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How to Almost Get Video on a Stick

By Shepard and Bernard Gorman

If the FCC is on schedule, all analog broadcast (UHF- VHF) TV will leave the airwaves in early 2009. The analog NTSC standard will be replaced by ATSC. The changeover has already started. Many large metropolitan area stations have been making over-the-air broadcasts in HD format for several years and most cable and satellite systems distribute HD programming as well. Very few stand-alone TV sets are equipped to receive them and some newer TV receivers come without any tuner at all. For those who want to watch TV on their laptops or desktops the choices have been even more limited.

            Pinnacle is one of a handful of manufacturers that has moved to meet the needs of PC users with its PCTV HD Pro Stick promoted as an ultraportable USB-connected TV tuner.

It is an excellent, if limited device that meets only some its claims. For example, the tuner, and the remote control are each the size and weight of two packs of chewing gum. The antenna and its magnetic base are also very compact. The $100 ( street price) Pro Stick comes with installation software, Pinnacle’s video authoring software (Lite version) and a mini- dongle for capturing audio and video from alternate sources like cameras or VCRs (remember them?)  Since all the components including the antenna come in a blister pack its claim of compact design are certainly met.  

The Pro Stick’s problems become apparent when the installation begins. A laptop more than a year old is unlikely to be able to get any digital reception with a tuner since it takes lots of CPU power. Dual core processors are not really an option with the Pro Stick Getting the device up and running will almost undoubtedly take its target market laptop users more than 45 minutes. The driver and interface console installation is VEEERy slow. Once that is in place, the user is asked for the video input source (cable or antenna) and which of the two included programs guides will be used. That choice begins a scan of available too  lengthy channel scan, certainly way too long for the laptop user who wants to see a TV show during an airport layover. In one test, a rescanning of the channels after changing the input from the included monopole antenna to a cable took 34 minutes.  The software does indicate signal strength and quality to help reorient the portable antenna. The free program guide doesn’t give the call letters of any stations so the traveler would probably have no way to determine which station was affilated with which network

The portable antenna is problematic as well. It has a small, powerful magnetic base which, at first glance, it handy. However, it comes with a warning not to place in near magnetic materials. Certainly nothing on a laptop PC would qualify as being potentially vulnerable to strong magnetic forces. Even if you can use the 6 foot lead to place the antenna far enough away for the computer to prevent any possible damage, the problem of how to transport it remains unsolved since no anti-magnetic shield is provided so it could be stored in a bag with the PC 

The authors tried the Pro Stick device on a desktop computer with a cable antenna input and it proved to be very good. Regardless of the type of PC in which it is installed, it gets very warm during use. The authors’ experience with other devices that heated up in a similar fashion showed them to be big power users. While this isn’t a primary concern in desktop use and the battery life of the laptop when using this tuner has not been tested, we suspect that the heat energy is not good news for portable operating longevity

The Pro Stick does some other things quite well.  It can capture video and audio for other sources very well, This is not surprising in view of Pinnacle’s long-used, well-known and reliable Dazzle device. The including Studio Quick Start software is very good since it is a junior version of Studio 11 the latest in Pinnacle’s long line of excellent authoring packages

The basic software saved very good quality video and audio clips in many useful formats. very

While the Pro Stick does pull in TV signals for the PC, it drawbacks make the user wonder if it is not misplaced in the market. Its usability problems seem to make it better for the desktop user and therefore in competition with at least equally good tuner/capture devices Hauppauge and Aver with which the authors have had long experience . The advent of good streaming TV content on the internet (e.g. www.joost.com) may make this whole class of devices useful for only a small niche market  In short, the HDTV Pro Stick works well in a somewhat limited way but. Like some of the shows it can display, it may not yet be ready for primetime.


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