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TUAW Review: HDTV with the EyeTV Hybrid

While we eagerly await the living room convergence that the now-shipping Apple TV will bring, it's not too soon to start building up that library of HDTV media. I recently got an eyeTV Hybrid unit from Elgato (that's Spanish for "the cat," you know) and have been merrily hauling down those airborne bits of yummy video goodness. There are a few caveats to note with the eyeHybrid, but if you want to watch digital broadcast HDTV (ATSC) on your recent-vintage Mac, this is a great way to do it. Even for analog video input, it's relatively affordable at $150. There's also a suspiciously similar unit from Pinnacle, featuring the 'lite' version of the eyeTV software, announced last week for $130.

Before you consider the Hybrid, there's a basic question to be answered: how's your over-the-air TV signal? If you normally watch cable or satellite, you might not even know which standard and high-def broadcast channels are covering your house. In my locale (Brooklyn, NY) I've got pretty good OTA signal for the networks and independent channels, with the unfortunate exception of PBS. To check your location, hop over to http://antennaweb.org and give them your address for a detailed map and antenna recommendations. We'll wait...

If you can't get HD via the airwaves, cable subscribers with Firewire-equipped set-top boxes do have another DIY option for recording unencrypted HD programming (the broadcast networks, basically) -- the Apple Firewire SDK. Check out this post for a brief how-to, and this macosxhints thread for more; it's not a supported solution but it may be worth a try. There's even an all-in-one tool under development (iRecord). None of these approaches, however, will let you watch live HDTV on your Mac like the Hybrid does.

More on the EyeTV setup after the jump.



The eyeTV Hybrid unit comes in a bundle of the eyeTV 2.3 application and the hardware device, a USB2 dongle that accepts both an antenna input and an S-Video/composite adapter cable. The physical unit is actually not that impressive... but wow, it packs a good deal of power into that small package. Keep in mind that while you can use the Hybrid with any G4-or-better Mac, watching HD requires a G5 or Intel machine, not counting the Core Solo Mac Mini.

On first launch, the EyeTV software walks you through a source select and channel search to allow the embedded tuner in the Hybrid to lock in the available frequencies and set preferences for the included TitanTV scheduling module. If you're using a cable box or other external tuner with the S-Video adapter, you'll only get the single source (and, as with the analog TV tuner, SD video only). The unit doesn't really hit the afterburners until you hook up an HDTV-capable antenna and switch over to ATSC mode.

As for that antenna: One might think that "HDTV capable" equals "expensive," but the truth is that most UHF-rated antennas will do an excellent job of picking up HDTV. In fact, the top-reviewed Radio Shack UHF antenna -- a double-bowtie unit that looks like it might fit in nicely in the Matrix Oracle's 1950s kitchen -- costs only $15 if you can find it. I picked up a $20 rabbit-ears-and-loop combo that had the necessary 75-ohm ("cable TV style") connector and let the EyeTV frequency scan do its thing.

A few minutes later I had over 20 channels of digital TV to sample. Most channels were "plus-ones" from the local network affiliates, secondary digital broadcasts showing news loops, shopping or weather; not all that impressive, but nice to have. The real gems are the network primary "DT" channels, which carry the bulk of the HDTV programming. Switch from an SD channel to an HD channel, and watch the small 640x480 video window blow up like an electric balloon to take up most of an iMac's 17" screen. Seeing the recent episodes of Lost or basketball games in this format gave me an appreciation for the power of HD that I never got at the local electronics megastore -- possibly because I was sitting only inches from the screen, which gave me the field-of-view equivalent of a huge plasma display at a standard view distance.

Of course, if I had to sit in front of my computer all day watching TV, I wouldn't get any work done, despite the fact that the work usually involves sitting in front of said computer. That's where the EyeTV recording and scheduling tools come in. It's a two-click trick to schedule a show to record off the TitanTV browser in the app (and, for the road warrior, the software can check in remotely with the TitanTV.com site for additional recording triggers on a repeating basis). Once scheduled, the app launches automatically at showtime and captures the ATSC native MPEG-2 data directly off the air and onto disk; no recompression or transcoding needed for digital TV. For analog broadcast or S-Video it'll recompress to one of three quality settings as desired. You can set a basic workflow to automatically export to iTunes, shrink down to iPod-size video, or export to Toast for DVD burning.

Of course, once you have your shows in iTunes, you can play that stuff straight through your AppleTV and enjoy. Even if you don't have an AppleTV yet, the DVI to S-Video converter from Apple works remarkably well for hooking up the laptop directly to the regular ol' TV. I've set my display resolution to 1024x768 and played HD programming on my 32" Phillips SD set; it's pretty drastically letterboxed on the 4:3 display but still looks noticeably better than the same channel played through my cable box at SD resolution. Naturally, if you have an HDTV with a DVI input, you can go straight from your computer to the TV with no loss of quality.

A warning about those video recordings: HDTV at 1080i has a nominal bitrate of 12-15 Mbit/sec. An hour-long show hits your disk at a whopping 8 GB, so be sure to spring for the bigger drives. Transcoding to the lower-res formats can take several hours, depending on your processing power.

To give you an idea of the relative scale of HD images, above is a full-screen capture from a 15" MacBook Pro playing back an episode of The Office, with the Finder window for reference. Each frame is the size of the laptop's display... a lot of Pam in every bite. I'll put up some full-size screenshots in the galleries later today.

What's missing from the EyeTV Hybrid? Well, HD cable or satellite customers are stuck with SD video and no IR blaster to change channels, a less-than-ideal solution; you might be better off with the FirewireSDK or iRecord approaches. I have had some trouble getting the TitanTV settings to properly sync up with my local schedule, and I've fallen back to the ATSC embedded program info that gets transmitted along with the signals; your mileage may vary. If you don't get reasonably good broadcast reception, you're basically buying a fairly nice USB video-in widget with pretty software. If, however, you're well served by HD signals in your town, the eyeHybrid is a charming little beast.

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