If it weren't for the solid hardware and impressive EyeTV software, I'd be in sticker shock but the USB TV tuner for Mac is by far the best hybrid stick tuner I've tested to date. Just don't use it for digitizing important VHS tapes.
Elgato is back at it again with the latest incarnation of their do-it-all TV tuner for Macintosh, the EyeTV Hybrid for Mac. Whereas the 2008 version was already jam-packed with the ability to record analog, ATSC digital, and Clear QAM broadcasts up to 1080i all in a package the size of your thumb, the new model boasts improved HD reception, a much-improved electronic program guide and the addition of FM radio. Walk with me as I take an in-depth look at all the new Hybrid has to offer television aficionados, and what needs work.
The 2009 edition of the EyeTV Hybrid is actually the 3rd hybrid tuner in Elgato's series of products destined for North America; a product line that has historically matched up directly to Hauppauge's offering for PC users. For instance, the original EyeTV Hybrid (2007) matched up with Hauppauge's HVR-950, while the 2008 year model was a clone of the HVR-950Q right down to the casing. The EyeTV Hybrid 2009 breaks this mold as an Elgato original design, expanding upon the offerings of its predecessors with no Hauppauge clone to be found.
As far as aesthetics go, the EyeTV Hybrid is the best hybrid thumb tuner yet. A smooth body with rounded edges and a fingerprint-free coating of silver and gray paint is left unsullied by plastic extrusions or vent holes giving the clear impression that this is a Macintosh product. The topside is accented by a small, clear piece of plastic near the USB plug that covers the IR receiver for the bundled remote control. Surprisingly, Elgato chose not to incorporate an LED indicator, which is good because my room suffers from enough light pollution as is.
Because of the thumb-sized package, the tuner is perfect for laptop users on the move and comes with its own smoked plastic cover for the USB plug. Other goodies included in the box are a video breakout cable, remote control and USB extension cord for freeing up adjacent USB ports and reliving stress on the laptop. Sadly, no miniature antenna was included for portable viewing of OTA stations. The breakout cable provides inputs for S-Video and Composite (red/white/yellow), taking good measure to keep the red and white audio inputs separate so a 3.5mm Y-adapter is not needed for hooking up audio.
What Makes a Hybrid
Analog broadcasts are all but dead in North America thanks to the DTV switch. Of course, analog NTSC video still holds a place in our hearts, or at least in our basic cable packages and set top devices, which is why I'm overly reluctant to recommend a digital-only tuner to readers at this point. What's more, with analog encoding it's possible to hook up a VCR using the composite video input and digitize VHS tapes in a pinch, though I wouldn't recommend this for transcoding wedding videos or other high-profile tapes. I'll explain why in the Recording Quality section below.
But move over analog! Digital is the wave of the future with over-the-air ATSC broadcasts offering both standard and high definition programming in picture-perfect quality without the static. On top of that, there's the added benefit of multiple sub-channels from a single broadcaster and the ability to see every last clogged pore on anchors' faces during the evening news. Isn't technology great?! To pick up ATSC broadcasts you'll obviously need an antenna, so I highly recommend that you check out the AntennaWeb.org website to see what stations are available in your area and then use that information to determine what type of antenna to buy. HDTVAntennaLabs.com provides a thorough listing of every HD antenna under the sun with user reviews and average ratings to help you along the way.
As ATSC is for over-the-air (OTA) digital broadcasts, Clear QAM is for viewing digital cable channels that are unencrypted or "in the clear". These channels vary between cable providers and regional cable offices, but in most cases are limited to retransmissions of what would normally be available over-the-air anyway along with the Music Choice channels. So why does ClearQAM matter? You can receive high definition broadcasts without manually switching from the cable line to the antenna, and can potentially receive even more channels than would be possible with an antenna in a bad reception area. You may even get channels that aren't broadcast over-the-air, such as Discovery HD Theater. Yes, for some reason my cable company doesn't encrypt that one... WOO HOO!
Using an Xceive XC5000 tuner chip, the EyeTV Hybrid is compatible with NTSC analog and ATSC/ClearQAM digital broadcast formats so you don't need to buy multiple pieces of hardware to get the best of both worlds, hence the "hybrid" branding. Don't mix up your terms though, a hybrid tuner is NOT a "dual" tuner, so unless you buy a second EyeTV-compatible tuner you won't be able to view or record multiple stations at the same time regardless if they're analog or digital. Using two tuners at once is still considered a beta feature and is currently unsupported, but you may wind up lucky and get it to work for at least viewing. Personally I was able to watch two live 1080i-encoded HD streams just fine on my 2.0GHz Core Duo Macbook using the EyeTV Hybrid and an older Pinnacle 800e stick, however when I switched either of the tuners to analog (both use uncompressed video) I quickly encountered an error message stating that I've run out of USB 2.0 bandwidth.
Intuitive Software Interface
The EyeTV software has seen many changes since Elgato first released their EyeTV USB tuner back in 2002. What's remained constant throughout these several years however is the simplicity of the interface, the large amount of detail large revealed to power users and just how well the program is integrated into major applications such as Quicktime and Toast.
Setup is a breeze involving little to no manual effort and it doesn't take a geek to figure things out. The first time you run EyeTV, a handy assistant will walk you through the process of software activation and the creation of a TVGuide.com account, then proceeds to auto-tune your input sources and download relevant program schedules. All in all the process is very quick, though there's plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee or two while it searches for channels. The only snag I encountered here was none of the ClearQAM digital cable channels were identified by name or mapped to scheduling information, requiring me to manually preview each channel before assigning it to an EPG channel.
EyeTV Hybrid's setup asssistant.
Auto-tune detection for my analog cable signal was spot on with nothing missing from the lineup, and ATSC OTA detection was just as solid if not slightly overzealous. There were a few channels listed that did not have adequate signal strength to acquire a lock-on, but were just in range that slightly repositioning the antenna allowed me to pick up the station without having to input it manually. In the event a station isn't detected however, EyeTV makes it very easy to add that station by channel number or frequency. (Use Wikipedia's entry for your city or AntennaWeb.org for this). When selecting the channel or frequency to be added, signal strength and quality bars will appear and optionally speak aloud to you the current signal strength to help aim the antenna. A smaller signal strength meter is also present in the on screen display (OSD) once the channel has been successfully added in case you need to reposition the antenna at a later date.
You can manually add new channel through this.
While we're on the subject of reception, I have to give credit where credit is due to Elgato for their improved TV reception. Color me surprised, but after some side-by-side testing with a Pinnacle 800e tuner that has the same Xceive XC3028 chip used in older EyeTV Hybrids I've come to the conclusion that this is not some bogus marketing claim. With my directional amplified antenna properly alligned, the older Pinnacle unit appeared to get slightly better signal strength than the 2009 EyeTV Hybrid, but by intentionally pointing the antenna in the wrong direction by a few degrees the difference is night and day. The older Pinnacle unit showed nothing more than a black screen, yet the 2009 EyeTV Hybrid was able to acquire a lock on the digital TV station with only some minor artifacting present. This pattern held true for several TV stations.
The EyeTV program window in its current form is made to mimic the iTunes interface, with one large panel dedicated to content next to a sidebar for switching between libraries, playlists, favorites and "smart guides". Depending on the view selected, relevant buttons populate the top portion of the window for quick access to commonly used features such as scheduling and export. Buttons for revealing advanced options such as how many recordings to keep before deletion are exactly where you'd expect them to be in the intuitive interface. There's also an on-the-fly search box in the top right corner for finding programs and channels that acts just as the iTunes or Spotlight search box would.
Controlling the Telly
Using time-shifting, it's possible to pause, rewind, and fast forward television captured by the EyeTV Hybrid just like you would on a TiVo. Shortcut keys for skipping back and forward in configurable increments makes instant replays and commercial skipping a snap, and everything else we've grown to love about DVRs is also present including Picture-in-Picture (both live and pre-recorded) and a robust On Screen Display.
Picture in picture.
The On Screen Display (OSD) is a 10' interface primarily intended for use with the supplied EyeTV remote control although it is also compatible with the Apple Remote. Here you can access the timeshifting controls, channel and program information, signal strength, see what's playing on a different channel, view the full-blown electronic program guide, bring up past recordings and more - all from the comfort of the couch. The supplied remote works well for this and offers direct control for advanced functions with a single button, although I find myself drawn more to the Apple Remote since it is also compatible with Front Row. Speaking of which, there's a free plugin I use called PyeTV that enables access to EyeTV directly from the Front Row menu. With this in hand, the Mac is one step closer to being a full-fledged media center.
Unfortunately automatic commercial detection and skipping is not present; commercials must be manually edited out by hand unless you use a 3rd party plugin. Thankfully, EyeTV has a built-in utility to remove the ads, and it works great. By marking the start and end of commercial segments, these bits can then be permanently chopped out. A "fine" checkbox enables fine-grained control for selection of the black frames to avoid accidentally clipping out even a second of the TV show.
Because the EyeTV Hybrid tuner does not employ the use of a hardware MPEG-2 encoder, input lag is at a minimum although still enough to be noticeable. The time-shifting function itself will add roughly 1.5 seconds of input lag to whatever you're watching, so plan your New Year celebrations accordingly. ^_^ Turning off time-shifting in the Device Preferences will reduce this to a few milliseconds, though even that may be too much for use with a video game console. Flipping through channels is near instantaneous; it feels at least three times faster than any Digital Cable box I've used in recent years.
Setting up a set top box on EyeTV Hybrid.
Subscribers to satellite television and digital cable tiers will need to work a little harder in order to receive their encrypted channels on the EyeTV Hybrid. It's possible to connect a set top box to the tuner using the supplied breakout cable, but in order to automatically change channels it's necessary to purchase an IR Blaster that EyeTV knows how to interact with. As of April 2009 there are only two compatible infrared packages; both are online exclusives and the cheapest costs $50. My fingers are crossed for the day that Elgato is able to integrate support for the various MCE remote kits sold for Windows Media Center since those can be found everywhere and run less than $30.
As was the case with earlier hybrid sticks from Elgato and friends, the 2009 model of the EyeTV Hybrid does not have an onboard MPEG-2 encoder for compressing analog television from basic cable or S-Video/Composite inputs. The advantages of this are a cheaper, more portable unit with less heat generation. The downside is that CPU usage on the host machine will rise and analog quality will suffer.
Analog TV recording quality selection.
There exist three quality modes for analog recordings and time-shifting: Video CD, Standard DVD, and High DVD. Video CD records in MPEG-1 and is generally avoided by all but the worst of bootleggers, while the Standard (352x480 interpolated) and High (720x480) profiles record in MPEG-2 and respectively consume about 1.8GB and 2.7GB per hour at 25 frames per second. Personally I find it hard to see much of a difference between the two DVD recording qualities even after the interpolation, but one thing does stick out to me. Both have block artifacting (squares) that stick out when the video is paused. During playback they blend together pretty well, but are still noticeable.
This is analog TV quality.
These artifacts are completely unacceptable for digitizing special moments such as wedding videos and baby's first steps, which is why Elgato disables the use of the VHS assistant in conjunction with the EyeTV Hybrid. For archival of that caliber, it's best to use a tuner with a dedicated MPEG-2 hardware encoder such as the EyeTV 250 Plus. If you're insistent on digitizing VHS though, you can always manually select the input source and hit the record button. For recording television shows, the analog quality is "good enough" because it's still possible to make out faces, read scrolling text and get a general idea of what's going on in the program.
Recording ATSC and Clear QAM broadcasts is another story. Since the video feed is already compressed into MPEG-2 by the broadcaster, all EyeTV has to do is write the feed to the hard disk. This eats up very little CPU time and perfectly preserves the quality of the video. File sizes will vary depending on the bitrate of the original feed and will offer more bang for the buck than analog recordings, but I'd still keep plenty of disk space available since the average hour-long 720p block consumes 7.5GB.
An hour of 720p programme consumes about 7.5GB of hard drive space.
One final thing I'd like to note about digital recordings is the EyeTV Hybrid's use of the broadcast flag, or lack thereof. In a nutshell, the broadcast flag gives broadcasters and digital content producers the ability to actively prevent you from recording a program for later viewing. For a period of time this looked to be a mandatory requirement of the FCC but thankfully the legislation was was thrown out by congress (for now). However, the technology still exists and can be used voluntarily by vendors as was the case when Microsoft DVRs prohibited recordings of NBC shows that had the flag inadvertently set. Elgato has posted their stance on this, stating that since there is no current legistlation mandating compliance, "EyeTV and other Elgato software will ignore any flags or other voluntary DRM methods - if you can watch a program, you can record, edit or share it as you see fit". My hat's off to Elgato for defending our fair use rights.
One of the XC5000 chip's new selling points is FM radio, supplementing the ATSC, NTSC, and ClearQAM abilities described above. Yawn. It's not that I mind having all these capabilities in one conveniently sized package, no, that much is incredible. What bothers me about FM radio is that it's well, FM radio. Static interference, talkative DJs, shallow playlists and a lack of content variety has more or less killed FM, and with alternatives such as Shoutcast and Pandora readily available on the Internet, it's hard to see why anyone would want to switch back. Doubly so for cable TV subscribers who would need to temporarily switch out their cable line for an antenna.
But if you're not me and actually do enjoy listening to terrestrial radio, then you'll be happy to know that EyeTV's radio provides much of the same capabilities found in Griffin's $49 RadioShark 2. The DVR-like ability to pause, rewind and fast forward is present, as is scheduled and on-demand recording / exporting for use in iTunes and on your MP3 player of choice. AM radio is obviously lacking, but with NPR simulcast on FM in most markets, I wouldn't consider this much of a loss. What does bother me though is the default format for recordings before export. FM radio recordings eat up roughly 3.9MB of storage per minute, being recorded in such a way that neither Quicktime or VLC can playback the file before conversion. Hopefully this default behavior changes with future releases of the EyeTV software. Just make sure that whichever antenna you buy supports VHF frequencies, which usually means it has a set of rabbit ears.
FM radio recording consumes about 4MB per minute.
All About EPG
One of the big announcements heralded by the launch of the EyeTV Hybrid and EyeTV 3.1 software is the fact that Elgato is not renewing their arrangement with EPG provider TitanTV. No, TitanTV isn't going out of business or anything, rather, Elgato is simply ending a longstanding relationship that's lasted since the release of the first EyeTV tuner back in 2002. The new schedule provider for North America is TV Guide, a selection that has its share of pros and cons.
What stinks about this change is that unlike TitanTV, TV Guide does not support remote scheduling from a web browser. Tech-savvy users can always log into their computer remotely over VNC and schedule programs directly, but this takes more effort and may not be possible at the workplace depending on what computing policies are in place. The other downside to the switchover is that Elgato is no longer footing the bill for programming data integration. They'll pay for the first year of EPG content, but each subsequent year will cost you $20. Contrast this to the Windows platform where EPG data is subsidized into the price of most TV tuner packages and you'll see why a few EyeTV users feel miffed.
True, $20 per year isn't that costly and many including myself already pay SchedulesDirect.org the same amount to use their EPG data with free open source media centers such as MythTV. However, Elgato is a commercial vendor that currently commands a healthy price premium over competing products on the PC side of the house, so paying $20 with SchedulesDirect and paying $20 with TV Guide isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. That being said, only new EyeTV users are required to use TV Guide's data. If you're already an EyeTV user then you can opt to continue using TitanTV's services until December 31, 2010; but then you wouldn't get any of the added benefit for switching to TV Guide as I'll explain below.
Negative impacts out of the way, let's talk a bit more about how TV Guide actually improves things for EyeTV users. Here is a look at the Program Guide overview, where the we can see the traditional block layout for multiple channels at once complete with color coding by genre, and a vertical line segments the view to indicate the current time in relation to what's currently showing. Title and episode information as well as recording status is all present although no HD indicator is available at a glance.
Elgato dumps TitanTV for TVGuide.
Clicking any of the program blocks will bring up a detailed synopsis page that reveals a number of additional fields to get a better idea of what's showing. Actors, directors, duration, synopsis, HDTV... you name it, it's there. Sometimes the list of actors can be very long, but this is a good thing. The episode and season numbers seem to be the only information missing from this view.
All of the fields in the synopsis view and thensome can be used for creating extensive search queries using the Spotlight-ish search bar. This allows for some interesting combinations of filters using any or all of the search criteria provided. I can then save these queries as "smart guides" and set them to automatically schedule matching program results for recording.
As an example, here I've created a smart guide that will automatically grab all shows aired on the FOX network during Sunday prime time. I then limited this filter to record only new episodes and exclude the one show I can't stomach, King of the Hill. If the FOX network starts airing a new show for the first time, I'll automatically have it recorded before I even know it exists. Brilliant!
Ah, but what about when FOX starts mucking with the schedules and moves a favorite show to another timeslot on a different day? This is also covered, both through the smart guides and through a simple "Record All" button that acts much like TiVo's "Season Ticket". Just click this button in the program synopsis and a "Smart Series Guide" will then record all the upcoming non-duplicate episodes - both new and repeats - to air at any time on that channel.
Within the Options menu of the Smart Guides is the ability to automatically record all matching episodes, along with the ability to keep only so many of the recordings at one time (I can never have enough disk space...) as well as automatically export all episodes into an Apple TV or iPod / iPhone-compatible format.
In the end I'm very pleased with the expanded capabilities of the new EPG provider. I can't say that I'm pleased with the subscription costs, but television connoisseurs will likely be the first to admit that the trade-off is worth it. To sweeten the deal, Elgato has promised the addition of pictures to supplement the textual programming data in the near future. Let's just hope that TV Guide comes up with their own remote scheduling system, and quick. But hey, if you really don't want to pay for the EPG subscription, there's always the ability to manually schedule recordings.
Another new feature found in EyeTV 3.1 is Parental Controls, aka V-Chip blocking. Here it's possible to drag a slider bar that determines what shows Little Johnny can and can't watch. A drop-down menu allows switching between different rating systems, but the slider bar itself moves across all ratings systems at the same time - age, TV ratings, MPAA movie ratings and Canada's own content ratings. Within each rating system is a number of checkboxes to specify if certain content descriptors or Non Rated (NR) content should be blocked regardless of the program's V-Chip rating. The settings are applied per-user, and only work if you set up multiple accounts in Mac OS X.
Elgato EyeTV Hybrid supports V-Chip for stiff parental controls.
Of Exports and Mobility
Elgato has built in a number of export profiles for use with the EyeTV Hybrid, most prominently for use with (you guessed it!) Apple products. New recordings can be manually or automatically exported for use with Apple TV and iPod, the latter having the option of exporting as MPEG-4 or H.264. Since all recordings are already in the MPEG-2 format, archiving to DVD is also a breeze with a single button to export to Roxio Toast. (Toast 9 Basic is provided on the EyeTV disc.) Most everything I recorded was accepted by Toast without issue, although one recording of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan from PBS confused Toast so that only the audio was extracted as shown below.
Elgato EyeTV Hybrid bundles a copy of Toast 9 Basic for DVD burning.
EyeTV also has a number of QuickTime export presets for use with the PSP, iMovie, iDVD, webpages and professional video editing applications. By tapping into the QuickTime framework Elgato is able to skirt paying additional royalties for use of the MPEG-4 and H.264 codecs, therefore saving you money while competing TV tuner vendors for PC are in the habit nickle-and-diming the end user. Exporting to 3rd-party formats such as DivX is also possible should the codecs be installed on the system.
Finally, there exists the ability to share your EyeTV library by converting video into H.264 (again either automatically or manually). EyeTV will then set up a small web server on your computer, perfect for streaming over Wi-Fi with iPod Touch and iPhone clients as well as other EyeTV users or basically anyone with a web browser pointed at the right location.
You can select to optimize streaming format for cellular devices.
Remote access your TV content from an iPod Touch.
If your ISP's upstream connection is fast enough, it's even possible to stream these recordings over the internet by forwarding the ports on your router. During my testing I did encounter a few wireless hiccups when viewing 720p source material on the iPod Touch, but the picture quality was impressively sharp with all the fine detail intact. Cellular streaming in .3GP format is also possible but I found that the export quality is absolutely terrible, much worse than the on-the-fly 3GP streams I've watched via Orb on my 3G Samsung flip phone. Elgato's Wi-Fi sharing solution is certainly no replacement for Orb MyCasting or SlingPlayer, but it's more than sufficient for in-the-home use.
Playing back TV content on iPod touch.
Superior digital reception
Superb iTunes-like interface
Impressive export capabilities
Improved EPG with one-click season recordings
Fast channel switching
Decent remote control
Ability to stream recordings over Wi-Fi and the internet
Lacks bundled antenna
Limited IR blaster compatibility
TV Guide EPG requires subscription after first year
New EPG lacks remote scheduling
So-so analog MPEG-2 encoding
The EyeTV Hybrid 2009 is the best hybrid stick tuner I've laid hands on thus far. The hardware quality is top notch with plenty of input options and an uncanny ability to lock onto low-signal ATSC stations, and the software is a shining example of how a user-friendly interface and powerful functionality aren't mutually exclusive, arguably one of the best applications available for MacOS. Though I lament the loss of remote scheduling and the new $20 yearly subscription fee with the new TV Guide EPG, the trade-off seems to be worth it in terms of season recordings and advanced "smart guide" filters. Software MPEG-2 encoding for analog streams could be a tad better as could the sticker price, but overall I feel that this year's EyeTV Hybrid is a sound investment for Mac road warriors and college dorm residents alike.
Lastly, I'd like to clarify something important. Printed system requirements be damned, the EyeTV Hybrid does not require a Core 2 Duo processor to watch or record high definition video. My older 2.0GHz Core Duo Macbook worked just fine with the unit and was actually the base platform for my testing. Apparently the mixup in system requirements is due to the EyeTV software itself supporting high definition H.264 tuner modules even though the 2009 Hybrid is MPEG-2 based.