There have always been TV tuner cards for PCs but it’s fair to say that Microsoft’s Windows Media Center operating system has given them a new lease of life, so much so that if a card isn’t MCE compatible, it’s hardly worth mentioning.
Leadtek’s DTV1000 T digital tuner card is certainly MCE 2005 compatible but ironically there’s actually good reason not to use it with MCE, as the supplied software provides access to a bunch of tricks that aren’t available under Microsoft’s OS, but more on those later.
While this Leadtek card has only just been released, it’s actually been around for some time as the OEM LR-6650 card though Leadtek’s version comes with its own software and a remote control.
The card is powered by two Conexant chips, a demodulator and a decoder. Connectivity is good. First of all there’s an antenna in for picking up digital terrestrial TV, which in the UK is Freeview. Beneath this is an antenna out. This unusual addition is for looping to a second card. In this configuration the card can process four channels simulateously - four channels actively previewing. MCE 2005 supports dual-tuner cards, enabling you to record one channel while watching another.
Below this is a composite connector, which should really be avoided due to the very poor image quality it delivers and lastly there’s an S-Video input. These can be used for capturing from analogue sources such as camcorders or from set-top boxes. At the very button is a connector for the supplied remote control dongle.
To test, I installed the card in my home Media Center 2005 system – an old shuttle box with a modest 2.2GHz Celeron and 512MB of 333MHz RAM. I only use it for video as the analogue TV tuner only picks up four of the five terrestrial channels and does so pretty poorly. Replacing the analogue cards with the DVB-T capable Leadtek paid immediate dividends and MCE 2005 was able to pick up a host of channels straight away with a great picture. MCE 2005 downloaded the EPG over the Internet and I was away, setting up the machine to record the whole series of Desperate Housewives.
I was immediately impressed by the image quality, though that’s not saying much compared to what I had before. There was some ghosting on fast motion but the main limitation is the relatively low bit-rate used by Freeview. One of the options is something called Eagle Vision. This can’t be selected when Hardware Assist is enabled but as it adds some noticeable sharpness and vividness to the picture I left it on.
The Leadtek comes with its own software and I was keen to see what it could do. After installing it and trying to launch the software I ran into problems, getting the error message, “Failed to Connect to Decoders”. I guessed this was due to a conflict with Media Center so I uninstalled everything and started again. This time all was well. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the Leadtek software. It’s not the last word in UI design by a long way, but I’ve seen far, far worse. There are three skins to choose from though all are a touch quirky. Most impressive though was the fact that it actually works and the experience was only blighted by one major crash. Leadtek has already updated the software since it first came out, adding UK EPG support, so hopefully further stability improvements and feature enhancements are on the horizon.