I have a dream. It’s a simple dream, really.
I dream of a device that will bring my digital media – music, movies, photos – to my home theater system with its comfy couch, audiolicious speakers, and large-screen television. TiVo has freed me from the confines of the network schedules (see "TiVo: Freedom Through Time-Shifting" in TidBITS-594); I want a device to free me from the confines of physical media. I want my music collection available in an unending stream. I want to show my mother digital pictures of her grandson without huddling around a computer monitor. I want to torture guests with unending hours of baby video footage. Last, but perhaps most important, I dream of a remote control that won’t piss me off.
EyeHome from Elgato Systems comes tantalizingly close to realizing this dream. By the spec sheet, it does nearly everything: it plays MP3, AIFF, and unprotected AAC files on the stereo, with support for iTunes playlists and the capability to browse by album/artist/song; it displays JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP graphic image files on the television, according to iPhoto’s albums and slide shows; and it plays MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and DiVX movie files on the television. A simple preference pane activates its Java-based server software on your Mac and advertises its presence via Rendezvous. The EyeHome itself, a small, silver set-top box, connects to your Mac via Ethernet and to your television or receiver via RCA, S-Video, or optical S/PDIF jacks. (Those with wireless networks can use an 802.11b/g bridge such as the Linksys WET11 or NetGear ME101.)
Eye for Details — In practice, the EyeHome does just about everything it claims. Setup and installation are a breeze. Just install the software, hook up the device and turn it on. It finds your Mac (or multiple Macs) via Rendezvous and Shazam! Your pictures, movies, and music are all available for playing on the television and hi-fi stereo.
iPhoto’s photo albums are displayed in the same order as they appear within iPhoto; you can view a single photo or play an album as a slide show. During a party I played a random slide show of baby pictures on the television, a handy conversation piece (and a way for the guests to catch up on the baby’s life, while the real article was long since asleep).
Songs, albums and playlists all play from the iTunes Library. However, EyeHome’s Music section doesn’t descend through the library as I expect. I’d expect it to descend from Artist to Aretha Franklin to a list of her albums, but instead you get a list of songs. Similarly, going from Genre to Jazz, one expects a list of artists, but again you find a list of songs.
EyeHome is restricted to playlists in iTunes and cannot create ad hoc playlists. Having tasted the rich freedom of Slim Devices’ SlimServer software, however, I find the marriage to iTunes limiting; ad hoc playlists are addictive, and the EyeHome’s Java software feels slow by comparison (see "Good Vibrations from the Squeezebox" in TidBITS-726). The documentation claims that EyeHome can play Internet radio stations (via a .pls file in your Music folder), but I could not get this feature to work.
I don’t yet have DV footage converted to a compatible format, but from my test with some downloaded material, video playback works quite well. Quality on the screen is a direct function of the file’s video format; the more information in the file, the better the image. MPEG-1 looks grainy, while MPEG-4 and DiVX can look quite spectacular. As always with digital video, there can be a wide quality variance depending on the codec used; I had problems with a few DiVX files, but all the MPEG files I tried worked fine.
(The EyeHome can also browse the Web, but I don’t find that feature at all compelling; viewing the Web on a TV didn’t work well with WebTV, doesn’t work in a hotel room, and doesn’t interest me in my home with broadband and laptop computers.)
Eye on Interface — However, while the EyeHome appears to realize my dream, it falls short due to a horrible interface and a remote control with tiny buttons and inscrutable icons.
When a computer outputs its display to an NTSC television, it offers an image of only 640 by 480 pixels – tiny by modern computing standards. When faced with this constraint in a consumer device, TiVo chose a simple vertical list of selectable items; selecting an item takes you to a new screen and a new list of options. TiVo’s interface is quickly comprehensible, uncluttered, and focused on the task at hand. Elgato, however, shoehorns a three-pane interface into this limited space. Large text buttons occupy the left-hand portion of the screen, one for each major function: EyeTV, Movies, Music, Photos, Internet, Services. (I find the topmost EyeTV button to be exasperating, as it is useless without an EyeTV device and cannot be moved or removed.) The right-hand portion of the screen is used for browsing content in the selected area, and small soft buttons for media playback sit along the top.
It sounds simple enough, if a bit cluttered. However, the execution is maddening. To navigate through the interface, you use a set of small directional buttons on the included remote control. When an on-screen button is highlighted, it is surrounded by a blue rectangle. However, when one of the large media buttons is active, it is shown as an Aqua-ish blue blob. If you click to highlight that button, the rectangle vanishes! Suddenly, there is no indication of which item is currently selected.
It gets worse as you delve deeper: press Select on the remote, and the cursor moves into the selected area (say, Music), where each listed item is delimited by a similar roundish blue blob. Moving the cursor to an item once again highlights its text with a blue rectangle, but that is the only indication of where your eye should focus. The list pane doesn’t have a visual highlight, and the Music button is still surrounded by a big honkin’ blue blob that draws the eye away from the content pane.
If the content in the list pane is longer than one screen, buttons for the next set are at the top of the list, not the bottom. If you are prone to pressing Down as you move through a list (or, say, just finished with one selection and want to move to a different screen), you must press Up several times in order to move to the next set. A scrollable list of "pages," TiVo-style, would make a great deal more sense.
At various points, soft buttons for playback options (Search, Back, Play All, Random) appear at the top of the screen. These buttons are denoted with white-on-black icons, in a different font than any other button text. (It might just be a smaller point size; after all, this is NTSC video we’re looking at, which isn’t the best way to view typefaces.) The appearance of these icons is another inconsistency, and while the Search button is handy, again the implementation is horrid. Pressing the Search button brings up a simple text field, but the field isn’t highlighted for input – that infernal EyeTV button is! So, hit the Right button and input text with the multi-tap numeric buttons, just like a cell phone and just as annoying. (Again, TiVo gets it right with an on-screen alphabet and arrow-to-select.)
In that hard-to-define quality of "feel," the EyeHome interface feels clunky. Navigation feels like tabbing through fields on a Web browser; this should come as no surprise, because it is, in fact, a Web browser. The browser accesses your Mac over TCP port 8000. The EyeHome software on the Mac is the Apache Web server with the Tomcat Java application server. It appears that the EyeHome is a licensee of technology from OEM digital media supplier Syabas. The device’s Web browser identifies itself as "Syabas," and the server’s .jar filenames begin with "syabas." Other Syabas licensee products appear to include the D-Link Wireless Media Player and the Neuston MC500.
In summary, the convenience of having one’s digital pictures on the TV is a blessing, as is dialing up a digital movie on a moment’s notice. Music playback works, but it pales in comparison to the SlimServer software on the Squeezebox from Slim Devices. If you can get past the interface, the EyeHome functions quite well. It costs $250 and is available from Elgato Systems and various online dealers.
[Andrew Laurence continues his quest for the ideal home theater digital hub. Frankly, the category is beginning to look like MP3 players did before the iPod came out. Hmm…]