If you're interested in viewing, recording, and archiving TV programming on your PC but a new Media Center system isn't in the offing, you have two options. In order to input a TV signal to your computer, you need to install a TV tuner in the form of either an internal expansion card or an external USB breakout box.
Option A: Buy a TV tuner PCI or PCI Express card, open up your PC case, and install the card. You'll not only need a free expansion slot, you'll also need to be willing and able to add (and possibly remove) cards from your motherboard.
Option B: Buy an external TV tuner box and simply connect it to one of your system's USB ports. This option is more attractive if you are opposed to opening up your computer case, you lack a free expansion slot on your desktop, or you are using a laptop. An external USB TV tuner box provides the same functionality as an internal card: it takes in a variety of video and audio signals and delivers them to your PC, in this case via a simple USB 2.0 connection.
We've reviewed a handful of internal TV tuner cards previously; now we turn our attention to their external counterparts. Each of the USB tuners reviewed here was simple to install; we had each up and running in less than half an hour. And each comes bundled with at least one DVR software application (although the Diamond XtremeTV PVR600 included only a limited subscription to its preferred electronic program guide), so you don't need the Media Center version of Windows to use them.
There are a few caveats to keep in mind, however, when navigating the tricky waters of PC-based TV recording. Unlike with your TiVo or cable-company set-top box, you don't have the option of recording HD cable signals. To make matters worse, your digital cable signal may look great right now, but when you send that digital signal to an analog TV tuner connected to your PC, the image quality undoubtedly will suffer. This discrepancy is especially noticeable on big displays.
On the whole, the USB TV tuners failed to impress us with their image quality. While not noticeably worse than the batch of internal cards we tested recently, none topped the winning card in that roundup, the ATI TV Wonder Elite. Of the external boxes, the two priciest models, the Hauppauge Win-TV-PVR USB2 and the Diamond XtremeTV PVR600, provided the best picture.
Despite some misgivings in terms of performance, there are many advantages to using a PC-based DVR application, whether internal or external. You can skip the subscription fees that TiVo-like services charge, archive content to DVD (a very few set-top boxes allow this functionality, too), and choose from many software front-end interfaces, such as Windows Media Center Edition or Beyond TV. You can also play music and display videos and photos on your PC through the TV--perfect for activities such as sharing vacation photos on the big screen.
Though similar in many respects, each USB tuner reviewed here comes equipped with slightly different features. While they all offer coaxial cable, composite A/V, and S-Video ports, the Plextor ConvertX stands out for its omission of a remote control. And not all come bundled with the requisite cables. The Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 is the only one with FM radio tuner, though its performance was lackluster, and only the Adaptec GameBridgeTV is specifically aimed at importing video signals from video game consoles.
The no-frills Plextor ConvertX PX-TV100U and the Adaptec GameBridgeTV are each reasonably priced at roughly $100, but the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-USB2 and the Diamond XtremeTV PVR600 add only another $50 to the bill and boast noticeably better video quality, along with generous software bundles.
Read the CNET editor's take