With the advent of Digital Terrestrial Television in New Zealand courtesy of the Freeview|HD platform the market for PC based TV tuners has plenty of growth potential as people realise the advantages of viewing digital TV on their desktop PC or laptop - or even building a Hme Theatre PC (HTPC) for hooking up to a large LCD or plasma screen in the lounge.
Unlike older analogue TV cards the Freeview|HD platform delivers fantastic picture quality and High Definition content on some channels.
One of the issues that has caused some problems in the few months since the launch of Freeview|HD has been New Zealand’s decision to opt for H.264/AVC as the video format and HE-AAC audio. Up until now virtually all countries that have deployed DVB-T platforms have chosen to use MPEG2 based video and audio.
New Zealand is one of a handful of countries so far who have chosen to deploy this new format which delivers superior picture quality and has reduced bandwidth requirements.
Being a reasonably new format however, many older TV applications and those bundled with TV tuner cards will not work with our broadcasts as they are unable to decode the video and audio formats. This is now changing as manufacturers are releasing updates for their software and with many more countries planning on deploying H.264 based DVB-T broadcasts expect support to be commonplace in the not too distant future.
AVerMedia have been making TV cards for many years and their new Hybrid cards are some of the first TV tuner cards to support the PCI-e format – up until now most cards have been PCI based however PC manufacturers are now increasingly favouring PCI-e slots on their motherboards. Local distributor iWay has sent us the AVerTV Hybrid TV Speed PCI-e TV card to test.
The card receives analogue TV, digital DVB-T broadcasts and FM radio. It only features a single tuner however so can’t access both analogue and digital broadcasts at the same time. On the back panel are inputs for video (via S-Video or composite), audio input, and a plug for the IR receiver which works with the included remote control. The card also comes with a low profile mounting bracket which can be attached if you want to fit it into some of the slimline PC cases that are appearing on the market.
Included in the package is a small aerial with magnetic base. I had no luck with this at home and relied on my roof mounted UHF aerial but if you are in a strong signal area near a transmitter then this may be sufficient for your needs.
Installing the drivers, AVer MediaCenter and AVerTV software was a straight forward process. Once this was complete I did a Program Scan which picked up all of the channels transmitted on the Freeview|HD platform.
Radio stations are also broadcast on the Freeview|HD Platform but at present only Radio NZ National Radio NZ Concert are available.
Once these channels were tuned I was able to watch TV and use the included remote control to change channels and make various adjustments to the picture including setting the aspect ratio and overscan settings to ensure the picture filled the whole screen.
While the picture looked fine for the most part, performance was definitely an issue. Decoding H.264 video, particularly in 720p or 1080i High Definition is extremely CPU intensive. CPU usage on my AMD X2 4800+ CPU was around the 80%-85% mark watching TV3 with some frames being dropped which resulted in the picture being less than ideal.
TV3’s 1080i broadcast is the most difficult to decode – TV1 and TV2 that are both broadcast in 720p and while CPU usage was lower there was some occasional picture breakup. All of the remaining Freeview|HD channels are broadcast in standard definition 576i and the picture quality on these was fine. Recording and playback worked fine but the same issues were evident with TV3 during playback with some frames being dropped.
Analogue broadcasts were also fine but the quality difference between and analogue channels and digital means that it’s unlikely you will want to use this card for analogue TV unless you are outside the Freeview|HD coverage area.
One limitation at present is that timeshift mode (the ability to pause live TV and then press play to resume it from where you left off) is not available when viewing H.264 broadcasts however it does work with analogue TV.
The software also features an Electronic Program Guide that allows you to see a current list of shows screening and schedule recordings. Freeview|HD only transmits the current and next show details in their DVB video stream. An 8 day EPG is transmitted but it uses an MHEG5 format that AverTV is unable to decode so using the software’s EPG you will be unable to access this and are limited to seeing the current and next show details.
The Aver Media Center software also lets you view existing videos, pictures and music collection as well as tune to FM radio all from the remote control. All of these functions worked well.
After spending some time playing with AVerTV I then uninstalled this and configured the card for use in GB-PVR. GB-PVR is a freely available HTPC/PVR application that I have used on my main HTPC in my lounge hooked up to my Plasma TV for several years and highly recommend it. This card is fully supported by GB-PVR and configuration was a breeze.
My GB-PVR installation uses the CyberLink PowerDVD8 H.264 codec for video decoding. This codec is one of only a handful of video codecs on the market that takes advantage of the H.264 hardware acceleration on my Nvidia 8500 video card.
Suddenly this card came alive – CPU usage on TV3 dropped down to around 15% and the picture was perfect with no dropped frames.
The performance across all channels was fantastic and this card performed extremely well with none of the picture irregularities that I experienced using AverTV. For this reason it’s highly recommended that you have a video card capable of H.264 decoding (an NVidia 8500 or higher) which will take all of the load off the CPU and leave this task for the GPU on the video card. Unfortunately the included AVerTV software was unable to take advantage of the H.264 hardware acceleration on my NVidia 8500 video.
Overall this card worked extremely well. It is possible you may experience issues with the AverTV software at present since it does not support hardware H.264 decoding and without an extremely high spec PC it will possibly disappoint for viewing Freeview|HD content, particularly if viewing TV3’s 1080i broadcast.
Hopefully hardware acceleration is something that AVerMedia can work on for future upgrades. Using this card with GB-PVR and the PowerDVD8 H.264 codec however delivered a great picture and performance.