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AVerMedia bills the AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB as a Media Center Upgrade Kit. The upgrade it brings to your Media Center PC is the ability to watch and record TV. This $130 external TV tuner avoids one of the pitfalls of PC-based TV tuners--the often shoddy bundled DVR software--simply by not bundling any software. As a result, you'll need a desktop or laptop with Windows XP Media Center Edition or a version of Vista that includes the Media Center shell--either Home Premium or Ultimate. Also included in the kit is a very small over-the-air antenna, but if you are looking for a tuner/antenna combo for frequent travel, we suggest the Plextor PX-HDTV500U because its tuner is smaller and its antenna is larger and more powerful. The AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB is a better fit for cramped living quarters--dorm rooms and studio apartments--where your PC or laptop doubles as your TV.
The external tuner measures 4.5 inches wide by 4.2 inches deep by 1 inch thick and includes an MPEG-2 hardware encoder. It can receive both analog and digital ATSC stations (including HD at 1080i), hence the Hybrid in its name. Installation is straightforward, but when you incorporate the included IR blaster, the setup results in more wires than you'd like to see. We installed the drivers off the installation CD and connected the breakout box to a USB port on a Vista Ultimate laptop and then connected the included antenna to the other end of the box. No signal. We didn't expect to receive many stations, since we were able to only pull in five stations--of which only one was stutter-free--with the Plextor tuner and its larger antenna. No amount of repositioning or reinstallation of the drivers led to a signal. You may have better luck if you live in a larger market (this reviewer is located in southern New Hampshire--not exactly an HD hotspot) or you might also try connecting it to a larger antenna.
So, we unplugged the antenna and connected the AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB tuner to a Comcast HD-enabled digital cable box. After stepping through Media Center's setup screens, we were watching both SD and HD stations. The HD stations from our Comcast cable service, however, were not displayed in HD. They came in at the correct 16:9 screen ratio but were not full screen and not in HD. The only way to view HD programming in HD on your PC is with an over-the-air antenna or via CableCard.
We also connected the IR receiver to another USB port so we could use the bundled remote control, and then ran the included IR blaster to our cable box so we could control Media Center and also change channels with a single remote. The upside of using Media Center is that the software provides a much more easily navigated and attractive interface than any DVR application we've used that's come with an external tuner.
The other advantage of the AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB tuner is that it includes a hardware encoder, which takes some of the load off of your CPU. Tested on a recent Core 2 Duo laptop, watching TV via our Comcast digital cable box resulted in a stutter-free experience. There was a 2- to 3-second delay when changing channels, but that's the case with any setup where you're using an IR blaster, because the signal is relayed from the IR receiver connected to the laptop to your cable box via the IR blaster.
Aside from its primary purpose of allowing Media Center-enabled PCs the ability to input a TV signal, the AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB tuner includes a couple extras. First, the kit includes an FM radio antenna, allowing you to listen to FM radio if for some reason the wide variety of Internet radio isn't to your liking. Second, the tuner includes S-Video and composite video ports so you can connect other video devices. Say, if your laptop doesn't have a FireWire port, you can connect your camcorder to your laptop through the AVerTV Hybrid's S-Video port. Or if you have an ultraportable without an optical drive, you could connect it to your DVD player.
AVerMedia backs the AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB with a one-year warranty. The AVerMedia support site includes a potentially useful FAQ section, but at the time of this writing, there were no entries for the AVerTV Hybrid Ultra USB. There is, however, a Web form you can use to initiate a discussion.