Posts Tagged ‘DVR’

Antennas, Antennas, On The Wall…Who Has The Best Reception Of Them All?

It’s been a L-O-N-G time since I conducted tests of indoor TV antennas. More than a year and a half, to be exact. Yet during that time, various samples have been showing up at my door to be added to the “eventually get around to it” pile in my lab.

Well, I eventually DID get around to it. Some downtime this week gave me the motivation to haul out all of those production samples, set up my spectrum analyzer, and also give Channel Master’s new DVR+ ATSC receiver/DVR a workout.

Unlike my past tests, which took place mostly in northern New Jersey, I opted to stay at home this time and give each of the contenders a shakeout in my upstairs office. Indoor DTV reception at my house is by no means easy – my location is over 20 miles from the Philadelphia (Roxborough) TV towers, and according to TVFool.com, I have a 2-Edge path, meaning there are some hills in the way.

Still, there’s enough RF coming into the room to make this test worthwhile. And my timing couldn’t be better, as numerous research reports and news stories show that, slowly but surely, an increasing number of homes are “cutting the cord” and using a combination of free, over-the-air TV with Internet streaming to get their daily fix of video.

A recent report by The Diffusion Group shows that 14% of all broadband homes don’t subscribe to pay TV, up from 9% in 2011. The report states that about 75% of U.S. households now have broadband service, so that means 13 million homes are doing just fine without the likes of DirecTV and Comcast.

Significantly, 2013 was the first year that pay TV companies saw a net loss of subscribers, even though it was only several tens of thousands. But that result flew in the face of experienced analysts who predicted only a few years earlier that consumers would never give up on cable and satellite television subscriptions.

Funny thing about that: At some point, the monthly cost of pay TV channel packages got so high that people reached their breaking point and said, “Enough!” It’s no surprise that Netflix has more subscribers than Comcast, Time-Warner, or any other MSO (50 million and growing in the U.S.). And it’s even less of a surprise that HBO and CBS announced video streaming services last month to reach cord-cutters: They’ve clearly read the writing on the wall.

While those stories are compelling, they’re beyond the scope of this review. So let’s refocus on the task at hand, which is to determine how well each of the test antennas performed with the DVR+.

THE CONTENDERS

Mohu, who has developed some pretty clever antenna designs, sent along their Leaf Metro ($24.99) several months ago. This compact package bears a remarkable resemblance to the trusty UHF bow-tie antenna that decorated so many old tube TVs back in the day, and which was eventually dropped from most product lines because (a) it was too inexpensive, and (b) it didn’t look cool enough.

Mohu’s Leaf Ultimate ($69.99, now called the Leaf 50) has also been sitting on the shelf for a while, and I did hook it up for one of my previous antenna tests. Unlike the Metro, the Leaf 50 is an amplified design and uses an external preamp cartridge that installs in-line and uses either USB power from your TV or a supplied wall transformer.

Mohu's Leaf Metro is very reasonably priced and doesn't take up much room.

Mohu’s Leaf Metro is very reasonably priced and doesn’t take up much room.

The Leaf 50 (formerly known as Prince - no, wait, the Leaf Ultimate) is a solid performer and makes this box look good...

The Leaf 50 (formerly known as Prince – no, wait, the Leaf Ultimate) is a solid performer and makes this box look good…

Rounding out the Mohu triumvirate is the Curve 30 ($49.99), another rectangular-shaped flat antenna that sits on a shelf with a supporting bracket. It doesn’t use an amplifier and is intended for close-in (30 miles or less) operation.

From Antennas Direct, we have the ClearStream Eclipse ($59.99) with inline amplifier. It’s not much more than a tapered loop, but what’s unique about this design is the adhesive attached to the front of the loop: Simply peel off the protective backing and stick it on a window. Or wall. (Or an annoying relative who’s fallen asleep on the couch.)

Mohu's Curve makes a better interior decoration than antenna in my tests.

Mohu’s Curve makes a better interior decoration than antenna in my tests.

 

The ClearStream Eclipse can stick to just about any surface.

The ClearStream Eclipse can stick to just about any surface.

 

The FlatWave Amped works very well and its motives are transparent.

The FlatWave Amped works very well and its motives are transparent.

From Winegard, we have the FlatWave Amped ($64.99), a flexible multi-band antenna with preamplifier embedded in the housing, right where the mini coax attaches. Like the Leaf 50, the FlatWave Amped can be attached to just about any non-metallic surface or just hung on a wall.

Finally, just for fun, I threw in an RCA ANT1050 ($12.99) that I had replaced with a Mohu Leaf earlier this year for a friend’s sports collectibles store. This is a strange-looking design, but is basically a pair of folded dipoles in a flexible plastic housing that you can attach to just about any surface.

I wanted to call this the "BatTenna." Wonder why...

I wanted to call this the “BatTenna.” Wonder why…

 

OK, the bow tie doesn't look like much, but it will give you hours of enjoyment - much more than a $3.99 latte macchiato!

OK, the bow tie doesn’t look like much, but it will give you hours of enjoyment – much more than a $3.99 latte macchiato!

And for even more fun, I dug up one of my trusty UHF bowtie antennas to use as a “control” for all of my tests. When Radio Shack used to sell these, they cost all of $3.99 a pop. And therein lies the problem – there’s just no money to be made selling these anymore; not when you can get ten times that amount of money for a flexible antenna design.

Part of my test rig, consisting of my trusty Toshiba laptop and an AVCOM PSA2500C spectrum analyzer.

Part of my test rig, consisting of my trusty Toshiba laptop and an AVCOM PSA2500C spectrum analyzer.

THE TESTS

For this test, I went with a simple but reliable methodology: I set up the bow tie antenna on a small table, in a spot where my spectrum analyzer indicated good signal levels on VHF and UHF. The feed from the bow tie went to a two-way splitter, and two identical 10’ lengths of RG-6 connected from there to the DVR+ and to my analyzer.

After running a channel scan on the CM DVR+, I “looked” at each received channel with the analyzer (and captured numerous screens as JPEGs for reference). Then, I switched the antenna feed over from the analyzer to my Hauppauge Aero-M receiver (plugged into my laptop) and used TS Reader to look at the MPEG stream from each station that was successfully received. If I saw nothing but green bars and a low bit error rate (BER), the station was logged under the “Yes” column. If I saw tiling or signal break-up, it was logged as “Int” for intermittent. And if the station didn’t come in at all, or only briefly, it was pushed to the “No” column.

After testing the bow tie, I repeated this procedure for each review antenna. The Curve antenna used its own support in the same test location, but all other antennas were attached with masking tape to a cardboard box to hold them in place in the “sweet spot.” Not elegant, but effective. (I didn’t remove the adhesive from the ClearStream Eclipse.)

This was about as fair as I could make the test. No antenna was positioned in a more favorable location than any other antenna – I just picked a spot, attached or stood up each antenna, connected it, and tried to watch TV stations, just like the average person would at home. Except they wouldn’t have had the advantage of an analyzer to find the best place to set up.

THE RESULTS

After logging plenty of transport streams, switching through channels, and grabbing analyzer screens, I came up with the results shown in Table 1. Depending on where you live in the metro Philadelphia area, there are 16 to 18 separate digital TV stations that can be received indoors. Three of them are in the Allentown/Bethlehem area, and one (WNJT) is in Trenton, NJ.

Amazingly, I found 11 stations that were consistently strong with most models – not all – and decided to use those for my test: WPVI-6 (in the no-man’s land of low-band VHF), WBPH-9 and WHYY-12, WPHL-17, KYW-26, WUVP-29, WCAU-34, WYBE-35, WLVT-39, WTXF-42, and WFMZ-46. WBPH-9, WLVT-39, and WFMZ-46 are all up in Allentown, and the rest of the signals come off the Roxborough towers. (Note that the channel numbers given are for each station’s physical (RF) channel, NOT their virtual channel. For example, KYW uses channel 3, while WTXF uses channel 29 and WFMZ uses channel 69. )

Table 1. Each antenna was tested with 11 different TV stations. VHF stations are listed in yellow, while UHF stations are listed in green.

Table 1. Each antenna was tested with 11 different TV stations. VHF stations are listed in yellow, while UHF stations are listed in green.

A few other stations popped up briefly during scans, but none of the antennas could pull any of these in consistently. I left them out of the test. Even the DVR+ was able to read and capture some elementary PSIP information for these stations, like their virtual channel table (VCT) and call sign. But capturing basic PSIP information doesn’t mean reception was successful.

The most surprising thing I learned from this round of tests was that the cheapest antenna – the bow tie – was also the most reliable. This design was really intended for reception of UHF stations and was intended to clip on to an extended rabbit ear. Yet, it pulled in ten of the eleven test stations without a hitch, having trouble only with WPVI on channel 6. That’s not a surprise at all, given how inefficient a bow tie would be at 86 MHz! (And it was only $3.99!)

WPVI's signal on channel 6 (center of display) was all but nonexistent on the Metro...

WPVI’s signal on channel 6 (center of display) was all but nonexistent on the Metro…

...as well as the Mohu Curve...

…as well as the Mohu Curve…

..and Winegard's FlatWave Amped.

..and Winegard’s FlatWave Amped.

There was a two-way tie for 2nd place between the Leaf 50 and FlatWave Amped. Again, not a surprise – both of these antennas have fundamentally good designs based on collinear elements, and their built-in preamplifiers raised signal levels sufficiently to provide a strong signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio. That’s critical for DTV reception, especially with multipath! The Achilles Heel for both antennas was VHF reception; specifically, WPVI-6 and WBPH-9. Channel 12 locked up beautifully as did all of the UHF stations.

The Leaf Metro, which physically resembles a bow tie, came in third with eight stations received successfully and three intermittently. Oddly, those three stations were WBPH-9, WUVP-29, and WTXF-42; it wasn’t an either/or VHF/UHF thing. Maybe some more futzing around with antenna placement would have cleaned things up. But you can’t complain for $30 with this model.

The ClearStream Eclipse and the RCA ANT1050 were both disappointments. Each antenna only pulled in seven solid signals, all in the UHF band. Channel 6 was a no-show on the ANT1050 and troublesome on the Eclipse, and vice-versa for channel 9. The Eclipse, even with an amplifier, couldn’t handle channel 12, but the ANT1050 was happy with it. However, the ANT1050 couldn’t lock up WCAU’s NBC signal on channel 34 (ironic, considering what was once RCA used to own what was once NBC!).

Here's a view of the UHF spectrum from channel 14 through 51, as captured with the ClearStream Eclipse.

Here’s a view of the UHF spectrum from channel 14 through 51, as captured with the ClearStream Eclipse.

The same spectrum, as seen through the FlatWave Amped.

The same spectrum, as seen through the FlatWave Amped.

And once more with the Leaf 50 (Ultimate). Not much difference between the three - at least what meets the eye...

And once more with the Leaf 50 (Ultimate). With UHF stations, this antenna had an 8 – 10 dB edge over the FlatWave and 3-4 dB over the Eclipse.

The Mohu Curve, bringing up the rear, was to be truthful kind of a flop. It only snagged five stations successfully – two on VHF and three on UHF – while passing on some easy, strong channels like WPHL-17 and WCAU-34. It also had trouble with WPVI’s broadcast on channel 6.

Again, it might take some futzing around to improve reception with this model, which is probably better used within a 10-to-15-mile-radius around the TV towers and not 15+ miles away. This isn’t the first time I’ve tested a decorative or camouflaged antenna – RCA had a curved picture frame model about ten years ago – and they usually come up short for some odd reason.

CONCLUSIONS: ANTENNAS

OK, everyone can stop nagging me now. I tested every antenna I could find, save for an Australian model that must have come in some time ago and had a PAL-type RF connector for which I had no appropriate adapter. Most of these antennas deliver the goods: I’ve always been a big fan of the basic Mohu Leaf design, despite its lack of gain at VHF frequencies. It’s unobtrusive and works very well.

Winegard’s FlatWave, the answer to the Leaf, also pulls its weight. Both it and the Leaf scored highly in my last test of indoor antennas in March of 2013. (Wow, was it REALLY that long ago?) And things only got better with the amplified versions of each model. I didn’t see a significant degradation of the noise floor here when they were switched on (< 2 dB) and they made a difference on the weaker signals. Use either of these if you are 15 – 30 miles out from the TV transmitters and have a reasonably clear reception path, i.e. maybe a small hill or some buildings in the way.

The ClearStream Eclipse amplifier clearly has some noise issues in the high VHF band (and possible spurious emissions).

The ClearStream Eclipse amplifier clearly has some noise issues in the high VHF band (and possible spurious emissions).

In contrast, Mohu's Leaf 50 is clean as a whistle from channels 7 through 13.

In contrast, Mohu’s Leaf 50 is clean as a whistle from channels 7 through 13.

The Metro has everything – good performance in a small, inexpensive package. I’d recommend this one for city dwellers, and you shouldn’t need any additional amplification. Closer to the transmitter, it should pick up low-band VHF stations nicely, but since there are only about 45 of them in the entire country, that’s not a big issue for the average user.

I can’t recommend any of the last three models, given how many strong stations they couldn’t pull in. The Curve is best used by city dwellers or close-in suburbs, but only if you want to make a fashion statement. Otherwise, go with the Metro and stick it on the wall or in a window. The ANT1050 is certainly cheap, but missed too many easy stations. And the Eclipse is clearly challenged with low-band and high-band VHF reception.

Still, isn’t it amazing how well the bow tie antenna worked? If you can’t find one at a flea market or surplus store, you can make your own easily enough – there are several Web sites that show you how to do it. And your cash outlay will be minimal. Gosh, $3.99 won’t even buy you a tall coffee at Starbucks these days…

CONCLUSIONS: CHANNEL MASTER DVR+

This product isn’t getting as much attention as it should. The super-flat DVR+ (not much thicker than a Leaf or FlatWave) has a full ATSC receiver and dual DVRs. It uses the program guide transmitted by each digital TV station to show you what’s on and to set up recordings.

Two accessory USB ports are provided for a Wi-Fi adapter and external storage (internal storage of 16 GB amounts to only about 2 hours of recording). There’s also an RJ-45 port for wired Ethernet connections, helpful when your box does a software update. The connection to your TV is through HDMI with embedded audio, and a separate optical port is provided for AV receivers.

Channel Master's DVR+ has such a low profile that you'll probably overlook it at first glance.

Channel Master’s DVR+ has such a low profile that you’ll probably overlook it at first glance.

In speed tests, the LG TV was a lot faster at scanning for active channels. But the DVR+ held its own with weak or fluctuating signals.

In speed tests, the LG TV was a lot faster at scanning for active channels. But the DVR+ held its own with weak or fluctuating signals.

The DVR+ isn’t nearly as fast at scanning for channels as the LG 47” TV I have in the same room, but it eventually finds them all. The receiver locks up quickly on clean VSB signals, making it a perfect receiver for my antenna tests. CM has also included direct connections to Vudu and Pandora through their program guide (powered by Rovi!), although Netflix probably would have been a wise addition considering their streaming video market dominance.

I’ve used the DVR+ to record blocks of CBS programs whose schedules are thrown out of whack by late-starting Sunday NFL games that end somewhere in the vicinity of 8 PM EST, and its multi-speed fast-forward/reverse search works quite well, even if it doesn’t have the tactile feedback of a TiVo DVR. Of course, the DVR+ is a LOT cheaper at $250 and there’s no monthly fee for program guide information, as it comes automatically from each TV station.

Given the paucity of conventional set-top boxes for off-air reception, this is one of your better choices and sure beats watching HDTV on your phone, tablet, or computer. Let’s face it; Tom Brady’s Patriots vs. Payton Manning’s Broncos is a lot more compelling on a big screen TV than an iPad!

See you next time I get a pile of antennas…

Editor’s note: Channel Master also offers a 1 TB version of the DVR+ for $399.

Aereo And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

For readers who aren’t up to speed, Aereo is a new service that receives terrestrial digital TV broadcasts in major markets and re-transmits them over the Internet, using AVC coding with IP headers. The concept is to provide local reception for those who can’t pick up these signals for one reason or another on their regular TV.

Now, the devil in the details: Ever since Aereo launched a couple of years ago, it has been in court, fighting off challenges by the major broadcast networks who are crying “foul!” and saying that Aereo’s retransmission is a violation of copyright laws. They also claim that Aereo owes them retransmission fees.

Aereo’s rebuttal and defense centers around a flimsy (to me) technical argument: Each subscriber gains access to an individual antenna about the size of a dime, which then is connected to an individual receiver, decoder, DVR, and encoder. It’s as if the subscriber built his or her own TV antenna system, which is certainly within their rights.

I remain skeptical because the cost of actually setting up thousands of individual antennas, terrestrial receivers, video decoders, and video encoders would be prohibitively expensive and never be recovered by the $8 monthly subscriber fee (for 20 hours of recording time, $12 for 40 hours).

And anyone who has ever taken a modicum of courses in electrical physics and RF theory knows that (a) the tiny antennas Aereo assigns to each subscriber can’t possibly have enough gain to work for high band VHF reception, let along UHF reception, and (b) the close spacing of those antennas – as seen from earlier PR photos released by the service – means they interact with each other to form a larger array, based on the principles of inductive and capacitive coupling. That, in essence, is a master antenna TV system – delivering TV channels to many viewers, not one.

Thanks to a sub-par presentation by expert witnesses called by broadcasters at the first hearing, the 2nd Circuit Court (New York City) ruled 2-1 that Aereo didn’t infringe on copyrights and cited the earlier Cablevision “cloud” DVR decision as precedent. Aereo’s right to operate was subsequently upheld in the 1st Circuit (Boston). Service is active in both cities now.

However; two weeks ago, Aereo was rebuffed by a 10th Circuit judge in Salt Lake City, who unequivocally stated that “The plain language of the 1976 Copyright Act supports the plaintiffs’ position. Aereo’s retransmission of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs is indistinguishable from a cable company.” As a result, Aereo had to shut down its service in Salt Lake City and Denver for the time being.

While this case winds its way on to the Supreme Court, another twist in the story has surfaced. Apparently subscribers in New York City had massive problems with the Aereo stream of the Oscars telecast on WABC-TV a week ago Sunday. Consequently, the company’s Twitter feed was lit up with complaints about “buffering” and “locked-up pictures.”

Here are some of the dozens of tweets I found: “Awful service, bad image quality & not recording scheduled shows but it sad you treat ORIGINAL customers the way you do.” “It goes out now and then requiring me to select Oscars all over again. Common? I have it on auto quality.”  “Thanks for doing work on the site tonight. It’s not like I wanted to watch the Oscars. No big deal.” (Gotta LOVE that sarcasm!)

And more: “C’mon Aereo. Get your s–t together.” “Anyone else watching the Oscars using Aereo like me? S–t keeps buffering every 30 seconds. Frustrating the hell out of me.” “Hmm is Aereo down for anyone else? Is it just an East Village or Roku thing? #CordCutting fail during the Oscars” “@Aereo Support I keep getting the message “The Oscars has ended.” A total of 8 seconds recorded. Worst. Oscars. Ever.”

This one was my personal favorite: “@Aereo I don’t have time to run to Best Buy and buy some rabbit ears right now.” Well, maybe that would have been the best thing to do.

A couple of observations are in order. First, I don’t know how exactly Aereo has its front end configured, but if they’ve actually tried to keep every single subscriber’s hardware separate by various technical tricks to pass legal review, then they might have run out of server capacity and brought this service failure on themselves. (Apparently this also happened during the Golden Globes, according to a story on the Quartz Web site.)

There is a reason why cable and satellite companies use a single receiver for each broadcast and premium channel they carry, and multiplex (copy and repeat) those channels on their outgoing RF and IP channels: It’s WAY more cost-effective and less troublesome! So they have to pay a retransmission fee: Big deal! What will the cost be now to Aereo in dropped subscriptions, not to mention bad publicity from these service problems?

Second, I’ll bet that more than a few Aereo subscribers could actually pick up the HD broadcasts from New York City stations if they tried. Over the years, I’ve tested numerous indoor TV antennas and there have been some real winners out there like the Mohu Leaf Ultimate series and Winegard’s amplified FlatWave antenna.

Both are reasonably priced and perform adequately on VHF channels and very well on UHF channels, which in New York City means you can also use them to watch WNBC, WCBS, and WNYW among the major networks. (By the way, those are the three networks that carry NFL games in the New York City metro area.)

Third; if you can pick up local TV broadcasts with one of the aforementioned antennas, there are terrestrial DVR products that will let you record those channels, like Channel Master’s new DVR+. It has dual tuners, built-in capacity for about 2 hours of HD recording (expandable with any external hard drives or solid state drives through USB ports), plus Wi-Fi connectivity and support for Internet video services like Vudu.

Or you can pick up one of Hauppauge’s WinTV receivers that plug directly into a USB port on your computer and provide terrestrial digital TV reception, letting you use your hard drive as a DVR. I carry around a few of the Hauppauge Aero-M stick receivers and a Mohu Leaf for reception on the road, and they work great.

We’ll never know the actual reason for Aereo’s system failures during the Golden Globes and Oscars, but it’s entirely possible that the company was too clever for its own good by engineering and building a system that was designed to neatly parse and side-step copyright laws.

It’s funny how the law of unintended consequences works, isn’t it?

Nothing Lasts Forever

Earlier this week at an investor conference sponsored by UBS in New York City, the chief executive of Liberty Media decried the rising cost of sports programming on pay television. And he may have inadvertently lifted the cover on Pandora’s Box by doing so.

 

Greg Maffei was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the average $4.69 per household subscription fee for ESPN and all of its affiliated networks amounted to “a tax on every American household” and asked, “what happens to the bundle of cable if you keep pushing [the price] higher and higher?”

 

He’s not alone in wondering if Americans are reaching the breaking point with ever-escalating costs of pay television. There is no question that a small segment of the population is disconnecting from pay TV services and opting instead to keep broadband connections only. This movement is 100% driven by cost – the average tab for a digital TV package of channels, voice over IP, and broadband now exceeds $150 on many cable systems. That’s $1,800 a year!

 

To put things in perspective, the average subscription (retransmission) fee for cable networks is about what it costs you to park for an hour at a meter – 26 cents.

 

Viacom’s CEO Philippe Dauman also put the spotlight directly on ESPN for driving pay TV costs through the roof. He stated that ESPN by itself in many systems costs twice as much as of all their own networks combined.

 

The problem with rising costs for ESPN is that it usually comes as part of a bundle. Yet, many American viewers have little or no interest in sports programming, at least not to the extent that they need a 24/7 ‘fix’ of scores, talk shows, and specials.

 

Those rising charges are driven mostly by deals that ESPN has negotiated directly with major sports leagues. For example, the Bristol, CT-based network has also managed to get exclusive broadcast rights to the major college football bowl games (the Bowl Championship Series), taking them away from their traditional homes on free broadcast networks.

 

More than one pay TV system operator has speculated out loud that sports channels could soon migrate to premium tiers instead of being bundled with basic or extended digital channel packages. That would in turn allow pay TV MSOs to lower prices on TV channel packages, which are increasingly seen by futurists as ‘obsolete’ with the increased penetration of high-speed Internet access, the use of DVRs, and the growth in streaming services like Netflix.

 

Until the past year or so, cable and satellite TV executives were mum on the issue of ever-escalating monthly service charges. Now, one of the culprits has been called out, and it will be interesting to see if MSOs will make noise about moving ESPN and other costly sports networks like Fox to add-on tiers where HBO and Showtime currently reside.

 

In the meantime, you can still watch plenty of sports for free over the air, including (but not limited to) NFL games on CBS, Fox, and NBC, major league baseball on Fox and local stations, the NBA finals on ABC, college football on CBS, NBC, and ABC, golf and tennis on all the major channels, the NCAA basketball men’s and women’s tournaments and selected games on CBS and ABC, and of course next year’s Olympics on NBC.

 

Enjoy them while you still can…

Attention, All Cord-Cutters!

At the September 14 Pepcom table-top show (dubbed the ‘Parisian Holiday Spectacular’ show, as so many gadgets were being pushed for gift-wrapping under the tree), Channel Master showed something that ought to bring a smile to every cord-cutter’s face: A dual DVR for digital terrestrial television.

 

Not only that, this same product also supports Vudu streaming and Vudu apps, in case you’re jonesing for a movie and don’t want to mess with DVDs or Blu-ray discs. It’s called Channel Master TV, and it will start shipping in mid-October. (Yes, I’ve already asked for a review unit. C’est si bon!)

 

You can find out all of the details about this new product by clicking here (the dedicated Channel Master TV Web site still was not up and running at the time I wrote this), or you can read on.

It's smaller than a TiVo Premiere. Dig those three WiFi antennas!

Channel Master’s big selling point for this dual-DVR box is that there are NO monthly subscription fees required. Well, that’s not exactly true: If you are content to rely on the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data transmitted by each station – correctly or not – then you don’t need additional program guide data.

 

But if you want to program recordings more than 14 days out, you’ll want to add CM’s optional enhanced program guide service, for which no firm price was stated at the event. Both basic PSIP and day/time scheduling can be used to record DTV programs.

 

And you’ll have plenty of space to record. The CM TV box comes with a 320 GB hard disk drive, which ought to be sufficient for up to 35 hours of HDTV programs and about 150 hours of SD programs. Like TiVo’s HD and Premier DVRs, you can watch one program while recording another, or playback a program while recording two others.

Mira esto! Una telenovela de WXTV-HD!

Vudu movies are generally pay-as-you-go, so there’s no monthly subscription fee. And the supported apps include Pandora, MTV News, Discovery, Twitter, Facebook, AP, and The New York Times, among others.

 

From a technical perspective, CM TV interfaces to your existing HDTV either through an HDMI connection or component video outputs. You can set the video output of the box to 1080p/30, 1080p/24, 1080i/30, or 720p/60. (Sorry, no support for 1080p/60 yet. I did ask…)

 

There’s also a discrete optical digital audio (Dolby AC-3, Dolby 5.1) connection for a separate AV receiver, along with wireless (802.11n) and wired Ethernet connectivity for Vudu access and Vudu Apps, a USB port for viewing photos and videos from a flash drive, and an eSATA connection for an external expansion hard drive.

 

Technically speaking, CM TV will also receive ‘in the clear’ digital cable broadcasts, but you won’t receive any program guide data as cable systems use a different implementation of PSIP.

Scanning for active DTV channels can take a while, as all of the PSIP information is read and stored.

And the price for all of this wonderfulness? Why, just $399. That is a substantial premium over the latest TiVo boxes, but then again, you won’t be paying $12.99 a month for program guide information. (Mark my words, the price on this box will drop below $300 by December. There’s a big psychological difference between $299 and $399 to the average consumer.)

 

So if you’ve been seriously thinking about dumping your digital cable channel package and relying on broadband video and free, over-the-air HDTV, your days of waiting are over. Now you have the missing piece of the puzzle – a dual DVR with a nice electronic program guide GUI (and it is VERY nice and user-friendly.)

 

Watch your local brick-and-mortar store for the first shipments in mid-October. You can also buy the box directly from Channel Master, and I suspect it will also be available from major Web outlets like Amazon.

Useful Gadgets: Hauppauge WinTV Aero-M ATSC/MH USB Tuner

The digital TV transition – now two years over, and counting – has resulted in a cornucopia of portable DTV receiver products. After all, digital TV and computers go together like soup and sandwich (sorry, Campbell’s!)! Some of these receivers work very well; others not so well.

 

For many years, my top-rated PC/DTV tuner was the OnAir Solution HDTV-GT. Introduced in 2006, it did everything right, including outboard MPEG stream decoding, a process that put quite a load on the CPU of Windows XP operating systems.

 

That was then; this is now. The US importer of OnAir products shut its doors in 2010, and operating systems have evolved far beyond XP. So it was time to look for a replacement PC/DTV tuner.

 

Timing is everything. At CES 2011, Hauppauge Computer Works announced its latest PC/DTV tuner product, the WinTV Aero-M. It works so well that you can finally bury your HDTV-GTs and never look back. And, it’s a lot smaller, too. What’s more; the Aero-M also receives the new ATSC MH services, and there are a few of them operating in major TV markets.

Hauppauge's WinTv Aero-M is super-compact.

Incidentally, if you work with wireless audio and need to conduct spot checks for activity on UHF digital TV channels, the Aero-M should be part of your tool kit.

 

WHAT’S INSIDE

 

Not much! The Aero-M is a very compact, 2.75” long USB stick design with a built-in whip antenna. Unlike the HDTV-GT, it does use your laptop or desktop’s CPU to decode MPEG and convert it to video. But of course, your laptop is likely to be running the Windows 7 OS, which is more than ready for the challenge.

 

In addition to the built-in whip, Hauppauge provides a SMB-type adapter (push-on) that breaks out to a standard F-style thread. The connector pops in and out, so be careful not to lose it! You can connect any antenna you want to this input, and you should use larger antennas with the Aero-M as its built-in whip is only six inches long and won’t provide enough signal induction unless you are about 10 miles or less from any antenna tower.

 

And of course, VHF signals require a much longer wavelength than UHF, so don’t expect much performance from channels 2 through 13 with the built-in whip. There are plenty of other options out there for VHF reception – Radio Shack’s #15-1874 budget VHF/UHF antenna works just fine and will cost you all of $13.

 

SET UP AND OPERATION

 

The supplied software loads easily and guides you through tuner configuration. You can select channel scans for regular ATSC channels, MH channels, and even unscrambled QAM (digital cable) channels. The process takes just a few minutes and you will be provided with a channel list which you can prioritize.

 

Changing channels is as simple as hitting the up/down buttons on your computer, or opening the ‘Find Channel’ menu option. You can also record the transport stream from any station (including MH) for later playback – a useful feature when you are checking for quality of service. Hauppauge also provides a ‘snapshot’ button for capturing still images from channels.

Here's the ATSC chanel scan menu.

You can view programs in variable window sizes, or go full screen. The native aspect ratio is 16:9, but you can also select 4:3. If a given program has multiple streams of audio, you can toggle between them, and of course, closed captions are supported.

 

The Aero-M, like all PC/DTV products, uses your hard drive as a digital video recorder, and you can schedule programs to watch by time interval and image quality. This feature can be handy when you are traveling and want to watch a program that’s broadcast when you are out to dinner, or at a meeting. Recording are also saved in the transport stream (TS) format.

 

I also found the Aero-M works perfectly with the latest build of TSReader, which is an MPEG-2 transport stream analyzer program. TSReader allows you to identify individual MPEG programs in a stream multiplex, check bit error rates, and verify streaming bit rates. It works with any system using MPEG-2 encoding,  and hopefully there is an MPEG-4 AVC version in the works.

Here's an NBC HD program viewed inside the factory default window setting.

IN USE

 

The key to any ATSC PC receiver is its adaptive equalizer. Most echo and drop-out problems with ATSC were solved with generation 5 adaptive equalizers, which were used in the OnAir HDTV-GT. The Aero-M relies on Gen 6 adaptive equalizer technology, which means it’s less sensitive to echoes and cancellation. That in turn results in fewer drop-outs of programs and also reception in ‘tough’ areas, such as cities with lots of tall buildings, deep valleys, and fringe areas.

 

I’ve used the Aero-M numerous times on the road in Las Vegas, New York City, Philly, and Palm Springs, and it has performed above expectations in every location. Reception hasn’t been an issue anywhere, aside from the occasional drop-out on very weak signals.

 

ATSC MH signals are even more robust, as they have lots of forward error correction built-in. Of course, MH programs are designed for much smaller screens, so the image quality isn’t very good on a laptop screen. On the other hand, full HD programs (720p and 1080i) display beautifully on laptops. My new Toshiba M645 has Harmon-Kardon mini-speakers and sounds great with digital programs, and I can also connect the output through HDMI to a TV and listen to surround sound audio.

Don't expect high image quality from ATSC MH stations - the image size is optimized for smart phones and portable mediap layers, not laptops or TV screens.

I don’t have any major issues with the Aero-M. The tiny whip antenna could be easily damaged, which is why I usually travel with a compact panel antenna instead. Every now and then, after watching an MH channel, I can’t select a conventional ATSC channel, but most of the time channel changing is seamless and quick.

 

If you are a fan of digital TV or need to diagnose ATSC signals on the road, then you should add the Aero-M to your tool kit.  And you can’t beat the price: Buy the WinTV Aero-M directly from Hauppauge’s Web store for $59.95, or shop around –  I’ve seen it for as low as $48 online.  Such a deal!