by Greg Ross
The Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless is a device that promises to free you from cables. Don’t have a cable jack in the room where you want to watch TV? Don’t have a TV tuner built into your laptop? What if you move around a lot in the house, or ou travel frequently and you still want to watch your cable or satellite TV? If any of the above scenarios apply, you may be interested in the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless.
Reasons for Buying
A few months ago I did have an HD Wireless, but ended up returning it because it overheated and stopped working. Since then Pinnacle seems to have upgraded the hardware and firmware to run a little cooler, so I considered purchasing this device again.
Ever since moving to my new place, I have been unable to view TV from my computer. I tried (and failed) to make my USB TV Tuner work well with the Belkin Network USB Hub, and I cannot get a cable jack installed in my room. To make matters worse, the DVR in my apartment is absolutely dreadful, and I’ve been trying to find a decent substitute for some time.
I knew I would have to look into the more exotic solutions for cable in that room. I have been keeping an eye out on the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless since my first run in with it, and when Circuit City had it on sale for $89.96 I decided to try it out one more time!
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What’s In the Box
The HD Wireless comes with almost nothing extra in the box. You get the HD Wireless, the WiFi antennas, a set of composite video cables, the AC adapter, and an outdated driver CD (you’ll want to download the latest drivers and applications directly from Pinnacle, but we’ll get into that later).
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But with so little, the HD Wireless can accomplish a lot. Right out of the box, Pinnacle promises that this device will allow you to easily view your TV from anywhere in the home and even from anywhere in the world. Well, at least if your networking equipment and internet connection is fast enough. Don’t try this with dial-up, folks!
The build quality is less than perfect. The HD Wireless is made from flimsy plastic and the internal electronics have very little cooling capability. Keep this device in a location with excellent ventilation and do not have other devices stacked on top. My last box died due to overheating and even with what appears to be a slightly better cooling solution it still is not ideal.
Installation, Setup, and Options with XP
This device is extremely easy to set up with Windows XP, and Pinnacle clearly made a few improvements to the software for this device in the past year.
Because it does not itself have a dedicated TV tuner, you have to connect it up to a TiVo, Set Top Box, VCR, or similar device to view your TV. The HD Wireless supports S-Video, Composite, and Component video inputs. In this particular review, I hooked up my HD Wireless to a Sony VCR to access the first 125 channels on my cable subscription.
After hooking that up, and turning on the HD Wireless, the rest of the work is done by the software installation.
- Start the wizard.
- Check for software updates, and download if necessary (I highly recommend you download any updates).
- Download any available firmware updates, and install them.
- Connect and get the video preview, and configure basic video settings to improve the quality of video and set up the IR remote blaster.
- Configure the HD Wireless to work with your WiFi network.
- Configure the HD Wireless so you can view its output from anywhere on the internet.
The HD Wireless supports WEP and WPA encryption, which is a major improvement from the last version of software which only supported WEP.
Additionally, other reviews indicate that if you have a desktop the HD Wireless could only work with a physical ethernet connection (which it does have), and it would only broadcast to WiFi devices if it was not plugged into the ethernet jack. This problem has been resolved by Pinnacle thanks to the new software update.
That said, there are still a few "bugs" in the software update at the time of this writing. I was unable to connect to the HD Wireless until I started using my desktop’s WiFi card. After that, set up was a breeze. However, after setting up the device, I was able to use my ethernet-connected desktop and my laptop simultaneously. In fact, once I figured out the networking issues I had the device playing full-screen TV within five minutes.
Installation, Setup, and Options with Vista
Long story short: Pinnacle needs to work on the Vista setup process … quickly.
Unlike my set up experience with XP, my Vista installation on my desktop was completely unsuccessful. Even though I downloaded the latest software and drivers for Vista, turned off every firewall and virus protection software, and pulled every networking trick I knew, I could not get the device working after three hours of troubleshooting.
I was able to get the device working for about 10 minutes, but soon the video got extremely choppy and the PCTV player lost connection with the HD Wireless. As mentioned, after three hours of troubleshooting, re-running the setup wizard (which no longer acknowledged the HD Wireless was on the network), and re-installing every piece of software I could the device just did not work again. It did not help my frustration any when my XP equipped laptop was watching TV at the same time, as shown in this picture:
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Upon investigation, I found on Pinnacle’s website the following blurbs about known issues with this software:
- Intermittent wireless network connection issues under Windows Vista requiring the Setup Wizard to be run again.
- Intermittent wireless network connection issues under Windows Vista requiring the user to disconnect and reconnect to their home network.
Did I mention that neither of these tips helped me fix my connection? Not to mention that this device has been out for quite some time yet Pinnacle still manages to not come up with a solution?
Eight months ago, when I first had this device, this was a known issue with v1.2 of the software package. So why is it still an issue eight months later with software v1.7?
Once I returned to XP with the desktop system the HD Wireless worked perfectly again. Vista users beware.
Now that we’ve vetted a little bit about setup problems, let’s evaluate how well this device performs. Aside from Slingbox series of products, the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless is the only other serious consideration that users will probably contemplate buying, so users should focus on the differences between the two products before buying.
Both devices (I refer to the Slingbox series as a single device) allow the user to view TV from any part of the home or abroad, and both work fairly well for just viewing video. When everything is working, the HD Wireless transmits a video stream that is almost indistinguishable from the video you could view on a TV. That is quite a surprise given the bandwidth constraints of 802.11g networking, and clearly the HD Wireless is using some high quality compression algorithms for the MPEG2 video streams.
Full Screen (view large image)
Windowed view (view large image)
As you can see, even when stretched out to 1920×1200 (full screen on my monitor) the picture looks quite good. In fact, in that picture the HD Wireless was outputting about a 6Mb/s video stream … which is more than sufficient for viewing standard definition TV. Colors were clear and bright, edges as crisp as a TV would offer, and there was little to no pixilation or other anomalies. One would think that the computer was equipped with a standard TV tuner physically connected to a cable jack if they didn’t know better. The software player can be adjusted to take up as much of the screen as you want it to, and one of the above pictures shows the player at its smallest resolution. You can also configure the software player to "Always Stay on Top" and/or view TV in widescreen mode. Widescreen is particularly useful as the HD Wireless always transmits video at 720×480 resolution.
The Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless player software allows you to control the bandwith used by the device in your local network. It gives you to the power to adjust the compression to require anywhere from 2Mb/s all the way up to 16Mb/s, with some tradeoffs in visual quality. Ultimately, I found that anything higher than 3Mb/s looked about the same, so for those readers who have slower networks you may still find this device works well. During the course of evaluating this product, I was never able to reach speeds higher than 7Mb/s on an 802.11g network … which is MORE THAN sufficient for cable TV. I never thought I’d see the day in which TV would be accessible to users without a wired connection, but somehow the HD Wireless and the Slingbox manage to pull it off.
However, when networking conditions are not ideal there will be a slowdown in throughput and degradation in visual quality. These issues seem to occur at random on my network, and sometimes even happen when I am NOT browsing the internet or doing a download. The available bandwidth varies second by second, as packets are dropped or a device has issues, but the PCTV software does manage well by scaling its bandwidth requirements so that the video is still smooth despite harsh conditions.
But all is not well with the networking story. The device seems to enjoy stuttering the video for a few seconds about once every ten minutes, and that really ruins my user experience with the device. It happens without warning and in a variety of conditions. I’ve tested with it maximum and minimum internet activity, with WPA network encryption, WEP encryption, and no encryption at all. One would hope that running no internet activity on a completely unencrypted network would provide enough bandwidth for the HD Wireless to smoothly play, but that is not the case. This occassional stuttering video problem is especially painful if you are trying to record a show, as then it messes up the recording as well.
Additionally, the audio does frequently get out of sync with the video. I don’t want to hear a newscaster’s sentence two seconds after I saw it come out of his mouth! This problem could only be fixed by disconnecting and then reconnecting the PC’s software player to the HD Wireless, which again makes for a poor user experience.
If the bandwidth availability drops below about 0.4Mb/s, you are going to notice it. The video stream looks significantly worse than a TVs, and you might as well be playing it on a 3" screen for all I care. Edges get blurred and jagged, text on TV (like those in news feeds) are unreadable, and overall the video just looks like someone smeared grease all over the recording camera’s lens.
Unlike the Slingbox, the HD Wireless also promises to support full 720p and 1080i/p video viewing out of the box. That is especially good for those who have higher definition cable feeds, but there is a catch. The HD Wireless down-samples these HD streams to standard DVD resolution! So even though it supports HD, it doesn’t support true HD. Pinnacle just did the bare minimum to be able to put HD-compatible on the box and left it at that. Imagine my surprise when a few of my HD channels did not look so good anymore after viewing them with the HD Wireless! Granted, an 802.11g network would have a hard time supporting the bandwidth requirements of full HD video, but Pinnacle pulled a tricky one by advertising this device to be something it is not.
Ease of Usage
The PCTV software player itself gives you only the basic controls, but that is all you really need. Play, pause, record, view live feed, and volume controls are the main user-adjustable controls. Obviously, since we do have to connect to a third party video-supplying device we need some way to interact with that device, thus the PCTV software has a virtual remote included. If you set up the IR blaster with the physical HD Wireless and your TV, the computer based software has the capability to mimic the remote needed.
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The PCTV software has a large library of available remotes (and IR codes) for a variety of devices, and I had no troubling finding profiles for both my VCR and my Comcast DVR within. Users can, if their device does not show up in this list, also tell the PCTV software to "learn" the required set of controls by using the physical remote and pointing it at the IR blaster with the prompted series of commands. For instance, you can tell the PCTV software that the next button press will be "Channel Up", then point the remote at the IR blaster and hit "Channel Up," and then the software records and saves the code into your profile.
Ultimately, this scheme allows you to adjust the channels, VCR settings, and anything else related to your video-supplying device. I myself use the remote to change channels (by pressing up/down or using the virtual number pad), and had I been connected to my DVR at the time I could have used the PCTV software to actually pull up DVR recordings that I previously made.
One major improvement to the remote program is that there is only a small lag from your pressing the button on the computer screen, and your video device responding to the IR blaster’s command. In the v1.2 software, the user may have had to wait up to 10 seconds in order for a button press to register. In the v1.7 software, it takes around half a second to a full second at most.
Unlike the Slingbox, the HD Wireless allows up to four PCs to watch the "TV" at the same time. Granted, all of them have to be watching the same channel, but it is nice to be able to share since the Slingbox allows for only one connection. In addition to the four in-home supported connections, the HD Wireless also allows only one outside user to view the same stream at the same time.
Though I did not get to test this myself, if you are viewing the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless’s output from outside your home you will get a downgraded MPEG4 video stream that apparently is no better than a fourth the quality of the in-home MPEG2 viewing experience. So while you can watch your videos, it may not look as pleasant on the road. That being said, it is still pretty good that Pinnacle managed to do this at all so I cannot complain.
However, the HD Wireless is only supported in Windows XP and Windows Vista32. PC Magazine reported in a review of this device’s precursor that both Pinnacle and the company who originally made this device were working on Mac, Windows Mobile, and Symbian versions of the player software. But that was on 12/11/2006. This is more than a year later, and clearly the promised software was not delivered.
Pinnacle does not advertise nor does it anticipate making this device work with Vista64, any version of Linux, Mac OS X, or other operating systems and devices. That really bothers me as other products from that company do work with those operating systems, and the Slingbox can work with a large number of systems that Pinnacle refuses to support. And as mentioned earlier, the software is definitely not Vista friendly so in all reality you are only guaranteed for this to work with XP.
One nice thing about this software is that it works on virtually any XP machine, regardless of requirements. I have two machines, one of which is an overpowered machine with a quad-core and 3GB of RAM, the other is a single-core undervolted and underperforming but battery-saving processor. And both systems could view TV without major issues or interfering with the available internet bandwidth.
As shown, the PCTV software barely uses any processing power on my desktop system, but eats up about half the processing power of my laptop. With both systems, the viewing experience was about the same … so any user should expect to have a relatively smooth experience with this device.
Desktop CPU usage (view large image)
Laptop CPU usage (view large image)
Furthermore, I found that because the PCTV software scales down its bandwidth requirements as needed, it does not interfere with your overall internet bandwidth availability. Regardless of whether I was watching TV or not, my 3Mbps DSL connection always could run at full speed. These two photos show my internet bandwidth availability while watching TV at the highest possible quality I could get and and my "half-quality" setting. As you can see, both have about the same internet performance.
Speed test at 3.48Mb(view large image)
Speed test at 6.41Mb (view large image)
The PCTV software has two available recording modes. The first is the "time-shift", that is always running, that automatically holds up to the last hour (or any setting you choose) worth of video. This allows you to pause it at any time, go do a few things, and come back to the TV and pick up where you left off. During my testing of this device, the PCTV software needs about 2GB of free space on your hard drive to allow for up to an hour’s worth of "remembered" TV. What is nice is that since the HD Wireless is just spitting video out, each of the four in-home viewers opt to pause, play, and record as they see fit.
If you had the player paused for more than that predefined amount of time, the player continues to record and progressively drops small amounts of the tail end of video. That is exactly how a traditional DVR should work.
The single biggest advantage that the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless has over competing devices is that you can actually record and save TV shows and video clips. Yes, this device is truly a DVR. But Pinnacle still managed to have problems making this work!
First off, the HD Wireless does not allow you to create pre-set recording times, does not interface with any online TV guide programs to record episodes or series, and as mentioned the devices loves to have glitches and screw up the video and/or audio sync. TV Tuner products from Pinnacle themselves, ATI, Hauppauge, and others are more than capable of setting up pre-configured recordings. Those devices also automatically change the channels if need be in order to record a program. The PCTV device does not support this.
Pinnacle claims that with XP MCE or Vista Home Premium/Ultimate, the HD Wireless can be set up as an automated DVR. But it requires one to purchase additional hardware, and again my experience with the HD Wireless has been less than impressive with respect to smooth recording.
Ultimately, I was not able to test the "claimed" ability to pre-set recorded shows for this review.
While this device has made some significant improvements in the last year, there are many problems with this device that Pinnacle has known about for some time … and no updates are currently available.
Setup works for some system and not for others, video glitches often and ruins recordings, audio frequently gets out of sync with video, poor video quality at low bandwidth, down-samples HD video when it claims to allow users to enjoy HDTV, and does not actually record pre-set episodes or timeslots unless you have the right system and the right hardware. There are known issue with the software, like Vista-networking issues, that have no known solution. And despite promises made over a year ago by Pinnacle, the HD Wireless still does not work with Windows Mobile or Mac OS X.
It is not all bad though, as the device does transmit TV somewhat well without impeding on internet usage. The software will work with a wide variety of Windows systems of various power, multiple users can view the same video stream (unlike other products), and set up can be incredibly easy if you have XP. If you are willing to forgive the every-10-to-20-minute-glitches your TV watching experience might actually be enjoyable.
In the end, I would have a very difficult time recommending this product at the $249.99 suggested retail price. Even at the sale price I question the value.
As of 4/14/2008, PCMagazine reported that the original designer of the HD Wireless is coming out with a new version. However, PCMag reports that there are still networking issues with the device, it still has glitches in the video playback, and there are a ton of "promised" features that will probably not be implemented in any reasonable time.
Pinnacle, can you put some effort into this device and make it shine the way it should?