August 22, 2005

Review: HD-3000 HDTV tuner card

Author: Nick Myra

PCHDTV.com's $170 HD-3000 PCI high definition television tuner card supports over-the-air HD broadcasts and even some HD cable, as well as standard US television. You may remember this product from when the company announced it would ignore the now defunct broadcast flag. Politics aside, how well does it perform? Fairly well on standard broadcasts, but I had less success with HDTV programming -- through no fault of the hardware.

To test the device, I used an AMD64 3200 box with 512MB of RAM, an Nvidia 5200 video card, and a 80GB hard drive. This hardware exceeded the requirements listed on the manufacturer's site but it was evident during testing that a more powerful system with more storage would be beneficial to standard operation.

I started off with my favorite distribution, Debian, by way of a Kanotix hard drive install. I also tried KnoppMyth and Windows XP. The tuner is officially supported only in Linux, but the company graciously includes experimental drivers for Windows too.

The HD-3000 ships with a customized version of xine, xine-hd, as well as various drivers. I couldn't even get the library to compile and gave up quickly in pursuit of other options. If it weren't for the Electronic Freedom Foundation's "Guide to Building Your Own PVR" I would have been lost. If you run a 2.6.12 kernel or newer the drivers are already included, but you'll probably have to compile that yourself. After my initial tests I found the latest versions of both SimplyMEPIS and Ark Linux contain the necessary software support.

Standard television reception worked well in every OS I tested, but it was sort of grainy compared to other NTSC tuners. With some minor tuning I had Xawtv and TVtime working fine on my Kanotix install. VLC worked in every situation and ChrisTV worked fine in Windows XP. But of course, I could have gotten equivalent results with a much less expensive standard TV tuner card.

High definition, or ATSC, signal reception was a completely different story. I still haven't been able to use the software that came with the product with my OS of choice, Kanotix, and there's even less hope for XP. KnoppMyth worked, but my indoor amplified antenna was not strong enough to get any signal at all. After consulting AntennaWeb.org I bought an outdoor directional antenna with a pre-amp, which I believed would allow me to view HD television with my KnoppMyth setup. But I still had no luck; apparently, the low elevation and the dense forest in the area where I live effectively block the HD signal from the distant broadcasters. I relocated my entire system to another site, and it worked fine with the standard rabbit ears antenna. Testing with digital cable was quite a disappointment. Evey channel available to me was apparently encrypted and the HD-3000 was unable to display any of them. Cable companies encode most channels except local broadcast stations, which can also be received over the airwaves for free.

Another problem I noticed with the card is the as yet unsupported remote control input feature. As with most hardware support in the GNU/Linux arena there is always the do-it-yourself approach, but I am not quite that experienced yet. Since there are always other options available with wireless mice and keyboards I wasn't too concerned. Still, it would be nice if this included feature worked.

As far as tech support goes, the company had more than adequate email response time, but nearly all of my questions were already answered on the community forums on the company's Web site.

The HD-3000 is a great product. Just make sure you have compatible HD coming in over your cable, or the ability to receive HD broadcast signals where you plan to use the hardware. PCHDTV is a Linux-centric company that I feel good about giving my money to.

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