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Who watches cable TV anymore? I don’t. In fact, if I didn’t already get it for free I’d cancel it immediately because I never watch it. Sure, that means no first viewings and no lucky daytime nostalgia through the boob tube, but most of those channels are useless anyways and it’s expensive. But to want to watch something on the big screen requires my laptop, me knowing how to hook up the laptop to my TV, and a cadre of ugly wires in the living room. That’s why USB streaming is such a promising technology: it kills clutter, keeps laptops safely out of harm’s way, and still streams all of your video to the TV. Talk about it being one of the best Tv accessories!
Warpia’s Stream HD does just that, and well.
The Stream HD is a simple two-USB dongle setup with a base that connects to your TV and a dongle for your laptop. Installation (on a CD…people still use those?) is quick and mostly painless, adding yet another icon to the taskbar. Once installed the USB dongle transmits your computer screen wirelessly to the connected screen at up to 1080p, assuming of course that you’ve got the juice for it. Another device you can use to watch your favorite sports shows is featured in our HDTV antenna review.
Requirements for USB streaming are…strenuous, to say the least. For 720p video, Warpia recommends at least a dual core 1.8GHz CPU and 1GB of free RAM, and for full 1080p video 2.4GHz and 2GB. A Warpia spokesperson said dual core CPUs are recommended only so that other applications can run without error since video streaming only uses a single core, but laptops sold over the past 3-5 years have come with weak processors, opting for low-power and multiple cores instead of frequency. Netbooks and inexpensive laptops will have trouble with 720p video. For general web-browsing and using the TV as a secondary display, a 1.6GHz single core CPU and 512MB of RAM are recommended, and work just fine. But video on such a pathetic machine is a bobbleheaded mess.
I tested the Stream HD on several laptops, including an HP Elitebook (2.6GHz, 4GB RAM), a MacBook Pro (2.4GHz, 4GB RAM), and the new MacBook Air (1.8GHz, 4GB RAM). Warpia doesn’t formally support Mac OS, but the drivers are available and it does run. The HP laptop ran like a charm. Both 720p and 1080p video playback fast and smooth. The last-generation MacBook Pro did have some trouble with 1080p video playback, and washed out at 20fps instead of the customary 24fps for films, though after updating to newer (recently released) display drivers, it ran smoothly though depending on background applications there is some spillover.
I also tested running off Windows 7 through Parallels, though actually running Parallels slowed the computer down enough to make video choppy. While I didn’t reinstall Windows 7 using Boot Camp, there should be no lag, so Boot Campers should have no trouble even if their computers barely meet the requirements. Searching for the best device to help you watch news and live sports in HD? Open our Winegard fl5500a review.
The MacBook Air was more trouble, thanks to it’s slower 1.8GHz processor. Even though it can turbo to 2.9GHz, video strained and was choppy, and battery life plummeted on the machine.
That said, I’m impressed with the setup of Warpia’s Stream HD system. It’s not difficult to use in any way: just plug the HDMI cable from the base into your TV (and optical if necessary to your sound system), plug the dongle into your laptop, and stream away. The software itself feels clunky, which feels like a problem with Windows because in OS X it just worked. The dongle does get surprisingly hot…it won’t scald you when you unplug it, but it’s hard to miss when a USB dongle could be used for Hot Potato.
Actual use is also promising thanks to the easy line-of-site requirement. That means you can’t stream from another room, and I’ve measured the cutoff point at about 20′ before video quality begins to suffer, though unless you’re trying to stream for a movie theater, that shouldn’t be a problem. My larger concern is actually the USB technology, because right now USB streaming doesn’t support use of the GPU, which is frankly terrible for streaming devices like the Stream HD. It limits so many laptops from streaming HD content. On my MacBook Air I can play 1080p video, no problem, but not streaming through USB. So for myself and tens of thousands of laptop owners, the Stream HD isn’t a feasible solution because their laptops use processors that are too weak to play the video, even though their laptops can with minimal stress. Furthermore, battery life drains significantly faster streaming via USB because of how CPU-heavy it is, instead of sharing resources and minimizing the power impact.
However, that’s all an aside, because USB streaming is a technology of convenience. It’s made to get rid of cables in the living room, make it easy and comfortable to watch TV from your computer on the TV, and not take forever to do so. In all of these things, the Warpia Stream HD does an excellent job. Now I leave the USB dongle on my coffee table for instant streaming of my favorite shows. Because seriously, who needs cable?