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2006-11-15My review: AIC USB DVB-T digital freeview tuner

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Biases on the table before we begin: I think digital TV is a con. The sell is that it provides better quality than analogue, which has never been my experience. Digital TV is all about shoving as many channels as possible into as little signal bandwidth space as possible. And it has major drawbacks over analogue: where signal strength is weak, instead of a fuzzy picture you get JPEG-type artifacts or the video/audio simply cuts out.

Why did I buy this? Since it has an aerial socket I was wondering if it'd also do something useful with a coaxial video input. (It doesn't.) The prospect of being able to easily capture TV and get it onto a DVD was also floating through my mind. (And it does facilitate this quite well.)

The thing was about eighteen quid shipped, for a boxed product that included an aerial adapter some other auctions didn't seem to, and one of the more functional type of remotes (there seem to be two main variants: an 18-button with basic TV controls, and a 28-button with additional video player type buttons.) The devices are also available branded as EasyTV, and both appear to share a common AF9005 chipset.

The small aerial supplied didn't give acceptable reception on any channel; an external aerial found over seventy TV and radio channels, though mostly the reception was borderline for non-freezing video and audio. Where signal strength was available (eg, BBC3) the stick played fine whether plugged into an unpowered external hub or directly into a USB port. Recording was easy. I didn't get as far as trying the remote, once I discovered that the kit couldn't tune a VCR input.

Positives:

  • Works through a hub as well as direct.
  • Good quality MPEG-2 capture.
  • Captures MPEGs suitable for burning easily to DVD.
  • Blaze software is actually very good for a skinned interface.
  • Records digital radio to MP3 (@256kbps, IIRC.)

Negatives:

  • Only tunes digital stations, can't run a VCR through it.
  • Reception isn't as good as the digital box in the living room using the same external aerial.
  • Device gets uncomfortably warm when in use; has an annoyingly bright blue LED.
  • Failed to identify names of non-BBC channels (this seems to be a known issue, and some people have reported more success by fiddling with the scan and locale options.)

Recording uses about three-quarters of the processing power of a 950MHz Duron and has no configuration options. The quality of the encoding seems as good as the signal given it — 720 x 576 widescreen (DVD resolution) at 6500Kbps with the BBC3 clip I tested it on, and that took up a reasonable ~20Mb a minute. More technical stuff: this means that you can easily make your own DVD or miniDVD — the free version of TMPGEnc has an MPEG Tools option for demuxing your .MPG file into .M2V and .MP2 video/audio files, and DVDAuthorGUI will create the data structures. Then just give the output AUDIO_TS/VIDEO_TS directories or ISO to your CD/DVD burning software. All nice and simple.

My best case solution is either:

a) A device that tunes analogue and digital sources. (Freecom and Hauppage devices seem to be about £60, plus or minus a few quid. Chinese variants are about half that, but their design suggests they get even hotter than the digital tuner sticks.)

b) A device that tunes analogue signals, plus something to take input from other devices (such as a digital box or a video player) and give that signal to the device.

B is the route I'm familiar with, though I should point out that converting scart to aerial requires hardware rather than cable adaptors. One way is to get a dedicated UHF/RF modulator box (they're about £20-25) or the other, which takes up more space but is much easier, is to use an old VCR with an AV2 scart input to modulate the signal.

So... I won't be keeping the USB stick, but if it has the features you're looking for and you can get acceptable reception — which will probably involve an external aerial, through no fault of the maker — this device is worth a look at the price.

If anyone has any suggestions for cheap second-hand USB devices that tune analogue signals and record directly to MPEG-2, which cheaper ones don't seem to, let me know.

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