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5 Ways to Watch TV on the Computer
Author: Jason Kohrs
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5 Ways to Watch TV on the Computer
August 01, 2006

Over the last several years, computers have worked their way out of the office and into just about every aspect of our daily lives. Home computers are no longer boring beige boxes destined for an existence revolving around e-mails and personal finances. They can also be the key to our personal entertainment that allows us to immerse ourselves in games, music, movies, and television (TV).

This Tech Tip will focus on the television portion of the list above, and will take a look at five ways in which just about anyone can enjoy watching television on their computer monitor.

PC TV Tuners:

The most common way to get TV or other video on your PC may be to use a tuner specifically designed to interface with your PC. These devices are available with a variety of interfaces and feature sets offering great compatibility with just about any personal computer (PC).

The basic principal of a PC TV tuner is that you connect the device to your computer, and then you connect your cable or antenna television source to the device, just like you would connect to any typical TV.

There is an interface to turn just about any available connection on your PC into a TV source, including: PCI, USB, Cardbus, PCI Express, and FireWire. So, it doesn't matter whether you have a desktop or laptop, or if you are running Windows, Linux, or a Mac. You can find standard (NTSC/PAL) cable or HDTV tuners configured in single or dual tuner arrangements.

All of the tuning is done with a combination of hardware and software, so quality will vary from one tuner to another based on the quality of the tuner components and the design of the application and drivers. Watching television is the easy part, but the great thing about these tuners is the ability to record.

Higher-end cards will provide better video quality during live television playback, and in general will offer more options and capabilities when it comes to recording and saving programs to your hard drive. Having a dual-tuner card allows you to watch one show while recording another, or even record two shows at the same time. Even if you don't have a dual-tuner card, you can create a similar setup by installing multiple TV tuners into one computer.

All of this, especially the recording and encoding, requires some reasonable computing power. Many times just meeting the minimum specifications published by the manufacturer will leave you less than impressed. In addition to a fast processor, you'll need enough memory and a hard drive that is not only fast enough to keep up, but large enough to hold all of your recordings.

One big upside to this method of getting television onto your computer is the wide array of choices, interfaces, and price ranges. You can be up and running on a basic tuner for around $25, and since they are also available with USB and FireWire connections, your installation might take just a minute or so and doesn't have to involve opening your computer case. Other strong points of this method are the recording capabilities, potential for high quality audio and video, portability when used with a laptop, and the ability to install multiple tuners in one system.

A possible downside to this method is that you need a computer with the horsepower to keep up with the demands of your tuner or tuners. Just watching cable TV might not stress a system that is even several years old, but trying to watch an HD broadcast while recording from another tuner might best be done on a more modern computer. Another potential downside is also related to HD, and that is that most HDTV tuners are for over-the-air high definition broadcasts only. There are tuners that can access HD digital cable, but the vast majority of HD tuners will require an antenna and also that you be physically located in the vicinity of an over-the-air HD broadcast.

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