Atlona HDPiX Displays Internet Video on HDTV in 720p

| In-Depth Review

For those who intend to connect a Mac to their HDTV and also preserve HDCP for protected content, the Atlona USB to HDMI converter provides a very simple solution. It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes, accepts audio + USB from the Mac and outputs 720p via HDMI.

The number of different ways to connect a Mac to a modern HDTV can seem overwhelming at times. Those with unibody MacBooks will find that while a mini DisplayPort to DVI converter cable works fine, it won't support protected content in iTunes (unless the display supports HDCP over DVI.) Users of older MacBooks as well as Mac minis are in the same boat: a DVI to HDMI cable works, but the DVI part of the connection won't pass the HDCP protocol and allow high definition, protected content.

 

HDPiX

One way to get around these kinds of problems is to install software on the Mac that appears to the OS as an additional graphics card, then send the output, over USB to a box that converts the signal to HDMI, ready for an HDTV. That's exactly what the Atlona "USB to HDMI Converter", model AT-HDPiX does.

Features

  • HD TV or Projector Compatible
  • Resolutions supported up to UXGA 1600x1200 or 720p
  • Up to 6 x AT-HDPiX can be used with one PC and up to 4 x AT-HDPiX with one Mac
  • 32 bit True color depth of high quality images
  • Capable of Mirroring or Extending Display
  • Standard and wide-screen aspect ratios (4:3 or 16:9)
  • Compatible with all CRT and Flat Panel monitors w/HDMI port
  • Auto display ID using VESA compliant protocols
  • Audio input through 3.5mm (1/8-inch) stereo jack
  • Audio Embedded into HDMI
  • Quick and easy installation
  • Supports Windows 2000, XP and Vista, Mac OS X 10.4.1 and higher
  • USB Powered (no external power needed)
  • Includes software, USB cable and audio cable

Setup

There are two components to the setup. The physical connection couldn't be easier: simply use the supplied cables to connect video out and USB from the Mac to the HDPiX box. It is USB powered, so there's no need for an additional power converter. Then connect an HDMI cable from the HDPiX to the HDTV system. (In practice, the order is reversed. See below.)

The HDMI cable could go directly into the HDTV or, in my case, to a Denon A/V receiver that channels all my HDMI inputs.

A CD is included with the product that has the required software. In this case, it's the fairly standard and popular DisplayLink software that other products use. However, the software on the CD I received was beta, and it's better and more definitive to download the latest approved software from Atlona's site. The latest is version 1.1.

Again, in practice, the order is reversed from the descriptive sequence above:

  1. Install the DisplayLink software
  2. Connect the DISPLAY to the HDPiX
  3. Connect the computer to the HDPiX

If you follow the sequence above, then open System Preferences -> Display, you should see the following:

Display Settings

System Preferences -> Display.  This is the correct connection to HDTV.

If you don't follow that sequence, you'll see a fuzzy image and a confusing list of resolution options as the HDPiX is a little confused about what it's connect to. When you see the single 720p option above and a crisp image on your TV, you're good to go.

The next step, easiest for starters, is to use Mirror mode so that what aver you see on your Mac is displayed on the HDTV. For older MacBooks, that's the F7 key. For Unibody MacBooks, it's CMD + F1. (I don't know about Mac Minis, but the Display Preference can always force it.)

Operation

Once you have everything set up, all that remains is to launch the video resource you want to watch. For example, iTunes, Safari (Hulu, etc.), Miro, Boxee, and so on. Because the system acts as a second internal video card, any content, protected (DRM) or otherwise, that you could have watched on the Mac will be displayed on the HDTV with an output of 720p. Of course, if you have a scaler/upconverter in your HDTV or A/V receiver, that 720p signal may end up being displayed as 1080i or 1080p, depending on your equipment.

As the old iMac commercial with Jeff Goldblum used to say, "There is no Step 3!"

Audio out from the Mac is folded into the HDMI output at the HDPiX box. Right now, that's limited to analog, stereo. Joshua Carlson, Altona's Marketing Manager, told this reviewer that the next version of the HDPiX will support digital optical audio, so sources that have Dolby 5.1 will be supported.

I experienced a small amount of audio feedback buzz. Atlona said that it can be due to how well the audio cable seats into the 3.5 mm jack of various Macs. If you experience that, the suggestion was to try a different cable than the one supplied.

Testing

I tested the HDPiX with three different video sources: iTunes and an SD movie, Safari and Hulu, and a physical DVD and the Mac OS X DVD player.

The best video in my opinion was material sourced from iTunes. The screen shots below show scenes from both the movie "The Final Countdown," DVD/SD played from iTunes in full screen and "Legend of the Seeker," an HD TV show purchased on iTunes. The quality was fairly good, as evidenced by the detail in the F-14 Tomcat and the Seeker's face. However, there was a bit of stutter for reasons explained below.

Final Countdown

"The Final Countdown," DVD, H.264, iTunes, Full Screen, 50-in Plasma, conv. to 1080p

Legend of the Seeker

"Legend of the Seeker," iTunes, purch in HD. Mac OS X Desktop visible.

The next best video in my opinion was from Safari and Hulu where I played back an episode of FOX's "Dollhouse" science fiction show via Comcast high speed Internet. Of course, the SD image wasn't nearly as sharp as my DIRECTV broadcast in HD on Friday night, but it was eminently viewable. Again, there was a slightly annoying stutter in the video.

Dollhouse

FOX's "Dolhouse," Safari, Hulu, Full screen mode.

Finally, I inserted the DVD Movies "Interstate 60" and "I, Robot." In Interstate 60, even with people sitting in a bar, quietly talking, there was considerable loss of lip sync, to the point to being a distraction. I wasn't all that impressed with the video as well because I have, for comparison, those same DVDs played back on a Blu-ray player and the upconverting Denon A/V receiver.

I, Robot

"I, Robot," physical DVD, Mac OS X DVD Player

Resolution of Stutter

Atlona is well aware of the throughput and stutter issues and has been working closely with Apple and DisplayLink to improve the output of the Video via USB. This stutter was seen on 2006, Merom-based MacBook Pro, 2.33 GHz, running Mac OS X 10.5.6. There may well be some Mac OS X kernel tuning issues associated with high definition video output via USB. Joshua Carlson told this reviewer that progress has been made and that a free update to the DisplayLink software is forthcoming. It will be free.

Mac System Requirements

  • Intel-based Mac
  • CD-ROM Drive
  • OS X 10.4.1 or higher
  • One USB 2.0 port
  • 17 megabytes (MB) of free disk space

The PC is also supported via Windows. See the Atlona Website for details on PC support.

The Final Countdown

I found the HDPiX to be easy to set up. The DisplayLink software comes with an uninstaller, which is always a plus in my book. If the goal is to jump into Internet television in a big way and be able to display protected content via HDMI, this product will do the trick nicely because it sidesteps DisplayPort and DVI issues. Note, however, that the DisplayLink software is limited to Intel-based Macs.

When the stutter problems are worked out, The HDPiX will be even better. Just be aware that you're on the technical bleeding edge and, while it's far from a research project, Internet TV is still a bit behind direct connections from satellite or cable in pic quality, so your motivation and tolerance must be correspondingly high.

HDPiX

The HDPiX is small, light

Product: HDPiX USB to HDMI Converter

Company: Atlona

List Price: US$179.00

Pros:

Small, light, USB powered, trivial to set up, DisplayLink software comes with uninstaller, generates crisp (static) 720p images. Mac and PC compatible.

Cons:

Intel Mac only, video stutter still being addressed, somewhat expensive.

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Comments

jnc_13

There is an incorrect statement at the beginning of this report (and it’s a big one). You CAN use a mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter to view protected, HD content on an external display as long as the display you are connecting to supports High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). I’ve viewed lots of DRM-protected iTunes Store content from my unibody MacBook when it was connected to a Toshiba REGZA HD TV because this TV supports HDCP. This content includes both protected HD movies and HD TV shows which I’ve downloaded from the iTunes Store. In fact, many computer displays also support HDCP. It’s only Apple’s DVI-based, Cinema Displays that don’t support HDCP. Also, as far as I know you do need one of the newer, DisplayPort-based Macs in order to satisfy HDCP (since Apple didn’t support HDCP until it started using the mini DisplayPort).

Thus, the problem is not Apple’s mini DisplayPort adapter nor is it some absolute limitation when connecting over DVI, it just depends on whether the display you are connecting to supports HDCP.

Thus, the following WILL work for protected HD source material using any of the mini-DisplayPort equipped Macs:

mini DisplayPort -> DVI (with HDCP support in display)
mini DisplayPort -> DVI -> HDMI (with DVI to HDMI adapter, cheap)

In case you are wondering, I know that I’m viewing the HD version of the content because I’ve used the QuickTime Player to open the HD version of the files. Similarly, you can even remove the SD version and iTunes will still play the HD movie/TV show on the HDTV if you have enable HD playback for videos within iTunes (i.e. uncheck the iTunes preference “Play videos using standard definition version”).

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