How to View HD Without an HDTV

ATI TV Wonder 650
If you’re unwilling to pony up the kind of cash it takes to buy an HDTV and maintain a monthly satellite or cable subscription, but you still want to view HD content, you’re in luck — especially if you already spend much of your time in front of a computer. With the help of some of the following tips, HD content without an HDTV can be at your fingertips.

Over the air
Believe it or not, getting HD content onto your computer through the use of over-the-air signals (OTA) is quite easy. The first step is finding out where the towers are located in your area. One option is AntennaWeb. Simply input your address info, whether you live in a single or multiple-story residence and if there are surrounding buildings and or/trees over a certain height, and it will show you the nearby sources of DTV signals and suggest the most appropriate antenna for you.
Another option is HDTV Magazine, which not only uses Google Maps to tell you exactly where the broadcasts are coming from but what channels are available in your area.
Next you’ll need an OTA antenna. UHF/VHF antennas are used to capture HD signals and transmit them through your home; from there your choice is indoor vs. outdoor (outdoor antennas are color-coded based on reception zones). Luckily, you won’t need to spend too much money on an antenna and more often than not, the cheaper ones will do the trick. One of my favorites is the Philips PHDTV3, which you can buy for just $22.60 right now at Amazon.
Next, you’ll need to buy an HDTV tuner card that can communicate with the UHF antenna and start streaming HDTV to your computer. The ATSC tuner card can be quite cheap as well, but it can also run into the hundreds of dollars. For the average person, though, the ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo PCI Express is a nice solution. At $130, this tuner would be ideal for any HD setup.
Now that you have the hardware in place, you’ll need to download a media center front-end to enjoy HD content on your computer. One of my favorites is SnapStream Media’s Beyond TV. Beyond TV is a lightweight solution that will allow you to rewind, fast-forward and even record HDTV directly to your hard drive. And for about $100, it’s a much easier pill to swallow than a monthly cable bill.
There is also an open-source solution, called Media Portal. This is the open-source community’s response to Windows Media Center, and believe it or not, it works just as well. And with a wealth of information on the site that should help you troubleshoot any issue, Media Portal is perfect if you don’t want to spend any more cash.
Once the hardware and software is in place, you’re ready to watch HD content on your computer. As more channels flip on the OTA switch and allow us to easily connect to free HD content, having your own HD setup is only going to get more attractive.
Don Reisinger is a freelance technology journalist who covers everything from Google to HDTVs. He currently writes for over 15 popular technology publications, including CNET’s Digital Home, InformationWeek and PC World.