HDTV on the PC

Pinnacle's Pro Stick lets you pull high-definition signals to your computer

DESPITE ALL THE technology advancements that enable distribution of information via the Internet, most people's primary source of up-to-the-second news is still TV.

A brief walk through the Senate or House office buildings will prove the point: TVs there are always tuned to CNN and MSNBC. Some aides are even required as part of their jobs to constantly monitor the news so they can inform their bosses immediately of any happenings back home that they might need to comment on.

But TV has never been a portable medium, so when you have to leave your set to get a bite to eat or go somewhere, you might be out of touch for a while. Those briefly popular handheld TVs helped, but they will become obsolete when analog signals are cut off in 2009, and people without cable TV connections will have to find an alternative.

When the PCTV HD Pro Stick from Pinnacle Systems came into our test labs, we at first thought it was a gimmick. Was it really possible to pull high-definition TV signals from the air as easily as those old sets with wire-frame rabbit ears used to do back in the days of yore ' like, you know, the 1980s? The PCTV HD Pro Stick is a USB device that is not much bigger than a standard flash drive. At the back of the stick is a cable adapter, where you can attach a standard coaxial cable.

So right off the bat, one use for the Pro Stick is running cable TV to your desktop or laptop PC. Besides letting your computer double as a TV monitor, the included software also lets you record programs so you can watch them later. You don't even have to be there to do it; you can schedule your computer to record upcoming programs.

The interface is similar to TiVo and other recording devices. You can even pause live TV and resume viewing a little later if you get called away for a few minutes.

Of course, how long you can record depends on the size of your hard drive and your quality settings. Recording HDTV at the highest quality, for example, will burn up your hard drive space quickly, although the software lets you know how much space you will need at current settings.

Transferring cable TV to your PC is pretty neat, but what truly impressed us is that the Pro Stick comes with an Advanced Television Systems Committee antenna. It looks like an old directional radio antenna and has a magnetic bottom that lets you attach it, for example, to the frame of your cubicle. You must be careful to keep it away from the electronic components on your computer and any magnetic removable media, though, because the magnet is powerful.

Once the antenna is set up, you simply attach the coaxial cable to the Pro Stick as if it were a cable wire coming from the wall. You can then scan for available channels.

The software searches the airwaves for analog TV signals, HDTV signals and FM radio. Depending on your location and, in some respects, what part of the country you live in, you might be surprised at the content you can find.

In the Washington area, we have some pretty good HD content on the air, but it's nothing like what is available in places such as Los Angeles. We found the local CBS station just in time to catch the afternoon soap operas. That HD signal was a clear 93 percent using the Pro Stick antenna, so the picture was pretty amazing. It was neat to be able to see the actors' makeup and facial flaws, a sure sign the HD signal was working.

Meanwhile, over at NBC, we found an HD channel called NBC WeatherPlus that we did not even know existed ' a special Lab hello to our new favorite weather woman, Britta Merwin ' and the local HD NBC channel, which happened to be broadcasting the 'Ellen DeGeneres Show' at the time.

There was also an HD signal that tapped directly into the live Doppler radar feed so we could watch storms move across the area in real time. And WETA, the local public TV station, streams four HD channels directly to the air, which the Pro Stick picked up perfectly.

There were also several analog channels, but their signals were difficult to pick up, and they will be going away next year anyway.

Installing the Pro Stick was easy but time-consuming.

You plug the device into the USB port and then, according to the quick-start instructions, hit cancel when Windows tries to automatically install it. Instead, you drop the installation CD into the drive and let it install the drivers and needed programs, which took more than 5 minutes on our laptop test system running Vista. Then you trigger a scan of all the available channels, which is done with the push of a button but took another 15 minutes. You can set the software to scan regularly for new channels and radio stations but weekly would probably be fine for most people.

After everything is set up, TV can be launched like any other program from the main menu or a desktop shortcut. The software comes with a trial version of a program guide that lets you research what HD content is available in your area. The software is free for a year ' a pretty generous trial offer.

The included free software to find and use programs was helpful and easy to use. Unless you are really into TV, the default interface should work fine, and it has some advanced features, such as a preview window that lets you watch and listen before fully activating a channel or radio station.

One especially nice touch is the Pinnacle remote, which is 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. The remote is fairly full-featured and lets you control the volume, change the channel, dial a specific channel, and even pause or fast forward through recorded programs, turning your PC into a real TV viewing station.

The $99 price is a good deal, especially considering that you never have to pay for anything else.

If you happen to live or work in an area that is rich in HD signals, you could theoretically buy the PCTV HD Pro Stick and attach it to your computer, thereby eliminating the need to pay for cable TV.

Even the somewhat limited offerings in the D.C. area were interesting, which brings up one notable flaw that is more about human nature than the product: We wasted an entire day watching TV when we should have been working.

So if you're going to stream TV to your desk, you'd better have the discipline to turn it off when deadlines loom.

Pinnacle Systems, (866) 446-0833, www.pinnaclesys.com

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