One of the things we were missing in our setup was a way to get PBS programming for Gabi*–she is a true Sesame Street junkie–or any local broadcasts for that matter. We had thought about getting one of the DTV converter boxes but we didn’t like the idea of breaking apart our “entertainment-flow” since the whole point of the Mini was to consolidate things into one place. After a quick survey of our options we ended up with the Pinnacle HD Stick which retails for approximately $130USD.
My first impressions of opening the box was that the HD Stick is an elegant little piece of hardware, small and unobtrusive, with the focus on being portable. Setting it up was a snap, just connect together the antenna, HD stick, USB extender, and plug it into the Mini. The real challenge comes when trying to find good signals but more on that later.
Before we could get to any of the DVR goodness we still needed to find some signals which the software takes some of the pain out of by providing auto-tuning that ranges from a quick scan that is over in a minute or a laborious scan which can take upwards of ten or more minutes. Both scans can make use of the Pinnacles signal boost which is supposed to help lock in on weaker signals but we did not see much of a difference in the channels we could find and lock onto. This is the real challenge for the viewer regarding DTV, signals are either on or off and there is no middle ground like there is with analog where you can tune in just enough of that show to make out the characters in a field of snow and have passable audio quality. When a DTV signal becomes weak the screen freezes, no audio and no video, and if it persists long enough the screen goes out and you are left looking at a nothing.
The stock hardware, in our case, is doing an admirable job in that it has tracked down fifteen stations (three of them in Spanish but we just love a good Mexican soap opera). When we run into the inevitable “it is too windy, too cloudy, too snowy” situation we just rotate the antenna around a little and the signal pops right back. In contrast, my in-laws are getting DTV using a roof mounted antenna and they only have a slight edge in the number of available channels and similar problems with shows cutting in and out based on atmospheric conditions so kudos to Pinnacle for designing a pocket-sized solution which is competitive with an architecturally sized one. Once we reached a satisfactory number of channels we began testing out the software capabilities.
The software that ships with the unit is very basic, allowing for tuning into the available signals, downloading a program guide from Titan TV, and pausing live TV, anything beyond that requires a software upgrade. After about fifteen minutes of twiddling with the bundled software we upgraded to Elgato’s eyetv3 for approximately $50 which enabled a suite of DVR style options including scheduling recordings by either date and time or keywords about the show, as well as the ability to export recordings to iTunes.
The first thing we realized after recording a couple of shows was that we need more drive space, a lot more drive space. Recording an hour long show consumes around 9GB of drive space so if you plan on queuing up a pile of shows, like we did, then expect to need a massive amount of drive space. I am sure it is tucked away in a help file or manual somewhere detailing how much space is consumed by recording but a nice addition would be a little gauge notifying you of how much drive space you will use up recording or the ability allocate a certain amount of disk space to recording to ensure that you never blow out the whole drive with Word World and Sesame Street.
Exporting shows to iTunes is a great addition but like any type of transcoding it requires a fair amount of horsepower and time. We are using the basic Mini and its specs are tad under powered for crunching through some 9GB of video to produce a 700MB file ready to throw on our iPhones. For the time being we are only recording shows here and there and thinking very carefully if we want to transcode them as the task largely renders the Mini unavailable for use. That said, it is a damn cool feature and the results are fantastic. My feeling is that when the Minis are refreshed and we purchase a new one that we’ll likely make use of this feature to give Gabi some entertainment options when traveling.
TV watching is as simple as launching the application and changing the channels with either the on screen remote or the one included. We found the on-screen remote to be a tad obnoxious but it was the only option because the hardware remote did not work until the latest version of eyetv3, once it started working we turned off the silver remote as seen in the image on the left. The remote allows you to access and interact with nearly all of the features of the software and so far we have seen its range and signal strength to be on par with our TV remote, which is surprising considering it is powered by only a watch battery.
Watching TV with the Pinnacle HD Stick is a better experience than the usual converter box route as the software maintains the appropriate aspect ratio when displaying it on your TV; my in-laws see the playback distorted to fit their traditional TV aspect ratio, no black bars just crushed or stretched images. Below is a screen grab which shows the playback maintaining the aspect ratio (note the black bars on the left and right).
Scheduling shows is a snap and it is made even easier with the ability to find and record programs by keywords. You can create clusters of channels and generate playlists based on those clusters and/or the keywords you are searching. This ability would really shine when paired with a cable signal where the viewer might be faced with hundreds of channels. Compared to the DVR we had through Dish eyetv3 is decades ahead but when only managing fifteen stations it feels like a sledgehammer and a spike when all you need is a thumbtack.
The total cost for getting DTV to our Mini is around $180USD before taxes, far more expensive than a $50 converter less the Federal coupon. However, between the technical merits of the hardware and the features unlocked by the software upgrade make the additional money worthwhile. Down the line we will likely spring for another antenna, one that is better suited for locking onto signals through walls and a roof and hope that it either adds a few more channels or at the very least makes the ones we can get more reliable.
The Pinnacle TV for Mac HD Stick is a great little product and coupled with the full version of eyetv3 makes for an easy to use DVR solution for the Mac.
* Online video content for kids is largely lacking and what is out there is either fragmented, poor video quality, hyper-religious, or a combination of all three. Our biggest disappointment is in Netflix where the worthwhile Instant choices are limited to a handful of shows like Caillou and the errant film like the animated Madeline feature, the remainder is either siezure inducing confection or unsettling religious works. It would be great to see PBS either push full streams through their website, I would pay for HD content, or ink a deal with a company like Hulu, Joost, or Jaman. It is for this reason that we turned to finding a solution for getting over-the-air signals to fill the entertainment gap for our daughter.