Review Pinnacle PCTV Pro
Building A PC-Based Personal Digital Entertainment Centre
A project diary describing the process of building a PC-based home entertainment center based on regular off-the-shelf computer components and software.

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Review: Pinnacle PCTVpro Tuner/Capture Card - Summary
Despite the shortcomings of its software, the Pinnacle PCTVpro package still has its merits.

VCD and SVCD Disks
 
The Pinnacle PCTVPro software allows you to burn your recordings to CDR or CDRW disks in VCD and SVCD formats. Most modern DVD players can handle VCD and SVCD disks so they are an excellent format for archiving video recordings or if you want to share them with friends.

VCD is a format that uses MPEG-1 compression to store up to 80 minutes of video and audio on a single 700MB CDR/RW disk.

The quality of a VCD recording is, despite what some vendors claim, pretty poor. The effective resultion in PAL format is only 358x288 pixels and rapid movement often causes a marked blockiness in the picture.

SVCD produces a far higher quality image by using higher bitrates, MPEG-2 compression and a higher resolution of 480x576 pixels.

I'd go so far as to say that SVCD reproduction is markedly better than that obtainable from a regular VHS recorder and, in some cases, it approaches that obtained from a geniune DVD.

The downside is (of course) that you can't store as much on a single disk. Using the Pinnacle software, a single CDR/RW will only hold around 30 minutes of video. Other software however, allows you to squeeze up to an hour (or more) of SVCD recording on to a single disk.

Positive Features
The hardware itself is very sound and offers some nice features including an FM Tuner, infra-red remote control and the industry-standard BT848 chipset.

So long as you've got a fast PC and are willing to put up with the pixelation and tearing on fast action/pan scenes, the system does work more or less as advertised.

Being able to hit record without having to hunt for a new VHS tape or find one that you can safely overwrite is a great bonus and the scheduling facility for recording is simple yet effective.

Visit the sponsor
If you'd like your own system, it is recommended that you purchase the parts, or a ready-configured version from the project's sponsor.


Being able to burn your favourite 30-minute or 1-hour TV program to a CDRW or CDR so that others can watch it on their DVD player is great and if there was a simple editing facility it would be near-perfect.

Likewise, the ability to record directly from the inbuilt FM stereo tuner to disk/MP3 probably makes the recording industry cringe just a little harder than they're cringing already.

Fortunately, thanks in main to the popularity of the card, there is a growing amount of 3rd-party software that can be used in place of the bundled applications.

Disappointments
As well as the software problems highlighted earlier, there are some other let-downs with this package.

The main one is the almost total lack of support from the manufacturer.

Although Pinnacle offers online support and a web-based help forum, reports indicate that requests for assistance through these mechanisms often produce little or no results.

It would have also been nice if the audio connection between the PCTVpro card and the PC's sound card could have been done internally rather than through the use of an external cable that effectively ties up the sound card's line-in connector. My old PCTV card provided a simple internal cable that connects to the TV-audio or Aux connector on the sound card itself.

As mentioned previously, I think it stinks that Pinnacle ships a "trial version" of its video editing package. This is an essential component and should not be something that people have to fork out extra money for. Tsk, tsk!

Fortunately there are plenty of free or low-cost video editing programs on the market and they'll be discussed later in the project.

Marks Out Of Ten?
An otherwise solid package is let down by a few incompatibility problems, poor support and software that's sadly lacking in useful features.

 Hardware7 Aardvarks
 Software4 Aardvarks
 Support2 Aardvarks
 Value5-7 Aardvarks
 MPEG Recording Quality4 Aardvarks

The "Value" score will depend on whether the card and software installs without problems onto your own system. If all goes well you'll love it, if not then you'll likely curse at it.

As a result, this might not be the ideal package for the tech neophyte to try and install in his/her old PC but if it comes pre-installed and tested in a suitably powerful machine then the results will be quite satisfactory.

So why are we using this card, in spite of its weak points?

Simple -- you only have to trawl the web to find out that virtually all of the TV tuner/capture cards on the market suffer from similar problems with drivers, support, etc. The PCTVPro may not be perfect -- but it's one of the best of a bad bunch!

The other card considered suitable for this project is the Hauppauge PVR-250 which addresses some of the problems involved in software-based realtime MPEG encoding, but introduces a few of its own.

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Published and © 2002 by Bruce Simpson and Aardvark Net Publishing. All rights reserved