Watching TV, and playing games – it’s all in a day’s work

Posted by Jon Peddie on November 21st 2005 | Discuss
Categories:
Tags:

This week at Mt. Tiburon Testing Labs (MTTL) we're still watching TV on our PCs, but portable TVs now. We're trying to make things explode around here, but so far the only thing we've had any success with has been the microwave—boy, you should have seen that baby light up before it lifted off, but that's a story for another day.

Today, it's TV.

ADS InstantTV Cardbus

If you think you'd like to watch TV on your PC, and you're using a laptop, you've got three choices: use an external TV module connected through USB, use a TV tuner PCMCIA card, or do without. The external USB approach is OK, but subject to other USB devices' interrupts. So the logical conclusion is a PC card. We weren't the first to figure this out; Mike McCoy at ADS figured it out, too, except he did something about it: he built one. Actually he built a lot and he gave us one to play with.

Figure 1: ADS's PTV 370 PCMCIA TV tuner card. (Photo: JPR)

The card is very compact, runs cool, and has S-video input for external devices and a worldwide tuner. It can tune NTSC, PAL, and even SECAM TV. The device doesn't not support FM radio. The antenna connector tip can be changed to fit the antennas from different regions.

Figure 2: San Franscio's Sutro Tower.

The tuner works with analog cable as well as a normal antenna. If an antenna is used, ADS recommends it be well placed or used with a roof-top antenna, just like you would with your normal TV set. However, here on Mt. Tiburon we look at Sutro Tower, so we can hang a paper-clip off the input connector and get all the OTA channels. The card uses the Philips 8275a silicon tuner. Digital cable or satellite can be fed in from your set-top receiver box to the Instant TV Cardbus via S-video or composite (RCA) via a provided octopus cable.

We liked this accessory for laptops, and found it easy to install and use.

The kit comes with two TV PVR programs, Ulead's InstantMedia2 and ADS's Instant TV PVR.

 

Ulead's InstantMedia

This is a MediaCenter-like application-it gives a similar experience to MediaCenter but is not built on it and the PC does not need to be a Media Center PC to get this experience.

Setup

During setup InstantMedia didn't do or offer to do a channel scan, but if you probed down the menu ­choices (select TV, then Settings, and then Auto Scan), you could get it to a channel set-up. A nice feature of this UI is while you're cruising down through the menu layers, the TV window is reduced in size and put in the lower right corner so you can track what's going on or you can just watch TV.

Figure 3: Watching TV on a portrait display. (Photo: JPR)

Although you use a mouse to set things up and navigate through the menus, only the left button is activated, no right mouse buttons function; I found this to be annoying and limiting.

Watching TV

The program will only show the TV screen when the UI (window) is at full screen (see Figure 4). However, the sound continues to work. But here's the weird part: when I dragged the reduced program's window over to my second monitor, the TV window (in the reduced program window) displayed. I then took it to full screen (which is in portrait mode) just to see how it would handle it, and it handled it perfectly, keeping the screen aspect ratio correct.

However, after that exercise, the UI would no longer show the TV image when the window was full screen on the primary display, or when clicked for full screen TV. And, there's no window adjust control. You can't grab the edge of the window and change its size. Suspecting the problem was due to running dual screens, I closed down the external monitor, and the Ulead program, and then restarted the InstantMedia2. Now it was as it was before-no TV window when the UI's window was less than full screen. But, if you put the UI window in non-full screen, and then open TV, the TV window shows, and then if you click the UI to full screen the TV window goes blank. Clearly Ulead needs to work on this.

Audio-video synch is off, with the video leading the audio by about a half second, just enough to be noticeable, and once seen, it's annoying.

The Ulead program comes with a very compact remote, which is shown in the Figure 5.

It's an IR remote, so you do have to get lined up properly to change channels (and it appears the receiver is on the left side facing out). The range is about five feet.

In taking the picture we stumbled across a very nice feature.

Figure 4: No Teletext in the U.S.—note no live TV when in reduced window mode—sometimes. (Source: Ulead)

Photos

We plugged the camera into the USB port and expected to do a file-open using Explorer as usual. Temporally distracted when we came back to the PC the InstantMedia2 program had found the camera and was displaying nine of the photos with one of them in the lower right where the TV image had been. So, it automatically took itself out of TV, and into photo view.

The first complaint was that it doesn't have a slide/photo advance button, so you can't click to view next/last photo. But in clicking on various buttons, the Play button put it into slide show mode, which is very cool. It goes from photo to photo with a nice transition, and zooms in on one and then zooms out on the next. You could easily let that run as an unattended player when not watching TV, which is what I imagine was its designer's intention.

Recording and TV guide

While recording a show, the audio skips (which seems like buffer overload or interrupts shifting out buffer contents), so watching TV while recording isn't very enjoyable.

Figure 5: Remote control for ADS Instant TV using Ulead InstantMedia2 UI. (Photo: JPR)

In the U.S. the program's TV guide comes from Titan TV and when you select it, it opens up a website. The first time you are asked to enter your zip code, and then it displays the TV guide for your area. It's just a website so you can't set up a pre-recoding from it. Unless you have a good memory, the operational choice is to reduce the UI so you can see it and the TV guide. Then you can go to Timer Record, then select Add, and then set up the channel and date you want to record. When you do that, and then back your way out, the program sets up a file name in a small bar window with the date and a serial number. You can type over it and edit it so the name of the show you're interested is recoded. Not as slick as TiVo, but functional, at least it is for semi technical people, but then who else would be putting a TV on their laptop, certainly not my dear old aunt.

The UI isn't smart enough (or I should say, the designers weren't smart enough) to recognize that the U.S. doesn't offer Teletext (which it should have sensed when the setup screen is told you are in the U.S.). So if you click on Teletext you get a red circle with a line through it.

Overall the Ulead UI is pretty good. You can always find things to improve, and no doubt they will in future versions. But it's very usable as is and recommended by this old geek.

 

Figure 6: ADS's Instant TV opening screen. (Source: ADS)

ADS's Instant TV PVR

Starting up Instant TV gives you a small window on the screen and a picture of a remote.

You can grab the corners of the screen and size it to suit, or click on it and go full screen. However, as soon as you change the screen size you start to get frame drop-this is not good. The lip synch looked a little better than Ulead's but with the random frame drop it was difficult to tell. It appears the program is doing background recording (like TiVo does) and that was stealing cycles.

We thought maybe the software was doing a continuous recording like TiVo does. But ADS says their PVR time-shift is not always on; however, they are doing real-time encode to MPEG-2, and that could be the cause.

ADS also says the TV window size in the small preview mode works best if your monitor is set to 1024 x 768. We tested it at 1600 x 1080, a bit severe.

You can right-click anywhere on the TV window and get the setup and other controls. Instant TV gave -choices on country standard (NTSC, PAL, SECAM, etc.) and channel scan.

The program doesn't offer a UI as slick as Ulead's, but does allow placement of the TV window where ever desired, including on a second screen.

The ADS Instant TV is probably more comfortable for a techno-weenie than a normal consumer. It would be perfectly fine for me except for two major drawbacks: loss of frame rate as the picture is resized, and frame drop in its “normal” size window. We give this a neutral to slightly thumbs down.

A few words about lip-sync

You've heard us criticize various video solutions for their lack of or improper lip-sync, something real TV (invented in the late 1930s) doesn't have. Well, we're not the only ones to notice or complain, it seems, and now SMPTE is going to try and fix it-with your help.

SMPTE is requesting Information for the Control of Delay for Audio-Video Synchronization. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Committee on Television Systems Technology Ad Hoc Group on Lip Sync Issues was formed earlier this year to review all aspects of the lip sync problem and make recommendations for solutions (see www.smpte.org/engineering_committees/lipsync.pdf). Related to this work SMPTE has now issued a further request for information (RFI) from manufacturers. This RFI #2 is specifically related to control signals and interfaces for equipment that vary the delay of audio and/or video signals, intended to facilitate audio video synchronization. The intention is to produce an SMPTE standard or recommended practice for such signals to ensure equipment interoperability. The RFI and associated questionnaire are available at www.smpte.org/engineering_committees/lipsync2.pdf.

SMPTE is particularly interested in hearing from manufacturers with practical solutions or proposals for measurement and correction of audio-video synchronization errors, and those willing to participate in development of related standards. Responses should be sent to the ad hoc group chair, Graham Jones of NAB at gjones@nab.org, 202-29 5345..

Discuss this entry