When Monsoon Multimedia released its Hava Wireless HD product in 2006, the company made no attempt to hide the fact that it was largely a "proof of concept" device. In other words, they were highly interested in licensing the product to a larger company with better brand recognition. Flash forward a few months, and that's now happened: the Pinnacle PC To Go Wireless HD is essentially a clone of the Hava Wireless HD, and--as such--performs identically to its doppelganger. But the release of the Pinnacle gave us a chance to see how the product has evolved over the past few months thanks to software and firmware upgrades. We also got our first chance to test its Media Center functionality with Windows Vista.
Like the Slingbox, the Pinnacle PCTV To Go Wireless HD's primary mission is to deliver your home TV programming to your PC screen--whether it's elsewhere on the home network, or anywhere on the Internet. But PCTV To Go manages a few distinguishing characteristics from the Slingbox line. First and foremost, it has a built-in 802.11g wireless capability, so it can interface with any existing wireless or Ethernet network (Slingbox is Ethernet-only). Secondly, it integrates with a PC running Windows Media Center Edition (either the XP or Vista Premium/Ultimate flavors), allowing you to record live streaming video on your PC when you're streaming inside your home (a standalone PC viewing application is provided for non-MCE machines). And finally, the Pinnacle allows multicasting, which means that within your home network, several users can watch the stream at the same time while one person watches remotely via the Internet (Slingbox allows only a single viewer at a time).
Design and connectivity
The Pinnacle PCTV To Go Wireless HD has a slightly different enclosure than the Hava Wireless HD. It's jet-black, and actually a bit more attractive and sleek than the Hava. Still, it puts you in the mind of a slightly oversized network router, measuring 2 inches high by 12 inches wide by 7 inches deep. Except for four green status LEDs, the front panel is nondescript. Once the Pinnacle is hooked up and active, it's designed to just sit there and process bits.
The rear panel is jam-packed with more jacks than an average DVD player. There are composite, S-Video, and component inputs, along with one set of stereo audio jacks (red and white RCA connectors) and a screw-type RF input. You can feed as many as four sources to the box, including an unscrambled RF source such as an analog cable feed or an antenna, which takes advantage of the built-in analog TV tuner. But because the composite, S-Video, and component inputs share a single set of audio jacks, you'll need to purchase Y-cable adapters to feed them simultaneously. Likewise, you'll have to have the second and third devices powered off (or muted), or you'll get a mashup of all the simultaneous audio streams. Alternately, you might use the second input as a video-only security camera feed--just plug in your camcorder. (By comparison, the Slingbox Pro has discrete audio inputs for each of its video sources.)
Rounding out the PCTV To Go's rear panel is a connector for the included dual-headed IR blaster, which remotely controls the A/V sources of your choice, such as cable/satellite boxes and DVRs. To interface with your home network, the Pinnacle has both a standard Ethernet port (for wired connections) and dual wireless antennas.
Setting up the Pinnacle is a two-step process: you need to connect the A/V cables to the video source(s), then connect it to your network, which involves installing the included software on a PC. Linking up with your home theater components is just as straightforward as hooking up a VCR or a DVD recorder. We appreciated the pass-through outputs, which let the PCTV To Go sit innocuously in the chain between our cable box and the A/V receiver without the need for splitters or monopolizing precious video outputs. Of course, as with any place-shifting box, the A/V source you connect to the Pinnacle will determine how much you'll get out of it. A cable or satellite set-top box will let you watch all those channels on your PC, but a TiVo-style digital video recorder will provide the added value of accessing those great DVR features--pausing and rewinding live TV, watching previously recorded shows--remotely.
Once the Pinnacle box is hooked up and powered on, you have to install the setup software on a nearby PC. The PCTV To Go boasts a pretty decent setup wizard; it wasn't flawless by any means, but it did an admirable job of taking us through the process step-by-step. We installed the software on a wireless laptop (the Pinnacle software is Windows-only). The setup program logs in to the Pinnacle itself--wirelessly--and asks you to input your network's wireless encryption key (it supports WEP and WPA encryption). Thereafter, the PCTV To Go itself can access your wireless network, and you should be good to go. We installed it at least three times on three different PCs, and there were a few hiccups here and there--the process can occasionally "confuse" a PC's wireless card, for instance, and might require some manual intervention. But as far as wirelessly configuring a network device goes, it's among the more impressive and successful experiences we've had. In fact, it bested Sony's LocationFree LF-B20 in two big ways: the setup process was not only smoother but truly wireless throughout, and Sony requires its unit to be connected via Ethernet during setup. That said, if you don't have a Wi-Fi network, the Pinnacle works just as well via Ethernet.