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Turning your laptop into HDTV

When a start-up takes a shot at making high definition mobile, think rabbit ears. Video: OnAir GT makes your PC a TV Photos: Tiny tuner brings HDTV to laptop

In this age of slick plasma sets and mobile television, a new device marries the high-tech TV experience with a bygone era--a time when getting good reception meant fiddling with rabbit ears.

The $179 OnAir GT by start-up AutumnWave is an ashtray-size high-definition tuner that plugs into your laptop, turning it into an HDTV set. I recently tested the device at CNET Networks' headquarters in San Francisco.

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Video: OnAir GT makes your laptop a TV set
Device relies on an antenna to pick up broadcasts.

At a time when a host of companies are trying to stream video over the Web, the GT relies on an antenna to pick up over-the-air analog and digital broadcasts. The device could shine when people find themselves without access to the Web or a TV set. Think airport delays, camping trips and crowded college dorm rooms with too few televisions.

AutumnWave, based in New Bloomfield, Penn., is trying to take advantage of two relatively recent developments: Most laptops are now equipped with HD-enabled monitors, and the air is filling up with HDTV signals.

One misconception about high definition is that it's only available via cable and satellite transmissions and must be viewed on expensive plasma or liquid crystal display sets. Not true. More than 1,500 TV stations in the United States are now broadcasting HD signals over the air.

This means anybody with an HD tuner should be able to watch high-definition broadcasts.

OnAir GT

After downloading the software needed to run the OnAir GT and connecting the device to my laptop via a USB 2.0 port, I received over-the-air broadcasts from more than two dozen stations. That was from the sixth floor of CNET's office building downtown. Elsewhere in downtown, results were mixed. At a Starbucks near the intersection of Market and Second streets, I couldn't locate any signals.

Surprisingly, I did get relatively good reception from my home in the city's Sunset District, which is surrounded by steep hills. San Francisco, with its numerous inclines, is famous for obstructing broadcast signals.

Razor sharp, yet choppy
Nonetheless, the hills didn't stop me last week from receiving razor-sharp images of Phoenician sailboats and Egyptian mummies during a documentary on KQED, a San Francisco-based public broadcasting station. I watched the American League Championship Series from my office and saw jaw-dropping clarity and depth when the Detroit Tigers' Magglio Ordonez hit his game-winning home run.

But those broadcasts, while digital, were standard definition.

Only one of the HD broadcasts I tried to watch came in clear. The other HD signals were choppy, shuddering so much they were almost unwatchable in full-screen format. In a smaller window, the jarring was still annoying but tolerable for short periods.

AutumnWave denies that it has seen this jumpiness elsewhere. Patrick Castellani, AutumnWave's president and chief operating officer, who stopped in San Francisco to talk about the product, said the HD tuner within the GT is made by LG Electronics, and as long as a signal is readily available the GT can produce HD-quality images.

"If someone can receive their local station, they can receive the station's digital broadcast," he said.

I'd still buy a GT. Even without the HD, it's is a nifty piece of gadgetry, and I enjoyed being able to watch live TV on my laptop while cleaning my room or checking e-mail.

At $179, the GT allows me to acquire a backup TV for far less cost. The product, which sells on AutumnWave's Web site, is light and highly mobile and provides an excellent picture from standard definition signals, be they analog or digital. Consumers can also connect the device to an HDTV cable box and record programming on a PC hard drive.