What are Digital TV Cards?

R. Kayne

Digital TV cards, or TV tuner cards, bring television to the computer. These cards slip into an internal PCI slot on the motherboard, with coaxial ports on the rear for connecting cables that run to an antenna or digital cable box. Digital TV cards do not decrypt pay-for-TV, but can display decrypted TV and free, over-the-air broadcasts of standard definition (SD) or high-definition television (HDTV). The cards incorporate some convenient features, such as the ability to pause live TV or to replay the last few seconds of a broadcast. You can even watch TV in an inset frame, continuing to work without missing your favorite show, important news event, or the game.

External models of cards that plug into the USB port are available.
External models of cards that plug into the USB port are available.

TV tuner cards are made to be compliant with Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) standards. Newer, digital standards fall under ATSC, which is replacing older analog standards outlined in NTSC. ClearQAM broadcasts are also supported, referring to free, over-the-air digital broadcasts such as those from local stations.

Digital TV cards bring television images to a computer screen.
Digital TV cards bring television images to a computer screen.

Digital TV cards typically come with an antenna, remote control, infrared module and software. Many models contain FM radio receivers as well as two TV tuners. The advantage of dual tuners is that you can watch one channel while recording another, though caveats apply. For instance, to record one pay-for-TV channel while watching another pay-for-TV channel, the TV set-top cable box requires two tuners to descramble both channels at once, feeding them to the TV tuner card. This isn’t required if one or both channels in question is free-to-air.

With multi-terabyte hard drives so affordable, a digital TV card can effectively turn your computer into a personal video recorder (PVR), saving SD or HDTV directly to disk. Watch recorded programs on your PC at your leisure, or burn to DVD for viewing on your home entertainment center. Bundled software differs in features, with more expensive cards generally (but not always) coming with better software, particularly when it comes to PVR ability and features. Resident programs like Mircrosoft®’s Media Center, or third party software like the popular GB-PVR™ might provide more functions or better alternatives to some bundled packages.

Rear ports on digital TV cards vary between models. In addition to coaxial ports and an audio line-in, S-Video might also be present. If lacking an empty PCI slot, external models are also available that plug into the USB port, though internal cards are generally preferred as they do not have the USB transfer rate barrier and therefore can operate faster, possibly providing better performance. Laptop owners can opt for digital TV cards that fit into the machine’s ExpressCard slot.

Digital TV cards are available everywhere computer electronics are sold. Prices range from under $40 US Dollars (USD) to over $100, and picture quality can vary. Read reviews from customers who have purchased models of interest to see which TV tuner card will best meet your expectations, needs and budget.

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