It’s been pretty lean pickings for laptop owners and technophobes interested in watching television on their PC. Whether you were a technophobe that was unwilling to open up your PC, or a laptop owner who didn’t have that option, you were forced to purchase an external PC TV card. And these – to be quite honest – have tended to be rather naff. The connecting USB 1.1 technology employed in these devices to get the TV single from the tuner to the PC, simply wasn’t fast enough and all the compensatory compression technologies that were designed to get around this didn’t do a very good job. Basically, to get enough bandwidth and thus a quality image, you needed to buy an internal PCI TV card and that ruled out laptops and forced novices to get proficient with a screwdriver. Thankfully this is all about to change, because we have a TV Tuner based solely on the revised and much faster USB 2.0 format, meaning compression is no longer an issue and now - thankfully for many novices - neither is the need to rummage around the internal workings of your PC.
The ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0 is the first TV tuner we have had in the labs based only on this far speedier protocol, though others from the likes of Hauppauge, MSI and Korean based company Twinhan will no doubt be hot on its heels. I can’t help but wonder why this move to USB 2.0 has taken so long, but I guess the answer is that from a commercial point of view a company wants its product to be applicable to as many users as possible, and that means USB 1.1 compatibility. Anyway, back to the card in hand.
Our TV Wonder USB 2.0 is a final retail sample so, although it was missing its packaging, it is identical to what you will see in stores. Saying that, ATI hasn’t sold directly under its own brand in the UK for over a year now, so it will most likely have one of its board partners’ names tacked onto the front. But under whatever guise, the TV Wonder offers some great features. On top of its USB 2.0 interface it can receive its signal from an aerial, composite video or S-Video sources. You can also schedule and record TV programmes, pause and rewind live television, capture video in MPEG 1/2/4, AVI and Windows Media formats, snag images directly from the screen, and even set the television up as your desktop wallpaper.
It is an impressive feature set, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the look of the tuner itself. Not that the design is particularly bad, it’s just uninspiring and, at roughly the same size as a PDA but over an inch thick, it’s also on the chunky side. Matters aren’t helped either by the TV Wonder’s external power cable which has a surprisingly large power brick and requires a thirsty 6V. In its favour, everything feels solidly constructed and seems to have the necessary durability to be carried around, knocked, and thrown into bags – such is the life of a travelling laptop owner.
Another feather in its cap is the installation process, which – despite Microsoft’s frustrating insistence on making you manually confirm the install of each driver – takes a mere three steps: Run the software CD, plug in the TV Wonder, and restart the computer. Scanning for channels is equally straightforward, thanks to the setup wizard and it takes less than two minutes to run a complete frequency check.
After this is finished, it’s possible to fine tune the colour and gamma settings for each of your channels but for me this was unnecessary because the high point of the TV Wonder USB 2.0 is the quality of its picture. I live in a strong reception area which shows me the full potential of this tuner and I can safely say it stands up to any PCI based non digital TV card I have seen. This may sounds like a let down to describe the TV Wonder as only being on a par with older internal cards given the fuss that is made about the USB 2.0 connection, but since the PCI interface never had any bandwidth problems in the first place, this is actually high praise.