USB TV Tuner: No Cable Replacement

It’s time, I think, to get rid of my cable TV service. It’s over-priced and under-used in my house. These days, I can find most of the shows I like on Hulu or iTunes, anyway. Most, but not all. And there are times when I want to watch live TV. I like the Super Bowl, for example. And I want to watch the season premiere of Lost when it happens — not a day later, when ABC gets around to posting it online.

That’s why I thought a USB TV tuner might be the perfect solution: I could hook it up to my computer and view HD content on my shiny new 20-inch monitor. I’d pay only once — the upfront cost for the TV tuner — and could kiss cable bills goodbye forever.

As it turns out, though, paying cable bills might not be so bad after all, if the few days I’ve spent testing Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1950 USB 2.0 Hybrid TV tuner are any indication. This $149 device has plenty of potential — and in the right circumstances, could prove useful — but it didn’t work well enough in my house to make me think about cutting the cable.

The WinTV-HVR 1950 is actually a small box, slightly smaller but thicker than a CD case, that connects to your computer via USB 2.0. It can capture analog NTSC and digital ATSC channels, as well as ClearQAM (unencrypted cable) channels. You also can connect external video sources (like DVD players) using the tuner’s S-Video and composite video inputs.

Hauppauge recommends connecting an external antenna when scanning for over-the-air channels, but, unfortunately, the company does not supply one with the device. Even a small, portable antenna, like the one included with the company’s WinTV-HVR-950Q I tested a few years ago, would have helped. When I connected the tuner in my home office and scanned for ATSC channels, it found zero. My computer is next to a window, and there are no tall buildings in my neighborhood to block transmission, but when used without an antenna, the WinTV-HVR 1950 was not able to pick up any channels.

When I tried the tuner on my laptop, in a downstairs room in my house, I had better luck, and was able to pick up a handful of over-the-air stations. Still, if you want to use this product on a desktop computer that’s in a fixed location, you’ll need to purchase your own antenna. Unless you happen to have one sitting on your roof, that is. The user manual notes that a roof-top antenna will deliver the best picture, but let’s be serious: who has a roof-top antenna these days? And who’s willing to hook one up just to use a TV tuner with their computer?

Not me. That’s why I switched to scanning for ClearQAM channels. To do so, you need to connect a cable line-in to the WintTV-HVR 1950, so you’ll, presumably, need a cable subscription. You could get by with paying for only the most basic service, I suppose, but doing so defeats my stated goal of going without cable entirely.

But the tuner did find plenty of ClearQAM channels; after scanning for just a few minutes, it identified more than 600 channels. That number was made even more overwhelming when I started watching them on the included WinTV software, and found that the way they were numbered made absolutely no sense. The HD broadcast of what is usually Channel 2 appeared as Channel 12203. Channel 4 was channel 63.10451. Only a few of the stations had names with them; most were represented as only a baffling series of numbers.

None of the channels had any programming information with them either, all of the shows were labeled “Unknown.” That means that if I wanted to record them using the WinTV software, which is actually pretty slick, I’d have to do so manually.

The good news is that all of the channels I was able to watch, both the ClearQAM stations and those that I was able to receive over-the-air without an antenna, looked great. HD picture quality was excellent, and even standard definition programs looked relatively clear. That’s why I think that Hauppauge’s USB TV tuner does have potential. If your computer is portable, or in an area that gets good reception, this device could prove to be cost-effective. But for the rest of us, Hauppauge needs to include an antenna. Until then, I guess I’m stuck paying for cable.