Test Tubes

Wanna see what TV on your PC looks like? Now you can--for cheap.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the April 2007 issue of . Subscribe »

Seems like everything is about TV this year. The technologies being discussed--about a half-dozen that we'll explore as they get real in the coming months--present a holistic vision of PCs and TVs swapping high-definition programming and vids wherever you happen to be.

Well and good; it's going to be swell. But there's many a standards conflict and hardware upgrade to cross before we get anywhere near PC-TV convergence. Plan on changing a lot of your existing PC and home entertainment equipment--if you can figure out which technology to ride. Is PC-TV worth watching? Will it be worth it to you? There's a cheap and easy way to find out.

You can get a taste of that big TV-anywhere vision in the sky by plugging one of the new USB stick receivers into your PC. These $100-ish devices--let's call them USB-TV tuners--are all fairly similar and sold by vendors like Diamond Multimedia, Hauppauge Digital and Pinnacle Systems (see "Tune In, Turn On, below"). About the size of a pack of gum, the devices connect to one of the USB 2.0 ports of a (relatively fast) desktop or laptop with the cable provided. Screw in a telescoping TV antenna, install the bundled audio/video software and you can start pulling analog and digital broadcasts out of the air at home, in an airport--anywhere TV signals reach.

It's not a new idea. Add-in cards and other devices have been putting TV on PCs for years without attracting many viewers. Part of it is a PC infrastructure problem. TV audio and video need at least the equivalent of a 2.2GHz Pentium 4 processor and a level of DirectX 9 graphics handling usually found on an add-in graphics card with dedicated memory. It's only recently that a decent number of desktops--and fewer laptops--have crossed that threshold.

Let's be honest, folks: We're incredibly picky about our TV. We don't tolerate even a few pixelated images, out-of-sync audio or channels that don't pop up as quickly as our thumbs can click. Everything has to look and sound perfect--or we change the channel.

It's pretty hard for a multi-use PC to deliver the same ease of viewing we've grown accustomed to from our single-purpose appliances. With USB-TV, you will get a feel for the technical challenges facing the upcoming PC-TV initiatives. But you'll also experience the sizzle of HDTV before plunking down a grand for a new flat panel. No kidding, as Opie's pop would say, TV on a PC looks gooood.

Location, Location, Location
But there's TV, and then there's TV--and then a half-dozen more TVs, depending on your definition of television. USB-TV rabbit ears pick up traditional analog programming and the ATSC digital broadcasts available from about 1,500 stations in 200 American cities. You can improve reception and enjoy what is commonly referred to as basic cable by splicing into your home coax with a cheap T-adapter. But you won't get digital cable or digital satellite or any of several flavors of internet TV. Confusing, huh?

OK, so in other words, you can't hear Tony Soprano making other people sing or the string of epithets and vulgarity that's the hallmark of HBO. But American Idol songsters or network news suits? No problem--subject, of course, to a few variables not encountered on the average cable-connected Sony.

As mentioned, your PC's processor really matters--especially if other applications are running at the same time. Then hills, buildings and trees can interfere with reception. No worries about collisions with cell phone or Wi-Fi signals, since they operate on non-TV bands. But heavy clouds or high winds might cause pixelated blocks on-screen or hiccups in audio/video synchronization.

Ultimately, it's all about location. If you're using a portable, you'll find that some rooms in your house have better vantage than others. Alternatively, you can daisy-chain inexpensive USB cables to move your antenna around a bit--or buy a more powerful antenna from RadioShack.

It may take some tinkering. Remember, we're talking about $100 products here. Pulling programming out of the air is not trivial, and smushing a whole TV into a finger-size device? Pretty amazing, really.

At the end of the day, USB-TV is a really good experience. All the products mentioned deliver a great picture--even full screen on my PC's 5-year-old, 17-inch LCD. ATSC digital images (as opposed to old analog channels) are sharp; colors are rich and vibrant. Skin tones are natural, and in high-contrast scenes, detail is preserved in both dark shades and whites. Even digital channels without the HD label look high-def to me, which is sort of a problem.

I'm dissatisfied with my standard CRT TVs now: They look washed out and fuzzy. And with TV always right there on my desktop, I'm having trouble clicking past Jerry Springer and All My Children without slowing down to gawk. I can see this ending badly, with me plunking down good money for an LCD TV before prices and technology settle out.

But decide for yourself. A USB-TV tuner is a small outlay for a quick glimpse into TV's future--and something you really have to see to appreciate.

Tune in, Turn On: Although not easy to install, USB-TV software is rich in extras like video recording and DVD burning. Hardware bundles exhibit only minor differences.

  • Diamond Xtreme TV HDTV100: Includes a relatively modest antenna, but a long USB cable. A longer antenna improves reception. Price: $100
  • Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950: This one has a short USB cable and an intermediate-size antenna. Lacks the wireless remotes of competitors, but that isn't missed. Price: $100
  • Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick: Includes the longest antenna, but another USB cable will be needed to move it more than 8 inches from your PC. Price: $130

Mike Hoganis Entrepreneur's technology editor.

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