When on the road, hauling your large screen plasma or your multi-core HTPC for the purposes of watching TV are not the most effective options. In the days of, um, "downloadable" content, it's fairly easy to get some videos of your favorite shows on to your laptop and bring it with you. Of course, you will be unable to watch first-run shows live, plus you'll need to wait for some time to download the shows.
PC-based TV tuners, specifically USB tuners are nothing new. USB tuners that work well are a bit harder to find. We've toyed with a couple in the past and while they do the job well enough, there's a lot left to be desired when it comes to Over-the-Air (OTA) broadcasts. Analog signals are simply poor for the most part often subject to snow or ghosting. Unless you're in an area close to the broadcast tower with no buildings, mountains or trees in sight, you're likely going to get an mediocre to poor signal.
For this, and many other reasons (more effective use of the broadcast spectrum for example), we're going to see an end to analog broadcast TV on February 17, 2009 in the US. For Canadians such as myself, we'll need to wait a while longer until August 31, 2011 for this to happen.
What does all of this mean exactly? Well, after those dates, analog signals for television will be cut off and replaced solely with digital signals. As most of you may be aware, digital TV is currently being broadcast now. A digital signal's main advantage for end users is that it offers better video quality and doesn't suffer from ghosting or snow. You'll need to have hardware to support the decoding of these signals though as your 32" 1995 CRT television probably isn't going to do this. Most 25" and larger TVs built after 2006 will have a built in . Keep in mind we are talking specifically OTA and not satellite or cable.
If your TV does not have such a tuner, there are a few options. You can buy a new TV, purchase an ATSC decoder external tuner, or build a HTPC with an ATSC tuner.
Today's review somewhat looks at the last option, though we're going to focus more from a mobile perspective which was how we started this review before rambling on a tangent. We'll be looking at a USB-based tuner from called the .
The OnAir USB HDTV-GT is packaged in a small box, about the size of a couple VHS tapes. Inside the box, everything is neatly packaged. What is everything you ask?
There is a faux-suede carry case for the GT, which can be opened and closed via some Velcro. A rather slick remote is included, butby default it will only work to control the GT and its software functions. We did receive this note from AutumnWave when we inquired about additional functions:
"There's a little trick you can do to get more programs to work with the remote control. See the little green 'circle' icon in the system tray? Right-click and go to 'Options'. You'll see a checkbox and dropdown for keymaps. While the remote control is not necessarily a specific "Media Center Remote Control", you can get pretty close to it with the 'keymaps' We also included some sample keymaps for other popular prorams."
An AV squid cable allows the user to hook up an external video source such as a camcorder, VCR or a connection from another tuner box. Your options will vary so long as the other device outputs to S-Video or RCA.
A four foot USB 2.0 cable is to connect the GT to the computer. Nothing to it really though some people may like some sort of retractable USB cable to reduce tangles. We have been told though that thin cables have less shielding typically and this can weaken the signal. A 1dB or 2dB loss in SNR could mean the difference between receiving a station and losing it. We'll explain more about "SNR" shortly.
The antenna, which can extend up to about a foot, is what captures the OTA signal. It actually works quite well, and the small size makes it easily portable.
The CD is something you should keep stored safely as it not only includes the drivers, but it also includes the user manual (no printed manual is included), GT software as well as a licensed copies of NVIDIA's PureVideo decoder and InterVideo's WinDVD Creator.
The main star of the show is the OnAir USB HDTV-GT tuner itself. The overall appearance is slick, with the logos being more or less out of the way on the shiny, translucent plastic body. I've seen much worse in terms of product logo placement, so I can live with this. The GT is a little bigger than a 5th generation iPod. It can easily fit into a coat pocket, but a more reasonable place for it is inside a notebook pad.
The OnAir USB HDTV-GT tuner supports both Digital (with a built-in ATSC decoder) and Analog OTA signals. External video-based devices as mentioned earlier, as well as Digital cable. QAM is a word some of you may have heard of. With QAM support, the GT will allow to receive digital cable channels without the use of a set-top box. While this will not allow you to watch encrypted specialty or PPV channels, some cable providers will send unscrambled digital local broadcast stations over their connection.
On the rear of the GT, we have the IO connections. Moving from left to right, we have the ANT connection, AV in and USB. The GT is USB powered so there isn't any need of an external AC adapter.
Setting up the OnAir USB HDTV-GT could not be any easier. Once everything is unpacked, power on your Windows-based PC or notebook. At this time, the GT is only supported on Windows 2000 (SP4), XP (SP2) and Vista. Linux and Mac support is currently being looked at but we have little information otherwise.
Once the PC is on, drop in the install CD. At this time, leave the GT unplugged.
There's no all-in-one software install, but the items listed on the splash screen pretty much follows the order the items should be set up.
While the software is installing, you can go ahead and install the included antenna and USB cable to the GT only. At this time, unless you know exactly where the OTA signals are coming from, there's little point aiming the antenna right now.
COAX to external antenna
Just to off topic for a second, while the included antenna is a good choice for travel, it isn't the best choice for overall signal grabbing. If you happen to be in a stationary area for an extended period, or at home, you can really use any antenna that has a 'F-connector' or 'coax' connector. Since the technology itself hasn't really changed, the old-style 1970s antennas outside your parents place will even work. We did try out with an old set of rabbit ears, but did not have much luck.
If you're really a DIYer, you may want to consider building your own out of a 2x4 and coat hangers.
Sure, it looks ghetto, but it works. Once the software is installed, you can go ahead and plug in the other end of the USB cable into the computer.
Once everything is on, you can fire up the OnAir GT software and get to work. Below is a snapshot of the software in action, but we'll break down the key areas to get you started.