Computer is not digital cable ready
Looking to turn your PC into a super media center monster? The most comprehensive way is with a CableCARDthe buggy, hard-to-get, often-unsupported tuner cards that lets your computer decode encrypted digital cable shows. CableCARD tuners are available only on a handful of new computers, meaning you can't just add one to your current PC. Yet they're required before your PC can unscramble HBO, Showtime, and the other big name TV channels.
The good news is, you don't need CableCARD for all HD transmissions. HDTV comes in two basic formats: ATSC signals, short for Advanced Television Systems Committee, are sent over the air from your local TV stations in glorious high-definition, widescreen, surround-sound format. If you can receive standard broadcast channels with an antenna, you should be able to receive high def signals too.
QAM, or quadrature amplitude modulation, is a technical description of the video signal your cable provider supplies. Most of it is encrypted, requiring either a CableCard or a cable box to decode. But many channels are unencrypted, or "clear, " since Cox, Cablevision, and most other big providers make ABC, CBS, NBC, and the other basic channels available on their networks by remodulating the ATSC broadcast into QAM.
There are rumors that the FCC will make delivery of basic channels in this manner mandatory. This means that depending on your cable provider and location, you may not be able to receive any channels whatsoever, or the major networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), or the even premium channels (HBO, Showtime, and so on).
Unfortunately, Vista's Media Center doesn't support QAM without a CableCARD. Well, it does and it doesn't. According to Microsoft's website, the format is supported. A spokesperson elaborated a bit, however, noting that "clear-QAM signals are supported with the version of Windows Media Center that is included with both Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate, a digital cable tuner, and a digital cable-ready PC. Digital cable-ready PCs are those that have been certified by the cable industry to ensure a predictable level of service." In other words, Vista doesn't support clear QAM; certain individually-certified PCs support it.
If your PC is one of the hundreds of millions of functioning PCs in American households today that aren't "digital cable ready, " (and if you have to ask, you're not certified), you're stuck renting a cable box. Remind you too much of renting a phone from Ma Bell? But all is not lost. Instead, turn to one of the following three ways to get that cable signal directly into Windows Media Center: The Elgato HDHomeRun, the Hauppauge Win-TV-HVR-2250, and the AVerMedia AVerTV Bravo Hybrid PCIe. Which one should you get? Read on to find out.
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AVerMedia AVerTV Bravo Hybrid PCIe ($79.99 direct)
An inexpensive TV tuner board that comes with some very impressive options, including QAM support and real-time H.264 transcoding, the AVerMedia AVerTV Bravo Hybrid PCIe is a nice multimedia package. If you're looking to break into the world of high-def video, it's a solid choice.
Hauppauge Win-TV-HVR-2250 ($129 direct)
With two hybrid tuners and integrated QAM supportall at a very reasonable price tagthe Hauppauge Win-TV-HVR-2250 is the gold standard of Home Theater PC TV tuners.
Elgato HDHomeRun ($199.95 list)
This network-attached HDTV tuner delivers over-the-air HD and SD programming and unscrambled cable television channels to any PC or Mac on your network. In addition, the Mac software lets you convert files, so you can watch them on mobile devices like iPods, iPhones, and PSPs.