Your Mac is great at playing music, and editing videos, so being able to watch and record your favorite shows is no great stretch. In the past, however, Apple’s own efforts to add a TV tuner have been mixed, although some speculate that it might just happen next year, courtesy of the iMac or a revitalized Mac mini.
Regardless, you don’t need to wait. The EyeTV 500, from Elgato Systems, which is available at $299 after the rebate, does the job now with a fair amount of flexibility. This particular model is the all-digital version (there are also versions with analog tuners), which is compatible with unencrypted digital cable and live digital TV broadcasts. That means, of course, that you can receive high definition stations on your Mac. But there are some considerations that I’ll get to in a moment.
First off, let’s look at the feature set: EyeTV 500 consists of a small silver plastic box, a remote control and a single FireWire cable. It’s powered by your Mac’s FireWire port, although there is a port for an optional power cord. In any case, setup is super simple. Once it’s connected to your Mac, you attach a coax cable for an antenna or cable TV to the appropriate jack on the rear, insert the supplied batteries in the remote, and install the software. In proper Mac fashion, the software installation is drag and drop.
I installed the newly released version 1.8.4 of the application, which adds support for the iPod with video and the ability to watch two or more channels from the same programming source in separate viewing windows. The first time you launch the application, you use an easy Setup Assistant to configure the unit to locate available channels and set up your account with an online programming guide, which is TitanTV in the U.S.
The second half of the equation is recording. Working with the Web-based programming guide, you can keep tabs on programming lineups and schedule recordings. Shows can be edited to remove commercials and other content, and you can archive the show’s you’ve recorded to a CD or DVD courtesy of Roxio’s Toast. You can also export programs via QuickTime, so they can be opened in such applications as iMovie HD and iDVD.
The EyeTV 500 is essentially a tuner, and it uses your Mac’s processor to encode video and your Mac’s drive to store programs. System requirements specify a G4 or a G5, and the more powerful, the better. Since high definition TV can suck up drive space, you may even want to consider getting an external drive for additional storage. And don’t ignore the processor requirements. Even on my dual-processor G5, I ran into an occasional instance where the video was out of sync with the audio.
The number of stations you receive depends on what’s available over the air via an antenna, or in unencrypted form from your cable TV provider. Satellite services aren’t supported. The problem, of course, is that most digital cable is encrypted, so out of nearly 300 stations offered in my locale by Cox Communications, only 11 stations were available for EyeTV. Fortunately, these included the local high definition stations, so I wasn’t completely disappointed. The rest of the roster included Cox’s pay-per-view movie directory, a sports promotion channel, a news channel, and the service’s customer support channel.
Elgato Systems is apparently looking into the possibility of eventually supporting the new Cable Card system, which would allow it to receive all the stations to which you’ve subscribed.
Picture and sound quality, other than that minor sync glitch, are superb. A convenient controller window providers all the basic functions, or you can use the remote control as you would with a regular TV. A View menu lets you adjust the size of the playback window. As I’m writing this article, for example, I’m watching a news broadcast, and no, it hasn’t hurt my concentration. Well, not much anyway.
You can also switch stations and schedule recordings via the Web-based programming guide, but, depending on how the EyeTV configures itself, you may have to manually change the names of stations in the preferences panel so the proper channel can be controlled. Otherwise you may find that, for example, Channel 12 is really Channel 5. Well you get the picture, although it may end up being the wrong picture if you don’t keep tabs on this little shortcoming.
Although it’s not a real replacement for my TV, I’m quite pleased with the EyeTV 500. I do have a wish list for feature enhancements, however. First and foremost, I’d like to see support for the full cable programming roster you’re paying for, whether it’s provided via Cable Card or some other means. Second, I’d like to see better integration with the Web-based programming guide. It would be nice, for example, to have it open directly within the EyeTV application itself.
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