Anyone living in a studio apartment (or University dorm room for that matter) knows the importance of efficiently utilising floor space. You've probably already got your bed folding up into a compact wall unit, and use a laptop rather than a hulking desktop PC, so what's the next step? Ditch the TV set.
If your laptop doesn't offer up an integrated TV tuner, the NetComm Banksia Digital HD USB unit is an effective yet somewhat clunky solution. Even if you don't own a laptop, a USB TV tuner is ideal if you're looking for something that can be painlessly moved between multiple desktop PCs.
At the core of the package is an external box that's similar in size to a standard desktop mouse, albeit slightly wider. It's not exactly a behemoth, but we've seen far smaller USB TV tuner units in the past (such as the ComPro VideoMate U3). On its rear is a USB port for connection to a PC, as well as an antenna port, but otherwise the box is quite bare.
Speaking of antennae, you've got two choices with this particular unit: hooking up your own antenna (preferred) or using the horribly designed, clunky aerial that comes in the box. The bundled antenna, instead of folding upwards to conserve space, slides out horizontally, making it difficult to position and an even greater hassle to balance. Further, it must be mounted to a wall using a plastic suction cup, which is limited in regard to the surfaces it can stick to. Even on a flat metal pillar, the suction wears off within half an hour, causing the antenna to come crashing down onto whatever is below it.
A remote control is included in the package, so you don't have to be sitting right up close to enjoy your favourite shows. It's quite handy as, aside from basic channel surfing and volume controls, the remote can be used to operate the device's time shifting and recording functions. However, we soon became frustrated with the amount of force needed to have your button presses registered. The remote must also be virtually directly in line with the infra-red receiver for your commands to be picked up.
The two primary functions offered up by the NetComm device are HDTV tuning and digital recording abilities. It accepts full HD signals, so as long as your monitor can run at a HD resolution (almost all can, unlike many TV sets), you're able to use HDTV to its full potential. It connects to your PC via USB, but make sure that you connect it to a USB 2.0 port to ensure maximum quality.
Live TV recordings can be scheduled or made on the spot, allowing your PC to function as a PVR as well. Recordings are made in the MPEG-II format, and you'll want a fairly sizable hard drive as each minute of video chews up around 40MB of disk space.
An EPG is included in the software suite, but it only displays the titles of the current and next programs being shown on each channel as this is the only information that broadcasters in Australia are currently required to transmit.
As an additional function, the device can also receive and record digital radio signals.
The tuner installs without issue -- simply hook it up to a USB port and install the bundled software. Said software picked up all channels the first time using "auto scan", so the device is by no means limited to the computer enthusiast. Scheduling of recordings is also remarkably simple, and live recordings can be made at the touch of a button.
Pictures were surprisingly clear right out of the box, and little fine tuning is necessary. Detail levels were higher than that produced by many TV sets, thanks to the high resolution LCD monitor used. However, not all LCD monitors are created equal, and you'll want to ensure that yours has a fairly low response time as otherwise, no matter how great the tuner is, streaking or 'ghosting' will be present.
Since the tuner itself takes care of most of the processing work, CPU usage is quite low so you're still able to go on with other tasks while simultaneously viewing or recording a show. In our tests, CPU usage hovered around 15 percent during regular viewing and only increased to about 18 percent while recording.
All in all, the Banksia USB HDTV tuner is a high quality, space-saving way to reap the benefits of a high-definition television and PVR system for under AU$200.