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TV tuners are the unsung heroes of Media Center PCs. While Blu-ray drives, video cards, and low power CPUs may grab all the headlines, if you're after a true all-in-one multimedia PC the core to your system is the TV card. After all, playing downloaded videos, flicking through your photos and listening to your music collection are all good reasons to make a media centre but it's not until you've added TV that your multimedia experience is truly complete.
Moreover, a few years ago, just having one analogue tuner was enough to keep us happy, but with the advent of Sky+ and dedicated Freeview Personal Video Recorders (PVR) we now demand the ability to not just tune-in to digital TV but watch one channel while recording another. It is for this reason that dual digital tuners have become the must have for the fully-fledged media centre.
So, knowing the importance of having TV capability, what's the best way to get it? Well, for a start you can choose between either a TV tuner card (either PCI or PCI-Express) or a USB device. There's little reason to choose one over another but considering your media centre is likely to be a fairly permanent system once it's all setup, you may as well go for an internal card to keep things tidy.
Having chosen to use a card, you now need to decide whether to opt for two separate cards or a single card that incorporates two tuners. Again, while it matters little which you go for, you might as well opt for the simplest solution, which would be the single card. In other words, if you're looking to add TV functionality to your PC/media centre, you'll probably want a card like the one I'm looking at today, the Compro VideoMate E900F.
As well as boasting dual digital tuners, this PCI-Express x1 card also picks up analogue transmissions so you can theoretically choose between having two digital tuners, one digital and one analogue, and two analogue tuners. There is a problem though - Windows Media Center doesn't support the use of two different types of tuner at once. So you must opt for either two digital or two analogue tuners - not, I'm guessing, that this should be of too much concern to most people. The accompanying software does support the simultaneous use of both analogue and digital but, as we'll see later, using Compro's software is something you'll want to avoid.
On the back of the card, there are also inputs for receiving video signals from S-video, composite, and component video sources, so you could use this card to record digital copies of your old VHS tapes, for instance. There's also a mini-jack for the remote receiver, another mini-jack for the radio signal and two aerial sockets.
On top of its TV tuner functionality you also get an FM tuner, though we found that Windows Vista Media Center didn't recognise this so you were again left using the crummy included software to listen in. Not only this but reception was unimpressive to say the least with us only just managing to pick up four stations. Admittedly the radio reception in our office isn't great but this was well below what we'd normally expect.