Review: Two Tiny TV Tuners Bring Video To Your PC
With support for both analog and new digital TV standards, these USB units from Hauppauge and Pinnacle make it easy to record and play back video at surprising levels of quality.
If you think connecting a lipstick-sized gizmo to a USB port on your laptop might not be the best way to watch television, you'd be half-right.
It can be a return to yesteryear, when TV pictures were filled with washed-out colors and interference. But if that keeps you from trying one, you may miss out on the cheapest possible ticket to a carnival of new things to do with video -- like use your computer as a personal video recorder, capture programs in file formats that you can transfer to your video iPod or other portable media player, or even capture and edit video from camcorders and other sources to edit and burn to DVDs.
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And best of all, a USB tuner can introduce you to high-definition digital video. On Feb. 6, 2009, all U.S television broadcasts must be digital. Analog TV signals, with their snow and ghosts, will finally be gone, and good riddance. Depending on where you live, the broadcasters in your area probably already are experimenting with digital transmissions. In my suburban Boston neighborhood, I can attach a foot-long antenna to a USB tuner and pull in 11 analog channels and 20 digital signals, including digital signals from the Public Broadcasting System channel and the CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox affiliates. The pictures are sharp, bright, and vivid, more like playing a DVD than watching broadcast television.
I worked with two USB tuners for this review: the WinTV-HVR-950 from Hauppauge, and Pinnacle's PCTV HD Pro Stick. Both connect to a USB 2.0 port. They're about 1.5 by 2.5 inches, and come with a short telescoping antenna and Windows software. The Pinnacle unit, which lists for $130, also comes with a thumb-sized remote control and an A/V adapter for analog video capture from VCRs and other video sources. The Hauppauge tuner lists for $99, and you can buy a standard-sized remote control and A/V adapter on the company's Web site for an additional $17.
Both the WinTV-HVR-950 (top) and the PCTV HD Pro Stick (bottom) offer basic digital viewing capabilities. (Click image to enlarge.)
Both the tuners installed about the same way -- plug in the tuner and connect the antenna (or the cable lead, if you're on cable TV), then run an installation disk that puts drivers, a viewer application, and a TV schedule program on your PC. I even had about the same minor problems with both installations: I had to rerun the process of configuring the schedule software before I could see the program grid and schedule a program for recording.
Finding Your Program
There are differences in the two products -- for example, in their approach to giving customers access to an online schedule. Hauppauge uses TitanTV, a Web-based, advertising-supported app that is visually busy to the point of being hard to manage on a small laptop screen, but it's formatted in the familiar style of newspaper TV listings. Pinnacle includes a trial subscription to an electronic program guide that goes to the other extreme -- it's plain to the point of anonymity, and puts you through multiple windows to view schedules by channel rather than by time, for example.
This visually-busy-versus-visually-sparse contrast continues in the two viewer applications. The Hauppauge viewer, WinTV, surrounds the video window with a virtual TV set, right down to carefully drawn screw heads. Buttons and controls handle all the major functions of selecting, displaying, recording, and replaying video. The Pinnacle Media Center pares away anything unnecessary, leaving only four major menu icons above the video window and a minimal set of start/stop/change-channel controls at the bottom.
(True confessions: I'm VCR-challenged, and one of my favorite things about both these tuners was that despite their interface differences, either one made it far easier to schedule a program for recording than a VCR.)