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

February 24, 2007

7 Min Read
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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.

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.

The Set-Up
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 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.)

You Control The Picture
Judging from what appears on the screen, there's very little difference technically between the two devices. Both do about the same job of pulling in analog and digital signals, with only minor differences in lists of stations they discover during the configuration process -- for example, each put a (different) UHF station on the list that wouldn't play. WinTV includes some controls over the color and contrast of analog channels that the Pinnacle Media Center lacks, but for digital channels, variances in display quality seem to depend more on the PC display than the tuner device -- displays with fluorescent backlighting can be cooler, and if you're using a laptop, you may not have the same control over hue and saturation that you get on desktop displays.

I would give WinTV a slight edge on usability and the Pinnacle a slight edge on features. While both products save files in a standard MPG format by default (standard enough that files created on one system will play on the other without problems), the Pinnacle includes configuration settings for a variety of target formats and devices, including iPods and other personal video players, and multiple disc formats for DVDs and VCDs. The Pinnacle also can record direct to DVD, and the package includes Pinnacle Studio QuickStart, a limited video editor -- no surprise, as Pinnacle is owned by Avid, which sells professional video-editing solutions.

Playing With PVR
Beyond the superficial interface differences, the viewer apps function similarly. Both include a standard set of Personal Video Recorder (PVR) features, including the ability to schedule programs for recording, manually start recording, and pause and restart programs in real time. Both include a snapshot feature, so you can capture a still image of the screen.

I found myself preferring the WinTV interface just because it gave me more buttons to push -- I don't read manuals much. But, like all UIs, it isn't perfect. To play back a program you've recorded, for example, you have to click on a Record control. That's counter-intuitive. Pinnacle makes you hunt more, but once you figure out where to look, it's a bit more logical.

(If you're already a Vista user, you need to know that both companies are developing versions of their viewer software for Vista, and have software available for download on their Web sites: Pinnacle's TVC Pro 4.7 Public Beta Version for Windows Vista and Windows XP and Hauppauge's WinTV-HVR-1600 Installation CD Version 3.3C, which works with Vista Media Center.)

It Depends On Your PC
Your satisfaction with either of these USB tuner devices is likely to depend more on the PC you install it on, rather than the device and its software. Working with video pushes just about every subsystem on a PC to its limits, from the CPU and video hardware to hard disk capacity and audio.The key metrics are processor speed and video memory. I installed both devices on laptops running Windows XP Pro -- one running a 1.2 GHz Intel U1400 with 128 Mbyte of video RAM, the other a 2 GHz Intel Core2Duo and 224 Mbyte. The slower machine was barely capable of keeping a high-definition program playing smoothly. The 2-GHz chip did much better, keeping the video running and supporting the UI more smoothly. Pinnacle recommends at least a 1.8 GHz processor, 512 Mbyte of RAM and a minimum of 64 Mbyte of VRAM. Hauppauge recommends a 2.2 GHz Pentium 4 or 1.8 GHz Centrino or equivalent, with 64 Mbyte of VRAM.

Antenna placement can make a big difference as well. Rooftop antennas are recommended if you're tuning broadcast channels, although I got very good results with the stubby telescoping antennas included with the tuners.

Surprisingly, audio was a major limitation of both the laptops I used. If I had been using headphones I might have been happier, but neither machine played loudly enough to offer decent audio at a reasonable TV viewing distance. An external amplified speaker system may be your next purchase after a USB tuner.

If you've got a good, fast PC, and get a good signal, the quality of digital television will dazzle you, and the ease and convenience of recording TV will make you a PVR enthusiast. And at prices in the $100 range, these easy-to-use USB tuners make it all irresistible.

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