Saturday, May 17, 2014

ViewTV At-163 OTA Digital TV recorder - my review

Remember the great American Digital TV Transition of 2008? Our elected representatives explained that while some would see more channels and far better image quality, those who did not have “a properly oriented, high-gain antenna mounted 30 feet in the air outside” would lose free access to broadcast television. They told us that, sadly, a combination of patents, the DMCA and the burgeoning power of cable TV would vastly increase the cost of time-shifting broadcast (OTA) television. They hung their heads and admitted they were completely corrupt …

Ok, so they didn’t say any of those things. We had to learn most of them the hard way, though we knew about the corruption bit. I’d mostly ignored television from 1997 to 2013, so my light bulb only lit up when I bought a Samsung Smart TV and learned that the USB digital output was disabled [1]. Suddenly, everything made sense.

Ever since then I’ve been looking for a sane way to record OTA TV without devoting my life to hacking MythTV. Sure, we could afford to pay the monthly Tivo tax (which presumably goes to the cartel patent holders), but this kind of thing bugs me.

Alas, this is harder than you’d think. A legitimate manufacturer is going to be hit with the patent/cartel tax — turning a $50 product into a $600 (over 5 years) monster. There’s no Chinese market to draw from, I assume they just stick a USB device in their TVs. There are several startups that do sort-of-interesting time shifting things with OTA DTV, but none of them connect easily to, you know, a television. Presumably to dodge the cartel they have to connect to everything BUT a television (so you use AirPlay to get signals from an iPad to a TV).

The only source is going to be shady, something from China sold under a range of disposable brand names for a few months at a time. That’s what I found on Amazon, the home of things that fell off the back of container ships. Alas, the quality was incredibly low — it’s easily the crummiest product I’ve bought in decades. Even so, I was tempted to keep it. It kind of worked…

Amazon.com: John G … s review of Viewtv At-163 ATSC Digital TV Converter…

This is a FASCINATING device in so many ways. It is pure Chinese manufacturing of absolutely the lowest possible quality (one of the four base pads was missing), but it’s only of interest to the US market. The rest of the world doesn't need this -- they simply stick USB devices into their TVs and record directly. It's only in the US that a combination of cartel patents and corrupt politicians makes recording of OTA TV extremely expensive and difficult. When we buy a Samsung TV, for example, the recording features are disabled.

In China this is probably used to convert digital signals for the few analog TVs left in China. It probably costs $10 to make, including what I assume is a very low quality (risky!) internal switched power supply (no power brick). In the US it's sold, somewhat covertly, as a low cost no-subscription simple digital TV recorder.

The good news is that if you ignore the manual, and work through the incredibly crude displays hacked to to show English labels, and convert from the strings on the weird remote to the screen, it's not hard to configure this. You can even set up the antenna as pass-through so the signal goes to the ViewTV and is also available for TV input. It does record (!) and you can play back the recording. It even shows a list of available TV shows.

The bad news is that the tuner in my device sucked. OTA Digital TV barely works in many US settings -- we need top notch tuners. The one in our Samsung Smart TV gets barely enough channels to meet my son's sporting thirst. The tuner in this device missed most of them.

I also worry about the internal switched power supply. This ships with all the usual inspection/certification labels, but I'd be amazed if any of them were legitimate.

If only they'd shaved their profit margin a bit. It costs nothing to build what's in this box. We actually own a decent (Chinese made of course) Digital TV converter box that cost $45 — it’s much higher quality than the “ViewTv" with a far better tuner.

I hope someone else will do that -- but we have to remember the reason these features are disabled from US TVs. Anyone doing this properly is going to be hit by the US OTA patent cartel -- and forced to charge high subscription fees.

There may not be anything better in the near future. So if you have a strong antenna and good signals, and you're feeling lucky, it's worth a shot. Just be ready to return, and if you're feeling nervous leave it unplugged when you're not using it.

I tried to make this thing work, but the tuner was just too crummy. I had to return it.

Sniff.

- fn -

[1] The only explanations I’ve read are something like "Disclaimer: Only European TVs have USB recording. US models have the feature disabled due to legal issues.” I presume the “legal issues” are DMCA and patents. Explaining the full story would take a real journalist — would be a fun article for, say, The Atlantic. Might run into some dangerous characters though…

See also:

Update: I updated my 12/2013 Samsung Smart TV post with notes on hacking it to restore recording functionality.

3 comments:

sweepspk said...

Thanks for the review. I reviewed the iView 3500STBII which has a very good tuner and also records but I think it suffers from the same poor power supply because it worked with a 2TB USB HD for a few months then the drive started ticking. It works fine with my computer, no ticking, and a self powered USB HD works fine with the iView. I'll be self powering the 2TB HD to see if the iView sees it again. My review is on solidsignal.com at: http://forums.solidsignal.com/content.php/3080-iView-3500STBII-Quick-Review

Craig Hoffman said...

Thanks for your review. I agree, it is irritating that we even need this device at all. Quality control is likely dodgy, but I seem to have gotten a good one - the tuner works at least as well as the one in my other HDTV. The menues are incredibly crude, but after dealing with it for about 3 months now, I have it figured out. The OTA picture and recording quality are indeed beautiful. My now ancient '04 vintage 50" DLP set never looked so good.

Although it has not given any indications of doing so, I just hope my dodgy made in China with cheap components and questionable design AT163 does not frag someday and burn my house down...

wilocub said...

I purchased an AT-163 some months ago. It worked fine until about three weeks ago. Then it would start making horizontal lines and the picture would completely disappear. The green signal light stayed on. After turning it off and letting it cool down, it would come back on.
It did this for awhile, finally it quit coming on at all. The green signal light would come on. This told me that the power supply and tuner was working.
I pulled out the circuit board and did a careful inspection of it. I could see where glue that was used to secure the large power capacitor had ran over to the small I C. It looked like Elmer's school glue, not like which is used by other manufactures.
Also the glue seemed to be turning yellow from the heat.
I soaked the glue with "Goo-Gone", until I could pull out the glue with tweezers. After removing all I could, I used a soft brush to remove the rest. Then I washed off the cleaner with de-natured alcohol. After letting it dry and re-installing the board, it has been working fine ever since.