For two generations, the "rabbit ears" antenna has been the symbol for the way we get TV signals from the ether into our television sets. Even TiVo's icon has them.
But analog broadcast television is going away in early 2009, and those rabbit ears will be next to useless — not that they've ever been all that good.
In the upcoming world of digital broadcast television, you'll still get your local stations over the air, but if you don't have cable or a satellite dish, you'll need something better to pull in that signal.
Pinnacle's USB-based TV for Mac HD Mini Stick (which also works on a PC) comes with a single-masted extendable antenna as well as a connector to hook it up to an unlocked cable input (one that doesn't require a set-top box).
The system brings broad digital television functionality to your Mac or PC. It also provides many of the features of a digital video recorder (DVR), including programmable recording, manual recording and most of the DVR functions you're used to, such as fast-forward, rewind and switching to live TV.
The box comes with the USB high-definition tuner ministick, a digital antenna and magnetic base, a remote control, a USB extension cord, a cable connector and setup software.
It all packs into a handy-dandy carrying pouch. Pinnacle claims the magnetic base for the antenna helps improve reception, no doubt by attracting stray signals. They say it'll work even better if you put it on a metal base.
I'll admit to being a bit nervous about carrying around a magnetic anything, given the sensitivity of computer gear, not to mention credit cards.
I found setting up on both platforms to be relatively easy. On the Mac, the EyeTV Lite included software was easy to install. (Pinnacle packages its own software for the four different PC versions of the Mini Stick.)
Scanning for over-the-air signals was a little time-consuming, though. Depending on what you want, the system can look for as few as 72 channels or as many as 812.
Remember, digital television stations actually have multiple channels, often offering additional programming and information services such as weather or traffic reports.
Pinnacle asks you to choose between a simple setup and what it terms an "exhaustive scan," and will also allow you to initiate a signal-boosting program that helps in weak-reception areas.
Enter your zip code, and the Internet connection fetches an online programming guide for your area. That comes in handy for setting up the DVR functions of the system.
I tried out the system on three different machines — a MacBook Air, an iMac and a Lenovo X300 Thinkpad — in several locations.
The included remote worked on the Macs, but not on the PC.
In my office in New York, the system running on the MacBook Air found roughly 40 over-the-air channels — and, using an unlocked cable connection, it picked up everything that was on the Manhattan cable system.
At my home in western Connecticut, setups on all three machines returned three different sets of channel results — five, eight and nine channels, respectively, with the most showing up on my iMac.
Another place I tried to use the system was in Ithaca, in upstate New York, where there's never been any decent analog over-the-air broadcast television signal.
Unfortunately, that hasn't changed with digital. I wasn't able to receive anything.
Where I could get a signal, I found that the digital images came in sharp and clear. The HD picture on my iMac was nothing short of startling.
But here's the problem — the system requires HUGE amounts of processing power. My iMac was up to the task for the most part, with very few pauses, freezes or glitches.
Not so my two laptops, one a Mac, the other a PC. Both suffered from frequent freezes and glitches, though playback of recorded material was fine. Even making sure the PC or Mac was consuming as few other processing cycles as possible didn't solve all the problems.
Pinnacle admits the system is demanding, and suggests having 1 GB of available onboard memory.
So let's get to the bottom line. The Pinnacle mini USB HD system for Mac has a suggested retail price of $130. PC editions range from $100 to $140.
If you've got a desktop computer with plenty of processing power, this is a great way to watch, record and play back HD and non-HD digital television signals.
But if you have a lesser desktop, or a laptop that's not on steroids, you may be disappointed.
If the current economic crunch is prompting you to try to get your computer system to do double duty as an entertainment center, this may be worth considering.
But before you jump in, make sure your computer has the memory and processing power so that the experience lives up to its advanced billing.