Tech Answers: What is a USB TV Tuner?
Have you ever wanted to get video from one source or another and put it on your computer? One of the best ways to do this is with a TV tuner. A TV tuner is a device that you attach to your computer that will convert video ready for TV into a format that the computer can understand in order to let you manipulate that video to suit your needs. There are internal TV tuner cards that can perform this function but this is not always an option. If you don’t have the room inside of your desktop, you have a laptop, or you need to move your tuner to different locations from time to time, using just one internal card isn’t an option. This is where the USB TV tuner comes in. By plugging an external TV tuner into one of your USB ports you can instantly have access to your video.
There are many different kinds of USB TV tuners out there however, and you need to take the time to pick out the one that’s right for you.
Connecting Your USB TV Tuner to Your Computer
A USB TV tuner works as a middleman between your computer and your video. It’s important to understand that not all USB connectors are the same even if they look the same and fit the same plugs. While most new USB TV tuners will be USB 2.0 spec, it’s possible to run across one that is older and runs on the older generation connector. Even though they’ll plug into the newer socket the speed difference will be dramatic and some of the functions that you were hoping to use it for might not work properly or at all. That being said, if you find yourself a USB 3.0 device it might be a little overkill for your needs. While you might have the temptation to future proof your system, by the time TV quality gets to a point where you’ll need the speed benefits USB 3.0 provides something better will have come along in the years it will take to get to that point and you’ll have overpaid for nothing.
Connecting Your USB TV Tuner to Your Video Source
Just like there are wide assortments of ways to connect video to your TV, there are as many ways to connect video to your computer. The most common way to do this is through a standard coaxial cable like the one you would screw into the back of your TV or cable box. If you have access to normal analog or digital cable signals through a coaxial cable this is likely all you’ll need to set it up. If you’re getting your signal from over the air broadcasts or you’re using your tuner to listen to radio the steps are similar if your tuner supports it.
If you intend to use a different kind of connector make sure the tuner you’re looking at supports it. Many come with an additional dongle that will support several different connectors from S-Video to Component video. Due to the DRM issues with HDMI, you’re not likely to find a tuner that supports this kind of connection, but in most instances using component connectors is quite comparable.
Wait, I Might Not Be Able to Watch TV on This?
DRM (Digital Rights Management) issues don't just crop up when dealing with cables. Most USB TV tuners are not set up to be able to work with a scrambled video channel, so if you were planning on ditching your cable box you might be in for a nasty surprise. Not all is lost however, as you can take the video that comes from your cable box and stream it through to your computer. You can even find tuners that come with their own infrared device that shoots instructions to your cable box to change channels at the right time for your recordings. Just being aware of the issue and knowing what to look for when shopping makes the issue a lot less thorny to deal with. For a more broader view on this you might also want to check out my other hub about using your computer to watch television from several different sources.
What Are the Uses of a USB TV Tuner?
The most obvious use of a TV tuner is to watch live TV, but that’s not all it can do. While not all recording programs are created equal, you can use your tuner to give your PC the power of a Personal Video Recorder like the cable companies try to get you to rent. You will be able to record and pause live TV, as well as fast forward or skip through things that are in your video buffer. Taking screenshots is generally a breeze, and if you have a dual tuner you can record two things at the same time. You’ll be able to watch one of the two live shows being recorded, or watch a third previously recorded show, drastically increasing your viewing options. Although not necessary for watching TV, some tuners also include the ability to tune in to radio signals.
There are many out there that also use their USB TV tuners to archive things. Stream those aging video cassettes to your computer and create a digital copy that you can archive or take clips of and send to friends and family of days gone past. You can also take these digital copies and make DVD’s that can will work with your normal DVD player.
If you’re living in a networked house, you could even setup a computer to be a TV server for your household, recording a bunch of different shows with your main box and letting your streaming box access your library of shows and display it to any TV in your home.
It’s easy to see why TV tuners have become quite popular.
Can Any Program on My Computer Use the Video from a TV Tuner?
In general the answer is yes. By using a USB device the driver setup is generally automatic, and while each tuner comes with its individual software to use in order to record it’s not necessary to use. Programs like Windows Media Center can access the USB TV tuner directly and set up recording times and schedules. Be aware however that while some programs will be able to set a schedule, if you’re running things through a cable box the program you’re using might not be able to change the channel on the cable box, making the program very limited.
Ok, So How Much is This Going to Set Me Back?
Prices for USB TV tuners vary quite a bit depending on what you want it to do. If all you need is to funnel an analog TV signal to your computer, you can get away with paying for something around the $50 mark. If you need something with a lot more bells and whistles, you can easily run all the way up to the $200 mark, even if that’s more then what most people need. When looking at the different options out there, be sure to check out the reviews on places like Amazon. The tuner in the Amazon ad to the right is dynamically updated to be the top search result for USB TV Tuners and will get you started on finding the tuner right for you. The variety of quality out there is quite vast and it’s very easy to pick up a pretty box and inside find a lemon that just doesn't cut it for your needs. Don’t let that discourage you however as there are several great companies out there that make quality parts and will make it easy for you to convert your PC into a hefty recording machine.