Review Hauppauge PVR-250
Building A PC-Based Personal Digital Entertainment Centre
A project diary describing the process of building a PC-based home entertainment center based on regular off-the-shelf computer components and software.

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Review: Hauppauge PVR-250 Tuner/Capture Card
At first glance, the PVR-250 appears, at first glance, to be the perfect solution to capturing and encoding broadcast video and encoding into MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 files.

Unlike the Pinnacle PCTV, the PVR-250 doesn't use your PCs processor to do the MPEG encoding -- it has its own dedicated onboard CPU to take care of this rather critical and intensive process.

The onboard PVR-250's onboard MPEG encoder is such a powerful little beast that it has its own heatsink.

The card will run under any Windows OS from Win98 through to WinXP.

My initial tests were performed under Windows XP and I have to say that, as with the Pinnacle product, there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

The card slots nicely into one of the motherboard's PCI slots and has a far fewer plugs and connectors to mess around with than the PCTV. The audio, for example, is automatically routed internally rather than through an external patch-cable.

Unlike the PCTV, the PVR-250 uses a single aerial connector rather than requiring you to mess around with separate plugs for FM and TV.

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If you'd like your own system, it is recommended that you purchase the parts, or a ready-configured version from the project's sponsor.

The only other connections to the card are a composite/SVideo plug, one for external audio-input and one for the infra-red remote receiver.

Like the PCTV, the PVR-250 comes with an infrared remote control that allows you to perform all the essential functions of a VCR from the comfort of your armchair. Unlike the PCTV however, the PVR-250 didn't seem to be affected by my the other remotes that sit on my coffee table.

Installing the hardware was very plain sailing -- however, things were a little different when it came time to install the software.

First of all I had to contend with XP's lame "The Data Is Invalid" error message which can occur during the installation of any device driver and requires the registry data to be manually edited. Of course neither the Pinnacle nor the Hauppauge cards are alone in being affected by this outrageous bug in XP -- but it can still be a major obstacle for the neophite user.

The drivers and applications provided on CDROM with the card are early versions that run very slowly and are riddled with bugs. The first thing I did was download all the update files from the Hauppauge website and install them over the top.

There's about 12MB of stuff to download so download them ahead of time if you're on a dial-up connection.

Even with the updates, the software is a bit slow and clunky in places -- but, as mentioned elsewhere, this appears to be a trait common to all the video-capture cards.

As you'd expect, the onboard MPEG encoder means that recording with the PVR-250 has little impact on the PC's main processor. Indeed - I was able to do all sorts of other things while I was recording and it was obvious that the responsiveness of the system remained excellent.

Of course, if you intend to use the PC solely as an Tivo-like unit then this isn't necessarily that much of an advantage -- except...

Unlike the PCTV, the PVR's onboard MPEG encoder seems quite capable of handling realtime encoding at very high bitrates and very high resolutions. Try to do a DVD-resolution capture with realtime MPEG-2 encoding on the PCTV and you'll be disappointed by dropped frames and audio that loses sync with the picture. No such problems with the PVR-250.

The quality of the recordings produced by this card are very good for a realtime encoder. Clearly the purpose-built processor does a better job than the software-based versions used by the PCTV.

While the recordings are still not as good as the results that can be obtained from a non-realtime software-based MPEG encoder such as TMPGenc they're certainly quite acceptable for day-to-day recording.

Another bonus is that the supplied software allows you to "tweak" the bitrates and formats used when recording so that you can create some less-standard disks such as those conforming to the China Video Disk (CVD) standard (352x576 pixels MPEG2). CVD is actually a whole lot better picture quality than VCD but still allows you to get a full one hour program (less adds) on a single 700MB CDR.

Marks Out Of Ten?
As with the PCTV, the PVR-250 is a nice piece of hardware which is let down somewhat by some immature software and a problematic installation procedure.

 Hardware9 Aardvarks
 Software4 Aardvarks
 Support3 Aardvarks
 Value8 Aardvarks
 MPEG Recording Quality6 Aardvarks

To find out if this is the card for you, check out the Dumb versus Smart card comparison.

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Published and © 2002 by Bruce Simpson and Aardvark Net Publishing. All rights reserved