Category: Product Reviews

Useful Gadgets: TiVo BOLT OTA

I’ve been a long-time fan of TiVo, going back to my first Model 1 in 1999 – almost 20 years ago. That product, manufactured by Philips, used a dial-up connection to get program guide data and recorded about 14 hours maximum of analog composite video.

How times have changed! I replaced the first model with the TiVo HD in 2006, installing (and constantly fidgeting with) a pair of CableCards so I could get everything to work with my Comcast service. Various other solutions were out into place to record over-the-air (OTA) programs over the past decade, and along the way, the TiVo HD gave way to an xFinity DVR (manufactured by Samsung), adding a satellite (slave) receiver for the master bedroom.

This is likely the only house in my neighborhood which has both cable TV service and a bevy of roof-top and attic antennas, a combination that didn’t make sense to my neighbors until Hurricane Sandy blew ashore in 2012 and the high winds it generated took down a 75’-tall oak tree nearby, cutting off not only electric power, but also landline telephone and broadband access.

No problem for me – I hauled out a truck battery and an inverter and put my TV back online, watching weather and news updates from my local off-air broadcast stations. Since then, I’ve experimented with a variety of OTA DVRs and antennas, most recently Channel Master’s DVR+ product. The DVR+ combines OTA television with selected streaming channels, so it’s attractive to cord-cutters.

But no one to date has come up with a program guide and DVR combo like TiVo had. The xFinity platform borrows a lot from TiVo (and in fact, Comcast had been sued over patent infringement by TiVo, which is why the voice control feature on xFinity boxes was disabled for a while earlier this year).

The distinctive remote, the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons, and a mix of “clicks,” “beeps,” and tympani “thuds” all added up to a product that became a verb. “Should we TiVo this show?” and “Boop it to skip those commercials!” became everyday expressions.

Way back at CES 2018, I met with TiVo executives and proposed a test of the new Bolt OTA, which was in the development stages. I also asked for the remote Mini box that would operate as a slave to the Bolt OTA and connect to the TV in my master bedroom, using Multimedia Over Coax (MoCA) connections.

Well, here it is, 9 months after that conversation, and TiVo has just announced the Bolt OTA is shipping. So, it’s as good a time as any to post my review!

The BOLT OTA continues TiVo’s off-kilter chassis design with minimalist indicators.

 

OUT OF THE BOX

In contrast to 2006 when I set up the TiVo HD, the Bolt OTA is a much simpler proposition. It comes in that funny slightly-bent chassis with a black gloss finish and only a pair of indicator lights on the front – one green to show that it’s operating and one red to indicate that either a program is being recorded or program guide information is being downloaded.

To get up and running, you need to make a few connections. The first is obvious – some sort of antenna for receiving TV broadcast signals. You can get away with an indoor antenna if you are 10-12 miles max from the TV towers and I recommend an outdoor antenna (or amplified indoor antenna) for reception over longer paths.

I use two antennas in my roof – a Channel Master 7-element highband VHF yagi and an older Channel Master 4308 UHF yagi, both feeding a CM 7777 UHF/VHF mast-mounted preamplifier. With this system, I can rotate the antennas and pull in signals from New York City (64 miles away) as well as Philadelphia, Allentown, and even Scranton, PA.

There isn’t much to connect on the rear panel – HDMI, power, Ethernet (unless you use a wireless connection), and an RF connection to your antenna.

 

You’ll also need an Internet connection. Bolt OTA supports WiFi (802.11ac channel bonding modems are highly recommended for faster streaming speeds) and wired Ethernet, which is what I use to connect to my modem. The third connection will be HDMI to your television, and I should mention that Bolt OTA supports 4K video – you’re not likely to find any 4K OTA broadcasts, but you will find 4K video online from the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

If you want to connect the audio output to an older AV receiver, there’s an optical (SPDIF) socket for plastic optical fiber cables. Newer receivers will automatically extract audio from the HDMI connection. There’s also an analog stereo audio output for REALLY old systems.

For the Bolt Mini VOX slave receiver, you must have a coaxial cable or wired Ethernet connection to operate the Bolt OTA remotely, schedule and play recordings, and stream content. Unless your house has wired Ethernet ports in all rooms (and few do), a standard coaxial connection will do the trick.

WHAT YOU GET

For starters, the well-known TiVo program guide (plus most of those beeps and boops). The Bolt OTA also comes with either a 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive or recording, along with four separate tuners. Figuring about 6.5 GB/hour as a rule-of-thumb for recording HD programs, you can get about 75 hours of recordings with the 500 GB version.

TiVo’s Home screen has changed quite a bit in the past decade.

TiVo’s APP screen is loaded with streaming services.

 

While the primary focus of this product is over-the-air reception, the Bolt ITA also supports streaming video from a variety of services. If you subscribe to Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, and also enjoy watching YouTube, those four services are available in the Apps section. You’ll also find EPIX, Vudu, MLB.TV, HSN, Yahoo!, Tubi, iHeart Radio, and Pandora (now part of Sirius) in this menu. (What you won’t find is Google Play or iTunes.)

For a dedicated cord-cutter, that’s not a bad lineup. Add those to the multiple digital channels carried by broadcasters – our local CBS and NBC affiliates each broadcast 2 different programs on their channels, while the ABC affiliate offers three – and you’ll have quite a selection of TV programs to choose from, although not any of the popular cable and satellite channels like USA, AMC, Fox News, MSNBC, Discovery, and ESPN. (You may be able to stream those on mobile devices, though.)

UNDER TEST

When you connect Bolt OTA to your television via an HDMI cable, the receiver uses your TV’s Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) to determine and automatically set the correct output resolution. For most late-model TVs, that will be 1920x1080p/60, although TiVo claims Bolt OTA will drive a TV at 4K (3840x2160p) resolution with 24Hz or 60hz frame rates.

Once you complete the TiVo boot-up process and authenticate your account, the next step is to perform a channel scan. In my area, I found 69 such channels, performing a scan while writing this review. Many of those are in HD, such as the first minor channels for KYW (CBS), WPVI (ABC), WCAU (NBC), WHYY (PBS), and WTXF (Fox).

The FCC recently auctioned off all TV channels above UHF 36, causing some local broadcasters to shut down their stand-alone transmitter operations (like WFMZ in Allentown, previously on channel 46 but now channel-sharing on VHF-9) and combine program streams in a single, lower channel – something that was against FCC rules as recently as 2009, but is now permitted and in fact encouraged. Don’t be surprised if all of your channels have been found halfway through the scan!

In the Los Angeles market, you could find well over 120 channels of programming, albeit with many of those channels in foreign languages. Even in a smaller market, you could still wind up with over 30 different channels of programming – and that would include local weather and news, which is handy in case of natural disasters or other emergencies.

Scanning for channels takes very little time. Once my antenna was connected, it took less than a minute to find all of the available local channels, which will show up in a channel list. This list matches what’s scanned with channels that TiVo’s program guide thinks you should be able to receive, showing up as a blue checked box. You may find additional channels on the list that aren’t checked because the TiVo receiver couldn’t lock up cleanly on them: Try checking those boxes and watch the channel to see if reception is consistent.

Still one of the most ergonomic remote controls available today

 

To watch TV channels, push the “Live TV” button on the remote control and go to a saved channel one of three ways: (1) Using the channel up/down button, (2) selecting the Guide button and scrolling to and selecting a channel, or (3) entering channel numbers directly using the numeric keypad. Streaming is just as easy. Click on the appropriate app and enter your login and password just once – TiVo will save them automatically – and you’re ready to stream programs.

The wizardry of TiVo comes into play with the remote. You have one-touch recording from the remote or guide, and you can fast-forward or rewind during any program you happen to be watching, up to a maximum of 30 minutes without recording. A large “Skip” button lets you instantly skip through commercial breaks during your recordings, no matter how long they are. You’ll see a notification on-screen that you can use this feature at the start of a commercial break.

For Netflix users, you’ve got a dedicated button that will take you right to the app. Just north of the Guide button is a blue button with a microphone icon for 100% voice operation of Bolt OTA. Just push and hold the button and say what you want to do, like “Watch CBS3” or “Record Sunday Night Football,” and it will happen! (What’s more, the Bolt OTA now works with Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system for complete hands-off operation.)

The voice control button works most of the time, although it did get confused when I asked to watch specific channel numbers.

 

This function works well most of the time. I had more luck asking TiVo to change to “CBS3” and “6ABC” than when I requested to “watch channel 3” or “switch to channel 10.” I could also activate the program guide and other functions, but the best use of this button is to locate programs – you don’t need to know the channel if the program listing appears in TiVo’s program guide.

The famous “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons have been retained so you can build up a list of favorite programs and channels based on viewing habits. Looking for a particular program, but don’t know if it is available from a broadcast channel or a streaming channel? TiVo’s OneSearch function will find it for you, and OnePass finds all available episodes of a program. (This works really well with voice control.)

CONCLUSION

So, what will all of this cost you? The Bolt OTA carries a retail price of $250 and the monthly program guide service is tagged at $7 per month or $70 per year. You also have the option of paying a one-time fee of $250 for a lifetime subscription to program guide information. (I opted for the lifetime subs for both of my previous TiVo systems.)

Is that too high? Just right? In my area, a loaded cable TV subscription with fast broadband, digital voice (telephone), and just about every channel you can imagine will set you back well north of $250 a month, including rental of the DVR. That’s your BOLT OTA purchase price.

Even if you opted only for fast broadband service, you’ll be spending between $80 and $100 a month anyway to access your streaming video channels. So, going all-in and dropping $500 once might be the smarter approach, especially if your monthly cable bills are going up 4 to 5% a year, as mine have. TiVo’s web site claims savings of over $800 over three years, based on a survey of different cable service packages. From that perspective, the Bolt OTA would pay for itself in a little less than two years.

As for competitive products like Channel Master’s Stream+ that I reviewed back in July, the Bolt OTA is a big step up in both price and performance. In particular, the voice control function works more reliably and smoothly on Bolt OTA, and the “skip commercials” feature is something you will get attached to very quickly. For those users who think 1 TB isn’t enough storage, TiVo has also provided an e-SATA port for an external hard drive. (Really? 150 hours of recorded shows isn’t enough?)

TiVo Bolt OTA Receiver/DVR

MSRP: $249.99

Available from TiVo, Amazon, Best Buy, and other retailers

More info:

https://www.tivo.com/products/ota-detail

Useful Gadgets – Channel Master Stream+ OTA/OTT Media Player

Hard on the heels of my review of the Channel Master SMARTenna+ comes this rather odd-looking digital TV receiver. It doesn’t look like much, but thanks to tiny solid-state memory cards and miniaturization, it is a fully-functional digital TV receiver that also streams content from a variety of online channels like Google Play and YouTube.

I call the Stream+ a “sidecar” box because we haven’t anything like set-top boxes in years (especially since our TVs don’t have “set tops” to begin with). Even so, many contemporary designs for STBs are still rectangular boxes that can be difficult to fit alongside or under an LCD or OLED TV.

There are signs that manufacturers are willing to break those rules, such as the “puck” tuner for Internet-delivered cable TV channels that Arris has shown at NAB. Channel Master’s Stream+ fits into that mold nicely: It stands all of 3 inches tall and measures 3 inches in diameter at the top and 4 inches across its base. You aren’t likely to notice it on your elegant TV stand, and you might even be able to tuck it under a big flat screen set.

OUT OF THE BOX

Channel Master’s Stream+ box looks more like a voice control gadget than a digital TV receiver.

There are only a few connections you need to make to start using the Stream+. Plug in the external AC adapter, run an HDMI cable to your TV, and connect an antenna to the RF input to pull in local stations. There’s also a USB port for a future DVR product, along with a Micro SD card slot. Plug in a memory card here and it will function as your DVR.

Two connectors remain. One is a wired Ethernet port in case you want a physical connection to your network, and there’s also an optical SPDIF output to drive a separate AV receiver or sound bar. The Stream+ also supports 802.11ac dual-band WiFi connectivity, which makes streaming video content a lot easier – the 5 GHz band is nowhere as congested as the 2.4 GHz band, and channel-bonding technology increases bandwidth “on the fly” for video.

Did I mention that the Stream+ is “4K ready?” If you have a 4K TV, connect a 4K HDMI cable from the Stream+ to your TV. The HDMI port is version 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, so if you come across any 4K streaming content, you can watch it at full resolution. (Sorry, no 4K OTA broadcasts are available yet.) The USB port mentioned earlier is version 3.0 with fast transfer speeds and It would be a good idea to pick up an external hard or flash drive for recording shows. (Channel Master recommends at least a 1 terabyte (TB) drive for recording.)

The connector complement on Stream+ is minimal, but functional. If you can’t make a wired network connection, Stream+ supports 2.4 and 5 GHz 802.11ac WiFi.

In addition to supporting MPEG2 decoding, the standard for over-the-air broadcasts, this little box can also decode MPEG4 H.264 and HEVC H.265 content. What that means is that you’ll be ready to watch just about any streaming content you come across.

Things aren’t so sanguine for broadcast television. The current version of digital TV in this country uses 8VSB modulation with MPEG2 encoding, but ATSC 3.0 (if and when it gets launched and adopted) works on an entirely different modulation system – Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or OFDM. This latter system is the basis for digital TV broadcasting in most of the world. The Stream+ isn’t compatible with ATSC 3.0, but it’s still early in the game and you should get quite a few years of service from this sidecar tuner.

Another cool feature is speech recognition. Push the microphone icon and you can navigate through channels, bring up the guide, and find programs simply by using your voice. This is becoming a very popular feature on cable boxes and smart TVs and couch potatoes love it. The Stream+ uses Android TV to provide guide info on all broadcast and streaming channels and include Chromecast support.

SETTING UP

Channel Master doesn’t provide a full operating manual for the Stream+. Instead, they provide a simple “quick start guide,” so you can get up and running. Once you’ve made your power, HDMI, and wired network connections, you can start scanning for channels. If you don’t have access to a wired Ethernet connection, you will be prompted to select a WiFi network and enter the password.

The whole process takes less than 5 minutes, during which time you will also be asked if you want to pair the Channel Master remote control with your TV and/or sound bar. I would say, “go for it!” as the CM remote is compact and sports a minimal number of buttons and has excellent range. (It’s not backlit, though.)

The Stream+ remote control has a very simple layout, big buttons, and even a voice control function. (But it’s not backlit. Oh, well…)

The channel scan proceeds quickly, no doubt aided by the fact that we’re in the midst of a massive channel re-pack that will contract the UHF television band to channels 14 through 36 by 2020. In my market, many stations have started “channel sharing,” meaning that two or more minor channels of television are combined in the same encoder multiplex. No worries – the Stream+ will pick them up and sort them nicely into the Android program guide. All you need to do is to scan and then they’ll populate the “Live TV” tab.

If you have a Google account, you’ll be prompted to sign into that account. During the setup process, you’ll be prompted to enter a code sent to you by Google that will link your account to the Stream+. Your location will also be required to download the program guide for your local stations. Once you’ve linked the Stream+ to your Google account, you can download and watch movies and TV shows for Google Play and stream video from YouTube.

I tested the Stream+ with CM’s SMARTenna+ and they do work well together. However, if you have any low-band VHF channels (2-6) and or high-band VHF channels (7-13) active in your market, you probably won’t pick them up with this antenna unless you live super-close to the transmitters. The SMARTenna+ is optimized for UHF reception only, so drag out those rabbit ears!

IN USE

Because I inadvertently skipped a couple of steps the first time I set up the Stream+, there were no OTA channels in my “Live Channels” list – just Google Play at 1-1. A reset to factory values and repeating all of the setup steps fixed the problem. Stream+ reads the Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) of your TV and will recognize it, bringing up a set of IR codes to try out with the CM remote. In my case, the test TV was a 2011-vintage Samsung 46-inch LCD with a matching Samsung soundbar, and I was able to find IR codes that controlled both.

Navigating between live channels and apps is pretty easy, although I didn’t always land on the video I wanted. For example, the Stream+ menu bar suggested a YouTube video about sports collectibles and when I clicked on it, I wound up watching the ABC-TV affiliate in Orlando, Florida. It took a few tries to get the feature video to play back correctly.

Also, you can’t navigate to an OTA channel using the voice function. Every time I tried this by saying “Watch live TV” or “watch [channel] name,” I got a tab showing numerous video clips on YouTube – all having the same name. I even tried searching for a local channel using their “branded” moniker (i.e. 6ABC, NBC10, etc.) and the same thing happened – I wound up with listings for YouTube video clips from those channels.

The solution is simply to select “Live Channels” and navigate through them with the channel selector, or bring up the program guide, navigate to the desired channel, and push the OK button on the remote. To record a program, simply scroll to it in the program guide and you’ll be prompted to (a) record just this episode, or (b) record the entire series. If you want to record a show while watching it, just push the Play/Pause button and scroll to the Record button (a red dot). Stream+ will let you record two live programs at the same time while watching a recorded program or using a streaming service.

Note that a removable drive can’t be used to record programs. I suspect that was done to ensure against illegal copying and sharing of programs. If you connect a large Micro SD card or an external drive, they will be both be formatted to work specifically with the Stream+ and not with computers. The Micro SD card approach is appealing because it doesn’t take up any additional room and card prices have dropped to reasonable levels.

CONCLUSION

This product is a big step up from the company’s previous set-top box and having the Android TV OS onboard results in an integrated package and program guide that would give TiVo a run for its money. I would like the voice-activated control a lot better if it actually let me switch between line channels on the fly, instead of taking me to a tile window showing YouTube videos.

Still, if you are ready to “cut the cord” and live in a metropolitan area, you could exist quite nicely on a diet of free, over-the-air television and streaming services such as Google Play. And you’re not limited to Google offerings: You can download the apps for other streaming services from the Google Play store and run those just as easily with Stream+. At an MSRP of $149, Stream+ won’t break the bank, either.

Channel Master CM-7600 Smart+ Media Player

MSRP: $149

Available from Channel Master, Amazon, and other retailers

More info: https://www.channelmaster.com/Stream_Plus_p/cm-7600.htm#Header_ProductDetail_TechSpecs

Useful Gadgets (And They’re Smart, Too!): IO Gear Ultra Long Range Wireless HDMI Link And Amped Wireless Apollo PRO Long Range HD Web Cam

My last “The Front Line” post talked about how the world of consumer electronics has become heavily commoditized (you can buy a lot of functionality for a few dollars these days) and also how smart these gadgets are becoming (artificial intelligence and machine learning have become increasingly important).

The third “leg” of that triad is, of course, wireless connectivity. Without it, most of these gadgets we use today would not even exist, or at the least become largely impractical. Yes, we could install a remote monitoring camera and run power and coaxial cables to it, and we could also run a cable from our tablet to a smart TV to share a video. But that’s just too much work, right?

The two products in this review take full advantage of wireless connectivity. And they’ve also got a limited amount of artificial intelligence in that most of the setup and connection required is performed automatically with minimal human intervention. One product lets you stream wireless video (up to Full HD resolution) over a maximum claimed distance of 600 feet, while the other streams wireless HD video through your home WiFi network to a connected smartphone, tablet, or PC.

IO Gear makes a variety of wireless connectivity products. Their Ultra Long Range Wireless HDMI Transmitter (model # GWLRHDTX, MSRP $199.95) and matching receiver (model # GWLRHDRX, MSRP $199.95) offer the longest transmission distance and use HDMI connections for input and output.

These are not small products. Each unit measures 7.6” x 4.5” x 1.75” and weighs 1.35 pounds, so they’re really intended for permanent installations in places like a lecture hall, church, large meeting room, stadium, or auditorium. At $400 a pair, they’re also more of a commercial AV product than a consumer product, but there might be some consumer installations that would porting HD video over a long distance.

IO Gear’s wireless HDMI transmitter (left) and receiver (right).

The technology behind this product uses bonded WiFi channels in the 5 GHz spectrum to establish and maintain the wireless link. You may already have a wireless modem/gateway in your home that employs this connection mode, known by its formal name of IEEE 802.11ac. With channel bonding, two, three, or four 20 MHz channels can be combined to increase bandwidth. The source video, which has a much higher bandwidth to start with, undergoes light compression (usually in the color channel) to fit.

This process, using OFDM modulation, also requires some form of error correction to recover lost packets. The result is high-quality video from the receiver that has about 1.5 seconds of latency from the source video, which means you wouldn’t want to install this system in the same room where a live event was happening unless all video and audio sources had the same delay interval.

IO Gear’s wireless HDMI transmitter, operating from my basement to transmit an off-air signal to my home theater.

 

The IO Gear wireless HDMI receiver sending the signal to a 15-inch broadcast monitor for analysis.

 

The received signal as seen on my 92-inch projection screen, illuminated by a Mitsubishi HC6000 projector.

However, if you want to link HD video over a path that would require an excessively-long wired link or would make installing cable impractical, then the IO Gear products would make a lot of sense. In my tests, the receiver and transmitter found and linked to each other in less than 30 seconds, with the transmitter connected to an HD video source in my basement and the receiver driving a 40-inch HDTV in an upstairs bathroom. This path, through multiple walls and floors, was about 60 feet.

I should point out that wireless HDMI links can use either 9 or 24 channels in the 5 GHz UNII band. Models that can transmit on all 24 channels must be equipped with transmit power control (TPC), using the lowest power possible to maintain the link, and dynamic frequency selection (DFS) to avoid interference to other operations sharing the spectrum. In urban areas, you may find it takes longer to discover a clear channel and set up the link.

Amped Wireless’ Apollo Pro Long Range WiFi HD camera (MSRP $159.99) is another high-performance product that has some smarts. Unlike the IO Gear system, the Apollo Pro operates in the more congested 2.4 GHz WiFi band (a decision that doesn’t make much sense to me). Its output power of nearly 1 watt does give the camera greatly extended range, but in an urban area with dense WiFi use, it may be difficult to locate and maintain an open channel for the camera.

The Apollo PRO in operation, hidden near some holiday decorations to monitor my front hall (and my cat!).

 

Some of the menu settings on the Apollo PRO as seen on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

Setting up the Apollo Pro is simple. You simply link your device to the WiFi signal broadcast by the camera, then download the Apollo Pro app from Google Play or iTunes. Launch the app and connect the camera to your home WiFi network. You’ll need to establish an account with Amped Wireless to log in and see your camera’s output, and you can have multiple cameras running at the same time.

The Apollo pro comes with a mounting base (not recommended for outside use unless you live in a very dry climate) and has a long USB-to-AC power cord. The camera has a super-wide 110o field of view and a 10x zoom. The output is 1280x720p HD video in full color, but there is also an array of infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs) around the perimeter of the camera for night-time viewing. (As with the IO Gear products, you will experience some latency with the Apollo Pro of about 2 seconds from live.)

So, where’s the AI part? You can set the camera up to respond to motion, sound, or both to initiate a recording. The camera can also alert you that it is indeed recording and (here’s where the registered account comes in) saving your recording to the cloud – specifically, a could server maintained by Amped Wireless. The company Web site states that, “…you can relive, save and share what your camera saw when you weren’t watching. Starting at just $3 a month, you can choose a Recording Plan that saves a clip each time the Camera detects sound or motion.”

Daytime (full color) video as viewed on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

 

Nighttime operating mode gives you black and white images illuminated by infrared LEDs.

That’s pretty much the case with all the WiFi cameras I’ve seen at CES and at retail. The prices are very low, but you’re expected to take out a monthly subscription to access your cloud recordings after the buy-in. I’d prefer a set-up that lets you archive to your own cloud storage, connected to your home WiFi network, with an option to archive your recordings periodically to a remote server for safe storage.

In my tests, I used the camera to monitor my front hall and figure out what one of my cats does, late every night, when he goes downstairs and wanders around howling for about 20 minutes. With the camera’s IR lighting (with images in black and white), I was able to see that he’s actually playing with a small fuzzy ball, pushing it all over the floor – something he will not do when any humans are present.

I also used the Apollo Pro’s built-in speaker and microphone system to talk to him while he was playing and convince him to come back upstairs, albeit with a very confused look on his face. (The howling is cute for a couple of minutes, and then it becomes very annoying!) These tests showed that the camera has decent dynamic range, avoiding excessive auto-irising with intense light from outside windows and maintaining shadow detail indoors.

THE WRAP-UP

Both products show just how far we’ve advanced with ‘smart’ wireless products. The IO Gear Wireless HDMI system maintained a reliable link through several floors in my house with no visible deterioration in signal quality (I also tested image quality on my 92-inch home theater screen with a 1080p projector). At $400 for a pair, it is pricey for the home market and is better suited for commercial installations.

The Apollo Pro camera worked fine no matter where I took my Samsung tablet inside or outside my house. I’d like the latency to be shorter and I’d much prefer the camera operate exclusively in the 5 GHz radio band where there is not nearly as much activity and less chance for interference. It’s also a bit pricey at $160 – I’ve seen WiFi cameras for less than $100 – but the added range may justify the cost for some users.

Useful Gadgets: Winegard FlatWave AIR Amplified Outdoor TV Antenna

Winegard is one of the oldest names in the TV antenna business, having started up in 1954 as analog TV broadcasting was just getting out of the gate. Along the way, they’ve branched into satellite antennas, RV antennas, WiFi antennas, and a host of related accessories.

I’ve tested many Winegard antennas over the years, going back to traditional rooftop log-periodic UHF/VHF TV designs and more recently, super-flat indoor TV antennas (FlatWave) that have generally performed well.

The FlatWave AIR ($99), which I received recently for testing, is an updated version of an antenna I reviewed over 15 years ago that was intended for outdoor installation. It’s a large, box-like housing (14” x 14” x 4”) that clamps to a standard 1 ½” TV mast or a small angle bracket that can be fastened to a roof, the side of a house, or even a deck railing, as the company’s Web site shows.

Winegard’s FlatWave AIR amplified antenna is about as inconspicuous as you can get!

Some other product highlights from the Winegard Web site:

  • Meets Homeowners Association (HOA) Requirements for mounting outdoors (FCC Over-the-Air Reception Devices [“OTARD”] Rule of 1996)
  • Separately amplifies VHF and UHF signals to reduce intermodulation, thereby maintaining the purest signal path possible
  • Bandpass filters remove unwanted RF interference for unsurpassed performance
  • 10x more power handling capabilities than existing antennas

 

In my earlier review, I found the original design lacking when it came to reception of weaker TV stations that were in my “receivable” location, according to TVFool.com. That antenna had better performance on UHF channels than on VHF channels, and no wonder: The physical size of the antenna elements was too small in term of wavelength to pull in stations in channels 2-6, not to mention 7-13.

So what’s changed over the years? Not the outside design, although the mounting pipe is smaller and lighter. This time around, Winegard has added an inline amplifier to boost signal strength (hence the claim of “10x more power handling capabilities”). Does it make a difference? Read on, and find out.

The FlatWave AIR under test.

THE TEST

Back in early August, I tested several new outdoor TV antennas from Antennas Direct and compared them to older designs from over a decade ago. For this test, I replicated the setup I used then, with two 5’ mast sections on my deck to support the antenna and a Hauppauge Aero-M USB stuck receiver to pull in the stations.

Additional documentation and verification came via an AVCOM spectrum analyzer and TS Reader MPEG2 stream analyzing software. I considered the station to be successfully received if I was able to tune it in using TS Reader and it had a low Bit Error Rate (BER) with minimal dropped packets.

The antenna was aimed in two directions – south-southwest to pull in Philadelphia DTV stations from the Roxborough antenna farm, and north-northwest to pull in a handful of stations from the Allentown/Bethlehem area. I logged the MPEG streams from each station and also captured their 8VSB signal waveforms.

Nothing like sitting outside on a hot day and testing antennas!

THE RESULTS

There are plenty of VHF and UHF TV stations that should be easily receivable at my location. As the August test showed, I can pull in most of them with nothing more than a simple 3-element Yagi made from hardware store parts. The low-band and high-band VHF stations in my area can be a bit of a challenge with that approach, but even adding a simple dipole element solves the problem.

I identified 15 stations available in both test directions that should be receivable and two additional lower-power stations that some antennas might pull in. These channels cover all of the major networks – ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, CW – plus some independent stations. All but one of these stations are multicasting at least one additional channel.

In my August test, none of the antennas pulled in fewer than 11 stations, and the weakest performer (ClearStream’s 2V) isn’t even sold anymore – it’s been replaced by the 2MAX, one of my stronger performers.

This table shows how the FlatWave AIR stacked up to some of the competition from August 2017.

The FlatWave AIR matched that score with 10 UHF stations and one VHF from Bethlehem when pointed towards Philadelphia. (WTXF’s repeater on channel 38 was only receivable to the northwest.) It did receive the two lower-power “bonus” stations, but so did just about every other antenna from the August test. What was particularly vexing was the inability to pull in WPVI’s very strong signal on channel 6, not to mention WHYY on channel 12 – two “must receive” channels in this market, as they are the ABC and PBS affiliates respectively and aren’t particularly difficult to receive.

Oddly, I did manage to pull in WPVI intermittently with the FlatWave AIR aimed 90 degrees away from the correct beam heading. That’s an indication of very low directivity and an antenna pattern that may have trouble rejecting interfering signals.

This spectrum analyzer screen shot shows one reason why I couldn’t receive WPVI: The noise floor was insanely high. (Forget about KJWP on channel 2!)

 

For comparison, here’s what the same spectrum looks like when using the ClearStream 2MAX antenna. Note the complete lack of spectral noise and the tall, clean carrier from WPVI. That mountain range to the right is made up of FM stations.

 

WHYY’s signal on channel 12 was also a no-go – it would come through intermittently and just as quickly disappear.

 

And here’s what WBPH-9 and WHYY-12 look like using the ClearStream 2MAX.

Another thing I saw with this antenna caused me a lot of concern, and that was tons of spectral noise from 56 to 88 MHz. That noise wiped out KJWP’s signal on channel 2 and another low-power station on channel 4, not to mention almost swallowing WPVI’s carrier on channel 6 entirely. I have no idea where it was coming from, but conventional Yagi antennas don’t see it at all – only loop antennas like the 2V have picked it up before. It’s also possible the noise is being generated in the amplifier, a problem I used to encounter with low-cost Radio Shack in-line RF amplifiers.

But the real design flaw with the FlatWave AIR is the lack of an active antenna element for low-band and high-band VHF TV reception, such as the ones found on the ClearStream 1MAX and 2MAX antennas. With the recent FCC TV channel auction complete, all channels above 36 are going away to be re-purposed for other services. Losing 15 channels means a lot of TV stations that were kicked off those channels will need to relocate, and many of them will wind up on low-band VHF assignments – the “low rent district” of broadcast operations.

That lack of low-band VHF reception means some viewers might not be able to pull in their favorite stations after channels have been repacked. Throw in a lot of man-made and natural spectral noise and interference, and you will have a lot of dissatisfied customers calling 1-800 numbers, or returning products to stores.

The FlatWave AIR is a decent performer on UHF channels. Here’s a few of the UHF spectrum from WPHL-17 (far left) to WFMZ-46 (far right). Just about every channel in this range came in cleanly.

CONCLUSION

If you live close to TV towers and there isn’t a lot of spectral noise in your area, the FlatWave Air may well do the job for you. By “close,” I mean within 10-15 miles with a line-of-sight path (my test location is 20+ miles away and blocked by two hills). UHF should be no problem; high-band VHF will probably work okay. But low-band VHF could be a challenge.

Winegard might want to consider an add-on kit for VHF reception that would be nothing more than a pair of screw-in or slide-in-and-lock rigid antenna elements. They shouldn’t detract much from the overall appearance of the antenna and would improve its performance noticeably. With channels 2-6 being resurrected from the grave, reliable reception of those channels will become a must-have.