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ATPM 12.08
August 2006

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Hardware Review

by Paul Fatula, pfatula@atpm.com

EyeTV 250

verynice

Developer: Elgato Systems

Price: $200

Requirements: 500 MHz G4, Mac OS X 10.4. Universal.

Trial: None

My home entertainment system is pretty low-tech. I’ve got a 19″ CRT television, a no-frills VCR, and a five-disc DVD changer that a friend found in a dumpster and I never got around to hooking up. It’s rare that I sit down and focus my attention on watching TV, but I often have it on while I do other things, like work or play games on my Mac.

EyeTV 250 is a hardware and software combination that allows one to watch and record analog TV on a Mac. The immediate attraction, for me, was that I could get all my entertainment on one screen instead of looking back and forth. But EyeTV offers a wealth of features that go well beyond basic TV-watching, turning my Mac into a TiVo-esque device capable of pausing and recording TV, and storing and editing recordings for future use.

Hardware

The EyeTV 250 is a small silver and white box with ports in the back for connecting a coax cable, a USB cable, and a power supply (unfortunately, the device requires more power than USB can provide). On the front of the box is an S-video port, a receiver for the remote control, and an extremely bright blue light. My only complaint about the hardware: the light is so annoyingly bright that I covered it with a piece of black electrical tape.

eyetv-250

The EyeTV 250 hardware unit isn’t just a converter box to let data flow through a coax cable into a Mac’s USB port. The device also contains a compression chip which converts the incoming data into MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 format. Sure, my computer could do that, but it’d be highly processor-intensive. Since the EyeTV 250 is doing the heavy lifting, “older” computers (like my two-year-old PowerBook G4) can be used to watch and record TV.

The EyeTV 250 package also includes a remote control. It works, but it could be better designed. The buttons are poorly arranged: for example, the buttons to play, pause, record, stop, etc. are at the very foot of the remote, requiring an awkward grip to use. In addition, some of the buttons are badly labeled, such as a button showing a musical note which is used to open the main EyeTV window. Annoyingly, pressing the remote control’s power button does not launch the EyeTV application; you’ll have to get off the couch and walk over to your computer to start watching TV. The remote control documentation provided on the EyeTV CD shows a completely different remote control with significantly better-placed (though not always better-labeled) buttons.

eyetv-remote

The hardest part about installing and setting up the EyeTV 250 was getting behind my TV and setting up the wiring. My incoming cable connection (coming out of the wall) is already split, sending wires to my cable modem and to my VCR (and from there to the TV). So I had to get a second splitter and two more pieces of coax cable (not included with the EyeTV 250), and insert all that between the first splitter and the VCR, with the new coax cable going to the EyeTV 250. It’s not a strike against Elgato, but installation requires lots of running cables and crawling around.

Software

The EyeTV 250 device is controlled by an application called EyeTV. Installation and setup are straightforward and simple. After I entered my zip code and selected my cable provider, an Electronic Program Guide was downloaded from TitanTV. (In the past, I’ve gotten my TV listings from Excite; the data is the same, but I like EyeTV’s EPG interface better than using a Web browser.)

eyetv-main-window

EyeTV’s main window has an iTunes-like two panes. The left panel contains entries for Recordings, Schedules, Channels, Program Guide, and any custom playlists (of channels or recordings) the user creates. Clicking on one of those items makes its contents display in the larger right pane of the window. A Search bar makes it easy to find out when favorite programs will be on. Better still, the list it brings up has a little red dot next to each program found: click the dot and EyeTV will record the program when it comes on. It’s all pretty simple and intuitive.

eyetv-os-remote

There’s also an (optional) on-screen remote control, which appears when you click on a button with a grid-looking icon on the real remote control. It looks nice (if you like that sort of thing) but it’s not terribly useful. There are no number buttons on it for changing channels, and I prefer using keyboard commands for things like fast-forwarding. I usually keep the on-screen remote hidden and use the real remote control to control EyeTV. If I want to switch channels and the remote control isn’t nearby, I double-click on the channel I want from the Channels or Program Guide screen: it’s much easier than making multiple clicks on a small arrow on the on-screen remote control.

Usage

Since I don’t have a TiVo, the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward live TV was new to me, and I quickly saw the attraction. Not only could I hit Pause when I wanted to get up and get something to drink, but having paused the program for a few minutes also meant I could Fast Forward through the next commercial break. My TV-watching habits quickly altered: I’d turn on a program I wanted to watch and leave it paused for a while, as I did other things. Then I’d watch the whole show, skipping the ads.

Recording a show is also really simple. Every day the Electronic Program Guide is updated from TitanTV (or tvtv if you’re in Europe). When viewing the EPG, there’s a small dimmed red circle for each program. Clicking on it schedules the show to record. If EyeTV isn’t running when a recording is supposed to start, the program starts up automatically. EyeTV is also supposed to be able to wake the computer from sleep to start recording, if necessary; unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. On my PowerBook G4, I found that EyeTV cannot wake the computer from sleep if the screen is closed down over the keyboard. (If the computer is asleep but the screen is up, EyeTV wakes the computer as expected.)

When EyeTV records a show, it remembers the show’s name and description from TitanTV, which is handy for later use. The data can be edited if you want. All recorded programs show up if you click Recordings on the left pane of the main window. They can also be put into custom playlists, manually or automatically, making it easy to keep a large recording collection organized. Recorded shows can also be exported to a variety of different formats, including the ones used by the video iPods.

Speaking of large recording collections, though, programs recorded with EyeTV take up a lot of hard drive space: using the default MPEG-2 format, an hour of television will consume about 2 GB of space. (Switching to MPEG-1 will cut that in half.) Fortunately, EyeTV includes an editor which lets you remove any parts of a program you’re not interested in saving. To be honest, at first I found the editor to be unintuitive and confusing. After consulting the manual and editing a few programs, though, the editor is pretty easy to use. It takes only a few minutes for me to cut all the commercials out of an hour-long program, freeing up over half a gig of space.

The most annoying flaw I found with EyeTV is that it clears its cache when it starts recording. Here’s what happened to me: I was watching one program, about a quarter-hour behind “live.” EyeTV was set to record a program on another channel starting at the next hour. EyeTV can’t record one channel while you watch another one live, but it can record one channel while you watch a program you already recorded, so I didn’t expect a problem: the cached show is recorded, right? But when the time came for EyeTV to start recording the show I’d programmed it to, it cut off the show I was watching mid-stream. There was no way for me to find out how the show ended, because the cached show was deleted rather than retained when recording started. That’s frustrating and seems unnecessary.

Performance

According to Elgato, EyeTV requires 256 MB of RAM, and 512 MB is recommended. Based on my usage, though, I’d recommend at least a gig of RAM. While EyeTV runs fine with 512 MB of RAM when it’s the frontmost application, I’ve often found performance suffers when I try to multitask with EyeTV running. The problem is that the Mac operating system, plus EyeTV, plus a few other programs, can easily mean you start using virtual memory. With EyeTV writing to the hard drive and other programs also using the hard drive, something’s got to give—especially with a relatively slow hard drive, like laptops tend to have.

If you want to multi-task with an application that uses the hard drive a lot, EyeTV can be set to cache to RAM instead of to the hard drive. That’s a great idea, but only if you have lots of RAM. Most of us don’t have 2 GB of RAM total, let alone 2 GB to devote just to EyeTV, but a smaller sized RAM cache might be doable for some users (with the sacrifice of quality, duration, or both).

Conclusion

Though it’s always been possible to use my VCR to record shows and watch them later, skipping through the ads, I rarely bothered doing so; it was just too cumbersome to program the VCR and keep track of tapes. Programming EyeTV is as easy as a single click, and recorded programs are easy to find on my computer. Elgato’s EyeTV 250 packs a lot of functionality and convenience into a small package. If the idea of watching TV on your computer appeals to you, and you have a good amount of RAM, you should be happy with EyeTV.

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