03.What to look for
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.