Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q Review
Miami Beach, United States
A few weeks ago I was asked if I wanted to take a look at Hauppauge's latest USB TV tuner.
Hauppauge is a brand that I'm familiar (and comfortable) with. The company primarily designs products that interface with computers to deliver multimedia content for manipulation and archival. I dealt with many of their offerings well over a decade ago, back when the company was really geared towards video-import cards for desktop computers (competing against ATI's freshly released All-in-Wonder video card).
Hauppauge has re-geared in recent years, becoming a big player in the "TV on your PC" market. The product sent to me, the WinTV HVR-950Q, is one of their most recent releases, premiering at the CES tradeshow this past January.
Device Size, Portability
The self-powered USB stick is of a design I haven't seen before. It isn't much larger than a traditional thumb drive, yet sports a coaxial plug integrated onto end. I found that the moderately plump device (as USB sticks go) obstructed an adjacent USB port, but should it become an issue, an extension cable is included.
I'm honestly a little embarrassed to say that I didn't realize that the antenna had a telescoping top until it got caught on something—I'd been using it in its unassuming condensed state, never thinking once to give the top a pull.
The thin remote works with the device's built-in infrared receiver, and is shaped to stow away in a laptop's PCMCIA slot. This wasn't an option with my notebook, as it's equipped with PC Card's physically incompatible successor, the ExpressCard.
I get the general impression that all components would travel well. They're light, compact, and don't feel cheap in the hand.
NTSC, ATSC, and QAM
One of the marketing niches this device has fallen into is its support for both analog and digital over-the-air signals, as well as sporting an integrated Clear QAM tuner (which enables direct reception of unscrambled digital cable channels).
ATSC will (finally) replace the analog NTSC television standard by February 17, 2009 in the United States, and August 31, 2011 in Canada. The high definition television standard can produce wide screen 16:9 images up to 1920×1080 pixels in size—more than six times the display resolution of the earlier ATSC standard.
Further reading: What's the difference between NTSC, ATSC, and QAM?
Using the WinTV-HVR-950Q
Setup with the included CD was simple and straightforward. There were no complications installing on Windows Vista, or annoying "bloatware" applications dropped in without permission.
Hauppauge's principal software offering is a TV tuning and recording application called WinTV. Upon starting the application for the first time, the program prompted to search through and note the available channels. Probably because I figured out too late at the supplied antenna actually extends for better reception, I opted to pluck the analog over-the-air signals it picked up out of the memorized lineup (fuzz, fuzz, and more fuzz).
Using the WinTV software is a somewhat anti-climatic experience. I found the user interface to be rather clunky, and often slow to respond. I never really looked forward to booting it up.
There's a noticeable delay between switching digital channels, much like hitting the 'channel up' button on some satellite setups. This is annoying for a channel-surfing speed freak like me.
Application interface quirks aside, I really never expected to see the kind of quality on my screen from an over-the-air signal that I do with this device. It's simply stunning.
Within minutes I was completely convinced that dumping the fuzzy, analog signal that we've all grown up to know in the United States for a digital broadcast was a fantastic milestone for this country—one that should be embraced, not frowned upon.
Many of the ATSC channels don't broadcast in their full high definition potential (something even more obvious when an HD program is interrupted with a local commercial shot in standard definition), but of those do, I can say with no uncertainty that it's the best looking video image I've ever seen on my laptop. Better than any DVD or movie I've watched on the system was this over-the-air broadcast.
It's a wonderfully strange, pleasing experience to see—so much so that I stopped watching some programs on the TV with fuzzy reception I have here in my hotel room, and started using my laptop.
I found it interesting that the digital over-the-air channels stammered and fragmented if the reception wasn't solid (like a bad satellite connection during a storm). It would seem the days of static fuzz and ugly image ghosting are almost at an end.
Hauppauge WinTV application suite comes with broadcast recording and scheduling capabilities, enabling you to keep a copy of a show you like for later viewing, or pause live TV if you're interrupted.
I tried recoding an episode of CBS's The Unit, which is beautifully broadcast in full HD, where I quickly discovered that recording (or pausing) broadcasts could be dangerous on laptops with limited hard disk space. The hour-long show consumed six gigabytes for the video file it created.
Obviously different resolutions record to differently sized files, but it was clear that my system wasn't going to be recording anything with any regularity.
Intended Audience, Final Thoughts
With a $99 price tag, I look at this device and think about whom it's actually geared towards. Although it'd surely travel well, and has the possibility of being used both domestically and abroad (countries and territories using ATSC), I think that it's best used to enable DVR capabilities at home (and stay there in such a role).
I'm not a user of TiVo and other popular consumer (or cable company provided) DVRs, but I have a feeling that people end up building their own little home DVR solutions because they want to share recordings with others, avoid paying service fees, or want to take their archived shows with them on the road on an external hard drive.
For those interested in such things, the HVR-950Q is a good option.
- Works with Windows XP and Vista, Mac OSX
- Self-powered (doesn't require an AC adapter)
- Comes with a decent external antenna for picking up standard definition and high definition signals
- Supports Clear QAM digital TV
- Live and recorded HDTV has truly outstanding, impressive picture quality
- Smooth, full-screen HDTV playback on average budget notebook
- No out of the box Linux support
- Outdated remote design doesn't stow inside modern laptops
- It isn't obvious that the external antenna extends to improve reception
- Clunky WinTV viewing application
- Not channel surfing friendly
- WinTV 'snapshot still capture' feature never produced a clear image (always came out looking scrambled)
- Very large video recording file size (6GB for one hour in HD)