My Plasma is my best friend, when I get home it’s the first thing I greet. But these days I haven’t been feeling so well and I wanted to watch TV in bed. I really didn’t want to have to pay for another cable box or get another small TV. I figured I would just turn one of my computers into a TV watching machine. So low and behold we were sent the TV Wonder HD 650 Combo for Mac from AMD to review.
Included in the box was the TV Wonder Unit for Mac, a power supply, a USB 2.0 Cable, a Driver and Application CD, and a user manual. On one side of the TV Wonder is CATV/FM and DTV coaxial connectors. The other side consists of a USB and power inputs, and on the top of the unit is 3 (red, yellow, white) Composite inputs and s-video jack for outputting to a VCR or camcorder for transferring footage.
Installation was pretty easy. I decided I would rig my iMac for this new multimedia experience. I connected the USB to the unit and then to the back of the computer and then plugged in the ac-adaptor in the wall and then into the unit. Then I installed the software, which was pretty painless. After installation was completed, I was greeted with the ATI tvPortal,which has several menu options. My Library, live TV, find a PROGRAM, view GUIDE, schedule TV, and my SETTINGS. In order to view any type of TV you have to go to preferences and auto-scan for channels. You select where you would be getting your signal from – either Antenna, DTV, or Cable. Next was the challenge of what I would use for a TV Signal. I connected the TV Wonder to my cable connection first and I guess because of the limitations of Time Warner Cable when I did a scan I didn’t get any channels. So that option was out. My second option was to try taking advantage of the 650’s ability to pick up over the air HD broadcasts, which should be especially enticing to those who don’t have cable or satellite in their home. However, I had to go out and buy an indoor antenna that would receive signal over the air in VHF/UHF/HDTV signals. How retro! So I picked up an indoor antenna from Radio Shack that set me back $50 bucks and weirdly resembled the Starship Enterprise. I setup the antenna and attached it the TV Wonder Via a Coaxial and went to preferences again and searched for available channels, and after about 2 minutes I had about 7 channels available to me: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 4.1, 4.2, 31, and 47.
So yes as previously noted I had these channels available to me: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 4.1, 4.2, 31, and 47. On tvPortal you click “live TV” and you can browse through the channels you have available to you. To the average person, channels 2.1 and 2.2 might seem very strange to have as an option. But they are active stations, just like on a radio there are many frequencies available, and just like with over the air there are actually channels between the standard 2 and 4 that have programming. Confusing I know. 2.1 and 2.2 were actually two different channels. 2.1 was a very sharp HD quality channel 2 and 2.2 ended up being Tech TV with not that great reception. 2.3 was static as well. 4.1 was channel 4 in HD quality as well. 4.2 and 4.3 were just weaker versions of 4.1. 31 and 47 were visible but not that great either. There was lots of noise and snow on the screen. However the audio was very good on all 7 channels. I was really disappointed that I didn’t have more options. But at the same time I was pleased with channels 2 and 4 for their great HD quality, however I would have liked to have seen more channels coming through. Once tvPortal recognizes the channels you have available, you can then program certain shows to record or take a look at the guide as to what is coming up so the 650 works as a great DVR as well. The shows get recorded as MPEG-2 files that are pretty good quality.
Overall the quality of the over-the-air reception was pretty impressive for the channels I did get and could see. The sound was consistent on all channels regardless of how it looked on the computer. I tested the device in midtown Manhattan, so undoubtedly each location will have different strengths and weaknesses with picking up certain channels better than others, such is the weakness of over the air TV. Honestly I had hoped to pick up more than just 3 visible stations. The folks over at RadioShack told me that the antennae should pick up at least 14 channels, so is my disappointment due to antennae failure, is it due to my location, or is it an issue with the 650? I’m not sure. I was also disappointed that the wealth of features available on the 650 PC version isn’t available for the Mac version. For example, software like the ATI Catalyst Media Center, DVD Authoring Software, and the ATI Theater Video Converter which converts recordings to a format ready for the iPod or PSP were not compatible for Mac. There is even a sticker on the box that warns that those software applications will only work on Windows. Also, I understand that most devices like this one don’t provide an antennae but it would be nice if companies starting bundling one, or building one in to their product so that the consumer didn’t have to go out and buy one separately. Instead I have an ugly antenna, a white box and wirey looking mess near my computer. Not exactly something I want to bring to bed with me…
Overall, the TV Wonder HD 650 Combo does a good job of turning your Mac into a TV and an overall entertainment system but when you can only watch limited channels it’s not that much fun. I do live in area were there are a lot of big buildings that could be blocking decent reception so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. So for those in more rural, suburban areas for $149.99 it may be worth a try to get HDTV quality TV on your computer rather than spend a few grand on a fancy plasma or LCD. However, if you are fortunate to have access to a unencrypted digital cable signal then you are in luck and can use the HD 650 without having to deal with reception issues. The ATI TV Wonder HD 650 Combo USB for PC retails for the same $149.99 which I believe is actually a better value since you can take advantage of all the great software that ATI bundles (which I have seen a demo of in person and was very impressed with) and also, unlike with the Mac version, a remote is included as well.
The Good: Image quality and sound were excellent.
The Bad: The Mac version seems to get the raw end of the stick with less software features and no remote.