Once upon a time there was a very broad dividing line with broadcast gear completely on one side and consumer electronics on the other. In those days, to capture color video you needed a thousand-pound machine which, depending on options, could easily run $100,000.
That dividing line began to shrink sometime in the 1980s, and got much thinner as we headed into the 21st century. Now, for the most part, you have to look really hard to even see it at all. Anyone with a reasonable limit on his or her credit card can walk into a big box store and come out the other door with prosumer—and even consumer—gear with specs that would pale anything the 1960s broadcast engineer had to offer.
The Hauppauge folks have been around for some time, and their name should be no stranger to TV Technology readers, as Doug Lung and others have reported on the company's various DTV demodulator products—in particular their USB "stick" tuners. Their fairly recent HD PVR product looked intriguing, as the box proclaimed in big letters "Record High Definition TV to your PC." The resolution stated is 1080i, with H.264 compression being employed. Even though this was marketed as a consumer product, some television station/production house applications came to mind.
The price point is certainly low enough to make the Hauppauge unit attractive (this amount wouldn't even have purchased a reel of 2-inch videotape back in the good old days) and it seemed that it might be interesting to put the HD PVR through its paces.
The Hauppauge Computer Works HD PVR with remote control The company was nice enough to promptly send out a review unit, but as the family HD television gear is located at a weekend home about 50 miles from town, some amount of time passed before the review got started. (As is frequently the case, other weekend pleasantries such as leaf removal, gutter cleanings, lawn mower repair and like activities won out over spending time in setting up and working the kinks out of something that involved a PC.)
Eventually, my son, Andrew, happened to be home on a semester break and asked about the Hauppauge box parked next to the family room big-screen 1080p TV receiver. I owned up to starting, but not finishing the evaluation, and he decided to take up the slack. (I had to go out and point up some brick work.)
As he did a lot of the "hands-on," in terms of hooking the unit up and getting it to run, it's appropriate that he add his words to the "In Use" section of this review.
The Hauppauge HD PVR consists of a single metal and plastic box, measuring about 7x8x3 inches. The rear literally bristles with connectors—RCAs, optical, power input and more. Additional RCAs on the front are for audio and composite video, along with an S-Video connection. The small manual explains that the unit works with multiple types of video. It explains that the device converts video to an H.264 format with AAC audio for recording and that recordings are stored as .TS format files. Resolutions can run from 480i to 1080i and recording data rate is adjustable between 1 and 13 Mbps. The product is bundled with ArcSoft TotalMedia Extreme and MediaConverter software to allow recordings to be made, and for burning AVCHD format recordings on a Blu-ray drive.
The HD PVR is intended to be used with a cable box or satellite receiver that can supply HD component video. There are matching input and output connectors for this purpose. There's also a connection for an IR source that is to be placed near the IR detector in your cable box.
My country place is so far out in the boonies that no sane CATV company would ever consider passing it, and there won't be any sat TV installed until it becomes a full-time residence. However, I did have a Samsung 8-VSB demodulator for off-air HD reception. It has component video output connectors and was a natural for interfacing with the Hauppauge. As for a computer, Hauppauge's minimum "system requirements" include an Intel Core Duo or equivalent, 512 MB of RAM (with 1 GB recommended), a graphics card with 256 MB (or more) of memory, a sound card, 220 MB of free hard drive space and Windows XP with service pack 2, or Vista 32. A fairly new laptop kept for CAD work came very close to this configuration and became the machine that the Hauppauge software was installed on.
The application loaded without any glitches—almost. (We found that the interface module had to be connected to the computer first.) When all cables were in place—RBG video in and out, power and USB—and the software loaded, the record function was initiated on the laptop and everything looked set on go. We monitored the recording on the big screen HD display unit, thinking that we were looking at an "E-to-E" connection. After several minutes of some Saturday morning 1080i, it was time to stop down and have a look at what we'd captured.
When the playback mode was initiated though, it appeared we'd done something wrong. The laptop displayed the captured video on its small screen, but the big HD display was blank. No amount of cable swapping or jiggling or playing with computer menus seemed to help.
After several minutes, and strictly as an act of complete desperation, we opened up the instruction sheet supplied with the PVR. There was plenty of information on cabling up everything (we'd done it correctly), installing the software, setting up the IR blaster (something we didn't do, as we didn't have a cable box or sat receiver), and running the application. We found a "Troubleshooting" section on page 14, written in Q&A format. Our problem was addressed and resolved in the third Q&A:
"Can I output files I've recorded with my HD PVR or other content from my PC back to an external TV monitor through the component video outputs?"
The answer was a flat "no," with the explanation that the PVR can't play back video to an external monitor, and the component outputs on the box aren't really outputs (E-to-E or otherwise), but merely a passthrough for monitoring while recording.
While the captured video looked reasonably decent on the laptop's screen, it certainly didn't have the impact it would have if viewed on a decent HD display—say 36-inches or larger. As far as these reviewers go, this was a show stopper, as there are other ways to capture and view television programs on a computer. The laptop used didn't have a Blu-ray disc burner, so that option—clunky and indirect as it would be—was not open to us.
That's where the evaluation and experimentation process more or less stopped. We can't say that Hauppauge is deceptive in their description of the HD PVR, as the box does state that you can record HD programs on your computer's hard drive and "play them back on your PC screen…" However, this is on the rear of the box.
The front of the package—in substantially larger type—advises that you can "record high definition to your PC" and at first glance someone might make the inference, as we did, that if you can record HD, you can play it back directly on your big HD display. (The package artwork is enticing, as it depicts a football game in beautiful color and resolution.) Returning to the rear of the box, there's another eye-catching header that says "Watch HD PVR recordings on a PC or TV set." You have to read for a bit before learning that the latter is only possible if you first burn a disc.
Fast Facts Application
High-definition video recording
Low price, small size
MSRP is $249
Hauppauge Computer Works | 632-434-1600 | www.hauppauge.com Even though it was there in print, a call was made to one of Hauppauge's engineers in hopes that somehow we'd gotten it wrong, or maybe there was some new software to download that would make direct HD display playback possible. Nope—no misunderstanding. The only way to see the recorded content is to view it on the PC display, burn a disc, or convert the output to a format that can be played on an iPod or PlayStation 3.
The Hauppauge HD PVR is an interesting little box, allowing fairly high quality audio/video recordings to be made and played back to the display screen of the computer it's paired with. However, not being able to directly view the recordings on a big screen 1080 display is quite disappointing. Yes, this could be done by purchasing and adding in third-party hardware/software, or by obtaining a Blu-ray drive and burning AVCHD format recordings for playback to the big screen display. However, in this respect, the company seems to have missed the whole point of HD viewing enjoyment. I'd aver that the images on the laptop screen are pleasing, but their limited size detracts from the high-definition aspect. Ditto the audio system of the average laptop, or the average computer workstation for that matter. To have to add anything beyond a set of input and output cables to the audio/video source and display devices negates the utility of a recorder and amounts to a kludge. To require the burning of discs to see a show in HD is expecting a bit much from users.
Hauppauge has demonstrated that they can minimize H.264 encoding functionality to fit within a very small package. It would seem that it would be equally easy to shrink down H.264 decoding, and then the HD PVR product would be a lot more complete.
In fairness, we spoke with one of the Hauppauge engineers and voiced concerns about this. He said the company was aware of this shortcoming and would possibly be addressing it sometime in the future.
So, for now, if you want to record HD from a cable box or sat receiver and view it on a computer (and I guess that a lot of people are very content in doing so), my recommendation would be to purchase the Hauppauge unit and combine it with your computer. However, if you want a fully functional "standalone" HD record/playback system, you might want to wait until Hauppauge adds H.264 decoding, or possibly look into other methodologies for recording and playing back HD.
James E. O'Neal is technology editor at TV Technology and is also a retired broadcast engineer. Andrew J. O'Neal is his son, and is in his junior year at Virginia's Radford University. They have collaborated on many father-son projects involving various technologies.