PC Tuner Update: Pinnacle HD Ultimate USB Tuner Tested; New Tuners From AMD

I’ve had a chance to test the Pinnacle PCTV HD Ultimate Stick in five locations in four cities—Los Angeles, Burbank, New York and Philadelphia and can report its performance is comparable to that of the Pinnacle HDTV Pro Stick and the Hauppauge HVR-950. It works well with TSReader Pro using the ATSCBDA driver. SNR is available in the TSReader status display. The amazing thing is you can indeed plug it into a laptop and have it work without any software being installed on the laptop! The drivers, firmware and program are all on the flash drive in the HD Ultimate Stick. I didn’t have to do an installation using the provided CDs. They offer enhanced functions and editing. No new folder appeared in “Program Files.”

While it takes a bit longer to install the drivers and start up the software from the built-in flash drive than to simply plug in a tuner and run software off the hard disk, the wait is reasonable. The flash-based software provides PVR functionality that stores programs as an MPEG transport stream, DiVX, or MP4. It can also transfer stored TV programs to a DVD.

Mark Little of Pinnacle was kind enough to send me some technical information on the chip. He confirmed the Ultimate uses the EMpia controller (an EM2882) but what surprised me was the tuner used an AMD/ATI T316 ATSC demodulator. This is the first time I’ve seen an ATI ATSC demodulator used in a USB stick and so far I’m impressed with the performance.

At the Los Angeles test site I found Ultimate was unable to decode one station the HVR-950 could decode using the same whip antenna provided with the Pinnacle tuner for both receivers. This may have been an anomaly because I didn’t see any difference in tuner performance at the other sites. Multipath performance appeared at least as good as the LG chips used most other USB tuners (including the HD Pro Stick) and while it is tough to compare in the field, I would say in some cases it may be better.

Pressing ALT plus the “I” key will display received signal strength and quality on a scale from 1 to 100 when using Pinnacle’s software. I didn’t see that mentioned in the printed documentation or in the documentation in the unit’s flash drive. The display is more readable than that of the HD Pro Stick, although not as good in visibility or speed as the standalone signal monitor applications from AutumnWave, FusionHDTV and Hauppauge.

The beta software I used was generally stable. I experienced one “Blue Screen of Death” in Windows which appears to have been caused by the laptop trying to go into suspend while receiving a DTV signal in the background (not the active window) with several other programs running.

Since then, I’ve used the tuner continuously with no problems except for the need to restart the program or, worst case, remove and reinsert the Ultimate after leaving it on an HD signal with a lot of errors. If you try out the tuner and find the performance degrades after a while, try restarting the program. I didn’t experience that problem under extreme multipath conditions in NYC. Perhaps because I wasn’t stressing the laptop’s processor as much as I was in the other cases, it worked fine for several hours.

It is possible some of these problems may have been due to the use of the beta software released late last week that includes digital cable ClearQAM capability. I haven’t had a cable system available for testing, so can’t report on the results. Pinnacle warns it may take a long time to scan through all the channels on a digital cable system. Visit Pinnacle’s PCTV HD Ultimate Stick support page to download updated drivers and software.

AMD introduced new HDTV tuners in its ATI TV Wonder line. One of the three tuners is the TV Wonder 650 Combo USB, which includes analog and digital tuners. AMD says it is possible to watch and record a digital TV program while watching or recording an analog TV channel. Like the Pinnacle Ultimate USB stick, it includes the ability to receive ClearQAM unencrypted digital cable TV signals as well as over the air ATSC broadcasts. The 650 Combo USB has an MSRP of $149. The other two tuners, which are PCI/PCI Express cards, offer similar capability and are priced at $99. The tuners use ATI Theater ATSC reception technology, perhaps the same T316 chip used in the new Pinnacle tuner reviewed above.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. As vice president of Broadcast Technology for NBCUniversal Local, H. Douglas Lung leads NBC and Telemundo-owned stations’ RF and transmission affairs, including microwave, radars, satellite uplinks, and FCC technical filings. Beginning his career in 1976 at KSCI in Los Angeles, Lung has nearly 50 years of experience in broadcast television engineering. Beginning in 1985, he led the engineering department for what was to become the Telemundo network and station group, assisting in the design, construction and installation of the company’s broadcast and cable facilities. Other projects include work on the launch of Hawaii’s first UHF TV station, the rollout and testing of the ATSC mobile-handheld standard, and software development related to the incentive auction TV spectrum repack.
A longtime columnist for TV Technology, Doug is also a regular contributor to IEEE Broadcast Technology. He is the recipient of the 2023 NAB Television Engineering Award. He also received a Tech Leadership Award from TV Tech publisher Future plc in 2021 and is a member of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society and the Society of Broadcast Engineers.