V, Inc. Bravo HD1 ATSC/NTSC set-top receiver

As the transition from analog to digital TV chugs along, there have been some significant advances in the design and performance of set-top receivers. The earliest models, from 1997 to 1998, including RCA's DTC-100 and Panasonic's TU-DST50W, were fairly large, heavy boxes painted an imposing dark gray that had a limited amount of functionality and weren't all that sensitive to terrestrial 8VSB digital TV broadcasts.

Fast-forward to the present day, when most new set-top receivers use fourth-generation 8VSB chipsets. These models are more sensitive, take up less space, and have shed that industrial dark gray for brighter, more silvery finishes.

V, Inc.'s Bravo HD1 is such a product; it may, in fact, be the smallest stand-alone DTV set-top receiver sold today. It measures just 10.5 x 1.75 x 6.5 inches and weighs just under a pound. It's easy to see why: V, Inc. has used an external 12V power supply (much like that of a notebook computer), which cuts way down on weight and size, not to mention price. At $199, the HD1 is the most inexpensive HD set-top receiver we know of.

Out of the Box
The HD1 offers a minimal set of connections. There's a single RF input for your antenna, the DC power jack, and an RS-232C serial connector for remote operation. Video output is available from three RCA jacks (component Y-Pb-Pr), a composite RCA jack, and an S-video jack.

Audio is available through a coaxial RCA connector (digital S/PDIF) or analog 2-channel RCA connectors. The digital audio output supports Dolby Digital or PCM modes. Your choice here has no effect on the analog audio outputs, which are always active.

Interestingly, the HD1 has a composite-video input and a 2-channel analog audio input which can accept signals from an external device. These signals are then passed directly to the HD1's composite and analog audio outputs. Unfortunately, the HD1 does not provide a DVI-HDCP or RGB (15-pin) output.

The supplied remote control is pretty generic, with up/down buttons for channel and volume, a mute button, picture-in-picture, and aspect-ratio control (4:3 or 16:9). Another button lets you toggle through the choices of video output format (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i)—a nice change from competing set-top receivers, which are designed with manual switches on the rear panel. (Sorry, there's no "native"-format output mode.)

The 1080i format is best for widescreen CRT TVs, as most of these do not support the 44.9kHz scan rate needed for 720p. If you're driving a plasma or LCD monitor or front projector, 720p will yield the best results. The 480i composite and S-video outputs are always active, no matter which mode you select.

Setting up the HD1 is pretty simple. The unit includes a four-digit password that must be entered each time you go into the channel edit, channel scan, or installation menu. The default setting is all zeros; you can change it to whatever you wish.

To get up and running, I connected the UHF antenna on the roof of my office to the HD1, opened the Autoscan menu, and began searching for active channels. For those readers who remember the s-l-o-o-w Unity Motion DTV receivers, the HD1 isn't much faster. By my reckoning, it took almost three minutes to scan channels 2–69 and load all active NTSC and ATSC signals into memory. By comparison, LG's LST-3100A DTV set-top receiver, while somewhat larger, can do that same scan in 30 seconds, though it doesn't support NTSC reception.

Once the scan was complete, I entered the Program menu to view a complete listing of all analog and digital channels saved in memory, along with each digital station's virtual channel information (e.g., KYW-DT 3-1). If the digital station is broadcasting electronic program guide (EPG) information, that can be found here, too.

You can find out more about a digital station by hitting the remote's Info button when a DTV station is tuned in. If, for some reason, you missed a station during a scan, the menu also lets you manually enter the channel and save it in memory.

In addition to the Autoscan and Manual Scan menus, you can select PIP mode (for simultaneous viewing of video from the Aux input), TTX (for closed captioning), and Channel Favorite/Lock, to distinguish the channels you want to keep in memory from those you don't.

V, Inc. has also included something called the Information Plate, or I-Plate for short. This is a graphic display that shows up along the bottom of the screen and indicates the station's call sign, virtual channel number, audio format, picture format, program name (if available) , and the time and date. You can set this feature to appear briefly onscreen or to slowly fade after being displayed.

Selecting the brief display was frustrating, as the I-Plate was displayed for only about a second each time I hit the remote's Info button. That's way too short to be able to read all of a DTV station's information; most DTV tuners leave a similar graphic onscreen for five to seven seconds.

The HD1 had good sensitivity—about the same as my third-generation Samsung SIR-T165 set-top receiver. With my office rooftop-antenna system, it picked up ten local DTV stations carrying a total of twenty-one different programs. I was also able to pull in many of those same stations with a variety of indoor antennas, from a simple collapsible whip to the Zenith ZHDTV1Z Silver Sensor. (While the Zenith, which costs about $35, is a good choice for such operation, RadioShack's 15-1880 amplified indoor VHF/UHF antenna will also work well with the HD1, and isn't too expensive at $49.95.)

While testing the HD1, it occurred to me that I could easily combine it with a small antenna, an LCD TV, and a backpack for portable DTV reception. I put together such a kit for a recent trip to the Tanglewood Music Festival in western Massachusetts. I knew from previous signal tests, and by searching Internet TV-station databases, that there was a local UHF DTV station (WCDC, UHF channel 36) broadcasting from nearby Mt. Greylock (about 15 miles north and 3150 feet above sea level), so I also brought along a homemade compact UHF antenna with a work-light clamp on one end. I attached the clamp to a lamp in my room at the B&B, connected it to the HD1, and did a channel scan. A few minutes later, I was able to watch ABC digital programming (though, of course, not full high definition) just fine on a 5-inch RCA LCD TV. While the antenna direction wasn't particularly critical, I used the signal-quality display in the HD1's Manual Channel Add menu to peak the signal.

V, Inc.'s Bravo HD1 is a nice, compact receiver with a few limitations. The lack of a DVI output is a big one, particularly as more and more LCD and plasma TVs are equipped with this input. While the HD1's receiver performed well, the channel-scan feature was too slow, and the I-Plate display needs to be onscreen a lot longer than one second.

If you're really into free digital TV and want to watch it on the road, the HD1 could come in handy, particularly if you have a temporary TV setup in a vacation home or time-share and there are nearby DTV stations to watch. I found out what DTV stations were active by going to the TV Radio World website (www.tvradioworld.com) and looking up listings by city and state.