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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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 31, 2009; 2:10 AM ET
Categories:  TV , Video  
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Do any of these things work with cable card? I'd love to get rid of Tivo for something faster in a real computer, but it has to connect to cable.

Posted by: staticvars | December 31, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Another EyeTV benefit: you may add a second tuner (in its own USB port) and watch/record two shows at once---the EyeTV software is smart enough to handle that. No problems doing this on a Mini with 2Gb.

Posted by: herrgrinch | December 31, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Rob, Your points are all very good but left unsaid is that Over-The-Air channels are too limited. Much simpler to use hulu or one of its competitors - particularly to watch TV on the computer which was the focus of your piece. Meanwhile cable, FIOS, and Tivo have made it too Rube Goldberg to rely on. (When these setups don't work, it's very painful to figure out what went wrong.) I explored the possibility of using Netflix but alas, their on-demand player isn't supported on older Macs like my G5. (Netflix claims they're not powerful enough but that's hard to understand when hulu works quite well. Even the public library videos stream quite nicely (and freely). Don't get me wrong - I'd happily pay IF someone delivered a signal in a reliable manner.

Posted by: donlibes | December 31, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Is Eye TV only for Macs? Your article insinuates that.

Didn't Pinnacle sell its entire PCTV product line to Hauppauge in late 2008? Or didn't it also spin-off the service or warranties to a zombie company destined to wind-down (and legally buffer) calamities arising from the existing wares?

Another question: what does the WMC do if one has no tuner stick? Is there no software that can use a PCs CPU to do exactly what the USB devices perform?

However, why decry the flaws of one product without at least pointing consumers to another that might work better and cause fewer problems?

How about the Happauge (or competing) "sticks" that purport to allow buyers to watch and record HDTV using their PCs? Do any of them install properly and work as they should?

Posted by: jkoch2 | December 31, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Rob, two brief follow-up questions: 1) Would the EyeTV device, hooked up to a Mac Mini w/a small hard disk, allow me to export tv programs over my local network to my (larger hard disk) PC? 2) Would the saved tv programs be viewable on a PC (either within iTunes or with another program)?

Thanks in advance for any answers!

Posted by: Dave1977 | December 31, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I find this completely ridiculous. Once again the media is enthralled by an application on a Mac which is way behind the capabilities on a PC. Window Media Center got a small paragraph at the end of this article but the truth is Microsoft is years ahead of Apple in this game.

With a Windows Media Center PC all you need is a Cable Card from your cable company and a digital cable card tuner in your PC and you can get all the HD you want including non OTA content. The only limitation thus far is that you need an additional cable card and tuner for simultaneous recordings. However that is all about to change. I hope Rob here decides to do a review on the upcoming Ceton tuner which is an upcoming cable card tuner that will allows you to record either up to 4 or 6 programs simultaneously in HD with only one cable card and Centon tuner.

Posted by: kuruption_20877 | December 31, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

The Silicon Dust HD Homerun product works quite well. It's a standalone box with two over-the-air tuners, which are also unencrypted digital cable (QAM) tuners. The output is wired Ethernet, so it just connects to your home network, and feeds a video stream to one or more computers on that network.

Posted by: deglopper | December 31, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Not everyone has access to cable nor for that matter, true, unlimited broadband. And not everyone watches enough TV to justify the expense of satellite. For the rest of us (using Macs), EyeTV is about as good as it gets. I've had mine for almost a year & love it.

For Dave1977: you can save recordings on an external HD. I record to a 1.5TB external, USB drive. I've not tried recording to a networked drive. You might want to check the Elgato forums first if that's a must.

And yes, you can watch the recordings on a PC either by exporting them (as MPEG streams, etc.) or by extracting the MPG from the program package. I routinely record, edit (to remove commercials) & export programming for my spouse, children & grandchildren.

Only downside to the EyeTV Hybrid is that it does demand its share of CPU cycles when recording high-def programs. OTOH, I can watch a recorded program while recording a second high-def show on my 2.33GHz MacBook Pro (3GBs RAM) & still check email in the background.

Posted by: washpost50 | January 4, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Last month I purchased an AverMedia H826 Hybrid Volar Max USB device which I use with Windows 7 Media Center. It has worked very well - when connected to cable (ClearQAM). The AverMedia software suite is OK, but has had a few problems, and is not that necessary if you have Win 7 (Home Premium or more). The picture is excellent - HDTV on the PC, as is Win7's DVR feature. (The only downside of the Win7 DVR is that it records in WTV format, rather than something that is more portable.)

I had tried the PCTV product before the AverMedia one and ran into all the problems noted in the article. TVCenterPro failed immediately on Win7. One wonders why a firm such as Pinnacle, with its industry standard Avid products would bother with such unbelievably bad software.

The plus with AverMedia on Win7 vs EyeTV is the price - I got it for $62 with a $10 rebate.

One warning - if you don't have cable and don't have a roof antenna and live in the suburbs, don't count on much reception. Though I live 10 miles from downtown Boston, I get only 1 channel over the air. The great downside of HDTV is the terrible reception problems, pushing us into cable forever. ClearQAM with my cable provider (FiOS) only has 9 stations.

Posted by: DemFromLex | January 4, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I bought an EyeTV Hybrid 3 years ago and stuck it on a 1 GHz, 1GB OSX 10.4 Mini. It worked well but put a load on the mini since the compression was via software. A year later, I took advantage of an ElGato sale and picked up an EyeTV 250+ for $150 and have been very happy with it. It compresses the analog signals via hardware.

The problem with the Hybrid is the stress placed on the coax connector while plugged into a USB port in confined spaces. That connection finally failed internally so I can't record TV with it any more, but the video capture from VHS still works great.

The 250+ is now attached to a new OSX 10.6 Mini and works as well as any commercial DVR/PVR I've come across. AND the EyeTV app for the iPhone/Touch is really slick. Elgato has done a good job of keeping up with Apple's OS updates and providing new features for their product.

I also have a copy of comskipper that does a pretty good job of marking the commercials which the playback skips over automatically, if you're interested.

Posted by: kamx3sj | January 5, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse

A PS to my previous post: My EyeTV devices have always been connected to Cable signal (non premium) and were able to take full advantage of Titan TV and now TV Guide scheduling services.

On a side note, you might pass this message along to HP and AT&T that every time their ad makes me wait to access an article or in the case of making this post (3 times), it strengthens my resolve to never ever do business with them. I'm just saying!

Posted by: kamx3sj | January 5, 2010 2:12 AM | Report abuse

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