booksfilminterviewsmusictechnology
AITech PC/TV AirLink
Big-screen computing at small-screen prices--if you're willing to compromise
PC/TV AirLink
AITech
DOS, Windows
Like many other writers who work at home, I've divided the house into two distinct areas: a) the office, where the computer resides, and b) everywhere else. Theoretically, all activity in the house should be broken down into two categories: a) work, which takes place in the office, and b) everything else, which takes place everywhere else. This theory would work well if it weren't for one little problem: sometimes I'd rather compute from the comfort of the sofa.

The simple (but expensive) solution would be to buy a laptop. AITech, however, would rather I saved a little money and bought their PC/TV AirLink instead, which lets me use my computer from anywhere in the house.

Here's how it works: the AirLink hardware includes a radio transmitter and receiver, an infrared receiver, and a wireless keyboard with a built-in joystick mouse. The radio transmitter is plugged into the sound card and VGA card. The infrared receiver is connected to the keyboard and serial ports, and is in turn plugged into the transmitter. The radio receiver is connected to any TV within 300 feet (100 if walls are in the way). After installing the driver and setting the screen resolution to 640 x 480, the computer's audio and video are beamed to the TV, and everything is ready to go.

After installing the hardware, Vicky (my fiancée) and I decided to see if computing is more fun in the living room. The answer is an unequivocal "maybe".

After getting comfortable on the couch, we fired up Netscape for a little casual surfing--and remembered why I usually have my desktop set to 800 x 600. Between Netscape's toolbars and the reduced screen size (to keep from losing some of the image in the TV's overscanned area, I had to set the vertical resolution to 440 lines--more on that later), there wasn't much room left for viewing the site. Then there were the problems with the nature of interlaced NTSC, North America's television standard. First, even a 640 x 440 image is nowhere near as sharp as a basic 640 x 480 VGA screen; more extended surfing would have required us to increase the font size, costing us more screen real estate. Second, the image is interlaced, which results in a jittering effect along the lines of high-contrast areas--such as many sites' white backgrounds and black letters. Being a longtime Amiga user, I'm used to interlace jitter; Vicky, like most people, found it uncomfortable to watch after a few minutes.

This was a problem common to every application that relied on text, which calls into question AITech's claims that the AirLink is ideal for such things as "Mom and Dad [reviewing] their budget from the comfort of the couch", or "parents [helping] with homework without crowding the children." The office may not be as comfortable as the living room, but it's preferable to having your eyes feel like they're being assaulted.

Graphics are a completely different story. We tested the AirLink with DreamWorks Interactive's The Neverhood and Berkeley Softworks' You Don't Know Jack, displayed some high-resolution scans along with some low-resolution digital camera snapshots, and played at least a dozen QuickTimes. In all cases, the images were clear and looked just as good as on a computer monitor--sometimes better.

Better than a monitor? It seems implausible, but there are several good reasons for this. While NTSC is lousy for sharply-defined, high-contrast colors, it's fine for continuous-tone images; in fact, some images which would be noticeably pixellized on a computer screen come out looking smoother on a television. One reason is the NTSC signal, which causes adjacent pixels and lines to blur together--sort of like built-in anti-aliasing. The larger screen and the distance (people usually sit around six feet away from a television, compared to two feet away from a monitor) also help considerably. AITech seems to have figured this out already; the "family friendly" software included with the AirLink all stress large, clear graphic visuals.

Where the AirLink excelled was in playing games. Playing a quirky game like The Neverhood is far more entertaining in the living room, and a television's sound quality is just fine. Even better was You Don't Know Jack, which is designed to be a party game. The idea of a party game being played in an office or computer room always seemed odd to me; the PC/TV is much more sensible.

It's hard to decide if the AirLink is useful or not; every positive point seems to have a negative one balancing it. For instance, the AirLink setup is designed to let you use the computer directly or from the television without having to rewire anything. However, the keyboard is similar to a laptop's, in that the layout is rearranged to fit a smaller space. While I'm willing to sacrifice some usability for the convenience of working in the living room, I'd rather use my regular keyboard in the office. The same applies to the built-in mouse. It's easy to disconnect the PC/TV and plug in my regular mouse and keyboard, but why should I have to fiddle around the back of my computer on a regular basis? Similarly, the VGA pass-through allows me to use either the television or the computer's monitor. Unfortunately, the pass-through causes the monitor's image to be intolerably fuzzy.

Most aggravating is the TV's screen cutoff. Unlike a computer monitor, television overscans--that is, the image spills past the visible edges of the screen. People who produce material for TV know to work within the "safe area" in the middle of the screen, but computer programmers don't. AITech includes a utility that cuts the vertical resolution to 440 lines, but this isn't perfect; some programs (such as You Don't Know Jack) don't work at the reduced screen size. Even if they do, there's still the horizontal overscan problem.

The AirLink does have a bonus feature: the transmitter can accept any composite input for broadcast. This means it can be used to transmit images from video cameras, other televisions, or VCRs. While I have no doubt that some will find this beneficial, the inability to control the input device dampens my enthusiasm.

In all, the AirLink is not a bad device, and I suspect some people will find it entertaining and maybe even useful. But it's definitely not for everyone.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (May 1998)