A Look at New USB TV Tuners and Chip Sets

I found time at CES to talk with Hauppauge and Pinnacle about their USB tuner sticks, and to visit demodulator chip manufacturer I recently learned about. I also had a look at a few network DTV receivers.

I found that one of my favorite USB stick tuners, the Hauppauge HVR950, is no longer using the LG demodulator, but as with some other Hauppauge DTV tuners, is using the Auvitek demodulator.

I've discussed the Auvitek demodulator in a previous RF Report. CRC testing found that it had the widest equalizer range of any of the demodulators tested. The Auvitek demodulators are also being used in the latest DVICO Nano ATSC stick demodulator, as well as in the new Artec T18 and T19 demodulators. I was unable to find anyone selling the DVICO Nano or the Artec T19 using a Web search, but at some point the new HVR950 USB ATSC tuners should be widely available through the many retailers selling Hauppauge products.

The Pinnacle HD Ultimate Stick chip set remains unchanged—it uses the AMD/ATI T316 demodulator. In speaking with one of the Pinnacle booth people, I was surprised to hear that the programmers had originally included a better signal strength indicator (possibly with an audible tone to indicate the best antenna position), but the feature was removed when some reviewers complained. I suggested that they consider adding it back in, perhaps as a separate download or configuration setting. The audible signal monitor in the larger AutumnWave OnAir GT USB receiver is still the best I've found for peaking antennas, primarily due to the audible pulsed tone feedback.

Hauppauge has added ClearQAM reception to the HVR950 and will be selling it as the HVR950Q. These tuners should begin showing up in stores this spring. A Hauppauge support engineer said the HVR950Q uses the Micronas chip set. If this is correct, it would be the first USB tuner I've seen with those chips. You may remember that the Micronas demodulator uses the technology developed by Richard Citta when he was at Linx for improved multipath performance. I'm looking forward to seeing how it performs. Tests on the Linx demodulator showed it was able to combine echoes to receive ATSC, even when the uncorrected SNR (due to echoes) was somewhat less than 15 dB.

Last year Silicon Dust showed the HDHomeRun dual tuner networked receiver. The TCP/IP interface allowed easy operation with multiple operating systems. This year, they were joined by other networked tuners offering somewhat different feature sets. The HD Slingbox with ATSC tuner requires the use of Slingbox software and needs a fairly high outbound data speed—1.5 Mbps or more—to deliver HD.

At 6 to 8 Mbps data rates, the HD play looks great, but these speeds will require premium cable services or fiber data services such as Verizon's FIOS to work well. Monsoon Media's HAVA Titanium HD supports streaming up to 8 Mbps, but can also work at lower bit-rates. Video quality was adequate for a small window on a PC at rates as low as 384 kbps, which is within the range of most broadband connections. HAVA also has tuners integrated with 802.11n wireless routers capable of offering very high data rates over a small area. I was told the newer HAVA tuners use the AMD/ATI demodulators.

I'll have more on these tuners and new demodulator chips in future articles.