With the launch of Freeview|HD DVB-T digital terrestrial TV in New Zealand earlier this year plenty of manufacturers are now launching DVB-T capable TV tuner cards into the market.
Unlike many other countries who are using the MPEG-2 format for digital TV, New Zealand was one of the first countries to use MPEG-4/AVC H.264 as its broadcast format. With DVB broadcasts the MPEG video stream decoding is handled by the PC and not the tuner card itself, this means that virtually any DVB-T card that works in other countries that use MPEG2 will work in New Zealand, with software capable of decoding the H.264 video being required. This has meant that manufacturers have had to update their software to work in the New Zealand marketplace.
Since neither Windows XP Media Center or Windows Vista Media Center have support for H.264 broadcasts you cannot use the Media Centre features of your operating system to watch or record Freeview|HD Ė you need to use the software that is included with your TV card or a 3rd party TV application such as GB-PVR, MediaPortal or DVBViewer that supports H.264 video.
The Winfast DTV1800 is a PCI hybrid card that supports DVB-T digital TV, regular VHF/UHF analogue TV and FM radio. While it supports both analogue and digital TV it only has a single tuner so you canít watch or record an analogue and a digital channel at the same time.
Open the box and youíll find the card, a remote control, an infrared receiver module that plugs into the back of the TV card, a small aerial for the FM radio and a small breakout cable for the s-video and composite video & audio input for capturing video from an external source. The card is not a full height PCI card but only comes with a full height back bracket meaning it will not fit in a slim case that only supports low profile PCI cards.
Installing the Winfast TV software was a straight forward process. Once installed the software tuned in the Freeview|HD channels fine and I was up and running with no major issues and was watcing live TV on my screen.
TV quality on TV1 and TV2 which are broadcast in 720p was great but the quality of TV3ís 1080i broadcast was extremely poor. All other standard definition Freeview|HD channels worked fine. The poor quality of TV3 is due to the lack of any H.264 hardware acceleration support in the software, something I will discuss later.
The included software mentions in the manual that it is incapable of being used for recording and playback of TV recorded in the H.264 format, this means that you canít record any Freeview|HD content and play it back - something that is a rather serious limitation! After playing with this I discovered itís not entirely accurate however, the software is capable of recording TV, itís just not capable of playing it back.
Analogue TV reception worked fine with good quality for both live TV and playback and the FM reception was also fine. The included Electronic Program Guide does not support the MHEG5 format used by Freeview|HD so is only capable of displaying programming information for the current and next shows, it will not display the full 8 day EPG that is transmitted by Freeview.
One of the issues facing anybody wanting to view Freeview|HD content on a PC is the system requirements to decode H.264 video content. Many graphics cards these days support onboard H.264 hardware acceleration, meaning that your video card will be able to do the decoding of the video signal rather than relying on the CPU in your computer to do this. Hardware acceleration is far superior to software based decoding and viewing Freeview|HD TV3 content on a computer without hardware acceleration will result in any extremely poor picture and will use use up to 100% CPU utilisation on a modern dual core processor. It also typically doesnít do a good job of deinterlacing the video signal on channels that are transmitted in an interlaced format such as TV3.
In reality you will not get good results trying to view Freeview|HD content on a PC if you are not using a video card and software capable of giving you H.264 hardware acceleration.
The Leadtek software does not take advantage of any H.264 hardware decoding that your video card may be capable of, this means that CPU utilisation is extremely high with 720p and 1080i content Ė 1080i content on TV3 on my AMD X2 4800 was around 90% and frames were being dropped which meant the picture was virtually unwatchable.
Now for the good news Ė this card works flawlessly when used with other 3rd party TV applications. The included manual addendum advises that a 3rd party TV application will improve the performance of the card and itís certainly a very true statement.
I use GB-PVR for all my TV viewing and recording and after adding this card to the GB-PVR tuner settings file (these settings will be included in future GB-PVR releases) GB-PVR automatically detected the card and tuned in all the Freeview|HD channels. Since it uses standard BDA drivers this card should function fine with other TV software that works well in New Zealand including MediaPortal and DVBViewer, however neither of these were tested by me. Using one of these packages and a H.264 codec capable of hardware acceleration such as Cyberlink PowerDVD 7 or 8 or Arcsoft TotalMedia Theatre and a video card capable of H.264 hardware acceleration such as an NVidia 8500 or greater you will find the card delivers a fantastic picture.
At the time of writing this current ATI video cards that claim H.264 hardware acceleration support (2xxx,3xxx and 4xxx series) all still suffer from significant issues trying to decode interlaced video content and despite ATI being well aware of these issues they have still not resolved them. An NVidia card with a Series 8 or higher GPU (such as the NVidia 8500 or higher) is recommended.
Having spent many months playing with various TV programs and cards myself I think itís fair to say that if you donít have a PC with a dual core processor (AMD or Intel) and a video card capable of H.264 acceleration you will not have a great viewing experience trying to view Freeview|HD content, no matter what TV software or TV tuner card you use. With a 3rd party TV application this card worked flawlessly but you do face being disappointed if you only want to use the included software.
* Included software very poor Ė doesnít support recording Freeview|HD and struggles with live TV. Also has no support for MHEG5 EPG.
* Card works fine with 3rd party TV applications and delivers a great picture.