Diamond’s VStream wireless HDMI adapter

Not all of us care to set up and carefully tweak a home-theater PC. Not all of us even bother to acquire set-top devices—PVRs, consoles, or otherwise—that can grab the latest video content from the Internet. For the lazy or indifferent, getting shows from Netflix or BitTorrent into the living room usually involves a plain old HDMI cable, often with a laptop pushing pixels at the other end.

There’s nothing technically wrong with that solution, but having a long HDMI cable running across one’s living room has some downsides. You’ve got to unroll the thing, plug it in, and try not to trip over it while walking to the couch with drinks and popcorn obscuring your view. Leaving the laptop next to the TV alleviates the cabling problem, but it means having to get off the couch to control playback. You can forget about loafing around on Facebook while watching the latest Top Gear, too. Ugh!

Wouldn’t it be great if you could magically beam video content from your PC to your HDTV without the need for pesky cables?

Thankfully, it’s 2011, and such a feat is both possible and easy. The Diamond VStream WPCTV1080H adapter we’ll be looking at today promises to augment just about any reasonably quick Windows system with wireless 1080p output capabilities. This adapter’s $119.99 asking price might seem onerous compared to a generic HDMI cable, but it’s not much pricier than adapters for Intel’s Wireless Display technology. WiDi, as it’s known, works only with certain combinations of Intel processors and Wi-Fi cards, whereas Diamond’s solution requires little more than a free USB 2.0 port and a processor quick enough to do the job.

Specifically, Diamond recommends the use of at least a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo—an AMD equivalent should do—for an optimal 1080p experience with the VStream. That rules out netbooks and underpowered ultraportables, but today’s full-sized consumer laptops and modern desktops should have more than enough horsepower. The included drivers only work on Windows, so Mac users need not apply… unless they’ll be loading up Windows via Boot Camp. (An operating system not named after a cat, you say? How terribly unsophisticated.)

If the notion of pushing video content over USB sounds familiar, it might be because DisplayLink has been selling adapter chips that do exactly that for years. We even reviewed one back in early 2008. The VStream WPCTV1080H is simply a new take on the same concept. In spite of the Diamond logo on the box, a DisplayLink chip lurks inside the base station. Sprinkle on some Wireless USB goodness in the form of a pair of dongles, and voilà; that boring old cable has been replaced by a wireless link with a maximum range of 30 feet.

Setup and testing

Getting the VStream WPCTV1080H up and running doesn’t involve much effort. The L-shaped USB dongle goes into the desired PC or laptop. The other dongle plugs into the base station, as do the DC power cord and HDMI cable. Get everything powered up, install the required drivers, let the displays flash on and off a few times, and you’re good to go. The software might pop up an auto-update request after it’s installed, but that only takes a minute. Once everything is set up, Windows essentially treats the VStream like an auxiliary display adapter, and it offers the usual array of multi-display options—mirroring, extending, and so forth.

Audio signals can be passed wirelessly, too. While a normal HDMI connection is able to carry as many as eight audio channels in a variety of formats, the VStream’s audio output capabilities are limited to 16-bit, 48kHz stereo. The device’s audio component shows up in Windows as a generic USB audio device.

We first put the VStream to the test by playing a 720p H.264 video on a 720p Samsung LCD TV—likely a good representation of what typical users might do. From across the room, the video quality appeared decent, and the frame rate remained smooth overall, save for occasional and brief bouts of choppiness. We also noticed some banding in low-contrast gradients that wasn’t in the original video stream. The laptop we used (a 13″ MacBook running Windows 7) packs a 2GHz Core 2 Duo, however, which places it a little below Diamond’s recommended spec. In any case, the associated audio came through just fine and remained in sync for the duration of the video (about 20 minutes).

Next, we pushed the VStream to its limit by hooking up a 24″ HP LCD monitor and setting the resolution to 1920×1080. Since we wanted to test under optimal conditions, we switched off our laptop and connected the L-shaped dongle to a Core i5-750-powered desktop PC. We also left the dongle and base station within a couple of feet of each other.

Pushing a 1080p video stream with eight bits per color channel over USB is no easy task. Uncompressed, you’re looking at about 5.9MB per frame, which works out to 178MB/s for a 30 FPS video stream—well beyond the 60MB/s peak bandwidth afforded by the USB 2.0 specification. Considering it’s burdened by not only a limited USB 2.0 connection, but also a wireless connection of variable strength, the VStream has to implement some compression mojo to keep images flowing. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to achieve anything much smoother than a slide show.

Some symptoms of that compression were apparent on our 24″ monitor. The text looked garbled and aliased, as you can see below:

We also noticed some color banding in still gradients, and the banding worsened with motion. (I’m guessing one of the compression algorithms involves reducing the color palette.) The image fidelity didn’t improve when we bumped the resolution down to 720p, and toggling the “optimize for video” setting in the DisplayLink tray utility didn’t help, either. Using our laptop to talk to the 24″ monitor wirelessly produced similar results, so this was no fluke. The VStream may do a decent job with video, but users seeking sharp text and pristine 2D graphics will have to stay tethered.

We went ahead and conducted additional video testing on our quad-core desktop PC, using 1080p and 720p versions of the Tintin trailer and a standard-definition Arrested Development stream from Netflix. The 1080p trailer exhibited some choppiness and aliasing. CPU utilization was only around 5-10% higher than normal in that scenario, so the bottleneck clearly lay with the VStream. The 720p trailer looked cleaner, but it also suffered from dropped frames. Even the Netflix video stuttered slightly in parts—nothing serious enough to make the audio go out of sync, though. Incidentally, color banding was more visible in the Netflix video than in the others. Perhaps the higher compression ratio of the source content was the culprit.

Out of simple curiosity, we fired up TrackMania United Forever at a 720p resolution to see if the VStream could handle some 3D gaming. Predictably, frame rates were too low to be playable. You’ll want to stick to point-and-click adventure games with this thing.

Conclusion

The VStream WPCTV1080H fulfills its promise of piping 1080p HDMI video wirelessly via a simple USB 2.0 connection. That’s a valuable function, since store shelves aren’t exactly creaking under the weight of alternative wireless display solutions. Diamond’s pricing isn’t unreasonable, either, though this device can’t quite be called cheap.

Unfortunately, squeezing a 1080p stream through a USB 2.0 port involves compromises: dropped frames, color banding, garbled text, and aliasing. We encountered these artifacts even under ideal conditions, with a fast quad-core system and the dongle and base station a couple of feet from each other. You can’t break the laws of physics, and USB 2.0 simply doesn’t have enough bandwidth.

While we won’t fault the VStream for failing to do the impossible, we will caution that the unit’s limitations make it suitable for a limited set of tasks. For instance, playing back standard-definition video while surfing the web on your laptop’s built-in display should work fine, provided the occasional dropped frame won’t bother you. Still images look decent enough on our 32″ LCD TV from across a small living room, so the VStream should also be good enough to torment guests with a slideshow of pictures from your last vacation. We wouldn’t recommend using the VStream for more complex tasks like 3D gaming or desktop productivity, though. Diamond mentions PowerPoint presentations in the product literature, but based on the text garbling we witnessed, we’d be hesitant to whip out the VStream in a crowded meeting room.

In the end, we’re left hoping for a similar product with more bandwidth and higher-quality video. That might come sooner rather than later, believe it or not. VESA and WiGig announced last November that they were developing a wireless DisplayPort implementation, and we were told to expect products in late 2011 or early 2012. Wireless DisplayPort should have 7Gbps of peak bandwidth at its disposal—more than a USB 3.0 connection, and certainly enough to maintain an unspoiled 1080p signal. Here’s hoping Diamond brings us a second-generation VStream based on that technology.

Comments closed
    • BabelHuber
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]While a normal HDMI connection is able to carry as many as eight audio channels in a variety of formats, the VStream's audio output capabilities are limited to 16-bit, 48kHz stereo.[/quote<] Not for me then.

    • Farting Bob
    • 8 years ago

    Im trying to find a reason why this expensive product that ruins the quality of the video and only does stereo audio would be preferred over a much cheaper HDMI cable. Is the sight of 1 cable going to a TV that bad that you need to spend hundreds to get an inferior image sent wirelessly?

    • tcunning1
    • 8 years ago

    I have never really seen a good review of how Intel WiDi performs in a similar situation, and whether or not it would be an improvement over this. My new laptop should support WiDi 2, but I’m reluctant to invest in the base station if I’m not sure how well it will work. Any thoughts? I am primarily interested in video, not game playing or text. I do have an HTPC but am thinking about repurposing it because @#$%^&* Comcast has scrambled all of the good channels, forcing me into a cable box DVR solution.

    • Bensam123
    • 8 years ago

    I’ve generally stayed away from these sort of products when considering a PC to TV connection because of the bandwidth limitations.

    It’s sort of interesting, brute force connections like this need the bandwidth, but they didn’t go with anything faster then USB 2. I don’t even know why they didn’t go with USB 3, which should be a default choice in this day and age (I’m still surprised gaming peripherals are still being made with USB 2).

      • Krogoth
      • 8 years ago

      Gaming peripherials don’t need the bandwidth. They don’t even use up the bandwidth that USB 1.1 yields. Remember, these devices used to work under serial and gamepad/MIDI ports which have a fraction of USB 1.1’s bandwidth. The only reason they would shoot for USB 3 is for power draw.

      The wireless HDMI needs more bandwidth then what USB 2.0 yields and a 802.11n level of wireless connectivity. I don’t think the review device has either one, which is why its output is subpar at best.

        • Bensam123
        • 8 years ago

        You make it sound like peripherals made years ago are exactly the same as the ones made today. 200dpi vs 6400dpi, 125hz vs 1000hz pulling. You try running a 6400dpi mouse running at 1000hz (if it lets you) through a PS/2 port or even a USB 1.1 port. Just because something can be used with a older technology or is based on it, doesn’t mean it was meant for it or needs nothing more then it.

        I can think of a couple reasons to use USB 3… response rate, dedicated bandwidth, dedicated hierarchy, and more power per port. Using your own logic, if they didn’t ‘need’ more bandwidth, why did they ever upgrade them from USB 1? When USB 2 first came out, gaming peripherals were among the first to adopt it… there isn’t a single gaming peripheral out now for USB 3.

        Wireless transmission rate aside, if you spent any time looking at peripherals that use USB 2.0 to transmit video to a monitor, you know they’re starved for bandwidth (look at USB 2 to DVI devices). You could even see that by comparing the bandwidth requirements of the two as the article does. That makes you question why they even used USB 2 instead of using USB 3.

          • Krogoth
          • 8 years ago

          Most gaming peripherals, keyboards and mice don’t use that much bandwidth. You make it sound like they use Mbps of bandwidth, when it is closer to Kpbs. They mostly use USB 2.0 for power draw. The only reason USB 3.0 would make sense if they need greater power draw. USB already has dedicated bandwidth on a per controller basis. If you are having bandwidth/latency issues for the controller, you got bigger problems.

          Latency is a moot-point as your nervous system operates at a much slower speed than any electronic interface. There’s a reason why stimulants and methamphetamines are abused in some pro gamer circles. It is also why most of the top pro-gamers are in their teens and 20s.

            • Bensam123
            • 8 years ago

            See that’s a bunch of BS… being able to sense a single connection is one thing, but a bunch of connections add up and make a difference. Just as your past post implies you don’t seem to think there are any long lasting impacts on individual decisions or that it doesn’t affect anything besides the immediate issue.

            No, USB 1/2 doesn’t have dedicated bandwidth. You can see this simply by going into your device manager and looking at the shared bandwidth in the advanced tab.

            Putting that aside, the original issue was pointing out that this device SHOULD have USB 3 and there is no excuse for it not. It’s even partially crippled because of it. Just the same as a $120 mouse SHOULD have the fastest available connection when it is claiming to be just that. Technical limitations aside, that can be claimed even on principal.

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            The controller has dedicated bandwidth not the devices connected to it. There’s a difference.

            If you shooting for each device having its own dedicated bandwidth, you are SOL. Because there is currently no interface in the customer arena that does this. It is due to engineering difficulties and costs to make dedicated circuitry for each port aren’t worth the benefits.

            Unless you got some perperherial fetish or a poorly implemented controller. Bandwidth is a non-issue for perpeherial devices with the current batch of external interfaces. It will remain this way until a killer app comes along that makes the current interfaces woefully inadeqaute.

            • Bensam123
            • 8 years ago

            I wasn’t aware Firewire or Thunderbolt shared bandwidth over multiple ports. It’s a non-issue because you say it is?

            This is like a chicken and the egg argument, part of the reason why they should use USB 3, putting aside the HDMI interface in the article, is because it helps the industry move forward and proliferate into newer areas. Once limitations are removed or no longer need to be thought about, people are more free to develop in other ways. It’s a artificial ceiling that is self-imposed by lethargy. Continuing to do what has always worked simply because they would rather wait till it’s nipping at their heels before they change, just like ipv6 right now.

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            FW and TB devices share bandwidth when they have the same controller, just like USB. IMO, I think you are confusing ports with controllers. It is a common mistake though.

            One of the big hooks for Thunderbolt is that you have the overhead to “share” multiple bandwidth bandwidth-demanding devices without killing each other in form factors where physical port space is limited (laptops/SFF PCs). It is much harder to do the same feat with USB3.

    • ShadowEyez
    • 8 years ago

    USB 3 seems the obvious choice here, but good effort for the first run.

    I have the roku, and it streams very well via 802.11n to an hdmi tv

    • axeman
    • 8 years ago

    I got a WDTV-LIVE for half of the price of this thing (albeit on sale). Works pretty damn nearly perfectly, supports proper multichannel audio, too. Supposedly it works for Netflix too,(not in Canada).

    If the software adaptively managed the compression ratio so 2D was legible, it might be somewhat useful, but otherwise, it’s not a very useful product IMO for more money and worse function than a standalone box.

    • cynan
    • 8 years ago

    Thanks for the review. Interesting product. However, as pointed out, the bizarre decision to use USB 2.0 effectively makes this product stillborn.

    There have been wireless HDMI alternatives for a few years now (Panasonic even integrated wireless HDMI into their highest line of plasma TVs so they could separate the scaler/input board to make a thinner TV). The better alternatives have all had HDMI inputs into the transmitter module and have used proprietary high-frequency wireless signals (as in 60 Ghz) to effectively transmit an uncompressed signal.

    Apparently the [url=http://www.google.com/products/catalog?q=wireless+HDMI&hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=qKo&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=s&prmd=ivnsu&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&biw=1680&bih=856&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=2106020301770018910&sa=X&ei=6h8eTqSDMs3SgQfZkfnJCQ&ved=0CKABEPMCMAY<]Gefen [/url<] wireless HDMI is one of the best, but it'll cost you minimum $500. This ~$200 [url=http://www.google.com/products/catalog?q=wireless+HDMI&hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=qKo&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=s&prmd=ivnsu&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&biw=1680&bih=856&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=241185123639405416&sa=X&ei=6h8eTqSDMs3SgQfZkfnJCQ&ved=0CIwBEPMCMAI<] Vizio [/url<] system looks promising, however it seems to require a direct line of sight for a stable connection. Bottom line, seems like anything close to the price range of the Diamond has its fair share of compromises and are mostly gimmicks and you need to spend a few hundred to get something with good performance and reliability.

    • bitcat70
    • 8 years ago

    Wow! I just noticed that every post is a “-1” with one post at “-2”. Is there a Diamond fan among us?

    @Arag0n: done! heehee!!!

    Oh, crap! someone’s messing with us! They’re back to 0 now!

      • Arag0n
      • 8 years ago

      -1 for you, you can’t be the exception! XD (someone has to down me now, shit! XDDD)

      • Arag0n
      • 8 years ago

      Strong the dark side of force is!

    • bhassel
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]You can't break the laws of physics, and USB 2.0 simply doesn't have enough bandwidth.[/quote<] I wouldn't go so far as to say that... with a bit more processing power, they could certainly do better. 480Mbps is a *lot* of bandwidth to work with for a half-decent video encoder. After all, Bluray manages to make do with 1/10th of that bandwidth, and it looks pretty good. And most TVs already include hardware MPEG2 decoding (for over-the-air ATSC signals), so if they hooked into that they wouldn't even need to include a decoder 🙂

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      Allocating more processing power to on-the-fly compression might help with video, but I’m not sold on it resolving the VStream’s other weaknesses. Ever tried saving a full-resolution desktop capture video in high-bitrate H.264 format? Small fonts end up not looking so great.

        • bhassel
        • 8 years ago

        That’s a fair point. I guess ideally you’d want to use some sort of lossless compression for plain old desktop browsing, since the screen is mostly static anyway. Then switch to lossy for high-motion stuff. But that just adds all sorts of complexity I’m sure.

      • webs0r
      • 8 years ago

      Completely true, the USB interface here is not the bottleneck.

      Although I have to say that I’ve not seen USB2.0 practically break the 30 Mb/sec (240 Mbps) barrier, so, half of the “theoretical” maximum. Still, I do not have any media with an average bitrate of higher than ~12 megabytes/sec (ignoring bluray), so that falls well within the USB 2.0 practical limit.

      The issue here is the wireless transmission. Wireless-N can already do a couple of megs per sec (say 2-3) so we need a tech that can handle 4-6x this bandwidth to cope with my media.

      I wouldn’t want anything to re-encode and destroy the quality…

      For now, dedicated media box with gigabit connection to the server is the way to go.

        • stupido
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]The issue here is the wireless transmission. Wireless-N can already do a couple of megs per sec (say 2-3) so we need a tech that can handle 4-6x this bandwidth to cope with my media[/quote<] that what I asked before... wireless-n thing is based on 2.4GHz ISM band which is a bit limiting... So I think UWB (5+ GHz ISM band) will be better suited for such things. unfortunately I couldn't find any info on what wireless tech they are using

          • designerfx
          • 8 years ago

          uh, correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t wireless N’s theoretical 150mb/s for the 2.4ghz band?

          Doesn’t that work out to a lot more than 2-3MB/s?

            • webs0r
            • 8 years ago

            Forgot the theoretical limits, they are way over-stated compared to reality. 2-3 Meg/s is what I see practically in my situation, and for most people it is worse. I can manage 4 Meg/s for upstream.
            Converting to megabits per sec thats what… 24/32 Mbps? Way lower than 150..

            Even typical 720p (not 1080) .h264 encodes have ~4500 kpbs bitrates, so you would get stuttering on them as well. (typical=”scene”)

            What you could achieve with current tech is to re-encode to something that fits within the -n profile (say 2 meg/s). But that would be a massive quality hit.

            In fact, that’s what this thing *should* do – kill the quality but keep smooth, stutter free playback. But it even fails at that, so there’s no point.

    • CampinCarl
    • 8 years ago

    Well, not exactly shocked. Need a lot of horsepower to tx/rx that much data. And those aren’t exactly large enclosures.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 8 years ago

    Well I’m not racing to compromise on image quality so this is not for me.

    • Arag0n
    • 8 years ago

    Cyril, pointing Netfix as an application for this misses so hard the point that netfix is already avalible in the XBOX 360 and other setboxes for TV. It’s not required to use a laptop as you may know.

    An XBOX can be used also to look photos and videos from an USB device. It’s not required the laptop at all…

    PD: This has become the “all -1 post”

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      Perhaps Diamond’s target market is the billions of people who don’t own an XBOX?

        • Arag0n
        • 8 years ago

        Sure thing, but it doesn’t make sense then to sell the device for 120$…. a plain Xbox costs you 200$ with more possibilities than a plain wireless-hdmi for laptops and a user interface designed to be used in the tv…. or kinect integration.

        This device main propose I don’t think should be to do what an XBOX already does for not so much higher price… there is a marketing or price problem if they pointed that as main propose…. I’m sure there is a cheaper option than the XBOX360 also… specially since most of tv’s already support natively USB input with pictures and video and Netfix is already in a diversificated number of devices.

        Edited: missed some words, it was missleading

          • eitje
          • 8 years ago

          On the other hand, this product is easier to carry than an Xbox.

          • OneArmedScissor
          • 8 years ago

          “a plain Xbox costs you 200$ with more possibilities”

          Those possibilities being more crap you have to buy. Who spends $200 on an Xbox 360 and calls it done?

      • bitcat70
      • 8 years ago

      You don’t even need an XBOX or a settop box for that. There are TV’s that can use WiFi to stream Netflix (and others) directly.

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      As I pointed out in the opening paragraph, not everyone wants or cares to buy a console or other set-top device that can access online content.

        • Arag0n
        • 8 years ago

        Sure thing… but to be honest, I think that usually the reason for that it’s because you don’t want to expend money when you already have your own laptop to use with the TV… setting up a 120$ price tag, destroys almost all the benefits of using your own laptop…

        However, my apologies for not reading that. I just read that the common setup to watch netfix involves using a laptop with a cable running all the saloon. I would have pointed the useless price-tag difference between a cable to do that from your own laptop and a XBOX or Setboxes…. they should reduce the price to 40-50$ if they want to be competitive IMHO, otherwise it’s a useless thing for homes, but might prove it’s usefulness for HDMI projectors in university classrooms or companies press-rooms if you can have a wireless device to connect your laptop instead of a wired solution around the room.

        • Palek
        • 8 years ago

        I understand what you are saying, but is it really that hard to set up a simple streaming STB? I mean, once it’s done it’s done, no need to mess with it – you don’t even have to plug in a USB dongle. A 10-foot UI with a remote is almost always the better choice for couch-bound use than a PC in your lap.

        Then there is the cost/benefit issue. The VStream costs more than the [url=http://shop.roku.com/<]high-end Roku box with proper 1080p support[/url<] and there is no usage scenario in which this adaptor excels over other alternatives. As your quick review revealed typical laptop/desktop computer usage - like browsing and mailing - is sub-par due to compression artifacts and gaming is out of the question. That leaves media playback, which was the focus of your article. But Roku does Netflix etc better. It's cheaper, has a better UI, has a remote for proper living-room use, won't face the same picture quality issues due to crappy re-compression, and won't hog your PC. You can watch that film on the big screen and check Facebook on your laptop. I fail to see the value offered by this $120 purchase. [EDIT]Nevertheless, thanks for the article! It's good to know about what's out there.[/EDIT]

          • Arag0n
          • 8 years ago

          Same here, there is a pricing problem or a marketing problem. Netfix and phtoos to see them in the coach CAN’T be targeted as main application for this device….

    • Krogoth
    • 8 years ago

    Cool idea, needs better interfaces (not enough bandwidth).

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      While I applaud them for attempting a USB 2.0 version, why not bring out a 3.0 at the same time?

        • stupido
        • 8 years ago

        +1

        I’m also curious which frequency range they use for the wireless part? Standard 2.4GHz ISM bandwidth or UWB?

        • Arag0n
        • 8 years ago

        It might be that the limiting factor it’s the wireless and not the USB interface….

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This