Review: EyeTV HD – All you want for Christmas
Many of us Apple Fanboys swore our oath of allegiance to Apple in our teens and 20’s, and now that we’re in our 30’s we have begun spawning our own new generation of little Fanboys and Girls. Once you, and your family, have committed to the Apple way of life, things can quickly get expensive – you and the wife each need iPhones, each kid needs their own iPod touch so they can watch shows and play games… the Family needs an Apple TV so the kids can watch their favorite shows OVER and OVER and OVER… and then there’s the family iPad.
Well, as odd as it might sound, as a father of two young Apple geeks I have actually found the biggest money saver of all comes in the form of a $170 device (Hey, sometimes you gotta SPEND money to MAKE money, right?) called the EyeTV HD by el Gato which turns your Mac into a full-featured DVR, capable of exporting its recordings to all manner of Apple devices.
I will state upfront that I have been a fan of the EyeTV for years, having been a long-time user of their standard definition EyeTV 250, and as you might expect, the Eye TV HD is the High Definition version of the device. So, how does the EyeTV save its user money? Well, in the “old days” (the days when YOU probably grew up) your parents probably sat you in front of the TV for hours on end, rewinding the same VHS copy of Elmo in Grouchland or some Barney tape to keep you sedated while they silently regretted ever having children. The problem of course is, that not only did watching the same thing over and over not stimulate YOUR brain, it made your parents want to strangle Elmo. It would have been far better if your parents had a catalog of a thousand different tapes to add a little variety to your life and change up the lame (but catchy) children’s songs that got stuck in your parents’ heads.
The good news is that with the iTunes store, today’s parents have a huge library of children’s entertainment and edutainment to choose from to fill up their little fanboys and girls’ iPods. The BAD news is, for some reason these digital copies cost nearly as much as the physical DVDs and VHS’s of old. That’s where the EyeTV comes in. With its ability to record anything you can watch on TV (and any other uncopyprotected video source) The EyeTV HD can provide both you and your family with virtually unlimited “free” content to fill your iOS devices and stream to your Apple TV.
Specs and Connections
The EyeTV HD is roughly the size of a Mac mini, and has both composite (the Yellow, Red and White as well as S-Video) connectors for Standard Definition sources as well as component (the Red, Green, Blue) connections for HD broadcasts located on the rear of the device. There is also an IR Blaster port (more on that in a moment) and a mini USB port to connect the EyeTV HD to your Mac.
As far as “workflow” goes, the EyeTV HD needs to sit in the center of a chain that goes from your Cable/Satellite box to your computer, so it should be noted that in order to use the EyeTV you’ll need to have a computer within reasonable proximity to your TV box. If the idea of having a TV in your living room is unappealing, you can use a laptop, although be sure it’s reasonably recent, as the requirements to run the EyeTV HD are a minimum Intel Core® 2 Duo 2.26 GHz or higher CPU with 2 GB of RAM and an open USB 2 port. I personally recommend a Mac Mini with an external hard drive, but that’s just me. The thing to remember is, the EyeTV HD does NOT have a built-in tuner of any kind (Elgato DOES make different EyeTV models that DO, if that’s what you’re looking for) so you need to connect it to a cable or satellite box which has already decoded a signal. So this also means no over the air HD either, unless you have a box that converts it to a component signal.
OK, so assuming you have a compatible Mac within throwing distance of your TV and are using some sort of cable or satellite TV service, there are two ways you can use your EyeTV. The first way is to use the included EyeTV 3 software to record programs. If you have ever used a Tivo or similar DVR, the process should be very straightforward, and the EyeTV software is very well-designed. Recordings can be scheduled simply by clicking on events in a program guide (powered by TV Guide via a free 1-year subscription) which auto-updates each day. Listings are custom tailored to your TV service and Zip Code, so for example I have Verizon FiOS, and it quickly downloaded the specific channel lineup for my local service. Once a program is selected you can decide whether to record only that show, the entire series, or only new episodes, etc. This is handled through setting up a “Smart Guide” which works very much like setting up a smart playlist in iTunes, where you can describe all the criteria that needs to be met in order to record a show. For example, you could set up a recording that only records CSI: Miami, on channel 502 (my HD CBS Channel) that are NEW. You can also create a Smart Guide for a specific person. For example, here’s what will record if I do a search for Adam Carolla.
You can also set up recordings to automatically export to either an iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV compatible format when they complete, and even automatically add themselves to your iTunes library. The nice thing is that EyeTV will auto-populate all the relevant fields for you in iTunes based on the TV Guide description such as show title, name, and the full description of the show as it appears in the TV Guide listing. Assuming the Mac doing the recordings is the one you sync your iDevices with, that means each morning you can have a brand new episode of the Colbert Report or the Walking dead on your iPhone when you wake up, ready to make that morning commute a lot more enjoyable (assuming you take mass transit, and aren’t driving).
While watching a pre-recorded show on your iPhone means you can easily scrub through commercials, you actually don’t have to. It’s a snap to remove commercials from recordings using the EyeTV software. All you need to do is to set markers on the chunks of the recordings you wish to remove, hit “compact”, and then export the file. For some shows, like maybe a drama like The Walking Dead, removing the commercials and scrubbing through the recording COULD end up providing some spoilers if you aren’t careful (personally I have mastered looking at the bottom right of the screen and using the channels’ ID bug to sort of identify when commercial breaks appear). There is a 3rd party plug-in you can use called “Com Skip” which I have used which can auto-detect commercials and auto-mark them for you at the completion of each recording. I found it worked well, although at the time it caused a few more crashes than I would have liked. I have not used the latest version, so feel free to check compatibility on your own.
Now, you may be wondering how the EyeTV can actually record programs if all it’s doing is recording the video coming in through the component or composite cables you have hooked to your cable box. Well, that’s where the IR Blaster comes in. Basically the blaster is a small little plastic arm that you need to position above or below your cable box and aim at its IR sensor (where you aim your remote control). If you happen to own a Slingbox, your are already familiar with this type of thing. Using this, the EyeTV actually will auto-tune your set-top box to the desired channel at the selected show time, and then begin recording that show on your Mac. So in a way it is like a high-tech VCR, in that it can only record the show that is currently showing on your TV. This means if you want to watch Golden Girls, and Matlock is set to record at that time, you’re out of luck, Eye TV will switch your TV to Matlock.
The second way to record programs, which is a bit more manual (and is actually how I usually use MY EyeTV) is to connect your EyeTV to a video source, and then manually start and stop recordings using the included EyeTV 3 software, sort of like the old days of recording your favorite shows to a VHS tape. Now, this probably seems a little odd, given how nicely designed the EyeTV 3 automatic DVR software is and how how well setting up recordings works. However, I am more interested in using EyeTV as a utility to create a library of shows vs turning my Mac into a DVR. In fact, I already HAVE a DVR – my Verizon FiOS set-top boxes both come with dual tuner DVRS, meaning I can record 2 shows at once, while watching a 3rd, previously recorded show. Given that for the most part I am trying to archive shows for my kids such as Spongebob and iCarly (shows which run about 15 times a day on the various Nick and Disney channels) I really can’t afford to let the EyeTV change the channels for me, as it would basically turn my dual tuning DVR into a single tuner. So what I do is I set up all my recordings to record on my FiOS DVR, then to record it to the EyeTV for exporting, I manually hit “Record” on the EyeTV on my Mac Mini, then Hit PLAY on my FiOS DVR and play the show in real-time. When it’s over, I edit out the commercials and then export it. The downside to this method is that I need to manually add the tagging into, like show title and episode name, plus I never have new shows automatically waiting for me in the morning. But that’s not what I want, really.
Other cool things
So, whether you are looking to turn your Mac into a DVR or, like me, are looking to record off 1000’s of TV shows for the kids to add to your iTunes library, there are a few other cool uses for the EyeTV. First, you can record pretty much ANY video source (barring a DVD or some other copy-protected source). So that means you can use the EyeTV as an easy way to back up recordings from your old (or new) video cameras and home movies, or you can even hook up an old VHS player and turn those analog recordings that are close to falling apart into digital copies you can then burn to DVD or back up to your hard drive. Like-wise, if you wanted to you could record yourself playing a video game, or even use your Mac’s monitor as your TV if you you’d like.
Just as committing to the Apple way of life can become as expensive as you’d like, so too can fully embracing the EyeTV way of life. Probably one of the coolest add-ons you can purchase form Elgato is their $100 Turbo.264 HD, which makes the encoding of your recorded shows to iOS-compatible versions MUCH faster. Basically it is a USB dongle that can take the load off your CPU and handles the H.264 compression. It’s especially effective on older systems. Elgato also offers a an iPad/iPhone piece of software that lets you watch your recorded shows on your iPad or iPhone anywhere on your home network and anywhere in the world without having to export them first to iTunes. The only possibly tricky part might be in setting up your router to allow for the streaming of outside your home network, but if you’re nerdy enough, it shouldn’t be too big a hassle.
I have no hesitation at all in recommending the EyeTV to any iOS fanatic who finds themselves (or their kids) starving for free content to fill their iDevices. At $170, the EyeTV HD might seem like a somewhat pricey addition to your digital lifestyle, but once you begin using it, you’ll realize not only is it worth the money, it’s a bargain.
Price: $170-$200 ($170 on Amazon)
Pros: Turns your Mac into a full-featured DVR, extremely well-designed software makes setting up smart recordings and editing commercials a breeze. Exports your shows to any iOS-compatible format and provides nearly limitless “free” content. Can be used to digitize old analog tapes as well.
Cons: Records in real-time what your Cable box is outputting, so you cannot watch another program at the same time.