I went back into the market for a new TV card recently. My trusty old WinTV Theater from Hauppauge was nowhere to be found, and I was tired of my huge old clunky 720p 27 inch TV. Reading the reviews though makes me realize how much confusion there is about what kind of TV cards exist, and what their purpose is.

1. Old style SD Analog framebuffer card. This is what I want. It just captures from Svideo, composite, and NTSC signals and sends them across to the computer raw. Pros: Fast speed, no latency. Cons: No built in encoding, uses lots of bus resources. Modern day purpose: Old video game consoles, from the Magnavox all the way to the Nintendo Wii, if you want to play them on a computer monitor, this is the card to get. If you’re trying to make your own TIVO though, these are useless.

2. SD Analog Encoder/PVR card. These are the second generation of analog cards. Svideo, Composite, and NTSC, just like above. Instead of sending the raw picture though, they encode it, typically into MPEG2, before sending it to the processor. This makes it so recording is a snap. Just stream the data straight to the hard drive. Pro: Doesn’t use much in the way of bus resources or processor. Con: Adds a good half second of latency before you see the picture. Modern day purpose: DVR for standard definition on Cable or Satellite. Useless for gaming.

3. ATSC/QAM capture cards. These are electrically the simplest of all 3 of the types of card. ATSC and QAM are already passing digital data, making these little more than a glorified wireless receiver card. The data is already MPEG2, they just pass it along. Pros: Records off the air HDTV, and unencrypted Cable TV. Cons: Can’t record any analog sources or HDMI, nor encrypted digital, nor Component. Modern Use: Over the air HDTV TIVO or limited Cable TIVO, when paired with #2 above.

4. Component Capture Cards. These are the most complex of the types as they have to record HDTV in at least 720p and encode it into MPEG2 or another format on the fly. They’re also still exceedingly rare. Pros: Capture Hi Def video game footage and anything from a component video source. Cons: Adds latency to signal, Expensive, poorly supported. Modern Use: High Def Satellite and Cable DVR, and capturing video game footage (but not watching it live, it adds latency.)

There are potentially other kinds of cards, such as a component raw capture card, or a DVI or VGA capture card, but I haven’t seen any examples of these in the consumer market, only in high end products. 

Straight #1 and straight #2 are very hard to come by these days. They are almost always paired with #3 above. 1/3 combos are also getting pretty rare. 2/3 is the most common card around currently. I ended up buying a ATI 650 card thinking that it would be a 1/3 and useful for gaming, but the reviewers were wrong. It’s a pure 2/3 card. Finally, I searched for an available analog card and found the MSI TV@nywhere card that is supported in linux and a #1 card. 

I’ll have to post how well it works later.