TV tuners housed in external USB devices have several advantages over their PC Card-based brethren. They're portable, easy to set up, and most importantly, don't require cracking open your computer case to install. The Diamond XtremeTV USB 2.0 is a comprehensive package of software and hardware for users who want to record TV programs on their PCs. The heart of the PVR600 is a USB 2.0 TV tuner box, but the $149 package comes with lots of bundled extras, including USB and S-Video, RCA, and FM antenna cables, plus a remote control. While the device's image quality doesn't match that of the best internal TV tuners, casual viewers will be hard-pressed to spot the differences, and the Diamond XtremeTV offers one of the better software packages we've seen.
The external USB 2.0 box is about the size of a small external hard drive or a paperback book. Its front panel features an illuminated power switch and RCA audio, S-Video, and composite-video inputs. The back panel supplies inputs for a coaxial cable and FM connections, as well as a USB port for connecting the unit to your PC and a DC power input in case you're using the XtremeTV PVR660 with a nonpowered USB port. An IR blaster is not included, but there is small remote receiver in the bundled that you attach to your cable box, allowing you to point your Media Center remote at the cable box instead of the PC. IR blasters are, in realty, a pain to set up and fairly useless, so it's not a big omission.
The bundled remote control is about as thin as a credit card and can control a variety of functions on your PC, including powering down your whole system. The sealed buttons on the remote are an acquired taste and may not appeal to all users.
The main upgrades from last year's Diamond XtremeTV PVR600 are found in the included software. The new model ditches SnapStream's Beyond TV and Beyond Media software in favor of ArcSoft Total Media. A Microsoft Media Center Edition clone, ArcSoft Total Media does a great job mimicking the simple interface of MCE, and it adds lot of functionality. Like MCE, the software can control your videos, music, and photos, plus it allows you to watch and record TV signals and tune in radio stations. Under the photo tab, you can perform simple photo editing, such as cropping and rotating, and even remove red-eye with a built-in filter. Setting up the TitanTV electronic program guide is as easy as entering your zip code and selecting your service provider. We also tested the Diamond XtremeTV PVR660 with Microsoft's Media Center software and experienced no problems.
The absolute best TV tuner we've seen in terms of image quality is ATI's TV Wonder Elite, which is an internal PCI card. Image quality with the Diamond XtremeTV PVR660 was acceptable for a PC TV tuner, which is to say, it's nowhere near as good as you'll get on a standard cable-box-to-TV connection. Both live and recorded images show blurriness and artifacting--familiar to anyone who regularly watches Web-based video.
Until next year's CableCard-based systems come out, which will give you digital-cable-quality images, you're stuck with the current generation of hardware. Unless you are watching TV on a huge plasma where image defects are more apparent, the Diamond XtremeTV card provides an acceptable image; it's no better or worse than we've seen from other external tuners or the majority of internal TV tuner cards.