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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.
Like the Slingbox and the Sony, you configure the Pinnacle viewing software to control your set-top box remotely by verifying the make and model during the setup process. The PCTV To Go lists most of the major brands of cable and satellite boxes and DVRs (as well as a variety of other manufacturers, such as TiVo, Sony, Panasonic, and the like), and it had no trouble controlling a standard DirecTV box, a DirecTV HR20, or a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR via its IR blaster. But the choices weren't as clear and straightforward as they should be: we couldn't find the HR20 listed, for instance, and had to choose the HR15 option instead (thankfully, the codes worked fine). Unlike earlier versions of the software, there are now onscreen remote "skins" that duplicate the look and feel of your remote--but there are only nine choices, and you manually have to choose them. Still, having a matching remote onscreen lets you click on whatever control option you like--channel changing, DVR function, whatever--and have that automatically passed on to the source device.
There was also a lot to like about the Pinnacle's performance. Wirelessly or wired, streaming was--for the most part--smooth and steady. While the Pinnacle does indeed accept a high-def signal, the streamed image isn't close to HD. Nor is it necessarily close to DVD quality. But it's far better than nearly all streaming Web videos. The system uses MPEG2 streaming on a home network, and with the ample bandwidth therein, the video quality was excellent. Even when the window was maximized to full size, the resulting picture was very watchable. When accessing the Pinnacle from a remote location (via the Internet, outside the home network), the quality was ratcheted down to MPEG4, the higher compression making better use of the restricted bandwidth. As always, the quality is largely dependent on the available network bandwidth; you'll want at least 300Kbps on both upstream and downstream connections, with 400Kbps to 500Kbps (and beyond) offering a noticeably better picture.
The PC TV To Go's distinguishing features all proved to work as advertised, though they aren't without their caveats. Multicasting worked fine: we were able to watch a stream simultaneously on two different PCs logged into a closed LAN--supposedly, it can work with up to 50--plus a third PC on the outside via the Internet. Furthermore, the Pinnacle viewing software is always buffering (a la TiVo), so you can pause and rewind live video feeds and manually record programs to your hard drive for later viewing. The catch is that this function works only on a home network--not when you're watching remotely via the Internet.
Owners of XP or Vista PCs that support Microsoft's Media Center Edition (MCE) will find some additional functionality with the Pinnacle. The software installs itself in such a way as to "fool" Media Center into seeing the PCTV To Go as a built-in TV tuner card. As a result, you can use the Windows electronic programming guide and the computer's wireless remote to browse programs and record shows just as you otherwise would--but instead of being tethered to the cable/satellite box, you can be in another room of the house.
This sounds like an ideal Media Center solution, especially for a laptop--a TV tuner that's completely separate from the body of the PC itself--but it's not quite as smooth as we'd like it to be. You have to jump through a few hoops in the Media Center setup in order to get things going, and it only seems to work if you have a Media Center "bean bag" (USB IR module) hooked up. But with that thing hanging off your laptop, you might as well be wired to a TV tuner anyway, so it pretty much defeats the advantage. Also, the Media Center setup gave us no option to choose the component video stream, so we were forced to run a redundant S-video connector from our satellite box. Likewise, the MCE functionality only works within a home network--take it on the road, and you're again stuck using the default Pinnacle software viewer. On the bright side, anything you record to the hard drive--in Media Center or with the Pinnacle software--can be played back anywhere.
The other problem with the Media Center implementation is that you have to follow the somewhat convoluted setup instructions to the letter. We were able to get working on a Windows XP machine, but we couldn't quite get it up and running on a Vista Premium laptop--the video streamed just fine, but the channel changing didn't quite work, even after several tries.
Pinnacle vs. Slingbox and Sony LocationFree TV
Comparing the Pinnacle PCTV To Go to the more established players in the place-shifting market yields a mixed--but competitive--box score. Sling still edges the competition in some key areas: its software and setup routine remains the gold standard for ease of use and intuitive design for these sort of devices, and its impressive device compatibility--Windows PCs, Windows Mobile phones/handhelds, high-end PalmOS smartphones, and Macs--is likely to grow in the future. Meanwhile, Sony's latest LocationFree TV products add wireless networking and PSP viewing to the mix, but they lose points for their more complex software and setup routines. The Pinnacle, meanwhile, delivers the same wireless advantage found on the Sony products, plus the addition of the multicasting features, the (admittedly limited) Media Center integration, and recording functionality--and it does all of it at a very competitive $250 price point.
In terms of performance, the Pinnacle is no slouch. With the variables of source and destination bandwidth--and the fact that Pinnacle, Sling, and Sony continue to tweak and improve their respective compression technologies and algorithms--head-to-head comparisons likely will produce seesaw results in the months ahead, making it hard to choose an outright winner for the best video quality. On a home network, the image quality (from a component video source) on a Pinnacle PCTV To Go versus a Slingbox Pro is pretty much a wash. That said, we'd still give the edge to Slingbox for remote streaming over the Web.
At the same time, it's worth pointing out that the Pinnacle suffers from the same basic problem as all of these devices: it monopolizes the A/V source to which it's attached. If you're a solo viewer, it's not a problem, but anyone who has the Pinnacle (or Sony, or Hava, or Slingbox) attached to a TV that someone else is watching is in for disappointment. Since both the local TV and the remote PCTV software are pulling from the same source--the single cable or satellite box--both viewers will find themselves watching the same thing. If one or the other starts to flip channels or watch a DVR recording, the other one will see the same thing. The one exception: if the Pinnacle is pulling its signal from an analog antenna or analog cable, there's essentially no source device, so the issue is moot.
At the end of the day, the Pinnacle PCTV To Go is a worthwhile Slingbox alternative. It all comes down to what features you're looking for. If you're looking for the easiest setup routine and the ability to stream live TV to viewers using something besides a Windows PC--such as Macs, Windows Mobile, Palm--then Slingbox remains the better choice. But if you're a more sophisticated user who needs built-in Wi-Fi, support for simultaneous streaming to multiple PCs, or some degree of Windows Media Center compatibility, the Pinnacle PCTV To Go HD Wireless is a worthwhile choice. Its rich feature set, low price, and impressive performance make it a credible alternative for any potential Slingbox owners.