Digital TV on your Mac

Introduction

Tv tuners for the Mac have been available for ages, but have universally been a poor relation to a real TV. ElGato is the first to ship a product that not only puts a high-quality TV image on your Mac, it may even mean you chuck out the idiot box altogether. The EyeTV 400 is different from an average, old-fashioned TV tuner because it's digital. The FireWire connection means you get full resolution - and better still, the DBV-T capabilities means you can get all the Freeview channels. The quality of image is perfect; as good as you can get. You can view it in a window or expand it to fill the screen. When expanded on my 20-inch flat-panel display there are some artefacts and pixelation, but only from up real close. Of course if you're watching TV, you won't be sitting two feet from your Mac; from a few feet away, the image looks perfect. That's the basics, but there's plenty more to the EyeTV. The box, which is small and discreet, comes with an infra-red remote so you don't have to get up to change the channel. It's simple to connect, too - just plug in the FireWire cable and an antenna. You are advised to use a proper antenna, though if you're lucky enough to be in an area with a very strong signal, you can use a supplied antenna on the EyeTV. Freeview digital terrestrial is now available to most of the country. If you aren't sure about your area you can check www.freeview.co.uk to see if you're covered. Setup and configuration
The hardware is decent, but the software is what makes EyeTV a compelling buy. Setup is just a matter of launching the software - it will look for all available DVB-T channels. You should be able to get over 20. Watching TV is one thing, but because EyeTV can keep a cache of the signal on your hard disk, you can also pause live TV. You can set the size of the cache, so potentially, with a 250GB FireWire drive you could pause TV almost indefinitely (well slightly over five days, by my reckoning). Recording is equally simple: just hit the record button and EyeTV will record to your hard drive. If EyeTV is going to replace your video recorder, it needs more than just a record button. That's where www.tvtv.co.uk comes in. The TV listings Web site has extra features when you have a subscription, and ElGato has thoughtfully supplied a year's subscription in the box. Once activated, the TVTV site gains little recording icons on all the listed programs. Simply pushing the record button will set your EyeTV to record. You'll need an Internet connection so that your EyeTV software can check for updated listings from time to time. I should point out that this miracle of techie goodness has required me to know pretty much nothing about how it works. All I did was plug it in, and it set itself up. I had to fill in a form on the TVTV Web site, but that's it. Now that I've bookmarked the page, and my wife has too, we can set the video recorder in seconds. The first time I recorded something from my desk at work, I realised that this is the future of television. This is how recording TV shows should work - until we can just download the shows as and when we want to watch them, this is the best way I have found to record TV. Once the programmes are recorded, you can go back and edit out the adverts before you watch the show. There's a basic video-editing facility built into the EyeTV software. It provides a quick way to top-and-tail your show, and chop out any ad breaks. If you're fond of a particular show, you can archive it to DVD with a SuperDrive. ElGato was founded by the guy responsible for developing Toast, the CD and DVD recording software. It should come as no surprise that EyeTV is designed to work perfectly with Toast 6 to let you record DVD video, or VCDs. There are three versions of the EyeTV, though only the 400 offers really compelling reasons for buying. The EyeTV 200 offers only analogue TV, so at best you'll get five channels. It does have the added benefit of encoding analogue video signals, so it might be handy for putting your wedding video onto DVD at last. But otherwise it lacks the digital quality of DVB-T television. The EyeTV 300 is an even more curious product. It's a digital satellite tuner but it currently lacks a card reader, needed to decrypt Sky TV or many other satellite subscription services. You should be able to get FreeView, but currently not much else. ElGato is actively trying to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of this product, so watch this space. Once you have all the lovely recordings on the Mac, it isn't unreasonable to want to watch them on the TV. This is possible with another piece of ElGato magic, namely the EyeHome. The EyeHome is a digital media player - it plugs into the TV and accesses the stuff on your Mac. By stuff I don't just mean the recorded TV shows, but also your iPhoto library, iTunes library and any movies in your Movies folder (though curiously not QuickTime movies). Turn on, tune in
Once you turn on your EyeHome (using the supplied remote control), it should find your Mac running the software. It then presents a choice of EyeTV content, Movies, Music or Pictures. The quality of the recorded shows is incredibly clear and sharp. Unlike VHS, the digital recording is as good as watching it live. The tuner in the EyeTV seems better than my old OnDigital box, which is prone to stutters and squawks. One thing it doesn't do is take a live feed from EyeTV, which would be nice. That way you wouldn't need a digital box on your TV. You would also be able to use the time-shifting features on the TV instead of just on your Mac. The iTunes music works just how you would expect it to, right down to the Smart Playlists. It lets you play your music through your TV, or if you have a home theatre system you can play it through that. This makes it a good alternative to the SliMP3 Squeezebox, which is a similar price but only does audio. There is one drawback, though not a major one, in that it doesn't play encoded AAC files. If you have files that you encoded yourself, that's no problem - but if you have encoded files from Audible.com or (one day) the iTunes Music Store, they won't play. The digital rights management is the problem, but it's another thing ElGato is working to fix. Currently there are no devices that can get around it. However, it is a legal requirement rather than a technical problem. I hope Apple provides a solution to manufacturers of media players soon. Otherwise, as media players like this one gain in popularity, Apple will miss out on iTunes sales. The Movies option links to any MPEG or DivX files you have in your movies folder. The Pictures option links to iPhoto images, and like the music it can see your saved albums. Viewing them on TV isn't quite as sharp as viewing them on a high-resolution computer screen. The resolution is low on TV, and the transitions are crude in comparison to the Ken Burns style you get in iPhoto, but the accessibility is definitely a plus. It's more comfortable flipping through photo albums sitting on a couch watching TV, than getting people to crowd around your Mac. You even get your music playing over the slide shows if you have any selected in iPhoto. The final option is to view the services. These include basic Web-browsing and Internet radio playback. TV isn't a great way to view the Web, and the ElGato team only includes it as a convenience. It's handy for checking the weather, but not much else.
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