New Toy – Laptop TV Tuner

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.

Local Stations

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…)

In Conclusion

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.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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20 Responses to New Toy – Laptop TV Tuner

  1. Petrossa says:

    Here we have only HD via DTB, 5 public channels you really don’t want to watch and 6 that are worse. Kinda shopping channels.

  2. boballab says:


    I went the Roku route awhile back and can give you some advice about NetFlix and Hulu. Netflix takes awhile to get the latest and greatest on it, but that wasn’t a problem for me since I didn’t have the see the latest right away in the theater either.

    Hulu and Hulu + is great for watching ABC and NBC network shows and not having to worry about recording them either. However CBS doesn’t allow their hit shows on Hulu, you have to go to CBS web service. Hulu is also good for such channels as ABC Family and such and the smaller networks.

  3. BobN says:

    @EM – That sounds like a pretty good device for the price. If you got ESPN that would be huge!

    I would like to periodically connect my internet to my big screen TV, but would like to still be able to use my computer at the same time. They make adapters, Ethernet to HDMI, but I need to rout cables. No more cables, so I’m looking at the best option to go wireless. They make some Ethernet to HDMI adapters that are wireless as well as USB adapters that look more attractive as I can easily plug my hub. There are half a dozen products out there, but the revues are all over the map. Does anyone have experience with wireless TV in the house.

  4. boballab says:


    You are going to need to clarify what you mean when you say:

    I would like to periodically connect my internet to my big screen TV, but would like to still be able to use my computer at the same time.

    Do you want to watch things like Netflix, Hulu and other apps like that or are you talking about trying to do what EM did and watch local and national tv stations over it?

    The reason this is important is that if you are just talking about running apps like Netflix and Hulu you can get something like the Roku that connects to your Internet connection through your router and not through your computer. You can make this connection either via cable or wireless.
    Also Xbox’s, PS3’s and newer model Bluray players can also run those apps. If that is the case I like my Roku very much since I can watch movies anytime I want and it has a nice Weather app that has a zoom able radar tracker.

    If you are talking about like EM is doing that is a different kettle of fish and I have no experience in them.

  5. adolfogiurfa says:

    @E.M.: Everything cool, except for that “big-bang” theory :-) If you want to know just look around female and male universes and how they manager to reproduce and bring to existence brand new little universes….(“As above so below”…ya know).

  6. Adam Gallon says:

    I’ve used WinTV in the UK, it works quite well, but needs a good signal, as that aerial is really very puny!

  7. KevinM says:

    Post on new Watts paper? Looks like he formalized the weather-station data quality stuff you’ve been posting here periodically for a few years. How well does he match your first differences data?

  8. adolfogiurfa says:

    @KevinM I am sure it will not make any change in the Church of the Holy CO2 belief, now conveniently renamed “Sustainability” by the higher priests of this Cult (rather “Corporation´bosses”)

  9. BobN says:

    @BobAllab – I went and revued Ruku and it looks pretty good. I watch You tube things quite a bit and was hoping to put that up on my big screen. Its not bad and gets me 90% there. Thanks for reminding me about the Ruku,

  10. E.M.Smith says:


    Well, there’s always Hulu and Netflix ;-)


    I’ll likely be getting a larger HDTV “soon” and then upgrade one of the satellite dishes to HDTV (and replace the old cable from my TV antenna with an RG-6 new one) before working on the network TV angle. (One new toy at a time ;-)

    I already have more than I can watch, so it is a low priority.

    But when the time comes, I’ll holler for suggestions ;-)


    My Florida Friend has an old Sony Playstation that does his Netflix connection. Don’t know if you can make it wireless without putting in a wireless bridge…

    That’s about my limit on it (other than that the ElGato HDHomeRun device says it really really needs 802.11 N to work well


    I adore Big Bang Theory. At last a TV show where “the Geek” gets the girl… It gives me some hope ;-)

    @Adam Gallon:

    I actually spent the day looking up antenna designs. At one point I did a fair amount of antenna construction for Short Wave Listening. I even made a “Pudgy Wound Helical” for 40 M or so (and harmonics). Think of it as a “Rubber Ducky” antenna like on old cell phones but about 1.5 M tall and 15 cm diameter…

    I’m presently looking at making a fractal antenna for it that ought to have darned good gain in a very small package. Details in a posting “someday”…


    We do somewhat different things, so it will not directly compare. ( I looked at GHCN, he is looking at USHCN, just for starters). Generally, though, the finding of “excess warming in the data changing” looks to be found by both. He tracks it down to pristine rural vs ‘near concrete and people’; and I found a lot of the same in some of the ‘cuts’ of GHCN that I did. Especially the airport stuff. So I’d say his stuff is generally finding the same thing, though in a much more rigorous way.

  11. E.M.Smith says:


    What kind of computer are you using for the Youtube? Laptop that’s already wireless or what? There are some “dongles” that let you run S-Video et. al. out of the laptop and some TVs have things like direct video in spigots on them… So you could do wireless to the laptop sitting next to the TV…

    A lot of it comes down to “gozintas and gozoutas”. You need to look at your TV and pick the “gozinta” and then move upstream to the “gozouta” that will match it, eventually getting to the wireless jump and then the internet router / spigot to the internet.

    So if your TV has a S-Video, you need an S-Video from the laptop or “magic box”… If it has a monitory-in, you need a monitor cable to the laptop and a wireless in the laptop. If you are watching Youtube on a large deskside machine in your office, you need a new laptop ;-)

  12. Petrossa says:

    For netflix you need an american creditcard. Only satellite for me. And that doesn’t work on the pc because the Sat providers don’t sell decryptors for pc’s for obvious reasons. FTA is only in German and is all the same crappy stuff.
    Now i am stuck with taking the HD out of my satelite PVR, putting it in a docking station, reading the files to pc using a blackmarket converter application to put my movies on my mediaserver.

    Takes patience.

  13. jim2 says:

    I’ve had very good luck with this type of DIY antenna. Usually make one for VHF and one for UHF, then feed to the TV through a reverse splitter made for that purpose.

  14. BobN says:

    @EM – I have an old PC, but fr what I want I can use my wife’s laptop and go with the adapter. Thanks!

  15. jim2 says:

    If you want a DIY higher performance antenna, check this out:

  16. E.M.Smith says:


    Wow. American credit card? How do they know if your Amex is “American” or not? No, don’t answer… I’d suggest getting a US bank account (nearly trivial) but that might not work so well either…

    As this “dongle” takes S-Video / Composite / NTSB as inputs, could you take your satellite output (in one of those) and feed it to the input of the dongle, then record direct to PC disk? It’s what I’m going to be doing with it as soon as I have time to play with that function.


    I have one of those “in a box somewhere” with the splitter. Packed it about 15 years ago… (Might be faster to make a new one ;-)


    You’re welcome!

    Looks like 2.24 Pounds in the UK

    $1 on a discount (closeout?) at USA source:


    Golly! An antenna design I’ve not heard of before! Oh Boy!! (having spent years reading various antenna books, that’s an accomplishment ;-) though most of them were HF / LF designs, I did spend time on the UHF / VHF sections. Still have some ARRL antenna books on the shelf here…)

    Looks reasonable performance and easy to design.

  17. Petrossa says:

    HD on S-Video? The drop in quality is staggering. But you gave me an idea. A HDMI capture card.
    Never would have thought of that. Tnx in a sense.

  18. Matthew W says:

    I have a medium level package with DirecTV and it costs $75 a month.
    In September when that contract is done, I will not be renewing it or paying for any other service of that type.
    I bought a Roku 2 xs (because it can be wired with ethernet).
    I have already joined Netflix and will maybe join HuluPuks at some point.

  19. Paul Hanlon says:

    I remember when those “hybrid tv sticks” were a PCI card that you had to slot in. The reason I bought one was they had a way of parsing the teletext that comes with each channel and I used that to lift off the stock prices on the BBC. Unfortunately, you didn’t always get every character displayed and it introduced its own brand of “volatility”. But it had things like video capture, the ability to watch more than one channel at the same time, all great stuff in the nineties.

    Sorry to go slightly off topic, but I got my Pi, and I have to say I’m very impressed (that’s why I haven’t been commenting lately :-))).

    You have to be careful that you use a good phone charger (My one was a 1.2A Nokia), and that you use a branded SD card. Getting it to display is another challenge, it only outputs Composite (Pal or NTSC) or HDMI. In the end, what worked for me was an RCA to VGA converter. These have an extra VGA in (and S-Video), so I can plug in both the Pi and the “super” computer into one monitor, and switch between the two. Well worth the $20.

    From there it’s plain sailing. Put the image onto the SD card using win32imagemanager or dd if you’re on linux, put it in the slot, plug in the phone charger, and you immediately get the boot messages, put in the username/password, and it goes into LXDE (a nice small window manager).

    All the things you’d expect from a linux distro are there. It is a little slower than one would be used to. I believe they are trying to address this by offloading more of the work to the GPU. Yes, you heard right, the GPU, which runs at 24 GFlops and can be programmed using OpenGL ES (and possibly OpenCL further down the road).

    The forum is a delight. There are people there developing a Bare Metal OS, and others a framework for OGLES. My own hope is to have it take STL files (horizontal slices of a 3D object) from, and convert them into the signals needed by a 3D printer, something like the Reprap, but it is going to take a while.

    It reminds me of when I got my first computer, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (i think it was the Timex in America), and the sense of discovery I had when I played with it. Anyway, just thought I’d share, I hope I haven’t hijacked a “review” posting further down the road.

  20. E.M.Smith says:

    Nice feedback on the Pi.

    Gee, I’ve got a couple of Sinclair ZX’s in a box somewhere…. Wonder where?… IIRC it sold under both names here.

    No “hijack” as I’m not in the order queue yet… Still doing some software evals and planning before I commit to hardware type.

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