So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Compro Australia VideoMate U500
- Easy to use, Small size
- Remote can't be used unless it's within line of sight of the unit; it struggled to detect channels in a location when the TV signal was weak.
The U500 is a neat little device that does what it's supposed to and it won't cost you too much. Buy it if you want a device that you can easily plug in to multiple PCs or notebooks. It did struggle to find channels in one of our test locations where the TV signal is weak, so if you're in an area where your current reception is not up to scratch, then this unit may not perform as expected.
Price$ 99.00 (AUD)
A digital TV tuner for a PC offers greater convenience than a dedicated set-top box when it comes to recording and archiving shows, mainly because some set-top boxes don't allow you to efficiently transfer recorded shows to a PC. If you have a powerful enough system, a big enough wide-screen monitor, or a dual monitor setup, you can watch TV while undertaking your regular PC activities and, with the Compro U500, you can even set your Windows background to be your TV!
Where the Compro U500 offers even more convenience is in its size and ease of installation. It's a USB 2.0-based device that can run on pretty much any PC. Simply plug it in to whichever computer you feel like watching TV on; just remember that you need access to an antenna cable, and preferably a roof-top mounted antenna to get a good signal.
The U500 measures less than 9cm from the tip of its USB 2.0 connection to the the antenna connection on the other end. This makes it convenient to carry around with your notebook, but it's also a quick and easy device to setup on your PC. Simply install the drivers and the TV player software, in that order, and then plug it in to an available USB 2.0 port.
Our first test unit exhibited a few problems whereby the tuner couldn't pick up any channels in both of our test locations, but a replacement model confirmed that the first unit was just faulty.
The U500's tuner is not as sensitive as other digital TV tuners we have seen. We tested it in two different locations using roof-top mounted antennas and received good results in an area where the signal is strong, but less impressive results where the signal is weaker. In the first location, everything came through loud and clear, however in the later location, the U500's tuner struggled to pick up all channels except Nine and ABC,
The picture quality was above average and we had no problem viewing the standard definition and high definition channels that the unit detected.
Running the tuner for a full day, it didn't get too hot, as some USB-based digital TV tuners tend to do, and was still perfectly safe to pick up and handle. The unit is made of plastic, rather than heat-absorbing aluminium, and it has tiny vent holes to help keep it cool.
Compro supplies a stiffened USB extender cable, instead of a soft cable, for you to plug the unit into so that neighbouring USB 2.0 ports don't get obstructed by the tuner. A remote control also ships with the U500, which is convenient to use, but line of sight to the tuner is necessary for it to work properly.
During testing we used Compro's DTV 2.5 software, which ships with the unit, and we found it to be a very capable piece of software. It has plenty of features and all are within easy reach on the main program panel. Time-shifting is still not enabled by default (a complaint we've had with past iterations of this software), but you can easily enable it from the main panel without having to venture to the right-click menu (unlike in previous versions of Compro DTV). Likewise, you can easily create a recording schedule by clicking on the scheduler icon.
A nifty picture-in-picture feature is present in Compro DTV2.5, which lets you view all the sub-channels that a station is broadcasting. Currently in Australia, only SBS (SBS 1 and SBS2) and ABC (ABC and ABC2) have different content on their sub-channels, which can be watched simultaneously in separate windows on your screen, or mini windows within the main program screen. You can easily switch between these channels and bring background channels to the fore and vice versa.
For recording, you can either use the scheduler to automate your recordings, or you can just start them manually by hitting the 'record' button. Compro DTV2.5 lets you record either the whole transport stream (this records all the channels that a station is broadcasting) or you can just record an MPEG2 stream of the current channel that you are watching. Recordings take a few seconds to start and stop, which can be a little frustrating, so make sure you start recording well before your favourite program begins. Likewise, time-shifting takes a few seconds to kick in once you enable it, but pausing and starting live TV is instantaneous. It takes about three seconds to switch from one channel to another.
All up, the U500 is a neat little device that does what it's supposed to do and it won't cost you too much. Buy it if you want a device that you can easily plug in to a PC or notebook. However it did struggle to find channels in one of our test locations where the TV signal is weak, so if you're in an area where your current reception is not up to scratch, then this unit may not perform as expected.
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