Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Elgato EyeTV 410 Review

I've finally found a way to stay glued in front of the iMac for longer periods of time. It has nothing to do with moving the computer desk to the toilet but, rather, I bought myself an Elgato EyeTV 410, an external digital TV tuner for Mac. I have had it for a few weeks now and it has richly enhanced my overall digital media life. That's actually a marketing way of saying that I really really like watching TV on the Mac.

The Elgato EyeTV 410 is the digital TV model of Elgato's external TV tuners. The company makes other EyeTV models for digital satellite, cable or plain old analog broadcasts and all of them work only exclusively on the Mac platform. I chose the 410 because it does both Standard Definition (SD) and High Definition (HD) for free-to-air (FTA) programs that the Aussie TV stations are doing today. The difference between the two? HD supposedly sends higher amounts of data and a bigger screen size in terms of pixels. Can I tell the difference, not really. Well, at least not from a few feet away. I also chose the 410 because I felt that the 20" LCD screen on my iMac G5 was underutilised and I could at least use it for better things than just watching por... I mean researching on the internet.

The unit itself is very light and comes in the metallic case that looks remarkably similar to the PowerMac G5. The system consists of a small antenna, the unit itself, a firewire cable, a remote control and a CD of the EyeTV software. That's it. No power cord as the EyeTV actually draws power from the firewire connection to your Mac.

For the money I paid, I was hoping that it would at least be a little heavier but the small box was also as light as anything.

Set up could not have been easier. I plugged in the firewire cables at both ends, then I plugged in the antenna. From there, I installed the software. At the beginning of the install, the software searched for all available channels. I then got presented with the onscreen remote control and away I went channel surfing literally minutes after I opened the box. I did find the antenna that came with it a bit weak in picking up signals but the good news is you can use the antenna that you currently have with your analog TV or even your outside aerial.

Digital TV broadcasts are supposed to provide esssentially a few things different from analog: clearer pcitures, programs in widescreen and digital sound. I can appreciate the widescreen but because I'm still using the iMac's internal speakers, I can't really say anything about the digital sound except to say that I may need decent speakers soon. ( Ooops, spent that last bit of dough on the Tiger upgrade, damn! )

Pictures were clear and often better than analog TV. However, I have to say that my expectations of digital TV were a bit high. I expected to see really crisp images, like almost digital photo quality or the H.264 quality that Apple showcased in their HD gallery. But I guess it's hampered by the actual content signal that is actually shown by the TV networks. Australia has standardised on the DVB-T digital signal and the EyeTV unit receives it as the original MPEG 2 stream.

Click on image for bigger screenshot image

This is probably a good thing because I can actually view the DVB HD stream with nary a performance hit on the iMac G5's processor. It hardly goes over 50% utilisation when I view live or recorded programs. I am not sure if that is a function of the HDTV standard here in Australia (DVB) because the US uses a different standard and from what I read, the HDTV stream in the states will require a dual G5 to show correctly.

Speaking of widescreen, it's quite enjoyable to watch TV programs in it and wonder how I did without it. However, because the programs themselves also have to cater for those TV sets still in 4:3, one actually doesn't miss much as TV programs still make sure the action and dialogue are still centered on screen. It's not like widescreen movies where you know the director wants to utilise every bit of screen space for their majestic vision or just for total self indulgence.

You can use the physical remote control or the on screen remote control to control the EyeTV. It is a normal TV afterall . Switching digital channels is not smooth as it takes almost a second for EyeTV to capture the next channel's digital signal and show it. So channel surfing isn't really the enjoyable mind numbing experience that it is on a normal TV.

You can view the programs in a small, medium or large window. Or you can also view them full screen. One thing you have to remember though is viewing TV full screen still looks best if you're sitting further from the monitor. It's not like you actually watch TV while sitting 6 inches away, right? Well, actually, my kids do that so I tell them to their sitting too close and they might hurt their eyes. But do they listen to me? Nooo...! But I digress...

For those of you familiar with personal video recorders or PVR's, the EyeTV is basically the same. You can pause live TV, quite handy when you're son wakes up in the middle of Battlestar Galactica, or rewind live TV, quite handy when you want to see a bit more of Mrs. Solis'( Eva Longronio ) in a bathing suit. Of course, once you've recorded the program, you can skip the ads but you'd miss this particular gem:

ANZ Advert

So, have you guessed which robots are from where? :)

Recording programs are easy on the EyeTV but because I'm in Australia, I don't have access to an electronic programming guide like they do in Europe or in the Sates even. Some kind souls have begun working on a TV widget for australia with EyeTV links so I'm waiting for that. In the meantime, I have to do a few extra mouse clicks to record my TV. You can quickly view a channel and press the record button right away and a live recording is done. Or you can use the EyeTV menus to record stuff for later. Take note that the EyeTV is a single tuner. That means you can't record stuff now and watch live TV on a different channel. However, you can easily watch a program ( or 2 or 3 ) that you've recorded earlier and still watch and record live TV.

After you've recorded your program, EyeTV also allows you to edit it as well. With the edit function, it's easy to cut out unwanted content, *cough* ads *cough*, from the recording. You do need to scroll through the broadcast finely though to make sure you don't inadvertantly cut out more than you need. EyeTV doesn't detect when a program ends and a commercial begins so you can switch your editing mode from Normal ( which zips through the recording in like 7 second chunks by default ) or Fine, which does 1 second chunks. These time slices are customizable. Editing is fast and efficient but it does take a while to process the edit if you have a long recording. The G5 handles an hour recording pretty well but obviously a dual processor machine would probably do it in less than half the time.

You can also export the whole or parts of the recording into other formats like MPEG4, Quicktime or even DV for editing in iMovie or iDVD as demonstrated by my splicing the ANZ advert I linked above. EyeTV also has built in integration with Toast Titanium for the easy creation of DVD's and and Video CD's. Bottomline, once you record your TV, there are a number of ways you can share your recording of "When Circus Clowns Attack part XVI" or "The Michael Jackson Story: Shh, Don't Tell Your Momma" with your nearest and dearest.

For you to run EyeTV 410, box specs require that you have at least a G4 500 or a G5 processor, firewire ( of course ), OS X ( the software works fine on Tiger ) and minimum of 20MB to install the software. Recorded material ranges from 2GB per hour of SD or 8GB per hour of HD so you've got to have lots of disk if you want to keep heaps on your Mac.

The EyeTV 410 is only available for countries that have standardised on the DVB-T digital signal. The equivalent in the States ( in the ATSC format ) is the EyeTV 500 which requires the Dual G5 for full 1080i resolution.

The EyeTV 410 is an indispensable part of my Mac set up now. For the couch potato and mac whor.. este enthusiast that I am, it's a winner. Now see my weight just shoot up from the sedantery lifestyle boost.

However, it is on the pricey side and I'm sure there are other ways to get your Digital TV cheaper and more feature packed but for convenience, ease of use and set up, the EyeTV and Mac combination brings the concept the Mac Digital Media centre closer to perfection.

Company: http://www.elgato.com
EyeTV 410: http://www.elgato.com/index.php?file=products_eyetv410

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