Home Theatre PC Guide
Posted on: 04/02/2005 06:00 AM

Another popular capture card is the WinTV PVR-250's big brother, the PVR-350. The additions of merit are the inclusion of an FM Radio Receiver, MPEG-2 Decoding in hardware and S-Video Output. It certainly sounds like a solid upgrade. Unfortunately, there's an important fact that doesn't really show up in the feature list for the product. The S-Video output is only for MPEG-2 streams. What that means is that it's not going to be able to drive your OS desktop on your TV. Certain HTPC/PVR applications have included support for their OSD/menu system for the PVR-350's s-video output but this is something you should research thoroughly before purchasing the PVR-350 solely for this reason. Given the low cost of a video card like an NVIDIA FX5200, I'd recommend buying the significantly cheaper PVR-250 and using your AGP/PCIe video card to drive your s-video output.

The addition of MPEG-2 decoding in hardware doesn't really get me excited. Most of us will be putting together HTPCs that will have enough processing power to easily decode MPEG-2 in software. Unless you're like the gentleman I used in a previous example who used a P2-450 in his HTPC, MPEG-2 decoding shouldn't be much of an issue.

While it seems everyone is onboard Hauppauge's bandwagon when it comes to capture cards, there are other brands available that you may want to consider. I'll list a few that are supported by the majority of HTPC/PVR apps with links to the manufacturer's website. While certain HTPC/PVR apps will allow you to use a tuner that doesn't have hardware encoding capabilities, I'm only going to list capture cards that do.

High Definition

I originally had no plans to discuss High Definition as I'm still holding on to my venerable 32" Sony Trinitron and don't have that capability at home. That being said, I know that if I neglected to at the very least mention High Definition and how it can relate to your HTPC/PVR, I'd get more than a couple of emails pointing out the omission.

While there are HD-capable capture cards out there from a variety of manufacturers, the issue of recording this high-quality content is much more complicated. Due to the obvious legal concerns surrounding the general populous recording HD-quality content off Satellite, there are a multitude of restrictions. The content is encrypted to the point where it just cannot be obtained and recorded through any legal means.

Now that doesn't mean you can't capture an HD signal that's over the air (OTA). You can always run out and purchase an ATI HDTV Wonder, a Fusion HDTV or a MyHD MDP-130 and capture a lot of the primetime HD channels that may be available OTA. You can refer to TitanTV.com for a list of what HD programming you might be able to receive OTA. What you won't be able to capture are the premium channels like HBO, Showtime and ESPN. Does it suck? Sure, but you can understand why these restrictions are in place. If I can record an HD movie from Showtime that's pristine in quality, why the heck would I buy a DVD?

To make a long story short, for now, if you need an HD capable PVR, I'd recommend you talk to your cable/satellite provider. Just don't expect it to be cheap, especially if you're dealing with satellite.

Two is Better than One?

This has been our philosophy for years, of course. Granted we've always leaned towards two processors. In the HTPC world, a second capture card can prove to be quite handy as well. Given the pause and rewind properties that are inherent while you're watching live TV on your TIVO, TIVO-like set-top box or HTPC, your capture card will be in use whenever you're watching live TV. That said, what happens if you want to record one show and watch another? Well, unless you have that second capture card, you won't be able to.

Hauppauge does have an interesting solution available, though. The WinTV PVR-500MCE is a dual tuner! If you would prefer the all-in-one solution, or if maybe you don't have an extra available PCI slot, it might be a solid option for you. I've seen it priced in the 150USD range, which would certainly make it a competitive and attractive solution. I'm fortunate enough to have two WinTV PVR-250s so I don't see the need to upgrade to a single PVR-500MCE.

Now that we've discussed capture cards, let's move along to another key topic: Enclosures.