Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
First up is ADS Technologies' MiniTV USB, which can receive analog NTSC broadcasts. The MiniTV is one of a trio of similarly proportioned USB products from ADS, which typically provides boxier video capture products. The tiny tuner's cousins include the Instant Video To-Go, which uses hardware-accelerated H.264 to convert video for use on iPods and other portable products such as compatible cell phones; and Instant FM, which can receive and record FM or internet radio.
Unfortunately, unlike these products, MiniTV comes with an expiration date, as, the government is set to turn off analog broadcasts in 2009. After that, you can pawn it off to a CES media attendee by pretending it's a priceless 32MB USB digital press kit. (Switched On takes no responsibility for any trampling that may occur as a result of holding this giveaway 20 minutes before the end of press conferences by purveyors of flash memory or plasma televisions.)
MiniTV can record as well as receive analog TV as well as burn it to a CD or DVD. ADS includes a nicely animated Media Center-like user interface for poor-collegian's dorm room integration of TV with with photo and music. A scan of local stations turned up a few beyond the standard seven over-the-air broadcasters. However, a half hour spent with the product quickly reminded me of why so many city dwellers such as myself are slaves to cable; analog broadcasts come in fuzzier than a Tickle-Me Elmo factory. Still, if your rabbit ears attract more than Elmer J. Fudd, the MiniTV should work well.
For about $50 more than the $79 ADS product, Pinnacle offers the PCTV HD Pro Stick. In addition to capturing analog TV, it can receive digital broadcasts -- both in standard and high definition, which means that the HD Stick Pro should keep working long after the analog signal is turned off. Pinnacle has also thrown in a subset of ADS' other products' functionality. It can convert its recorded video to iPods and PSP (albeit without the aid of hardware acceleration) and can present and record internet radio stations within its user interface.
Pinnacle provides a traditional Windows user interface, but the tuner can also interface with Windows Media Center with an additional $40 kit that includes a larger Media Center remote and the IR blasters needed to control digital cable or satellite. Why upgrade? Well, one reason is that, while Pinnacle also provides an electronic programming guide free for a year, it will likely require a subscription fee after that time.
After waiting through a half-hour upgrade process of its software only to be presented with another upgrade, the Pinnacle product offered a standard or "deep" scan of my local broadcasters. Yet, even though the product ships with a clever antenna add-on that can be magnetically attached to a metal surface, analog reception was no better than with the ADS product. However, digital reception got me impatient for 2009. Standard definition content was clear and consistent and high-definition content looked superb, with the exception of a CBS basketball game that experienced small green blocks as throughout the game.
Both products get very warm as they're receiving broadcasts. The Pinnacle one comes with a small remote control, USB extender cable and video capture breakout cable in addition to the relatively large collapsible antenna; a small pouch to keep it all together while traveling would be a welcome addition. That lack of luggage, however, doesn't prevent it from being a great way to catch The Office wherever you make your own office.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.