Big HDTV Promise From a Small Stick

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In my quest to get good digital pictures without cable or satellite service, I've tried TV tuners that come installed in flat-panel sets, in set-top boxes, and as add-on cards for a desktop PC. Surprisingly, none have done much better at pulling in a crisp signal than the tiny PCTV HD Pro Stick from Pinnacle Systems ($130 list price).

Pinnacle has aimed the gadget at travelers, including a small antenna that suggests you could convert your laptop to a TV while you, say, wait at an airport gate. Don't bother. Like other digital TV tuners that I've plugged into desktop PCs, I've found the accompanying software too buggy–and the overall experience too frustrating–to recommend it to most people.

The size of a pack of gum, the device plugs into the USB port of a computer and, with software that Pinnacle includes, turns it into a television. And it was able to pull in sharp, high-definition TV signals from over-the-air broadcasts. It also comes with an equally small, mostly usable, remote control for changing channels and adjusting volume.

Software does the work of a TV, or even a TiVo–changing channels and recording programs for later viewing. But the software that accompanies the Pinnacle HD stick was slow at changing channels, balky at downloading guide data on programs, and unreliable in recording them. Part of the problem might be that my notebook PC barely met the minimums for handling high-definition programming, which are hefty (at least a 1.7-GHz processor and a gigabyte of memory).

But from experience with other digital tuners made for PCs, I suspect these products just aren't ready for prime time. Making a cheap TiVo, and one without subscription fees, is an attractive but difficult process.

Still, Pinnacle's HD stick offers promise in getting so much from such a small device–if only its overall performance were bigger.