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TV On Your PC

The ins and outs of watching TV on your computer

By Michael Antonoff

What makes a computer different from other electronic devices is that you can make it into almost anything you want. For instance, with the addition of software and a peripheral, you can turn it into a television set that may be more capable than a dedicated TV.

Why would you use a computer to watch TV? First, it saves space, primarily in a cramped apartment, dorm room, or home office. Second, it can save money, particularly if you consider that your computer monitor offers enough resolution to be HDTV-ready. That means for the price of an accessory, you can put high definition TV with Digital Video Recorder (DVR) functionality in a second room, even as your main TV occupies your home theater. With the shutdown of conventional over-the-air broadcasting early next year, a tube-type bedroom or den TV connected only to an antenna may be ripe for replacement by a PCTV, especially if the computer is already in place.

If you have a home network, you can watch and control your cable or satellite DVR/receiver from a computer anywhere in the house. With broadband connections, you can watch your home TV when you travel. Stay in a hotel room around the world or a vacation home across the state, and what you see on your notebook can be identical to your TV screen at home. Why add pay-per-view movie charges to your hotel bill when you can use your notebook to watch the programs accumulating on your home DVR? Why pay for a second cable or satellite subscription for your mountain or beach retreat if high-speed Internet access is available?

The simple way to add TV reception to any computer, especially a notebook, is by popping a TV tuner stick into a USB port. These sticks typically come with a retractable antenna with a magnetic base for placement on a car roof, for example. You screw a cable from the antenna into the stick's RF input. If you're home, you may be able to attach your cable TV line. You should be able to tune in analog (conventional) and digital (HDTV) broadcasts out of the air in places where you get decent reception or non-premium analog channels from cable. Included DVR software will enable you to record programs to the computer's hard drive. A tuner-enabled notebook will be more popular than the cooler at a tailgate party or picnic when a game is being broadcast. (Just don't plan on watching TV if the vehicle is in motion. Mobile DTV is still in development.) B&H offers several tuner sticks from Pinnacle including the Pinnacle PCTV HD Ultimate Stick External USB HDTV Tuner.

Pinnacle PCTV HD Ultimate Stick External USB HDTV Tuner
Pinnacle PCTV HD Ultimate Stick External USB HDTV Tuner

If you want to add TV reception to a desktop computer without opening the case, you could go with a slightly larger accessory than a tuner stick, but it will still connect to a USB port. One example is the Elgato Systems EyeTV 250 Plus USB NTSC/ATSC HDTV Tuner for Mac. The EyeTV also exports video to an iPod or Apple TV.

Elgato Systems EyeTV 250 Plus USB NTSC/ATSC HDTV Tuner for Mac
Elgato Systems EyeTV 250 Plus USB NTSC/ATSC HDTV Tuner for Mac

An add-in card is the way to go especially if you have an unused compatible slot. That way, you won't tie up a USB port or need to plug in an AC adapter. Among the many choices are AverMedia's AVerTVHD MCE A180 PCI ATSC HDTV Tuner Card for Windows or Hauppauge's WinTV-HVR-1600 Hybrid Video Recorder - PCI ATSC/NTSC HDTV Tuner for Windows. You may also need an antenna, such as the Terk Technologies TV3 Indoor Television Antenna. Make sure the card you choose will fit your target slot.

AverMedia's AVerTVHD MCE A180 PCI ATSC HDTV Tuner Card Hauppauge's WinTV-HVR-1600 Hybrid Video Recorder - PCI ATSC/NTSC HDTV Tuner for Windows. Terk Technologies TV3 Indoor Television Antenna
AverMedia's AVerTVHD MCE A180 PCI ATSC HDTV Tuner Card Hauppauge's WinTV-HVR-1600 Hybrid Video Recorder - PCI ATSC/NTSC HDTV Tuner for Windows. Terk Technologies TV3 Indoor Television Antenna.

If you're buying a new computer, consider a model preconfigured with an internal tuner or tuners and a remote. The HP Pavilion dv9830us Entertainment Notebook, for example, comes with an HDTV tuner (which installs in the ExpressCard slot), a 17-in widescreen display, Blu-ray Disc player, and remote. It even has an HDMI output when you attach the notebook to a larger screen.

HP Pavilion dv9830us Entertainment Notebook

For a unique-looking home-theater-in-the-round, check out the Sony Vaio VGX-TP20E/W Living Room PC. Besides being a full-fledged Windows Vista computer with Wi-Fi connectivity, the TP20 lets you watch and record over-the-air HDTV using a USB-attached tuner, play Blu-ray Discs, run effects-rich slideshows, store and play your entire music collection, and access entertainment sites and services. The computer connects to your big-screen TV through an included HDMI cable. It comes with a wireless keyboard/touchpad and a remote. Web pages can be enlarged with a click so they can easily be read from the sofa. And the computer is quiet, making it an ideal source component for picture and sound. (B&H also sells rectangular Media Center computers from Hewlett-Packard but doesn't offer a CableCARD-ready system that would make it possible to watch and record high definition programs from cable.)

Sony Vaio VGX-TP20E/W Living Room PC
Sony Vaio VGX-TP20E/W Living Room PC

If you want to get the most value from a cable box or DVR leased from your cable company, a TiVo, or a satellite receiver – and you have a home network (Wi-Fi or wired) – add a place shifter. The hardware consists of a base station that sits between the cable box and TV, and it compresses the analog video (component, S-Video, or composite video) and stereo signals into an MPEG stream that is sent wirelessly or through an Ethernet cable into your home network. The base station also passes through the original video and audio signals to your TV if needed and it has an IR emitter that you stick on the face of your cable box. Once you install the included player software on your computer, you can watch the same program on your notebook or desktop PC that is available on your TV. With a broadband connection, you can take the computer with you and watch from a remote location. For both in-home and away viewing, you have complete control over your DVR, including watching live or recorded programs, changing channels, or setting a recording through your home TV's onscreen program guide. Your remote is depicted graphically on your computer screen and clicking its buttons produces the same results, albeit with a slight delay, as if you were sitting in front of the TV holding the real remote. There are no additional costs for watching TV remotely beyond your usual broadband charges.

Place shifters may be especially attractive to business travelers toting laptops or smartphones. American Airlines, for instance, is adding Wi-Fi to the passenger cabins of its Boeing 767s operating between New York and Los Angeles as well as San Francisco and Miami. Virgin America is also installing Wi-Fi. Some New York to Boston buses offer Wi-Fi access. Meanwhile, if you're taking the train along the Northeast Corridor (between Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston), you should be able to use a card in your notebook to connect directly to your cell phone provider's broadband data network along much of the route. All this means that between deleting emails, you can spontaneously enjoy last night's Daily Show recorded on your home DVR or maybe a ballgame being received live in your unoccupied apartment.

B&H offers place shifters under such brands as Sony's LocationFree TV, Sling Media's Slingbox, Monsoon Multimedia's Hava, and Pinnacle's PCTV To Go Internet TV Broadcaster. The easiest of these to install is the Slingbox Solo; the most capable is the Hava Titanium HD. The Solo requires that you attach either an Ethernet cable or optional HomePlug adapter that piggybacks a network link over in-wall electrical wires. SlingPlayer software is compatible with Windows XP, Vista, and Mac OS X as well as Smartphones and some other cell phones including a forthcoming version for the iPhone G3.

Sling Media's Slingbox
Sling Media's Slingbox

While the Slingbox enables you to stream content on your DVR to one computer at a time, the Hava Titanium HD enables you to stream to multiple computers on your home network and to one remote computer. A Wi-Fi antenna is included. In addition, the Hava player software has built-in DVR controls, so you can pause, replay, or record the TV stream on each computer connected to your home network. And, the software includes a DVD burning program, so you can then archive recordings to disc. (DVR and DVD burning capabilities are unavailable when the computer is used away from home.) The player software can also access the tuner in a remote Windows Media Center PC. Finally, you can capture TV still images from the Hava player, whereas using the keyboard Print Screen command with the Sling player saves only black holes.

Hava Titanium HD
Hava Titanium HD

A home network is a prerequisite for setting up a place shifter. So, if you can see the benefits of having a Hava- or Slingbox-type component but have yet to add a network, B&H offers a wide selection of multi-port (wired and wireless) routers. If you need an extra computer, a TV set, an Ethernet cable, or an A/V cable, B&H can help you out with those things, too. So, if people ask whether it's possible to watch TV on a computer, you know where to send them.

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