USB TV tuner reviews

With a USB digital high-definition TV tuner and a laptop you can take your HDTV on the road.
 
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01 .Introduction

Test results for 12 USB HDTV tuners priced from $34 to $127

  • A USB tuner can effectively turn your laptop or PC into a TV and digital video recorder (DVR).
  • Software is inconsistent but most devices work with Windows Media Center. 
  • A fixed outdoor antenna is needed for best results.

A USB TV tuner for your PC brings with it the promise of crystal clear digital TV picture and sound, more stations – both standard and high-definition – and advanced recording functions such as time shifting. These thumb-size devices can turn your laptop into a full TV and digital video recorder (DVR) almost anywhere you go. 

We took 12 of the latest models out across Sydney and the greater west for a road test to see how well they work in real-world conditions, both with a normal household antenna and with a portable antenna, where provided.

Models tested

  • AV Labs AVL683LE
  • AVerMedia AVerTV Volar M
  • AVerMedia AVerTV Volar HD
  • Blaze HDTV Tuner
  • Compro Technology Videomate U90
  • DVico FusionHDTV Nano+
  • Elgato DTT DVB-T Freeview TNT TDT
  • Hauppauge MiniStick-HD
  • Kaiser Baas Netbook TV Stick
  • Leadtek DTV Dongle Gold
  • MyGica DVBT mini TV Stick
  • PCTV NanoStick

Although we tested using laptop computers, these USB devices could just as easily plug into your PC and large screen at home, but will they do as good a job? Based on our test results the answer is ‘yes’. If you plugged the USB TV tuner into a standard rooftop antenna most would give you a high quality reception and, using the hardware in your PC, all the advantages of a lounge room DVR. 

digital video recorder (DVR) combines digital reception with a hard disc drive. It functions similar to a VCR but records television in digital format. DVRs have the same functions as VCRs (recording, playback, fast forwarding, rewinding, and pausing) plus the ability to jump forward or backward instantly.

TOP TIP

If you are using a version of Windows that comes with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software, you may want to try it as an alternative to the software that comes with the USB TV tuner. 



 
 

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USB-TV-tuners

TABLE NOTES Price Price paid, as of August 2010 Ease of Use (60% of overall) includes evaluation of hardware and software installation and use. The software evaluation covered the installation, help provided, tuning, recording, the controls (remote control and software), playback of recorded programs, time shifting and desktop operation. Performance (40% of overall) includes both HD and SD versions of the five main digital channels broadcast in the greater Sydney area – ABC, SBS, Seven, Nine and Ten. Specifications Hybrid tuneris one tuner that can be configured to act as an analog tuner or a digital tuner, Dual tuner is similar to a hybrid tuner, except there are two independent tuners on the card; MCX is a coaxialRF connector socket 30% smaller than a standard coaxial connector; MMCX socket is a coaxial RF connector but smaller than MMX; Coaxial socket is a standard RF socket. Features EPG (Electronic Program Guide) support is an on-screen guide to scheduled broadcast television or radio programs; Teletext a television information retrieval service; Subtitles/captions are textual versions of the dialog in films and television programs; PIP (Picture In Picture) displays one or more programs in inset windows while the main is displayed on the full TV screen; POP (Picture Outside Picture) allows the user to divide the screen into two same-size pictures, enabling viewing of a second program; Auto tuning automatically configures and tunes the available broadcasts; Time shifting is the recording of programming to a storage medium to be viewed or listened to at a later time; Wake up recording enables the user to resume/begin recordings form a standby mode; PVR functionality is a device that records video in a digital format to a disk drive or other memory medium within a device. TABLE NOTES [A] USB tuner does not feature a connection for a portable antenna, so does not come bundled with one. [B] The device works in Linux out of the box. To watch TV use one of many Linux programs, such as Me TV available in Ubuntu software center.

Our testing proves you don’t have to pay top dollar to get a decent USB TV tuner. Though one of the more highly priced units finished at the top of our table – the $94 PCTV Nanostick – our second-placed unit, the AV Labs AVL683LE, was the third-cheapest in our round-up at only $40.

The lowest-priced MyGica DVBT mini TV Stick ($34) and Leadtek DTV Dongle Gold ($50) were not far behind in overall score. This last model has twin tuners, so you can watch one channel while recording another. The $60 Compro Technology Videomate U90 also has this feature. The DVico FusionHDTV Nano+ had great performance using a fixed antenna, but was let  down badly by its software and had no portable antenna. 

The Kaiser Baas Netbook TV Stick had very good software and onboard storage, but was let down by its performance. We found the Blaze HDTV Tuner has an excellent EPG and is easy to tune but feels sluggish in tuning and operation.

The most expensive unit tested, the Elgato DTT DVB-T Freeview TNT TDT, works with Windows Media Center without having to install anything. Recording is easily automated and very good.

Features to look for

  • Portable antenna or socket A portable antenna can be useful if you’re in an area with strong digital reception, but in most cases it’s no substitute for being attached to a rooftop antenna. All but two of the models on test included a portable antenna.
  • Storage card slot for saving recordings and installing software and drivers directly from the USB device itself. Only one of the devices on test, the Kaiser Baas Netbook TV Stick, came with built-in storage and software as it is designed with netbooks in mind, which usually don’t have an optical drive.
  • USB extension cable This reduces the chance of electrical interference from the laptop and provides flexibility to position the dongle rather than have it stick directly out of your laptop, reducing tension on the USB connector caused by stiff coaxial cable. It also reduces the liklihood of the dongle being bumped and dislodged from the USB port.
  • Twin tuners will let you record one program while watching another, but will generally cost more. Of those on test only two included twin tuners and both were surprisingly affordable, the Leadtek DTV Dongle Gold ($50) and the Compro Technology Videomate U90 ($60).
  • Hybrid tuner means the device can receive both analog and digital TV signals. Only one of the devices tested was a hybrid tuner (DVico FusionHDTV Nano+, $94). This feature is becoming less useful, with analog TV progressively being switched off. The analog switch-off will continue progressively around Australia and finish with Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and some remote regions by late 2013.
  • Remote control can make using the TV tuner much easier, letting you sit back and relax just as with your lounge room TV. Nine of the units on test come bundled with a remote control. Two remote controls stood out from the others: The Hauppauge MiniStick-HD remote was the closest to a TV remote, with good- sized prominent buttons all around; the PCTV NanoStick is  small and chunky but gives good tactile feedback. Though it has small keys, it has good button positioning and was excellent overall.

DVB-T is Digital Video Broadcasting-Terrestrial. It is the standard for digital TV in Europe and Australia, but not New Zealand.

EPG (Electronic Program Guide) is an on-screen menu for program information that simplifies navigation and recording.

HDTV is high-definition digital television (HDTV).  

PIP (picture in picture) presents a second program in a small window, so you can monitor other stations at the same time and swap between them.

POP (picture outside picture) divides the screen into two same-size pictures, for viewing a second program.

Subtitles (captioning) is intended to assist viewers with hearing impairment or to translate foreign languages.

Teletext is an onscreen text-based information service.

Time shifting is the recording of programs for later viewing, using a digital video recorder (DVR) or a computer with a TV tuner. Some DVRs let you start watching a recorded show from the beginning even while the rest of the show is still being recorded.

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