Lifeview Encoder 4
Review date: 7 March 2001.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
A video card with TV output lets you put your computer video onto a TV screen - or record computer video on a VCR, or even hook your PC up to a video projector that doesn't have VGA input. This can be both useful and fun.
Not for ordinary everyday computing, though. Even expensive scan-doubled ultra-sexy televisions have low resolution tubes in them, compared with computer monitors. That's why a 21 inch TV's so much cheaper than a 21 inch monitor. It's hard enough to read normal sized text on a TV screen in even 640 by 480 mode, and 800 by 600 or higher is really fuzzy. It's fine for lower-res games or business presentations, or for playing DVDs from your DVD-ROM equipped computer, though.
TV-out video cards are more expensive than regular ones, and the driver support for the TV output can be flaky and confusing. And you can't install them in a portable computer - which is the kind of machine that businesspeople often want to plug into a TV or projector, to bore the assembled multitudes with their PowerPoint masterpiece. If your laptop doesn't come with TV out, though, you can't change its video adapter.
What the world needs is a simple plug-in device that gives you TV output from anything with a normal PC monitor connector. And it should be cheap. Maybe, oh, $AU132 delivered.
Oh, look. Here one is.
What you get
The Lifeview Encoder 4 is a gadget that connects to a normal VGA socket, and gives you composite and Y/C output. If you're wondering what the difference is, my old video guide here will set you straight.
The Encoder 4 kit gives you composite and Y/C video cables - not very long ones, but decent quality - and a keyboard passthrough cable, for power. The passthrough cable has an adapter that lets you use it with PS/2 or old-style big-DIN-plug keyboard sockets.
DC input socket in the middle, composite output RCA connector to the right, Y/C mini-DIN connector to the left. You can use the composite and Y/C outputs simultaneously, but you don't get separate picture settings for the two of them.
The control buttons aren't labelled, but they're easy enough to remember - Menu, Select, Left and Right, and Reset. The DIP switch on the end lets you select PAL or NTSC format video output.
The VGA connectors at either end of the Encoder 4 have snap-on plastic covers, so they won't get damaged while the Encoder's not in use. The VGA-in connector has a good screw-in plug...
...and the VGA-out connector at the other end of the device is an ordinary socket with screw receivers on either side.
The input video's always passed through, so this one gadget lets you run a Y/C display device, a composite display device, and a normal computer VGA-connector RGB display device simultaneously. Which is more than most TV-out-capable video cards can manage.
The Encoder 4's manual is one folded A4 sheet, only half of which is in English, but it's good enough. Operating this thing's not very difficult.
Plugging in the Encoder 4 is about as easy as it can be. Attach keyboard adapter, screw in Encoder, attach monitor to pass-through if necessary, plug in TV or projector or whatever. You can run the Encoder 4 from a VGA extension lead if you like, but if it's not a high quality one you're likely to get ghosting effects. Since you actually have to be able to reach the Encoder in order to fiddle with the video settings, a decent extension lead could be a useful addition to the kit in some situations.
The user interface for sizing and positioning the video output is about as painful as you'd expect - if you've fooled with the picture controls on a current-model cheap portable TV, you'll know what I'm talking about - but it works, once you learn not to press the Reset button at the end of the control row and kill all of your adjustments.
There's a good selection of video adjustments, though. Horizontal and vertical position control over a respectable range, an overscan/underscan toggle that gives you reasonable picture size control, sharpness adjustment and four brightness settings. And there's a colour bar display option, to let you tweak the colour settings on your output device, or just set up the video if the computer's outputting a black screen or something else unhelpful.
There's also a rather handy Zoom option that double-sizes the display when you press the Left control button, showing you the top left quadrant of the display and letting you actually read fine text, even in 800 by 600 mode on a crummy TV. Pressing the Right button in this mode cycles through the screen quadrants, and there's a Pan function as well that lets you put the magnified image section exactly where you want it.
There are actually two DIP switches on the end of the button row. One does the documented PAL/NTSC selection, to suit your output device. The other, undocumented switch gives you a somewhat less useful choice between a normal display and a random black and white garble. I preferred the normal display, but it's entirely up to you.
When you change resolution or turn off the computer, the Encoder 4 forgets its settings, which can be a bit annoying. This'd be a pain if you wanted to use your computer as a regular DVD player; in that case, a normal TV-out video card would probably be a better choice. But hey, this thing's cheap.
Compared with a real monitor, computer video on even an expensive TV is going to look lousy. Alarmingly expensive TVs and projectors that have their own VGA input can do a decent job of displaying sharp video. Maybe even at 800 by 600. But Y/C has hard bandwidth limits that restrict the possible image quality you can get, and composite's even worse.
You can make things less awful by using Y/C when you can - many TVs and VCRs only have composite input, but a lot of gear handles Y/C these days - and by using good quality cables that are no longer than you need.
The native output quality of the Encoder 4 looks about as good as anything I've seen from a TV-out video card. It handles a decent selection of resolutions, too; this model of Encoder 4's only supposed to support resolutions up to 800 by 600, but actually still get a picture even at much higher resolutions.
It's always very fuzzy, of course, and it's often got odd artefacts - funny pulsing effects, thickened or thinned lines, bottom of image wrapped around to the top, that sort of thing. But if you've got nothing but a TV connected, and you accidentally switch to 1280 by 1024 mode, you'll probably still be able to see roughly what's going on.
Everything up to 1600 by 1024 was still viewable when I tried it. 1600 by 1200 fell into one of those broken-vertical-hold superimposed image modes, but even that's better than a black screen.
The passed-through video coming out of the Encoder 4's end VGA port has lost a bit of voltage, so it's noticeably darker. There's a tiny bit of ghosting, too, from the extra not-so-great set of contacts the signal's gone through. But it's still perfectly viewable. A lot of TV-out capable video cards don't let you use the monitor and the TV at the same time, at all.
If you want TV out for movie nights, big-screen TV gaming or business presentations, this is a well priced plug and go solution. The existing monitor still works, you don't need to install any software, you can move it between computers in minutes, and it'll even work with a laptop.
It'd be nice if the Encoder 4 remembered its settings between sessions, and had slightly better pass-through video quality. But it's cheap, the TV out quality's fine, and the end caps mean you can carry it around in your pocket without even getting fluff in the connectors.