TiVo Alternatives: EyeTV
While there’s been a bit of hoopla recently over the release of TiVo Series2 and the new Mac-integration features of its $100 Home Media Option (see "TiVo Series2 Improves on Original" in TidBITS-698), it bothered me that the TiVo wasn’t a Mac-friendly device for its core function: recording and playing TV.
It’s possible, so I’m told, to pry open a TiVo and plug in various hardware adapters that enable you to grab the video off the hard drive and send it zipping around your home network. But I wasn’t in the mood this week to perform death-defying and warranty-voiding stunts on pricey home electronics. So instead, I headed down to the Apple Store and returned home with El Gato’s EyeTV, a $200 video decoder that converts your Macintosh into a digital video recorder.
EyeTV Basics — Installation of the EyeTV is ridiculously simple. There are five connectors on the back of the box. A USB cable connects it to your Mac, and simultaneously provides power – no AC adapter necessary. After that, you have a choice of running either a single coaxial cable or three RCA A/V cables into the unit. That’s it, your hardware setup is finished.
The first time you run EyeTV, you are walked through a step-by-step setup wizard which explains how EyeTV operates. There are additional options available in the EyeTV preferences if you need to correct any problems. My initial setup did not recognize my cable signal, but everything worked perfectly after I used an "exhaustive" channel scan that the wizard did not offer.
A CD is included with the EyeTV software, but the stock on the store shelves includes an outdated version of the software; I skipped the CD and downloaded the newest version (1.3.1) directly from the El Gato Web site; EyeTV requires Mac OS X 10.1.5 or higher. The software includes two applications: the EyeTV program manager and viewer, and a background-only helper application that launches EyeTV when it’s not running and a scheduled recording is about to start. I generally leave EyeTV running all the time; even when recording a program, it consumes only 20 percent of CPU resources on a 500 MHz G4 (although drive responsiveness also takes a hit due to the amount of data being written).
If your video input is over a coaxial cable and you subscribe to an analog cable service, the EyeTV can tune into 126 channels automatically. However, if you’re connected with the A/V cables, or if (like me) you subscribe to digital cable or scrambled premium channels, then your EyeTV must act like your television set – tune it to channel 3 or 4, and change the channel by hand. This leads to EyeTV’s biggest weakness, which I cover shortly.
Open the EyeTV program, and you see a program list of previously recorded shows. If you’ve started watching any of them, a thumbnail of the frame where you stopped appears, and opening the program takes you back to where you left off. This program list also displays scheduled shows that haven’t yet been recorded. EyeTV shows video in a compact window with no borders. You can also use QuickTime Player to watch recorded shows, but I prefer the EyeTV’s minimalist display; EyeTV also provides a full screen option that is otherwise available only in the Pro version of QuickTime Player.
You schedule recordings by clicking the Guide button to open a Web browser window to TitanTV.com, which you can customize to show your favorite channels on your cable network. Having long been annoyed by my cable company forcing me to scroll through 40 premium channels to which I don’t subscribe to get to the 12 that I do, I found the TitanTV interface to be an immediate time saver (though it works better in Internet Explorer than Safari). Click the record button (which oddly resembles a tiny Japanese flag), and the EyeTV automatically sets up the recording information.
The quality of the EyeTV’s recordings won’t wow anyone who has watched a DVD, but it’s perfectly serviceable. The more you expand the video window, the more you’ll see the quirks and artifacts. I find them noticeable but not distracting, although I might still consider buying the DVD for a visually stunning movie over an EyeTV recording. Another loss in comparison to DVDs, obviously, is that anything that comes over the cable will be formatted for TV image size (panned and scanned), or will be letterboxed so you’ll be stuck with the same black bars that you get on the TV set. In full-screen mode, the black bars count, so you won’t get a widescreen view on your widescreen monitor.
EyeTV records to a regular QuickTime movie file, at a rate of approximately 650 MB per hour at the standard recording quality. High quality doubles the size of the file. By default, the EyeTV buries these files in your home Library folder, but you can specify a new location (such as an external hard drive).
Lastly, EyeTV provides you with an editing window and tools that don’t compare with iMovie’s, but which are great for excising commercials and the inevitable wasted minutes before and after your recording.
The EyeTV Payoff: Mac Integration — The great thing about the EyeTV is that you’re not using a device that’s almost or partially Mac-compatible. You end up with Macintosh files on a Macintosh hard disk in a regular Macintosh video format. This was the driving factor behind my choice of an EyeTV over a TiVo. A TiVo requires you to be at home to enjoy it; with a little extra effort, you can watch EyeTV recordings on your PowerBook anywhere (provided your TV preferences are PG-rated). For those of us who prefer being Starbucks-potatoes to couch-potatoes, the EyeTV is a killer app.
If you’re a laptop-and-desktop person, you can copy your recordings from machine to machine or view them directly across your network. I’ve had less-than-stellar results watching video over my home AirPort (not AirPort Extreme) network, although the math says that the bitstream should have plenty of room. Over a wired 100 Mbps connection, it’s as good as when the file is playing locally. For the truly dedicated, if your home computer serves files over the Internet and you’re extremely patient, you can connect to your home Mac with file sharing and grab newly recorded shows on the fly.
When your hard disk fills up, as it rapidly will, you can delete old recordings, or burn them to CD or DVD to clear them off your drive. One DVD should hold three or four regular-length movies; a CD can store one hour of video in Video CD format. I’ve been grabbing movie posters from the Internet Movie Database and printing them onto my DVD inserts.
Unsurprisingly, adding a hard drive to a Macintosh for use with EyeTV is easier than doing the same to a TiVo. One crucial difference between an EyeTV expansion and a TiVo expansion is that you don’t have to dedicate the new space for video, so you can use part of the space for actual work (and possibly write it off as a business deduction).
If you’re watching movies on your home Mac rather than your laptop, you’ll probably want a way to control the video remotely. EyeTV works with the Keyspan Digital Media Remote, and a few minutes with AppleScript got my system working fine with Salling Clicker and a Bluetooth connection to my cell phone (see "Salling Clicker in Action" in TidBITS-694). El Gato also provides links to third-party applications that allow you to control video and schedule recordings over the Internet or a home network.
The EyeTV Pain: Not Quite Nirvana — If we were living in a pre-TiVo world, the EyeTV would be manna from heaven. But there are a number of features that leave much to be desired.
Foremost among these is that the EyeTV lacks an infrared port to send signals to your cable box telling it to change the channel. This is no problem if you have analog cable – the EyeTV has its own tuner. For digital or scrambled cable service, though, you must change the channel on the cable box manually. I’m still looking for a timer gadget that will do this, but this really needs to be a future upgrade from El Gato, so I can program everything at one time.
Second, the EyeTV doesn’t offer wish lists or any other "we think you’d like this" options that you get with the TiVo. TitanTV has some credible search options, and you can set a repeating schedule for a program, but at its heart choosing shows to record is a manual process. While writing this article, I found a movie I would have loved to record, but I didn’t know about it when I left home a few hours ago. TiVo would have given me the chance to have a little more foresight. (The remote control software I mentioned above lets you set up a recording over the Internet, provided you’re not dealing with the channel problem.)
Third, although the EyeTV program window shows you the files with their regular names, the actual files are saved using an incomprehensible hexadecimal naming format. This is a major pain when you’re doing some of the take-it-with-you tricks I mentioned earlier. I’m currently writing some AppleScript scripts that make this a bit less of a chore; I’ll make those (and the Salling Clicker scripts) available publicly when they’re ready for prime time. Bonus points to El Gato for making EyeTV fully scriptable.
TiVo vs. EyeTV Deathmatch — In short, while the EyeTV is a great gadget and I’m quite happy with it, its deficiencies don’t take long to surface. If you’re in the market for a home electronics gadget that will record TV with no muss and no fuss, you’ll be happier with a TiVo. Of course, even though a low-end TiVo costs the same $200 as an EyeTV, you must pay an extra $300 for the lifetime TiVo service (or $13 per month if you want to pay month-to-month) that provides all those neat programming and scheduling features.
If you do decide on a TiVo-like device, take a look at the ReplayTV as well. TiVo versus ReplayTV debates approach the ferocity of Mac versus Windows, but one might have features that make it an easy choice for you.
On the other hand, if you want your entertainment integrated with your computer, you have a Mac that can take on the job, and you don’t think it’s a hardship to do a little extra fiddling to get your media exactly in the places you want them, it’s hard to beat EyeTV. There’s no better way to turn that 17-inch PowerBook into a portable multiplex movie theater.
Okay, done with my work for the day. Time to watch some TV.
[Jeff Porten is a Macintosh and Internet consultant in Washington, DC, who is now trying to avoid watching too much television.]
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