In the world of PC-based satellite reception typically you need different tuner cards that specifically cater for satellite and terrestrial reception, and only a few recent PC satellite products support the DVB-S2 modulation used by FTA hi-def channels. Hurrah, then, for the HVR4000 from PCTV pioneer Hauppauge, which will cope with pretty much anything.
It will tune into both DVB-S and DVB-S2 flavours of digital satellite, plus DVB-T (digital terrestrial). And as if that impressive achievement wasn't enough, it's also compatible with analogue TV and stereo VHF/FM radio and has AV inputs, so you can watch external sources like Sky , camcorders and VCRs on your PC monitor and capture them in MPEG-2.
But there's a caveat. The HVR4000 may have all of these tuners on board, but you can only use one at any one time. So you cannot record a digital satellite channel while watching a terrestrial one. This isn't possible with two channels carried by the same multiplex, either.
If such functionality is needed, you'll need a second tuner; we successfully used a Hauppauge PVR1300 (an analogue/digital terrestrial TV product) for this purpose, although a second HVR4000 would provide greater flexibility.
The HVR4000's digital flexibility means that there are more 'outside-world' connections than is usual with this type of product. The backplate, which is accessible from the rear of the PC after fitting, sports an 'F' connector for your dish, a female UHF co-ax socket for analogue/digital terrestrial TV and a male socket for FM radio.
There are also a 3.5mm audio input socket, an S-video input (an adapter cable is supplied for composite sources) and a 2.5mm connector that's intended for use with a 'trailing' infrared receiver. The HVR4000 can be remote-controlled and the handset you need is included.
Quite busy, then, and presumably why there are no UHF or IF outputs for feeding a second tuner card. As a result, UHF splitters and multi-output LNBs will be required for dual-tuner rigs. Hauppauge plans to introduce a common interface reader which will connect to your PC via USB. This is now being de-bugged.
Installation proved to be simple and BDA-compliant drivers allow the HVR4000 to work with third-party digital TV applications like DVBViewer and DVB Dream.
The tuner (together with the PVR1300) also proved compatible with Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005 for much the same reason, although in its infinite wisdom Microsoft has failed to support DVB-S despite its European prominence, so the best you can hope for is DVB-T or analogue.
MCE may cater for FM radio, but didn't work with the HVR4000's tuner. TSReader, an excellent tool that will record an entire multiplex if you've the hard disc space, also only recognises the DVB-T section but results are lacklustre (lots of signal dropouts) because its drivers weren't written with this hardware specifically in mind.
No such problems with the supplied software - Cyberlink's Power Cinema, which is as close to the overall look and feel of MCE as you can get without upsetting Microsoft's lawyers.
This provides media playback (DVDs, photos and audio/video) and FM radio listening/recording, as well as the viewing and recording of analogue and/or digital TV. As it covers a lot of ground, Power Cinema is basic in digital TV terms.
It won't, for example, cater for two tuners simultaneously, but at least that means it's easy to set up initially. Just as well, because no context-sensitive help is available. Among other things, a wizard configures aspect ratio, speaker type and a two-week Cyberlink EPG.
Then it's a case of scanning for channels. The desired tuner or AV input, whether it's on the HVR4000 or other hardware lurking within your PC, is selected from the 'video' menu.
If you've chosen a tuner, the 'settings' menu gives you the opportunity to specify locality and whether timeshifting (and the attendant hard disc space involved) will be required. A 'satellite settings' submenu caters for up to four satellites if you have a DiSEqC setup.
If you're using analogue tuners or the AV inputs there's the opportunity to define recording quality; this isn't available with digital channels, which are simply written 'as is' to the hard disc (with no loss of quality relative to the original broadcast because you are recording the original broadcast).
Then there's the scan, which replaces all existing channels in its database with the ones that it finds rather than simply updating them. Make any DiSEqC changes and all channels are wiped, necessitating a full re-scan.
You can't scan an individual satellite; the best you can hope for is to add channels manually via the 'channel settings' menu. Using another wizard, the parameters of the desired service - satellite, transponder frequency, polarisation and FEC - can be entered.
The version of Power Cinema supplied did not support DVB-S2, a fact acknowledged by Hauppauge. Luckily, a beta version of DVBViewer Professional did, so we were able to tune into the occasional hi-def delights of Sat 1 HD and ProSieben HD on Astra 1H, after all.
And to be honest, the use of different software for digital TV is recommended. Although separate digital TV and radio lists are provided, channel selection is a joke.
The program presents you with a haphazardly organised list that can't be sorted. Even with a thumbwheel mouse, working your way through this list in search of a specific service is exhausting.
Power Cinema doesn't even allow you to define 'short-cuts' to favourite TV channels although, bizarrely, you can for FM radio stations! All you can do is 'turn off' channels that aren't required so that they don't appear in the list. Mercifully, encrypted channels found during a scan are turned off.
Even single-satellite scans are very slow, the Astra 1x cluster absorbing nearly 20 minutes of your time. DVBViewer, in contrast, took around five.
Power Cinema also fares poorly in the DVB-T stakes, the HVR4000's digital tuner yielding 'pops and squeaks' and an absence of video - a 'low-signal' sign. Hauppauge says this is down to a bug associated with the supplied version of Power Cinema.
With MCE and DVBViewer, DTT reception (as well as a more flexible digital satellite experience, certainly in the case of DVBViewer) was restored. These latter programs demonstrate that the HVR4000 is just as good in sensitivity and AV terms as other tuner cards.
And given that you have all of that multi-tuner flexibility - plus line-in AV of a high standard - in one card, that's no bad thing. A high-end PC equipped with two HVR4000s would be a televisual dream ticket in our view. So the HVR4000 impressed us. If only we can say the same of the supplied software.