USB Tuners Deliver HD to Your PC

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At a Glance
  • Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick

  • Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q

Love the idea of HDTV but hate the idea of shelling out big bucks for a big-screen television set? A TV tuner for your PC or laptop can save you cash and add the twin benefits of portable size and the ability to record shows. I tested the latest versions of two USB HDTV tuners--Pinnacle's PCTV HD Pro Stick and Hauppauge's WinTV-HVR-950Q--to see how well they converted my computer into a high-definition TV.

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q
The Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q--a descendant of the company's WinTV-PVR-USB2 and WinTV-PVR-150, which we reviewed several years ago--lists for $99, while the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick costs $100. Both TV tuners look like USB thumb drives and come with a portable antenna that you attach to the tuner for better reception (both Pinnacle and Hauppauge recommend using a rooftop antenna for even better reception). Each bundle also includes a remote control; an A/V cable for connecting to an external video source; a USB extender cable to give you some flexibility in where you place the TV tuner; and desktop software for playing back, pausing, and recording the TV content you see.

The installation process for the two products is almost identical, too. In each case you connect the tuner to a free USB 2.0 port on your PC and then connect it to the portable antenna, which should be located near a window or outdoors, if possible. Each tuner comes with an installation CD that automates the entire process; you simply click a few buttons, restart your computer when prompted, and get ready to enjoy the show.

Once the tuner is installed, you must scan for available channels. Both the Pinnacle and Hauppauge products pick up analog NTSC and digital ATSC channels, as well as ClearQAM channels (to scan for this type of unencrypted digital cable channel, however, you must connect the tuner to a cable line-in, not to an antenna). The Pinnacle unit can scan for Internet radio and FM radio stations as well.

Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick
Station reception was the first difference I noticed between these two units. I tested both TV tuners in my house in suburban Boston. Both picked up around 30 channels, and neither picked up more than a handful of HD broadcasts. But the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick picked up four key channels that the Hauppauge tuner missed, and one of those was the HD broadcast of my local NBC affiliate showing the Olympics; the other three were the digital, standard-definition feeds of local ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates.

The number of stations that you'll receive depends on your location, as well as on the placement and strength of your antenna. Hauppauge points you to for more information; Pinnacle suggests

The channels that the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q did receive looked great; and on both tuners, digital stations looked much better than analog ones, with crisp, clear reception and stellar HD broadcasts.

The Pinnacle tuner outshines the Hauppauge in its included desktop software, which allows you to view, pause, and record TV broadcasts. Pinnacle TVCenter 4 is attractive and extremely intuitive. WinTV v6, which comes bundled with the Hauppauge tuner, is decent but not as easy to use. For example, to minimize or maximize the viewing window in WinTV, you have to select one of several options from a menu. To achieve the same feat with Pinnacle's software, you simply click an icon in the upper right corner of the screen.

The Pinnacle's miniature remote control stands out, too. Though it feels plasticky and cheap, it's far superior to the flat, poorly-labeled buttons on the Hauppauge remote.

New in the latest version of each product is support for ClearQAM channels. By connecting the tuner to a cable line-in, you can view unencrypted digital cable channels (typically, you'll be able to see broadcast cable channels, but not premium channels). In this area, the two products delivered almost identical results.

Setting up either device for ClearQAM is the same as if you were using an antenna: You connect a cable line-in to the TV tuner and then scan for channels. The process took almost an hour each time, compared with 10 to 15 minutes to scan for over-the-air channels.

When the scans were complete, each tuner had picked up more than 200 channels, but the accompanying information on the channels was minimal. When used with the antenna, both tuners would display the name of a channel as, for example, "1441-WGBH-HD," so I would know that channel 1441 was the HD broadcast of the local PBS affiliate. But when I used the tuners with ClearQAM, they would report only the number--and as a result I would have no way of knowing what the station name was. In addition, many of the channels that the tuners picked up were music channels, and some were encrypted, so I couldn't see anything but a black screen.

I wouldn't purchase either of these products for the ClearQAM support alone. And neither can offer you the same amount of HD content that you'd get from a cable box. But they do offer a portable, affordable route to HDTV--and one that lets you record content in HD, to boot. The Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick is my pick of the two.

Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick

An easy way to view high-def and standard-def TV on your PC.
$100 list
Current prices (if available)

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q

This USB TV tuner is weighed down by software that's too hard to use.
$99 list
Current prices (if available)

This story, "USB Tuners Deliver HD to Your PC" was originally published by PCWorld.

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At a Glance
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