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Elgato EyeTV HD: A review of the Mac DVR for cable and satellite HDTV

Elgato has been in the Mac video market for quite some time, developing and marketing such popular products as the Turbo.264 HD USB video compression device and various varieties of EyeTV, a tuner and digital video recorder for Mac.

Eariler this year, TUAW reviewed the EyeTV Hybrid, a US$149.95 USB dongle that serves as a tuner and recorder for over-the-air digital TV. Since that time, Elgato has released the EyeTV HD ($199.95 and available for less through online outlets), which the company touts as "the ultimate DVR for HD cable and satellite TV."

Both devices work with Elgato's EyeTV software for Mac, which features a program guide, smart guides for recording a season of any show to your Mac or an external disk automatically, easy export of video to iTunes for syncing to iDevices and even streaming to the EyeTV iOS app. The big difference? EyeTV HD works with the HD cable or satellite boxes that many people use to pump that high-quality digital signal to their HDTVs. Click the Read More link below for a full review of this unique video hardware.

Setup

Looking at the back of the EyeTV HD packaging, setup looks very simple -- you just run audio and component video cables between the satellite or cable box and the EyeTV HD, run a USB cable over to your Mac and then connect an infrared channel changer cable to allow the EyeTV HD to "take control" of your cable box. Elgato is smart enough to include all of the necessary cables in the box, so you don't have to run out to the local Radio Shack to buy them in order to set up the EyeTV HD. There's also a remote control and a CD on which you'll find a copy of the EyeTV software (I downloaded it from the Elgato site to get the latest version).

The setup is so incredibly easy even I could do it! After connecting the cables as per the Quick Start guide, I launched the EyeTV app on my MacBook Air. It quickly guided me through connecting to the EyeTV HD, picking the necessary channel guide (and I think I got the wrong one...) and selecting the proper cable box. The latter was done by clicking a button on the Mac screen to see if it turned the cable box on or off.

Operation

One thing to remember is that the EyeTV HD is not a replacement for your cable or satellite set-top box. You're going to use it for viewing video on your Mac as well as for capturing video to your Mac or an attached external hard drive. That being said, the EyeTV HD did a very capable job.

The video looked great on the MacBook Air screen, so I can only imagine how awesome it would be on something like a 27" iMac display. The incoming stream can be set to fill your screen or sized to provide a TV-watching window on your Mac, and the sound quality is good as well. EyeTV captures and plays back Dolby Digital sound. Using the digital optical audio output on newer Macs, it can also pass Dolby Digital 5.1 sound to home theater systems.

As you can see in the video below, the user interface is pretty much like any channel guide you would get from a standard cable box. The guide provides an hour-by-hour listing of all of the shows on a specific channel, and you can also search for shows by name. Once the complete guide had been populated on the Mac, scrolling through the list was lightning-fast. You get free access to the channel guide (provided by TV Guide) for one year; after that, the guide costs $19.95 per year.

Selecting a particular show from the guide, you can choose to record the show, record on a schedule or record all episodes of a show. Recording isn't all the EyeTV HD can do, of course. Watching a show, you can perform all of the typical DVR functions of pausing and rewinding live video. If you're using a big-screen Mac as your television, you can even use the included remote control to perform all of those actions and navigate the EyeTV HD UI. The software can even be set to wake up or turn on your Mac at a specific time to record a show.

Editing recorded shows is fairly easy. The built-in editor can be used to remove commercials from recordings or for merging episodes of a show.

Want to watch your recorded shows on something other than a Mac? Your video can be automatically saved to iTunes in both iPad and iPhone formats at the same time. There's even a way that you can stream live or recorded video to an iPhone or iPad using the $4.99 EyeTV app.

If there are multiple Macs in your household, then any of the Macs can install the OS X EyeTV application and share recordings over a Wi-Fi or Ethernet network. Since parental controls are enabled in the EyeTV software, you can have a large library of shows with mature themes and be sure that your kids won't be able to watch them.

Negatives

One thing I found odd about the software was that when I was trying to switch to a channel, it would show me the correct channel name or description, but often I found myself watching the channel below or above the one I really wanted. Whether that was due to a setup malfunction on my part -- either in setting up the infrared blaster or possibly choosing the incorrect channel guide -- or it was a software error, it was quite annoying. I did not have the opportunity to try doing the setup again, but I am hopeful that it would have fixed the problem.

Conclusion

The Elgato EyeTV HD is a great product for those who have cable or satellite HD TV service and who would like to watch and record shows on their Macs. The EyeTV software adds features every time we look at it, and Elgato is on top of new viewing trends by making the EyeTV HD device and software work well with other Macs, iPhones and iPads.

A short video follows this post -- this was recorded for the December 15, 2010 episode of TUAW TV Live, and it shows the EyeTV HD in action. TUAW will be giving away the Elgato EyeTV HD as one of the many giveaways planned for Macworld Expo 2011 in San Francisco January 27 - 29. If you're going to be at this year's event, be sure to visit us in booth 1012 for a chance to win this and other valuable prizes.

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