Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick Review
I don’t know about you but I’ve been behind the High Definition craze that’s been rather popular for big chains such as Best Buy. I do not own an HDTV television as I write this, nor have I the financial means to do so anytime soon. One thing I do know is the time to purchase an HDTV television becomes relevant very soon because what we all know as the analog television will make its transition into digital.
NTSC, which is the driving force of your analog television (and many others around the world), will cease transmission by February 19, 2009 in the USA. Over in Canada, that cutoff date is August 31, 2011. NTSC is the television transmission standard that’s been with us since World War 2. If you recall ever hooking up an antenna to your television set to pull over-the-air (OTA) signals, you will always remember the noisy look that came along, that is the standard that we’ve dealt with for a long time.
ATSC is the new standard that will take over where NTSC finished. This standard will officially bring us into the digital revolution. With digital as we all should know by now, picture quality is quite amazing if you consider how far television has come. Once blurry, low quality images on our televisions are now crisp, vibrant, defined and high definition. With digital, it is now possible to see what is being broadcasted as if you were sitting right where the action was happening. For example, HDTV allows you to see even the tiniest of details, a hair, sitting on an anchors suit. This is something that wasn’t possible. The ATSC standard allows all of this to happen, HDTV is now the standard.
Life today is a lot different from the past. Our lifestyles have changed, and our busyness has increased, people are always on the go. The way people use their computers have changed also. People are not just using their desktop computers as tools to create documents and strictly for work use, but rather leisure time can be on the computer, with the use of TV tuners. And we have laptops that many people carry around with them wherever they go; to school, to work, travelling. Those travelers can watch TV too with the device I am reviewing today.
Going back to the part where I’ve stated already that I’m not ready financially to drop at least $1200 on an HDTV set, I’m sure many people are on the same boat. Yet a solution can be had to give us the opportunity to enjoy this luxury we call High Definition TV, even as we save up for a television.
Today I will be reviewing the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick. This little device will allow travelers to view HD digital television on their computers, and allow folks who don’t have an HDTV television to see what this new ATSC standard is all about. All done via this USB device and an antenna!
This unit has the following…
The Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick sells in stores in an attractive plastic blister packaging. Yet these types are the ones I personally hate with a passion because they take a long struggle (for me).
The front and rear of the package lays out the specific features of this product; that is to watch TV on your PC or laptop with the tuner that supports the newest ATSC and old NTSC standards. If you didn’t already know, ATSC is the new television standard that will bring North America into the digital revolution. The current and almost extinct NTSC analog standard will cease over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts in 2009 and 2011 (US and Canada respectively). So if you wanted to use this device to watch OTA HD broadcasts as a substitute not to purchase a new HDTV television set, you can certainly do so. And if your PC has the ability to output to your current television, you can watch HD content with your current television (not in real HD however).
Opening the product, you will find these bundled…
The PCTV HD Pro Stick includes an A/V adapter cable which provides S-Video, composite video, and headphone stereo audio jack; the lower model does not have this included. What this adaptor does is provide a means to capture any video source such as a video camera and record it with the provided software package.
The device looks like any other USB stick but with the RF-F connector on one end. The dongle is thick enough to prevent use of other USB ports but Pinnacle prevents that from happening by including a USB extension cable. The unit is constructed out of hard reflective plastic and colored black, giving the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick a glossy elegant feel. On the USB end of the stick is a green status LED and Pinnacle’s own logo sits in the middle.
Pinnacle also bundles this USB dongle with its own remote control. This is an added bonus that makes you feel like you’re really using a real television set. It works in conjunction with the viewing software. It too is miniature sized and folks with big hands may find themselves pushing two buttons at once, but for me it fits my small hands well. Not only can you change the channel and increase the volume, the remote control allows you to record what you’re watching so it can be considered a full function remote.
Speaking about the antenna, it’s for the people who want to watch television on the go. It basically is a simple UHF/VHF telescopic antenna that you twist on the supplied mounting base. It reaches upwards to 25” in height and seems to resemble the ones found on cordless telephones. The antenna is a decent one that picks up whatever local analog or digital channels you have in your area, but don’t expect it to pick up ones that are either weak or far away. If you want to pick broadcasts from far, you will need to spend some cash on a better antenna, either indoor or the better outdoor models. Even better is the fact that you can build your own UHF antenna by the use of coat hangers to pull in HDTV signals. No kidding! And it works surprisingly well allowing me to pull in more channels than the provided antenna can achieve. (add picture of DIY antenna)
Pinnacle bundles two CD’s with your purchase. The first is TVCenter Pro, which will be the main software package to view over-the-air HD/analog channels.
The other software suite is called Pinnacle Studio 10. It contains three different utilities. The first is called Studio 10 which is a program that lets you create a home video from scratch in 3 easy steps. It allows you to capture from either s-video adapter or composite connections, or import media files such as the HD content you can record in TVCenter Pro. Make no mistake, this program isn’t like iMovie on the Mac, it’s a simple little software for beginners so don’t expect to make great movies because it is a barebones type of editing software. The second program is called InstantDVD Recorder which allows you to burn your videos that you capture through the adapter without any editing. The last program is called MediaManager and as the name entails, it allows you to organize your videos, music and audio that you have on your system.
I do want to point out that I did have many problems with the stability of TVCenter Pro. The included version on the CD is 4.70.1426 and is relatively problem free. The only problems I had were accessing the TVCenter Pro Settings while TVCenter Pro was in use. Random error codes would appear on screen and would force the program to shut down entirely. The solution is to exit TV Center Pro and then open TVCenter Pro Settings to add channels or to tinker with settings. Second thing I notice is the poor program performance. It seems sluggish and pauses for at least 10 seconds once the program has started for the first time. I usually found myself pushing buttons almost four times before the program responded to my actions.
Another major flaw is the fact that scanning for TV channels takes unusually long. Default setting is in quick mode, yet if you want to scan in Best Quality mode, finding all channels can take easily more than 10 minutes. You could grab something to eat and then when you came back it would still be scanning. Things that you can scan for are NTSC channels, ATSC channels and Internet Radio channels.
The biggest problem happened when I decided I would upgrade the software to its latest version. I could not begin to use the program; it kept on producing random errors after errors. Best thing is to not mess around with something that works relatively well.
Viewing HD content is really amazing. The PCTV HD Pro Stick has very good image quality and the fact that it’s coming from something as small as a USB stick is really amazing. Images are crisp, colorful, and sharp. CPU utilization hovers around 80% so you better make sure you have a powerful PC (running an already old Athlon64 3500+ single core CPU) and have at least 1GB of RAM. Yet on my PC it was smooth and had no skipping issues. The only thing lagging was the actual software. Changing from channel to channel took about 6 seconds.
While switching from channel to channel watching HD content, the program provides onscreen signal strength and signal quality meters to help you position the antenna in the right spot. One of things that puzzled me is the fact that there is no real full screen mode. The program window just maximizes and that’s your full screen mode.
Viewing analog content is not really amazing. It was clearly worse than watching through a normal television set. Content looked dark, colors were awful, and had really bad noise. I’m not sure why this happened but white’s looked really deformed and totally wrong. CPU utilization for the NTSC tuner was significantly less hovering around 40% CPU utilization.
Install the software and use it for the first time, it registers you for 1 year of EPG. EPG stands for Electronic Program Guide and allows you to see programming schedule for a channel ahead of schedule so you can use the time shifting feature on the program or choose to record television material whenever you want. Speaking of recording HD content, make sure you have lots of hard drive space and lots of performance, or else you’ll have problems because encoding is done via software, so you’re CPU will be taxed. Content is recorded in MPEG-2 format and is provided with the PMF file that handles the audio stream info.
I did notice that while there is audio programming in SAP, there is no close captioning, which is really awful for the people who need this feature.
The Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick is a good little stick to view HD content on your computer. Yet there is much more to be desired in respects to the software that is included with the device. The software cripples the hardware; it is very buggy and very slow. It leaves you with a sour taste.
I would only recommend the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick to those individuals who want only to view HD content on their PC, and do nothing else. If you want to view analog content and make use of creating movies and such, you’d be better off finding another product that provides a reliable software package.
Pros and Cons