Bonus (overdue) review: EyeTV brings HDTV to a Mac
As 2009 winds -- make that grinds -- to a close, I've been looking through my notes to see if I've left any stories unfinished. I have, of course, and one of the items I most regret not writing about is a little digital-TV tuner you can plug into a Mac to watch and record live, high-definition TV off the air.
This device is Elgato's EyeTV Hybrid. This $149.95 pod plugs into any open USB port and includes software to show you what's playing (the first year of TV Guide updates are free, after which they cost $19.99 a year) and record anything you want.
This was no trouble to set up on a Mac mini connected to an older HDTV, with the only wait being the brief delay for its setup assistant to finish detecting over-the-air channels. The EyeTV's tuner picked up about as many channels as the hardware in the TV, but somehow each found one or two stations that the other missed in its first scan (22 and 54 for the EyeTV, 1 and 30 for the TV).
The EyeTV's best feature, however, isn't its hardware but its software. Its program guide offers the same kind of point-and-click simplicity that TiVo owners have grown accustomed to, but in an iTunes-esque interface that allows find-as-you-type searching for programs. Oh, and you can use a real keyboard to type your searches too.
A remote-control onscreen applet lets you change channels, adjust the volume and start and stop recordings, but it has no resemblance to the arrangement of buttons on the physical remote included in the box. (Then again, that remote may not work at all on desktop Macs that reserve their USB ports for the back of the computer.)
You can schedule recordings or pause TV as you want. But here's where Elgato's otherwise terrific software falls down a bit: Although it provides numerous, simple options for exporting a program to an iPod, iPhone or Apple TV, among others, it doesn't offer an equally simple way to burn a DVD of a recording. The "Toast" button in its toolbar works only if you already have a copy of Roxio's $100 disc-burning program; otherwise, you need to select an export-to-iDVD option, wait for the program to spit out a copy of the file, and then switch over to Apple's program to finish the job.
Still, the EyeTV is one of only a few options that I've seen for simple, over-the-air recording of HDTV -- and even its unnecessarily complicated exporting routines beat the lack of any such options in another contender, Dish Network's DTVPal DVR.
The EyeTV is also far simpler and more reliable than a competing, computer-based digital-TV tuner, PCTV Systems' PCTV HD mini stick. This thumb-sized gadget, now under $100 at many stores, tuned in local channels about as well as the EyeTV, but its Windows-only TVCenter Pro software -- which can work with an EyeTV too -- was almost unimaginably worse.
This aggravating bundle of ineptitude and sloppiness, developed by Pinnacle Systems, required prolonged installations before throwing up a steady diet of error messages and crashes on multiple computers. Sometimes just trying to change a channel could generate a "Failed to switch channel!" dialog; trying to start a recording could crash the entire program with a verbose "Unhandled exception!!!" error. (No, I didn't add any exclamation points to the original message.)
When TVCenter Pro -- which would have been more accurately named TVCenter Amateur -- wasn't crashing, it was exhibiting one of the most boneheaded interfaces I've ever seen. Pinnacle's program doesn't use standard Windows icons or buttons, ensuring everything in it looks a little off; its toolbar changes position every time you change from a widescreen program to a standard-definition show; the down- and up-arrow buttons next to the current channel feature tooltip labels describing them, respectively, as "Channel up" and "Channel down"; its program guide can you show what's airing now on every channel or what's airing later today on a single channel, but not both. It's difficult to believe that any professional software company allowed this mess to escape from beta testing, much less slapped its name across the program's splash screen.
Fortunately, you can use the HD mini stick with Microsoft's Windows Media Center software, built into Windows Vista and 7. But on a Dell laptop, that software seemed to have a lot more trouble tuning in channels than TVCenter Pro -- NBC affiliate WRC's usually strong signal stuttered and flickered in Windows Media Center but came in fine in Pinnacle's otherwise miserable program. But if you can get WMC to work on your own computer, use it -- not only does it offer a remarkably clean, simple and remote-control friendly interface, it can even burn a recording to DVD without any extra software.
Have you used either of these gadgets on a computer, or some other company's digital-TV tuner? Tell me how that's been working out for you in the comments -- and share any tips you've picked up along the way.
December 31, 2009; 2:10 AM ET
Categories: TV , Video
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