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Hands-on with Elgato EyeTV Hybrid and EyeTV app for iPhone

Elgato Systems has been in the business of turning Macs into TVs for quite a while now. The company's most powerful USB digital TV tuner, the EyeTV Hybrid (US$149.95), is an amazing little dongle that comes equipped with EyeTV 3 tuner / recorder software for Mac. The EyeTV Hybrid has gone through a few iterations, many of which we've previously reviewed on TUAW.

I'm not much of a TV viewer; my tastes tend to run towards The Food Network and Fringe, so I don't spend hours sitting in my La-Z-Boy recliner flipping the remote. After using the EyeTV Hybrid and experimenting with the US$4.99 EyeTV app for iPhone, I was considering changing my mind. Most content available on TV is still dreck, but EyeTV made it incredibly simple to watch and record on my Mac, and to send that content to my iPhone when I'm not near the office.

Read on for a hands-on review of the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid and the EyeTV iPhone app (version 1.0.2) to see how they worked during my time with them.


Elgato makes setting up the EyeTV Hybrid a cinch. You install the included software on your Mac, plug the EyeTV Hybrid into an available USB 2.0 port, connect cable TV or a digital TV antenna, and then let the EyeTV setup software do its magic. Since I didn't want to incur the expense of running cable up to my office for a review, I purchased an inexpensive digital TV antenna and connected it to the EyeTV. In the Denver area, there ended up being 32 digital TV channels that I could pull in with the antenna, and only about 6 of those seemed to be worth watching. That's not particularly surprising to me, since I only watch about 6 of the 600+ channels on cable.

The EyeTV software displays three primary screens; the actual TV show, a small "remote control" that shows up on the screen, and a main window that is used to display a program guide (one year's free subscription to TV Guide's program data is included with the EyeTV), set up recordings, and create playlists. There's additional hardware supplied with the EyeTV Hybrid as well -- an infrared remote control complete with batteries, a USB extension cable, and a small cable for input of standard definition input from other video sources. The latter cable can be used as a way of attaching a camcorder or old VCR to your Mac in order to digitize older videos.

The EyeTV Hybrid worked very well. I was impressed with the clarity of the images on my 27" iMac, and in full screen mode the iMac looked more like an HDTV than a computer. It occurred to me that Apple ought to consider building in a digital TV tuner into the iMac and add software similar to Eye TV 3.0 as a replacement for the Apple TV.

To stream EyeTV content to your iPhone, you download and install the free EyeTV app. If you're on the same network as the Mac running the EyeTV application, the iPhone app recognizes the Mac via Bonjour, and with a single tap you're able to watch live streaming TV, view recordings that you've made using the Mac application, check your recording schedules, and scroll through the channel guide.

If you're away from your home Wi-Fi network, you can use a 3G connection to do the same thing. All you have to do is set up a "My EyeTV" account with Elgato, and then enter the same email address and password into the appropriate spaces on the iPhone app. To remotely connect to your EyeTV Hybrid, you need to make sure that the EyeTV application is running on your Mac, and that your Mac has not gone to sleep. It's a good idea to test the 3G connection to your Mac at least once before you try it on the road.

The 3G connection actually works quite well. I was at a local professional society banquet last night, and sneaked out while some awards were being handed out. I had 5 bars of 3G signal (a miracle in downtown Denver) and was able to connect to my machine within seconds. I tapped on the Live TV button in the iPhone app, hit one of the channel buttons, and within about 30-40 seconds I was able to view the stream.

Elgato recommends "trying" the iPhone app over a 3G connection via a free Web app called EyeTV Live3G. That way, you can test the quality of streaming without spending the $4.99 on the app. EyeTV Live3G still requires that you have the EyeTV Hybrid and software installed and running on your Mac, and it does not provide the capability of checking the onscreen channel guide or setting recordings.

How did the streaming work? It depended on whether I was using Wi-Fi or 3G. I found that the Wi-FI streaming worked pretty well; I was able to get a fairly constant view of any live or recorded video using the iPhone app. I say fairly constant, since even over Wi-Fi the stream would occasionally pause. When I went to 3G, however, I was able to stream only about 30-60 seconds of video before the streaming would stop. That's not exactly what was advertised, so I looked into the details a bit more.

I was able to find documentation from Elgato that stated that for better 3G streaming, it would help to have another piece of Elgato hardware attached -- the Turbo.264 HD H.264 encoder / accelerator. For video work that I do, I already had this piece of equipment, so I plugged it into another of the USB ports on my iMac and tried the tests again. This time, Wi-Fi streaming was crisp, continuous, and smooth, and streaming over 3G worked very well, although the image quality wasn't up to the level that I saw over the Wi-Fi connection.

When a Turbo.264 HD is plugged into your Mac, that information shows up on the iPhone app as the stream is being buffered. On the Mac, the Dock icon displays a red icon that looks like the standard Apple AirPort icon to let you know that the Mac is streaming the video to your remote device. Without the Turbo.264 HD, the icon displays in white while streaming is taking place.

If you'd rather just watch recorded video, there are checkboxes in the EyeTV preferences iPhone tab for preparing all new recordings for iPhone access (H.264 encoding) and encoding all existing recordings as well. If you can wait for 6 hours for an HD show to convert for streaming, then you can get away without the Turbo.264 HD. Otherwise, if you want to have your live video streamed with the best possible quality, consider the Turbo.264 HD.

One caveat you should be aware of before you decide to take the plunge and stream all of your favorite TV shows to your iPhone or iPod touch is that this really decreases battery life. With just a bit of use, I found that my iPhone battery was being depleted quickly.

So if you want to get the best possible streaming, you should take the plunge and get the Turbo.264 HD from Elgato as well. That means that you're going to spend anywhere from $250 - $300 for the ability to watch TV anywhere. For around the same amount of money, you could purchase a Slingbox PRO-HD and the $29.99 SlingPlayer Mobile app for iPhone. For even less money, the Slingbox SOLO and the iPhone app would still provide you with the mobile solution, although with less flexibility in video sources than provided with the PRO-HD. The Slingbox solution lets you watch video on any computer in your house, Mac or Windows, as well as stream to your iPhone. Sling Media has already committed to SlingPlayer HD, a solution that will let you watch your videos on an iPad.

Another solution for watching video on Macs in your home is SiliconDust's HD HomeRun, a relatively inexpensive (online pricing starts at about $80) box that takes over-the-air or unencrypted cable (QAM) digital TV signals and shares them to any computer on a network. The included software is none other than EyeTV 3.0.

Finally, there are other solutions for streaming recorded shows to a mobile device. For example, Air Video ($2.99) and StreamToMe ($2.99) will both stream clips in various video formats from a Mac to an iPhone or iPad. Air Video supports 3G streaming; StreamToMe does not.

Although I found the EyeTV Hybrid, the EyeTV app for iPhone, and the entire experience of streaming video to my iPhone to be a lot of fun to try, I won't have any regrets sending the review device back to the company. I just don't watch that much TV, so for me it would be absurd to buy an EyeTV Hybrid. However, if you enjoy watching TV or need a constant news feed on your Mac and iPhone for business purposes, Elgato's equipment and software would be an excellent investment.

Be sure to check out the gallery above for shots of both the Mac and iPhone apps in action.

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