Over-the-Air Digital TV with Linux

A review of some current state-of-the-art digital TV tuner cards, focusing on how well they support digital television in Linux.
Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick

Pinnacle's PCTV HD Pro Stick is a USB 2.0 tuner card that supports both digital (ATSC) as well as analog (NTSC) TV signals. This tuner card comes with a portable telescopic antenna, a mini-remote control with batteries, a USB extender cable and an A/V adapter cable with inputs for S-Video, composite video (RCA) and stereo audio (1/8" jack). An integrated infra-red (IR) receiver on the device supports the remote control. This tuner card is slightly bigger than a typical USB thumbdrive and has a coaxial TV antenna input on one end and a USB connector on the other. When plugged in to my system, the tuner's width blocked adjacent USB ports. However, using the USB extender cable that came with the tuner card circumvented this problem. The portable antenna that comes with this card is good enough for viewing nearby HDTV channels, but it always helps to have an amplified antenna.

Out of the box, this card is not supported under Linux. To get this card to work with Linux, I had to download and compile its driver. I discovered that this tuner is based on an Empiatech EM2880 chipset, whose support has been added to the latest development version of the Video for Linux Digital Video Broadcasting (v4l-dvb) Project. I downloaded the v4l-dvb development source code and compiled the necessary modules for the running kernel (see the Building Device Drivers for Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick and Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950 on Ubuntu 7.10 sidebar). Compiling the kernel modules went through without a hitch, and after a system reboot, the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick was recognized by the system. Its digital (ATSC) tuner was registered as a DVB front end (/dev/dvb/adapter0), and its analog (NTSC) tuner was accessible as a v4l video device (/dev/video0).

After configuring the tuner as a “DVB DTV capture card (v3.x)” in MythTV, I was able to tune into standard-definition and high-definition programs. Picture quality for HD programs was fantastic, with astonishing crispness and clarity compared to SD programs. The viewing experience for this USB device was excellent.

I used tvtime to evaluate the analog TV performance. The picture quality was significantly better for stations with transmission towers that were geographically closer. Initially, sound did not work in tvtime. Using sox to route audio from tvtime to the default ALSA sound device solved the problem. Research on the Web indicated that many others have faced this same issue when using tvtime.

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950

The Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950 is a USB 2.0 HDTV tuner card, which is very similar to the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick, except the Hauppauge device does not come with a remote control. Like the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick, it supports digital (ATSC), analog (NTSC) as well as unencrypted cable TV signals. This card comes with a portable telescopic antenna, USB extender cable and A/V adapter cable with inputs for S-Video, composite video and stereo audio. I found that the antenna provided with this card was not as good as the one supplied with the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick. In fact, I had to use a better indoor amplified antenna or an outdoor antenna instead. This card also blocked adjacent USB ports when plugged in to my system.

Hauppauge does not officially support Linux for this product. But, this tuner card also is based on the Empiatech EM2880 chipset (same as Pinnacle's PCTV HD Pro Stick). Hence the same kernel modules built for the HD Pro Stick worked with this tuner. Follow the steps in the Building Device Drivers for Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick and Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950 on Ubuntu 7.10 sidebar to build the driver.

The viewing experience for both SD and HD programs and analog TV was similar to that provided by the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick.



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I still prefer to watch TV

Anonymous's picture

I still prefer to watch TV on classic TV screens rather than on my laptop
very interesting post though

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