What is a TV Tuner for?

If you read these lines, then most likely the topic is the choice of TV. the tuner is not indifferent to you. Despite the large number of publications devoted to various models of tuners, find an article that popularly talks about what TV is. the tuner, how it can be used and, most importantly, how to choose exactly the model that is ideal for you, was never succeeded. We decided to restore justice in relation to novice users and prepared this article.

What is a TV. tuner?

So, for a start we will decide on the basic concepts. Turning to Wikipedia, we get the following definition: “Tuner. a personal subscriber device used to isolate and demodulate the signal. " Not really clear ?! In other words, the tuner. this is a radio receiver. In turn, the TV tuner. A type of receiver designed to receive a television signal with a display on a computer or on a separate monitor. The first computer TV. tuners appeared a long time ago. If my memory serves me, I heard about them for the first time in the mid-90s. Then, in the era of the emergence of multimedia, the tuners had mediocre quality and limited computer capabilities, but, nevertheless, seemed fantastic. By the way, the cost of the first models was also fantastic.

A modern tuner is difficult to compare with the first prototypes. This is a completely different multimedia device with almost unlimited possibilities, allowing you to turn a regular home computer into an advanced TV or VCR.

What TV can do. tuner?

Firstly, it provides viewing of television programs. You can watch the telly both in full screen and in the window in parallel with other programs. Secondly, almost all modern tuners allow you to listen to FM radio stations. This feature, by the way, is used by users most often. Thirdly, the record. The most attractive reason to buy a tuner. Depending on the implementation of the recording mechanism, the user can record video or radio in the so-called manual mode, when you just press the “Record” button to start recording (like on a home video recorder), or using a scheduler that records all the programs you are interested in without your participation. Advanced tuner models can work with a television program, which greatly simplifies the process of recording planning, and some can write without advertising. In general, the household recorder nervously smokes on the sidelines. Based on the recording mechanism, some manufacturers create application applications that can somewhat expand the capabilities of even the cheapest tuner. Imagine, in front of the front door there is a miniature camera connected to the tuner, which captures all movements near your apartment. At that moment when someone really wants to stare at your unique interior, the system will record the movement and send a photo or video to your chosen e-mail or FTP with notification by SMS. Isn’t that impressive?

How to choose a TV. tuner?

First you need to decide what kind of television you plan to watch using the tuner. Today we can choose a tuner not only for traditional analog broadcasting, but also for digital terrestrial (DVB-T) or satellite (DVB-S) broadcasts. Due to the lack of full-fledged terrestrial digital broadcasting and the need to put a satellite dish, the last two types of tuners are used much less often than ordinary analog tuners, which, actually? and this article is devoted. However, if the reception of terrestrial and satellite digital TV is an interesting area for you, we recommend that you pay attention to hybrid tuners that combine several television receivers on one board.
External or internal? Modern tuners can be both external and internal.

Today, the most popular are the internal tuners, made in the form of an expansion card that is installed inside the computer, as shown in the photo below.

What is a TV Tuner for?

They have a number of significant advantages. First, more advanced in terms of capabilities. Reception of a television signal and partial processing is done by the hardware resources of the tuner itself. Final processing, image and sound output, recording and other functions are implemented using software that determines the functionality of the tuner.

By the way, these same two features are the main vulnerability of internal tuners. Not every computer can install an additional expansion card, but it’s not worth talking about compatibility with the operating system. almost all manufacturers are focused on the Windows platform, only a few support MacOS and Linux. But, meanwhile, internal tuners remain the most popular, including because of the low cost.

Next type. external tuners. There are both standalone and software-dependent, usually they are called USB tuners. Stand-alone tuners are a complete external device with its own video output that connects directly to the monitor.

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Such tuners are absolutely independent of the computer and the software installed on it; the reception and processing of the television signal is done by the resources of the tuner itself. In the past, stand-alone tuners were actively used to turn an inexpensive LCD. monitor in a full LCD. TV. You could save up to half the cost of the TV. Today, when the LCD. TVs became noticeably cheaper, autonomous tuners began to be used to connect to plasma / LCD panels with a large diagonal size. Compared to the tuner boards installed in the panel, the stand-alone tuner provides noticeably better reception quality and the expansion of wide-screen capabilities.

As for sharing with a computer, in this case, an autonomous tuner is connected between the output of the video card and the monitor. Such a connection allows you to watch a television picture, both in full screen and in a separate window. At the same time, it is not critical which operating system is used on your computer and which application is currently running.

Despite the above advantages, stand-alone tuners have quite serious functional limitations. In particular, they can only work in viewing mode, you can forget about recording.

To eliminate functional limitations, it is recommended to use the second type of external tuners that connect to the computer via the USB port. Tuners of this type have the same rich capabilities as internal tuners, while being devoid of any design restrictions and can be connected to almost any computer, including a laptop. The main condition for performance. software and operating system compatibility.

By the way, since we touched on the topic of laptops, let us pay attention to the segment of internal tuners made in the PCMCIA and ExpressCard form factors. Architecturally, they are similar to conventional internal tuners, but are more compact, ideal for use with a laptop computer.

If you decide what type of tuner you need, you need to understand the features of choosing a specific type, which will require some basic knowledge.

What you need to know about internal tuners?

In principle, any tuner, internal or external, consists of two basic elements: a high-frequency unit, which converts the signal from the antenna into signals that are understandable to the decoder, which, in turn, turns them into a digital stream, understandable to the computer. The high-frequency block can be made in the form of a metal “box” (classic block) or in the form of a small chip (“silicone” block).

Metal box. classic block

The little black square is the silicone block

There is an opinion that the classic unit provides the best reception quality, however, our experience shows that the reception quality depends primarily on the quality of the antenna. If the quality is poor, then no classic block will help to get the perfect picture. In turn, if the antenna quality is good, then the "silicone" block will provide an excellent picture. However, there is an exception to consider when choosing. The fact is that the “silicone” block has an “Achilles heel” when operating in the upper frequency range. We are talking about the decimeter range, where additional noise appears and the image clarity is lost, although this is a moot point. it all depends on the specific conditions of admission.

Next item. a decoder or, as it is often called, a chipset. Its task is to convert signals from the high-frequency unit or the audio-video input of the tuner into a digital video stream, which is further converted by the program into a video picture. Modern tuners use decoders from two manufacturers: Philips and Conexant. Both offer fairly high-quality and functionally rich chipsets. It is difficult to ascertain who is better, although it is believed that Philips chipsets provide the best decoding of television programs in the SECAM standard. However, I repeat, it is impossible to estimate the difference.

It is more important to pay attention to specific chipset models that determine the basic functionality of the tuner. For example, today you can see TV. tuners on three modifications of the Philips chipset. Cheap models typically use the Philips SAA7130HL chipset. This is an entry-level decoder, which differs from the more advanced Philips SAA7134HL and SAA7135HL only in the lack of reception of television programs with NICAM / A2 stereo sound (several broadcast channels broadcast stereo sound), the absence of built-in audio effects, as well as the ability to transmit sound via the PCI bus. If the first two features are optional, then the latter. important enough. If it is absent, you will have to use the sound card’s linear input to transmit sound, which can lead to lagging sound from the picture, especially on old weak computers.

In principle, these two elements (high-frequency unit and decoder) are enough for the full use of all the basic functions of any tuner. Some manufacturers are introducing additional elements to expand the capabilities of the tuner. So, for example, Beholder was one of the first companies to equip top-end RDS models with a decoder that allows displaying on-screen text information (weather, exchange rates, the name of the current song, and so on) transmitted on the frequency of the radio station. This "trick" is often used in car radios.

Big chip. This is a hardware MPEG encoder. On the left is a small rectangular chip. RDS decoder

Some tuners are equipped with a hardware MPEG encoder, which takes over the function of encoding video in MPEG format and then transferring it to a computer. This allows you to significantly reduce the load on the hardware resources of your computer. Generally, an MPEG encoder. A cool thing for those who plan to actively write video in DVD format, but are too lazy to understand the settings of the MPEG software codec. In addition, the presence of hardware MPEG encoder. A prerequisite for the operation of Windows MediaCenter. a unique multimedia shell that allows you to turn your home computer into a complete entertainment center. One of the main features of MediaCenter is the ability to use a pair of tuners, which means. simultaneously watch and record television programs on two channels at once. By the way, this feature made some manufacturers release boards with two tuners on board. "Two-headed" tuners.

If we talk about specific manufacturers, then in this segment almost everyone offers interesting and advanced solutions. For example, AverMedia, Compro and LifeView are pioneers in using the most advanced tuner platforms. Beholder produces the most sophisticated tuners equipped with a host of innovative technologies, such as: computer power management technology (ARPC), ADSS technology (separate screen for the analog and digital parts of the tuner). Unlike other tuner manufacturers, Beholder still remains faithful to the basic filling used, which is based on the classic treble. unit and decoder from Philips, which indicates the best reception quality.

What you need to know about external tuners?

External tuners use a similar circuitry solution, with the exception of some special chips. Therefore, when choosing an external USB tuner, it is important to pay attention to the following points:

  1. How is the sound transmitted. You need to choose models in which sound is transmitted via the USB bus. Ideally, if the external USB tuner is equipped with a hardware MPEG encoder, which will allow you to drive the finished DVD stream into the computer, while reducing the load not only on the processor, but also on the USB bus.
  2. Sizes of the tuner. not so important, however, we personally really like the miniature models, the sizes of which are comparable to the size of a regular "flash drive".
  3. If you plan to digitize recordings from a VCR or camera, pay attention to the presence of audio-video inputs.
  4. If you need an FM radio, check if it is in your favorite model.

Those who are interested in acquiring an autonomous tuner should pay attention to the following points:

  1. Supported resolution and frame aspect. This is very important for owners of large widescreen monitors (from 20 ”) and panels from 32”.
  2. Support for various zoom modes, allowing you to watch live television with a 4: 3 aspect ratio on a 16: 9 screen. It is best if the tuner has the so-called “panorama” mode. True, in our practice there was only one such tuner. Behold TV SOLO.
  3. The presence of audio-video inputs and outputs. This is important if you plan to connect a game console or VCR in parallel.
  4. Easy to manage and configure. Although you can understand this only after you buy a tuner.
  5. And finally, design features, i.e. how much the design chosen by the developers will harmoniously fit into your interior.

Avermedia and Compro are the oldest players in the standalone tuner segment. Today they offer interesting and beautiful models, however, in March of this year they had to share the palm with Beholder, which introduced its first and so far the only standalone tuner with unrivaled capabilities. BeholdTV Solo. In it, the developers implemented not only support for all the features discussed above, but also a number of unique functions, such as the long-awaited FM radio and “flashing” of software.

The most important thing is software!

In fact, the hardware stuffing of an internal or external USB tuner is not the most important thing. Soft this is what determines the real capabilities of the tuner. Very often, we were faced with a situation where outdated or incomplete software makes a unique hardware solution absolutely useless, and, conversely, when a competent and thoughtful software can turn a regular tuner into a device with megawires. We give one example. The most affordable and most popular tuner BeholdTV 505FM, costing just over 1000 rubles, supports the same software features as the most expensive BeholdTV M6 Extra model, apart from, of course, the specific parameters for controlling a hardware MPEG encoder.
How to determine the quality of software? We cannot give a definite answer to this question. Much depends on your personal preferences. Perhaps you do not care how these or those functions are implemented. Or maybe, on the contrary, you want to have full control over all the resources of the tuner, the ability to control not only the functionality, but also the quality of the reception.

Personal experience shows that Beholder tuners have the best software that combines all of the above and a lot of new options based on the main core of the program (ad-free recording, stereo TV, video surveillance system, etc.). Other manufacturers are noticeably inferior to Beholder in functional content. over, some were so carried away by the hardware stuffing that it seems they completely forgot about the software. Maybe they just have what they have?

The final moment. compatibility with Windows Vista, also compatibility with the three-dimensional interface Aero and collaboration with Windows MediaCenter.

So what to choose?

Of course, hardware stuffing and software are extremely important when choosing a tuner, however, do not forget about the price, which often forces us to optimize our needs for real possibilities. If you are very limited on a budget, we recommend entry-level tuners. For example, BeholdTV 505FM (1160r), 507FM (1279r) or 509FM (1412r). These tuners are of excellent quality and differ from more expensive counterparts only in the absence of computer power management (ARPC). At the same time, unlike budget tuners from other manufacturers, they have all the features of BeholdTV software, including ad-free recording, TV program support, stereo TV, a powerful tool for setting specific chipset parameters, etc.

If you are willing to pay an extra 150-200 rubles for more advanced models, then pay attention to the tuners BeholdTV 607FM (1543r) and 609FM (1676r), which are available in a version with an RDS decoder. The RDS version costs 300 rubles more. The tuners support all proprietary technologies, among which we especially liked the ability to control the computer’s power, which allows you to turn on the computer on schedule, record the desired program, and turn off the computer. As for other manufacturers, Beholder has no competitors in this segment.

The most difficult situation with the choice in the segment of expensive tuners, there is great competition. Beholder offers top models with hardware MPEG encoder M6 (2243р) and M6 Extra (2659р), which have a number of differences compared to “hardware” from other manufacturers. It is not only a matter of sophisticated software and support for proprietary technologies. Considering the previous experience of other manufacturers, Beholder used a completely different circuitry solution, in which it was possible to maintain extremely low processor load in viewing mode (5% versus 30-40% on some models), to ensure high quality hardware encoding in MPEG with support for audio encoding in AC3 (for Extra model). As for other manufacturers, they also have very interesting hardware solutions, but mainly in the field of hybrid tuners, to which we will devote a separate article.