Should You Use a PCI, USB, or Network-Based TV Tuner For Your HTPC?

Whether you’re interested in recording live TV using Plex or considering setting up NextPVR, you need a tuner card. But which form factor is best?

TV tuner cards for computers come in many shapes. There are USB cards, which you simply plug in. There are the PCI cards, which you have to install inside your desktop computer. And there are network cards, which you connect to via Ethernet. Which one should you choose?

The answer is: it depends. Here’s a brief look at the different form factors.

PCI/PCI-e: Neat and Tidy

If you have a dedicated Home Theater PC (HTPC), or just a computer that you use as a media server, a PCI option like the Hauppauge WinTV-quadHD, above, might be a good idea. These TV tuners are installed inside the box, meaning everything is neat and tidy: just plug your antenna into your computer and you’re done.

The main downside: you have to install the card yourself, which means opening up your computer. It also has to be a desktop computer. You can’t use cards like these in a laptop, or a tiny computer like the Mac Mini. And even if you have a proper PC, these kinds of cards take up a PCI slot. Some GPUs use up multiple slots, meaning you might not be able to use both a PCI tuner card and a hardcore graphics card.

For most users, however, a PCI tuner card works perfectly.

USB: Easy To Install

USB tuner cards like the Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD, above, couldn’t be simpler. Just plug the tuner card into your computer, plug the antenna into the tuner card, and you’re pretty much done. You don’t have to take apart your PC, and you can even use this on a laptop or small PC if you want.

The downside: these cards stick out the back of your computer, adding to the mess of cables and boxes there. You’ll have to manage those cables somehow.

It’s a minor point, but one worth thinking about. In terms of performance you don’t really have to worry—USB 3 is more than fast enough to handle recording and streaming HD television. It really boils down to personal preference.

Network Connected Options: Stick It Anywhere

Finally, there are network based tuners, like the HD Homerun. These sorts of tuners might be the best choice available right now. You can put them anywhere in your house, so long as they can connect to your network. You can then watch TV on any device on your network: your HTPC, your phone, or your gaming console. It’s a flexible option, and devices like the HD Homerun are compatible with both Plex’s DVR functionality and Kodi.

Don’t underestimate how nice it is to put your box in a different place than your HTPC—it’s priceless if you’re looking to improve your TV reception. Your tuner card, and your antenna, can be in any room in the house, provided they can access your network. You just need an Ethernet connection (Wi-Fi may work but it’s not recommended).

Justin Pot is the News Editor for How-To Geek. He lives in Hillsboro, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, if you want. You don't have to.