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TV in A Box
November, 2007 Sitting at one's computer and
watching television on the monitor is now second nature. Stick a TV card inside your computer and
go. Oh, sure, some people might call
that sensory overload or "wasting one's time," but no, it's…um,…it's work! When you write movies and TV shows, it's
important to know what the landscape is, so how better to do that than right on
your computer! Yes, that's the explanation.
Oh, and it's convenient and fun, too.
WinTV HVR 1600
Today, there are many choices for TV cards, particularly as
Windows Media Edition has begun to build up a base of support. But all cards are not created equal, even
among the two leaders in the field.
ATI's All-in-Wonder card, for example, includes an excellent video
card. But as for the pure issue of being
a TV card, the Hauppauge offers something important: hardware MPEG encoding, as opposed to using
(Rest easy, here's
what that means: Video comes to your
computer coded, and it has to be translated in a way that it can be read by
your computer. With software
encoding, your computer uses system
resources, which slow things down.
Hardware encoding, on the other hand, is configured on the card and
therefore handles the process by itself.
As a result, it doesn't use of any of your system resources and
generally creates a smoother picture.)
The top player in the Hauppauge line (pronounced "Hop-og")
was the PVR-350, reviewed here two years ago.
As the availability of digital and high-definition TV has blossomed,
that's changed the landscape a bit, and the company now offers its "Hybrid"
products. These will play both analog
broadcasts, as well as digital. (To be
clear, you still need to subscribe to digital cable; the card doesn't receive
digital cable by itself.) In truth, even
the 350 plays back digital, but the HVR 1600 offers enhancements.
(The HVR 1600 card comes with two tuners: an ATSC digital TV tuner for over the air
digital TV, plus a 125 channel cable ready TV tuner.)
Most notably, what this all means is that when using the
recording PVR feature (think of it being like Tivo), the 1600 will record
digital TV in the original digital format, without any loss in quality. Also, the company claims the digital picture
will be even sharper, though Hauppauges have always been pretty sharp to begin
(It should also be noted, that while MPEG compression uses a
hardware encoder for recording analog
cable, playback is done via a software MPEG player.)
The card includes several jacks, as well. These allow you to make connections to
auxiliary devices, such as your VCR.
After set-up, you run the program to recognize your local
channels. A Suite Manager lets you create separate groups of favorite
channels. Settings Preferences are very
configurable for audio playback, color, the buffer size for pausing your PVR
(oddly listed under "Movies" and more.
More on the buffer later) You can
also set up preferences for taking freeze-frame snapshots of the TV picture.
The strength of Hauppauge has always been its
interface. Elegant-looking and well-laid
out, with easy access to buttons. Also,
by right clicking on the screen you can change between modes: one with the full compliment of buttons and
options at your fingertips, the other is picture frame only. I make the latter small and stick it up in
the right corner of my monitor. That way
I can work with the television tucked away, but if something of note comes on,
a right click will instantly pop up a larger, full-featured screen.
Also, the layout for recording and using the PVR is as clear
and simple as could be. Clicks will
bring up either option, or you can just elect the OneTouch choice.
Diving into the set-up preferences also lets you change your
buffer. This determines how much time
(and therefore disk space) you want to be allowed for pausing, or the video
quality of what's recorded. Again, the
highest will use up the most space on your hard disk.
Both features work very well – unfortunately a major glitch
showed up when exiting out them and returning to TV mode. The program froze up and stopped
responding. The larger issue though is that after using Task Manager to
shut the WinTV down, it won't just re-load; the only way of starting it up
again was by rebooting my computer. Occasionally, even that was a
challenge, with something that didn't appear to want to let go: often it would take up to three minutes and
numerous "Ctrl-Alt-Del's" and "Turn Off Computer/Restarts"
before rebooting would begin.
After repeated phone calls, I was eventually informed that
there was a known issue with the program's driver, and a new one was available
for download on the Hauppauge website. Updating
Hauppauge devices is always a convoluted process, but happily – after some
further updating glitches – everything got resolved. The recording works just fine, as it is
WinTV lets you schedule programming in two separate ways –
using the WinTV Scheduler (where you manually enter program information) or by
configuring the WinTV with the very good TitanTV online schedule (at www.titantv.com). There, a simple click on a program in the
TitanTV grid will automatically set that for later recording. (It should be noted that when I tested this
way of recording, there was no freeze-up problem.) The WinTV now provides an option where scheduled
recording can be in the background and silently; a nice touch as it won't take
takeover you monitor.
The HVR-1600 doesn't come with an FM radio, as there is with
the PVR-350, but that's not a big loss, since most people have an array of
radios around the house, and the separate radio interface was pretty flat.
The WinTV uses an IR remote control. This has a plus and minus, more a plus. The disadvantage is that unlike with the
other kind of remote (Radio Frequency), you must be accurate in pointing at the
connector with IR. The advantage however
is that's very solid and not temperamental in picking up a signal, like RF can
There's one other issue worth noting. As good as the WinTV is in a great many ways,
the product through its many incarnations has always seemed a bit sloppy, for
lack of a better term, in its programming and documentation. Set-up, for instance, has always been a
convoluted process, especially compared to most programs these days: When you install the device, it first loads
its drivers – then you have to know to download new drivers (this isn't
well-documented) – and then you have to install each of the features
individually, one feature at a time.
Updating drivers later has always been a bit of a headache – not hard,
just busy work.
Related to this, there are three modes the WinTV can play in
– Allow Overlay, Force Primary and DIB draw.
Some systems require one over the other, some will be fine either
way. (A very simple, English-language
explanation is that these impact how the image will "refresh" itself.) I initially got a blank screen, but loading
the Primary application let me change to Allow Overlay and all was well. The problem is that there was no
documentation of this, and the Primary application doesn't even install in your
Windows Start/Hauppauge folder. You have
to know to go to the Program Files/WinTV folder in Windows Explorer and then know
to run Primary from there. Fortunately,
a) I've had this issue in the past with WinTV, and b) I have a tech guru who's
used Hauppauge for years and knew what the issue was. Most people likely won't be as lucky.
It's a difficult call here.
I've tested Hauppauge WinTV in various versions over the years, and even
used some. In most ways, they're extremely
good. The programming and documentation
issues have always existed, but ultimately they're things one can get past with
a bit of time and sweat, and the results of the program were worth it. The annoying freezing-up problem here did get
resolved, though its existence caused some initial headache. If you're looking for a new device and have
digital cable, the HVR-1600 is probably worth getting over the PVR-350. You lose the radio, but gain some video
improvements. However, if you already
have the 350, there really isn't much reason to upgrade.
Trevor Baylis, who invented the first wind-up
radio (and helped found the company Freeplay, whose wind-up lantern was
reviewed here in
August), now has come up with the first wind-up MP3 player, the Eco Media
Player. Retailing for $350 with 1 GB of expandable
memory, the device runs videos on 1.8-inch screen, has FM and will play music
for 40 minutes on a wind-up – and can serve as an LED flashlight, mobile phone
recharger and has a voice recorder, photo viewer and data storage . So, you'll never have to worry about running
out of power or re-charging again, particularly if you're away from a power
source, camp out or travel overseas.
Note: The Writers Guild of America, East neither implicitly nor
explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article.
Copyright 2007, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved.
Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He
also wrote a regular technology column for WGA.org Online and the
Television Academy Online. A screenwriter, he served for five years as
a member of the WGA, west website editorial board and Editorial