Plextor's PX-HDTV500U Mini Digital HDTV Receiver may very well be the cheapest and easiest way to watch and record over-the-air HDTV on your PC. It's also the smallest external tuner we've seen, making it a good fit for laptops. In addition to the tiny tuner that's no bigger than a USB thumbdrive, the kit includes a small, flat HDTV antenna and a remote control. That's it--no power or AV cables to worry about. The only drawback is the second-rate software; though functional, it's awkward and unattractive. Just be sure to check the over-the-air (OTA) HDTV options in your area before plunking down for the $99 Plextor PX-HDTV500U Mini Digital HDTV Receiver.
Instead of an Altoids-tin-size breakout box that we've see on past external TV tuners, the Mini Digital HDTV Receiver packs its hardware inside a tiny USB thumbdrive. Along with the compact antenna--an 8-inch long by 4.25-inch wide piece of plastic no thicker than card stock seated on a small plastic stand--you can easily stash the kit in your laptop bag for on-the-go HDTV viewing. It'd be nice if the stand were a bit more substantial; we occasionally knocked over the antenna with the slightest movement of our laptop.
Setup is a snap. After installing the bundled software, you just need to snap the antenna into its small plastic stand, connect the coaxial cable running from the antenna to one side of the TV tuner, and then plug the tuner into a USB 2.0 port on your PC or laptop. Once connected, we opened up the bundled app, ArtecMedia Digital TV Player, from a company called Ultima. The software scanned for available channels and found four digital stations, all of which were choppy and unwatchable. This is not the fault of the Plextor over-the-air antenna but the geographical location of this reviewer. The OTA HD options in southern New Hampshire are not great. This CEA Web site will show you how many analog and digital stations you can receive, and there are a number of useful HD reception lists here on the AVS Forum.
Thankfully, the Plextor Mini Digital HDTV Receiver works with Microsoft's Media Center. We tested it with a laptop running Vista Ultimate, which includes the Media Center shell. Not only does Media Center provide a more attractive interface than the bundled ArtecMedia app, but it also found an ABC HD channel that the ArtecMedia app missed. And it came in smoothly. You can use either the bundled app or Media Center to record TV shows, but be warned you'll quickly fill up your hard drive. We recorded 10 minutes of General Hospital in HD and the resulting MPEG-2 file was over 1GB. Recording standard-definition programming, which the tuner can also do, will, of course, result in smaller files.
The tuner works with Windows XP and Vista but not with the Mac OS. Plextor backs the HDTV500U Mini Digital HDTV Receiver with a one-year warranty. Calls to tech support are toll-free.