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The digital TV transition – now two years over, and counting – has resulted in a cornucopia of portable DTV receiver products. After all, digital TV and computers go together like soup and sandwich (sorry, Campbell’s!)! Some of these receivers work very well; others not so well.

 

For many years, my top-rated PC/DTV tuner was the OnAir Solution HDTV-GT. Introduced in 2006, it did everything right, including outboard MPEG stream decoding, a process that put quite a load on the CPU of Windows XP operating systems.

 

That was then; this is now. The US importer of OnAir products shut its doors in 2010, and operating systems have evolved far beyond XP. So it was time to look for a replacement PC/DTV tuner.

 

Timing is everything. At CES 2011, Hauppauge Computer Works announced its latest PC/DTV tuner product, the WinTV Aero-M. It works so well that you can finally bury your HDTV-GTs and never look back. And, it’s a lot smaller, too. What’s more; the Aero-M also receives the new ATSC MH services, and there are a few of them operating in major TV markets.

Hauppauge's WinTv Aero-M is super-compact.

Incidentally, if you work with wireless audio and need to conduct spot checks for activity on UHF digital TV channels, the Aero-M should be part of your tool kit.

 

WHAT’S INSIDE

 

Not much! The Aero-M is a very compact, 2.75” long USB stick design with a built-in whip antenna. Unlike the HDTV-GT, it does use your laptop or desktop’s CPU to decode MPEG and convert it to video. But of course, your laptop is likely to be running the Windows 7 OS, which is more than ready for the challenge.

 

In addition to the built-in whip, Hauppauge provides a SMB-type adapter (push-on) that breaks out to a standard F-style thread. The connector pops in and out, so be careful not to lose it! You can connect any antenna you want to this input, and you should use larger antennas with the Aero-M as its built-in whip is only six inches long and won’t provide enough signal induction unless you are about 10 miles or less from any antenna tower.

 

And of course, VHF signals require a much longer wavelength than UHF, so don’t expect much performance from channels 2 through 13 with the built-in whip. There are plenty of other options out there for VHF reception – Radio Shack’s #15-1874 budget VHF/UHF antenna works just fine and will cost you all of $13.

 

SET UP AND OPERATION

 

The supplied software loads easily and guides you through tuner configuration. You can select channel scans for regular ATSC channels, MH channels, and even unscrambled QAM (digital cable) channels. The process takes just a few minutes and you will be provided with a channel list which you can prioritize.

 

Changing channels is as simple as hitting the up/down buttons on your computer, or opening the ‘Find Channel’ menu option. You can also record the transport stream from any station (including MH) for later playback – a useful feature when you are checking for quality of service. Hauppauge also provides a ‘snapshot’ button for capturing still images from channels.

Here's the ATSC chanel scan menu.

You can view programs in variable window sizes, or go full screen. The native aspect ratio is 16:9, but you can also select 4:3. If a given program has multiple streams of audio, you can toggle between them, and of course, closed captions are supported.

 

The Aero-M, like all PC/DTV products, uses your hard drive as a digital video recorder, and you can schedule programs to watch by time interval and image quality. This feature can be handy when you are traveling and want to watch a program that’s broadcast when you are out to dinner, or at a meeting. Recording are also saved in the transport stream (TS) format.

 

I also found the Aero-M works perfectly with the latest build of TSReader, which is an MPEG-2 transport stream analyzer program. TSReader allows you to identify individual MPEG programs in a stream multiplex, check bit error rates, and verify streaming bit rates. It works with any system using MPEG-2 encoding,  and hopefully there is an MPEG-4 AVC version in the works.

Here's an NBC HD program viewed inside the factory default window setting.

IN USE

 

The key to any ATSC PC receiver is its adaptive equalizer. Most echo and drop-out problems with ATSC were solved with generation 5 adaptive equalizers, which were used in the OnAir HDTV-GT. The Aero-M relies on Gen 6 adaptive equalizer technology, which means it’s less sensitive to echoes and cancellation. That in turn results in fewer drop-outs of programs and also reception in ‘tough’ areas, such as cities with lots of tall buildings, deep valleys, and fringe areas.

 

I’ve used the Aero-M numerous times on the road in Las Vegas, New York City, Philly, and Palm Springs, and it has performed above expectations in every location. Reception hasn’t been an issue anywhere, aside from the occasional drop-out on very weak signals.

 

ATSC MH signals are even more robust, as they have lots of forward error correction built-in. Of course, MH programs are designed for much smaller screens, so the image quality isn’t very good on a laptop screen. On the other hand, full HD programs (720p and 1080i) display beautifully on laptops. My new Toshiba M645 has Harmon-Kardon mini-speakers and sounds great with digital programs, and I can also connect the output through HDMI to a TV and listen to surround sound audio.

Don't expect high image quality from ATSC MH stations - the image size is optimized for smart phones and portable mediap layers, not laptops or TV screens.

I don’t have any major issues with the Aero-M. The tiny whip antenna could be easily damaged, which is why I usually travel with a compact panel antenna instead. Every now and then, after watching an MH channel, I can’t select a conventional ATSC channel, but most of the time channel changing is seamless and quick.

 

If you are a fan of digital TV or need to diagnose ATSC signals on the road, then you should add the Aero-M to your tool kit.  And you can’t beat the price: Buy the WinTV Aero-M directly from Hauppauge’s Web store for $59.95, or shop around –  I’ve seen it for as low as $48 online.  Such a deal!

Posted by Pete Putman, July 19, 2011 9:36 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.