Using some of the donation money here, I’ve bought a new “toy”.
A Laptop TV ‘dongle’ device.
After a fair amount of looking around, I settled on the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 850 “Hyrbid TV Stick”.
This is a device a little larger than a large “thumb drive” that contains an entire TV tuner / demodulator that talks to a bit of software on the laptop and drives the screen and speakers as a High Definition TV.
Reading various reviews from a variety of places about various of these Tuners had left me a bit worried about the likely performance. There are a fair number of “horror stories” about things that didn’t work well for various vendors and products; system incompatibilities, flat out non-functional hardware, incomplete shipments, etc. This particular product had the least such complaints in the reviews and a large number of very pleased reviews. Cost was in the mid-$50s at most places, so fairly reasonable.
The product came in a small box (about 5 x 8 x 3 inches) and all parts were included.
Installation was flawless and fairly trivial. Stick the dongle in the USB port. (Windows does some stuff, and does not find a driver.) Put the software in the CD drive and run the install script. Select the kind of TV you want to configure ( only HDTV over the air – ATSC, or including standard definition broadcasts – NTSC, and / or direct analog inputs). While the NTSC input is not very useful anymore in the USA, some places still use it. More importantly for me, the direct analog input lets me feed the Satellite Dish into the laptop (as it has NTSC / Analog output).
At this point, another positive surprise came along. The dongle has an input port on the side for composite video and for S-video. I’m sure it was listed in the features somewhere, but I’d expected something more kludgey. This was just a simple direct (though small) input port. ( I will need to get an S-Video and / or a composite cable of the right kind should I decide to use them).
At this point I ought to mention that the dongle comes with a very small antenna. About 10 inches tall ( 25 cm) and with a rubber suction cup on the bottom that doubles as a stand. I had heard that these antennas were not very effective and that the larger outboard antenna ought to be used instead (but at $40 for the antenna, it was a significant added cost for an early exploration of the basic product…) so I looked at this antenna as a bit of marginal kit. Still, it telescopes down to just a couple of inches tall and fits in a pocket of the laptop backpack, so I figured I could use it when on the road, if nothing else.
Assembling the antenna and dongle bits was another ‘positive surprise’. At first I was a bit dismayed to see a tiny adapter (looking like a metal cap for a tire valve) in the bag. Why have the antenna cable be this very small diameter odd size with a mm or two end slip fitting, then this adapter to a standard screw on F type fitting? After some use, I realized that MOST of the time I want that slip fitting and small cable size, but when I want to feed in my old gear, I’ll want to use a large standard sized fitting. This gives me the most choices with the least issues. Also included was a very high quality 1 foot long USB extender. So you can use the TV without blocking nearby USB ports and / or get a foot more reach to the antenna.
So I plugged it all together and proceeded.
Starting the product was also trivial (click on the icon on the desktop) and it fired right up. Then you get to tell it to ‘scan for stations’. Personally, I’d have made the product such that a ‘scan’ just happened in the background and the user could choose to open a window and add / delete channels, but the process didn’t take long and did give a bit of a ‘heads up’ about what channels it could find.
Initially I found “Channel 2″ as the starting channel and they were playing Big Bang Theory. Great! (Or so I thought).
While it was running, I started looking at the instructions ( yes, I usually read the instructions AFTER I’m done ;-) just to see if I missed anything ;-) Then the TV “glitched”. Just a momentary dropout. A pause in the video and a drop of about 2 seconds of audio. Maybe just a one-off, I hoped… But I decided to read about settings and explores some configuration options. The glitching continued…
Popping open a performance monitor window, memory usage was under 2 GB ( out of 4 GB ) and only 2 of 4 CPU cores showed a lot of use. It wasn’t a system limitation issue (as several folks had complained… you need a couple of cores of about 2 GHz each and about 1.5 to 2 GB of memory for flawless operation. Video is a resource pig.) No, not a performance issue and not a setting of things like the power save settings or anything else.
So I tried changing the “buffer” of video it saves. First to zero, and then to 90 minutes. (Each change requires a re-launch to take effect, so exit and restart the application.) Still glitching. Not disk / buffer related. BUT, on the large buffer setting I had a lot of video to play with, so I pulled the slider back to catch a joke I’d missed. The SAME glitch in the SAME spot. The Glitch was happening early in the data stream.
While I wanted to watch TBBTheory, I decided (as it was a re-run and the glitching was annoying) to learn to use some of the other controls and just accept that it was likely a failed product and I’d have to decide if “sometimes works with dropouts” was acceptable for ‘emergency and on the road TV’… or if it was to be returned… (as many other reviewers had reported similar dropouts on other products). I decided to try changing the channel. There are a set of ‘pseudo-buttons’ displayed in a menu bar across the edge of the TV panel. Some look like the traditional VCR controls (pause, stop, fast forward, fast reverse, etc.) and two were “up / down wedges”. I tried one of them. After a bit of a long pause, the channel changed.
OK, my one real complaint at this point is just that it takes a long time to change channels. If you are a hard core channel surfer who can pick up a “yup/nope” decision in 1/2 second and have flicked the button again; it can be a bit of a shock to deal with “click the button, but only ONCE (or it goes off to stacked channel changes each one of several seconds) and then PATIENTLY WAIT for a “few seconds” (probably only 5 or so, but it can seem like forever) while it reconfigures everything to get the new channel. If you end up stacking up a few clicks on the button, it can go off for nearly a minute as it works through this list of commands…
It took me a while to figure that out…
Another positive surprise: The “dongle” has a pale blue power light on it, but I noticed that it lit up a nice green LED when on a strong station. I’d click “change” and nothing would seem to happen. Long wait… BUT, on some stations the LED would light. Patience, grasshopper… And a nice station came up.
Yet Another Positive Surprise: This one didn’t “glitch”.
Late To The HD Party
OK, a digression on HDTV and me…
I didn’t own any HDTV gear prior to this gizmo. Yes, I’m “late to the HDTV Party”. We had a full set of satellite gear and good TVs in 3 main locations of the house just before the whole HDTV conversion happened. I already had more channels than I could watch and the video quality was “good enough” for most anything I cared about. A lot of the local broadcasts were just standard definition stuff on HD channels then, anyway. Swapping to an HDTV would give me a SMALLER picture from the satellite gear and for any of the zillion tapes and DVDs in the collection (as the width of TV that I could put in any place was fixed; so the shorter aspect ratio bites). With not much ‘over the air’ then, it was kind of an easy decision to just ignore HDTV.
Over the years, things have moved on a bit. There’s more stuff now in HDTV. The Satellite company now has HD receivers (and my old Sony which I love dearly will not last forever. Yes, I have one of the very FIRST Direct TV receivers from back when they were sold by many makers. The Sony has some aesthetics to the menus and a liquid fast jump feature that I love. I can load up a set of a half dozen stations into a jump loop and just click between them – and do it without a lot of menu navigation…). So while I don’t like the idea of leaving the Sony behind, I’ve wondered from time to time about getting HDTV.
While I was in Florida I got to watch the HDTV satellite signal on a giant screen. While the ability to “jump” is more limited and the menus / interface is more kludgey / less aesthetic; the video was nice. (Among other little things, the Sony lets me set my color scheme. I have a very nice Burgundy/Gold/silver-gray motif set up that looks much nicer than the colors would indicate in a list ;-) Since I’m looking at that menu often, having the colors be pleasing makes a difference…
But the lack of a DVR and no HD is now something I notice. Yes, the old VCR is wired in and records just fine. But it would be nice to not have to deal with things like schedules… and tape rotations.
In short, maybe it’s about time for me to start looking at HDTV…
So first stop was just to see what’s on the direct broadcasts. I’ve got “local channels” on the satellite TV, so had not felt a bit of pressure about it; but it is an added charge. Getting local broadcast capable HDTV would mean I can put in an HDTV, maybe a Blue-Ray DVD player, pick up the local channels off the air, and deal with converting the Satellite receivers later… One room at at time; or may only one room ever. Still, buying a new TV at several hundred dollars to find out if I wanted to get crappy reception of local broadcasts was ‘not appealing’.
So I ended up with this idea of a “TV Dongle” on the laptop to assess the local fare “now” and to have a nice bit of kit for when I’m being a “Road Warrior” (if it works well enough) and all at a low cost of entry.
Basically, taking the lowest cost minimal hardware entry point into the world of HDTV.
Another “positive surprise” was when I decided to try typing in a number and seeing what happened. You can directly tune to a station, is “what happened”. Oh Boy! No longer taking forever to get through several ‘dead’ station! (Maybe reading that manual could be a good thing ;-)
That was when I started to learn about HDTV channel numbering…
Now this is “old hat” to most of you, I’m sure, but one confusing thing for me was that the channel indication on the top bar was “complex”. It started with a 4 digit number, then had things like 32.2 and some more. Typing in “2″ put me on “Channel 2″ so I tried “4″, that didn’t put me on “Channel 4″. In what is likely a local quirk, 2 works and none of the others does. I tried “4.1″ and the “dot” doesn’t work… Turns out that first 4 digit number is the one that “works” generally.
Inspection of that number showed it has a structure of “leading 1″ then two digits of “old station number” then a single digit of “sub channel”. HDTV has a main channel, then several sub-channels that can be broadcast by any local broadcaster. OK, I don’t need to memorize a new set of 4 digit numbers. 1-”what-I-Already-know”-Sub. Got it.
When local stations are not local stations
Next surprise was just realizing how many local stations had broadcasts on those sub-channels. LOTS of them. My Satellite feed only gives me the main channel. Well. Guess I do have a reason to get a TV with an HDTV tuner built in…
Even with this very little antenna, I get several local stations. As each of these has several sub-channels, it’s about 2 dozen total ( I’ve not counted, that’s just a guess.) I’ll be trying larger antennas and / or an antenna amplifier (once I get tired of the existing choices ;-) and I’ll be trying the reception with the antenna in different locations ( i.e. not with a major bookcase and a few walls between me and the major broadcast antenna farm…)
All in all, I’m quite happy with the product. The “glitches” exactly match ‘blinks’ in the green LED, so are clearly just signal dropouts on a marginal station. Digital transmission doesn’t give a ‘smooth degradation’ clue that the station is marginal. So now I know that if that ‘glitching’ shows up, I need to try finding a better location for the antenna.
There is a lot more being broadcast on the ATSC stations than in the past; and more than is being carried as my ‘local stations’ on the satellite feed.
Image quality is spectacular and sound is too. (Headphones and all).
I’ve not even begun to explore the DVR functions. Over the next few weeks I’ll slowly learn how to make it all go. But with a marginally larger / better antenna I can record Big Bang Theory in HDTV for playback later…
With an added cable, I’ll be able to start taking my canonical collection of Old Tapes and moving them onto DVDs or as compressed disk images. Who knows, I might get several cubic feet of storage back ;-)
In terms of “bang for the buck” it has turned out to be a very good result.
On the road, in the airport, stuck in the Hotel From Hell with lousy cable, I’ve got my own TV with me (and potentially a collection of saved videos to play too).
Heck, I’m even starting to look at the big TV ‘over there’ and noticing that the video isn’t as good as that on the Laptop ;-)
Who knows, I might even sign up for Netflix or Hulu next ;-)
But for now, I was happy to find DW News as one of the channels on the “Asian Station” (why Korean and German on one station? Who knows… it’s an interesting place to live…) and I even found that KQED (the ‘educational TV’ or ‘public TV’) has a Spanish language channel. Nice “sciencey” stuff, just in Spanish. The “couple” of local Spanish Language channels have loaded up to the max on sub-channels, so LOTS of Spanish Language choices (including some decent music videos – so not stuck with just hokey comedies or soaps while waiting …)
One of the local stations has a channel showing the current weather and road conditions and promising a 24 x 7 local news feed “soon”. A couple of the stations that were detected, but not strong enough to consistently display, have names like Starz and similar cable movie names. Then there are variety channels like one that looks to be all cooking all the time. It is much more like a set of cable TV channels than the old broadcast paradigm (but with a lot fewer movie channels and sports – though one was named NFL).
I have no idea if there is any way that those movie or NFL channels are made encrypted or PPV ( i.e. I didn’t manage to receive them in the clear yet, so don’t know if there’s a gotcha out there…) What is clear is that for “on the road” and local news, it’s a clear winner just from what I already picked up.
In general, I’m a very happy camper. There’s more exploration of the kit to do, and a bit more to learn. The product works well, and the major limitation is just the antenna for a fixed base usage. OK, I’m happy with that. Especially in a mobile kit.