VBox Cat’s Eye USB 3560 HDTV Receiver Review
December 13, 2005
I recently got an opportunity to play with the VBox “Cat’s Eye” USB 3560 HDTV (ATSC) Receiver.
The unit itself is very small — about 50% bigger overall than a deck of playing cards — and couldn’t really be simpler. It has a coax connector for attatching your antenna to, a USB connector that attaches to the PC, and a little stand to hold it vertical (should you so desire). In fact, outside of the USB cable and the driver/documentation CD, there’s not anything else in the box, even.
The good news is that you don’t need much else.
Throwing caution to the wind, I tossed the CD in the drive, attached the coax from my roof antenna, and plugged it in.
Typical of USB devices, Windows found the unit, along with the drivers off of the CD. The unit is Windows MCE 2005 compatible, and ships with the appropriate drivers. Apparently it is also compatible with Snapstream’s Beyond TV 4, and is available in a bundle with the Snapstream Firefly controller, but I don’t know if it involves different drivers. All of my testing was with MCE 2005.
Once in MCE, you have to re-run the TV Signal Setup routine (this is in Setup, under the TV section.) Unfortunately you also apparently have to re-set-up any analog receivers and set-top boxes you have, so be sure you have everything you need handy (your set-top box remote if necessary, etc.)
Auto detection found both of my SD set-top boxes (attached to a Hauppauge PVR-500MCE card), as well as the new HD receiver, and walked me through the setup (analog first).
Once you’ve re-set-up your SD receivers, it asks if your HD antenna is hooked up, and then checks signal strength on each digital channel in your area. At this point, you’re given an opportunity to de-select any digital channels you don’t want in the guide. I had two or three with crappy signals and two or three more with uninteresting programming that I removed.
Once this is done, the new channels are added to your guide with a high number (mine start up in the thousands), and you’re good to go.
Of course, there are always issues. The first issue was that digital content was stuttering badly. Since the receiver is powered from USB, I took a wild guess that it might not be getting enough power plugged directly into the computer, so I added a small powered hub and plugged it into that. That solved the problem, and digital content started coming in smoothly.
Two other issues are probably my problem — first, I was only getting background sound on some programs; no voice. HD content comes in with AC3 surround audio already encoded. so this meant that I’d probably lost my center channel.
A quick speaker test with my audio utility showed that the center channel was indeed not working; I’ve probably got a bad cable. Switching it to four channel audio solved the problem until I can track that one down.
This also points up another important issue — if you do not have an AC3 surround audio codec installed, you’re going to need to install one or you’re probably not going to get any audio. I have FFDShow installed to support some old DiVX content with AC3 audio, so I was good to go there.
The second problem is a little more troubling — for some reason MCE can no longer change channels on one of my receivers. I’ve tentatively decided that this is also a cabling problem, and that I have a broken wire in one of my IR Blaster cables leading from the remote’s IR receiver. Until I can get a new cable to test this, I’ve disabled that receiver.
On the up side, the little VBox receiver seems to work quite well. It appears to be a little more sensitive than the HD receiver in my DishPlayer 942, and picks up a good signal on one or two channels that are very iffy on the 942 (which is attached to the same antenna).
Changing channels is silky smooth, since it doesn’t have to dink around with sending IR to a set-top box.
The program guide has data for all of my local channels, and in most cases appears to show when a program is really in HD or not. The one that bothers me a bit is my local PBS station, which shows no HD content. I also do not seem to have several alternate digital PBS signals that I think should be there, but a quick look at TheGreenButton seems to indicate that this might be an MCE Rollup 2 problem.
Live TV and recorded TV appear to be fairly smooth, although there were a couple of points where it looked like I might be hitting the edge of the performance envelope. I need to do a little tuning on the machine setup to see if I can get around this.
If you’re considering adding HD, remember that it’s not for “faint of performance” machines.
Virtually any old PC will lope along and handle one or even two SD receivers, but HD has a data rate about 6x faster — that means that your machine has to write six times as much data to the hard drive in the same time (even watching “Live TV”, which is buffered on the hard disk), six times as much data needs to go across the bus, and the video card has to work six times harder to decode and display the signal.
Also remember that disk space sufficient to record tons of SD content will only hold a bit of HD content.
That being said, if you think you’re ready to give it a shot, it’s pretty cheap to try — the VBox receiver goes for around $125 or less if you shop around a bit. This makes it a fairly inexpensive way to add HD content to your Windows MCE system.