HD broadcasts looked sharp and had gorgeous color and glorious digital sound.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Pinnacle 'stick' brings HD TV to your Windows or Mac laptop

Nov. 25, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   You don't need an HD TV set to watch live high definition TV shows. You can watch them on your laptop computer.
   You can even record them while you're doing something more important -- while you're doing homework, maybe. (Mom! Dad! That's a hint!) You can then play back your programs at a more convenient time. Best of all, you can rewind live TV any time you want -- even when you're not recording -- just as you would do with a TiVo.
   What makes this all possible is a new USB device from Pinnacle barely half the size of a Snickers bar. The Windows version is called PC TV Ultimate Stick; the Mac version is TV for Mac HD Stick. They're each $129.95. You should be able to find them at electronics stores locally and on the Web, and you can order directly from Pinnacle at www.pinnaclesys.com.
   The TV stick is easier to use than it is to describe. You simply plug the TV stick into a USB 2 port -- that's the kind all newer computers have -- and position the whip antenna so that it's as high as possible. You'll see a controller on your screen for choosing channels and for turning the recording on and off. A separate menu shows an up-to-date program guide -- your laptop needs an Internet connection for this feature -- and, with a few clicks or key presses, you can watch a channel in the program guide live or set it up for unattended recording.
   Digital channels looked great on the TV stick. I was able to pick up digital versions of all the commercial network stations along with a group of locally broadcast PBS feeds. HD broadcasts were spectacular. They looked sharp and had gorgeous color and glorious digital sound. Watching them full-screen was a thrill.
   But analog stations -- the old-fashioned kind, in other words -- usually had ghosts, wavering pictures and swishy sound. This didn't matter at all because I watched and recorded the digital stations instead.
   The recording function works like the popular TiVo device. You can rewind live TV, watch what happened a few minutes ago and then fast-forward back to the present -- an act that seems positively unnatural until you get used to it -- and you can go channel surfing just like you do with a regular TV. The TV stick even comes with the world's smallest full-function remote control, about the size of a Twix bar. It worked well even when I aimed it away from my computer.
   I tested the Mac version of the TV stick on my MacBook Pro, an Apple laptop. (The Windows version operates much the same way, so all my comments apply to both versions.) The MacBook Pro had enough processing power, using a dual-core Intel CPU, to handle a full 1080i HD TV signal without dropping frames, and a similar Windows laptop, using the same dual-core chip, will show the same results.
   But older, slower laptops won't do as well. In addition to a fast processor, your laptop will need a lot of disk space. Each hour of HD TV takes up 7 or 8 gigabytes of hard drive space. Recording a couple of shows a night for a week could eat up all the free space on a typical 80 GB hard drive, so be sure to use the built-in menu to delete shows you've already watched or don't care to see. And be forewarned that the TV stick is always capturing video and audio for its "live replay" function, and this can use up many hundreds of megabytes.
   The Windows version lets you save recordings in a variety of formats, so you could put them on a DVD or watch them on a video-capable iPod. But I was able to do the same thing with recordings I made with the Mac version, simply by locating them (they're in the Documents folder) and dragging them to my video-conversion software, VisualHub, from www.techspansion.com.