not least of all so you can pause the show and come back with that cup of coffee. Besides, recorded shows means no more adbreaks - that you need to pay attention to - you can break whenever you want, not when the network wants to sell you something.

Overrun is also an important thing. In this country, they take great pride in considering a TV schedule a 'guide' - a kind of "nice to have", but not really that important. So even channels with no live content still do not trouble themselves with shows starting when they are advertised. So you need to plan for overrun. And if you have a show back to back with another on a different channel, you need two tuners to cater for one show overrunning the start time of another.

Dvico do a fusion card that has two DVB-T tuners built in. This is a good starting point. Don't get one. Or you'll want to get another. And when this whole media PC thing works for you, you'll want to put the kit into a nice low profile case. These support microATX size motherboards, which often only have one PCI slot, and one PCI-X. Most tuner cards are still PCI, so a dual tuner card is a good idea.

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