You can convert PC to an HDTV


Plugged In

May 22, 2008

So you're sitting around, totally bored with the same old PC, bored with word processing, bored with spreadsheets, bored with Web browsing, bored with music, bored with news, bored with grainy YouTube videos.

Then you realize it's Sunday night, and it strikes you: What you really want to do is watch Desperate Housewives. On your computer. In HD.

Well, for a hundred bucks, you can satisfy that high-definition craving with the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick. Plug this nifty little gadget into a USB port on your computer, hook up an antenna or cable feed to the other end and you're in business - HDTV in a window on your desktop, or full-screen if you prefer.

The software bundle includes a digital video recorder (DVR) so you can record your favorite shows while you're not there. There's even a tiny remote control so you can watch without getting out of your chair.

The Pro Stick also has an intriguing feature whose existence I was only vaguely aware of before this. It's a circuit called a QAM tuner, which brings in unscrambled digital broadcasts, including some in high-definition, directly from a cable company feed - without a cable box, high-def or otherwise. QAM is also built into most new digital sets.

You won't get your cable company's whole digital menu, most of which is scrambled unless you rent a digital box. But you'll generally see the same digital channels you'd pick up with an antenna, without the vagaries of digital reception over-the-air. You may even pick up some video-on-demand channels if someone in your neighborhood is watching them.

First things first - there's only so much TV you can expect from a hundred-dollar PC gadget. The Pro Stick generally delivers what it promises, but there's no way a picture processed through software by a PC and displayed on a monitor that's not optimized for television is going look as good as it would on a stand-alone HDTV set - or on even a monitor driven by an internal PC tuner.

Still, the quality was fine for casual, close-up viewing - better than analog TV tuner cards I've tried in the past. For that reason, the Pro Stick is a cheap and efficient way to turn a student's laptop into a dorm room entertainment center. Assuming you're OK with a student who watches Desperate Housewives instead of studying.

The Pro Stick is a black box about the size of your thumb, and about twice the volume of a flash memory drive. It can plug directly into a USB 2.0 port, but a short, bundled extension cable gives it more flexibility. The other end of the tuner sports a standard coaxial connector for an antenna or cable feed. Rounding out the package are the small remote control, a monopole antenna for direct, over-the-air tuning, audiovisual cables to pull an analog signal directly from a set-top cable box, and two software CDs.

To process HDTV, you'll need reasonably up-to-date hardware. The minimum requirement is a Pentium 4 processor running at 2.8 GHz or better, a gigabyte of memory, Windows XP or Vista, and at least 20 gigabytes of free hard drive space if you want to record programs. I installed it on a three-year-old Gateway with a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 chip, and the tuner worked with only an occasional stutter. Most new dual-core, Intel or AMD processors should have no trouble with it.

Setup was easy. I installed Pinnacle's TVCenter Pro software, connected the tuner to the antenna and started the program. TVCenter displays the picture in a resizeable window, changes channels and serves as a front end to the program guide and DVR.

I had TVCenter scan for both analog and digital channels, as well as FM radio stations and Internet radio sites. The device, which includes both NTSC (analog) and ATSC (digital) tuners, found analog signals from all Baltimore stations and a few from Washington. It found all the digital signals from Baltimore, but lost most of the Washington stations, which is similar to the experience I had with broadcast converter boxes a few weeks ago. The only local station it had consistent trouble with was Maryland Public Television, which can be problematic with both analog and digital channels in our area.

The TV center displayed a crisp, clear picture on a 17-inch Dell LCD monitor - particularly with digital channels, which is not surprising, since that's one of their advantages. HD images were sharper still, although I had to turn up the brightness and contrast on my monitor. Like most displays designed for computers, its default settings weren't jacked up as high as a typical TV set.

When I switched to the Comcast cable feed in my home office, the HDTV Pro Stick took about 20 minutes to search for channels and turned up several hundred of them - most of which turned out to be scrambled digital signals that require a box for decoding. But unscrambled digital signals from local broadcast outlets were there, plus a couple of clear channels from Comcast's digital tier. That was the QAM tuner at work.

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