Digital TV Option 1: Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print

Can vendors make Microsoft Vista ready for the switch to digital TV? Take an in-depth look at two DTV tuners that may have all the answers and learn how solution providers can profit from the transition to digital television.


The PCTV HD Pro Stick is an external device that connects via a USB 2.0 port, which proves to be a very handy way to add digital TV to a PC (or even a notebook system). The unit comes with a stowable telescopic antenna for receiving HD and ATSC broadcasts over the airwaves and can also connect directly to a coaxial cable for analog and Clear QAM signals.

We were quite impressed with the unit's diminutive size and that it also included a tiny remote control and a media cable for connecting other devices using S-Video and RCA connections. In a pinch, the device could be used to capture video and audio from a camcorder, VCR or DVD player. Out of the box, the HD Pro Stick offers support for ATSC (HDTV up to 1080i or SDTV), NTSC, Clear QAM (HDTV up to 1080i or SDTV) and standard broadcast (nondigital) signals, including FM stereo radio. The unit also features full DVR functionality, allowing users to record broadcasts via a schedule or live. The unit also incorporates, thanks to the DVR functions, the ability to pause and rewind live TV.

We followed the included quick-start instructions to install and configure the device and came across our first problem: The company only offers "beta" support for the 64-bit version of Windows Vista and recommends the use of either 32-bit Vista or Windows XP. We installed the beta drivers and the included TVCenter Pro application and ran into several problems with the software. We experienced lockups and a failure for the unit to scan for available broadcast channels (both digital and analog).

A quick call to tech support led us to download a newer version of the drivers and software, which solved most of our problems. Using the included software proved to be quite easy but at times unreliable. For the most part, we were able to scan for Clear QAM channels and tune the identified stations in. The included EPG (Electronic Program Guide) offered no information on most of our ClearQAM channels, but that is more likely an issue with the cable service provider (in our case, Cablevision), which does not release most of its frequency mapping information to the public.

Vista Media Center failed to recognize the device, so we were not able to test broadcast digital or analog signals with the unit under Media Center. Watching and recording content using the bundled software worked quite well for the most part, but we did run into image distortion and video feed lockups when changing channels. To verify that the problems we encountered were due to the lack of full 64-bit Vista support, we also installed the device on a Lenovo ThinkPAD T61P that was running the 32-bit version of Vista. The device and related software worked smoothly under 32-bit Vista and we only experienced some lags when changing channels. Most users will find the performance and reliability acceptable with a 32-bit version of Windows Vista. The company recommends that a Vista PC be equipped with 1GB of RAM, a modern CPU (Pentium 4 2.4GHz or better), a sound and graphics device that supports DirectX 9 and enough free hard drive space to store DVR content (space directly relates to the length of material recorded).

The high points of the PCTV HD Pro Stick include its diminutive size, ease of installation and broad support for most broadcast standards. The low points are its lack of support for 64-bit Vista and Vista's Media Center application. With a price of $99.99, Pinnacle's product proves to be an affordable way to bring digital TV to today's PCs.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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