In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Bart learns that there is strength in numbers, leading him to amass his own army. Watching this episode has also helped me learn an important life lesson: watching TV is more fun than actually doing anything. If you have ever desired to combine television and work, you are probably aware that there are a growing number of options for watching television on a computer, even for Mac users. Elgato's EyeTV Hybrid for Mac brings your Mac the ability to watch both analog and digital television. Although it's not perfect, the Hybrid is clearly a winner in the digital TV market.
The EyeTV Hybrid is a small rectangular unit, barely larger than a USB flash drive. One end of the unit plugs directly into a USB port (although an extension cable is also included in case it doesn't fit), and the other end has a coaxial connector that connects to your TV antenna or cable. You can also use composite and S-Video inputs via the included adaptors. A basic digital antenna is also included, although for optimal results, you'll probably want to buy a powered, amplified HDTV antenna. The device does not require any additional power or other connections, although it is strongly recommended that you connect it to a USB 2.0 powered port (not a port on an unpowered hub).
For standard analog television, the EyeTV can accept input from any antenna, VCR, cable box, video game console, or other standard device. However, for HDTV, the product can only accept broadcast signals from an antenna input. It does not support HDTV for cable TV, or any external receivers (like a cable or satellite box). This limitation could definitely limit the device's usefulness for some users.
Setting up the EyeTV software is impressively simple. After installation, you can populate the digital and analog sections of the channel list by clicking each list's Auto Tune button. EyeTV will even connect to TitanTV and download the names and information for each station it detects, if you authorize it to, and this feature doesn't even require a TitanTV account. A second pane in the main window lists your programmed future recordings, and this feature is also easy to use. Just specify a name, time and date, and the software will automatically download information about the program you are recording. You can also optionally set virtually any possible pattern for repeating the recording program, and the summary window displays your choice in plain English like "Every Weekday" or "Every Tuesday." (The downloaded program descriptions will automatically update themselves for each repetition too.) You can also configure the EyeTV to extend programs by a number of minutes you can specify, both before and after the main recording—in other words, you don't have to manually type "7:57 pm to 9:03 pm," since just entering 8:00 and 9:00 will include these buffers unless they interfere with another scheduled recording. I wish there were an option to make the TV window float over all other windows, but other than that, the software has virtually every bell and whistle imaginable. The EyeTV also supports closed captioning for analog and digital broadcasts.
When recording standard analog TV, you can choose from three different quality settings, up to a maximum resolution of 720 by 480, which consumes about 700 MB of disk space per hour. On the other hand, HDTV can only be recorded in its native format of MPEG2, which will generally require about 6 GB per hour, so you might have to consider buying another hard drive just for TV recording purposes - seriously. For either recording type, you can specify that the software should automatically transcode the recording for your PSP or iPod after the recording is complete, and you can optionally have these converted files automatically added to iTunes. This is a nice convenience, but the initial recording still has to be MPEG2 for HDTV, presumably because transcoding such complex, high-resolution video in real-time is simply not feasible on today's computers. Moreover, if you do specify an automatic transcoding, this transcode will be far slower than real-time, and it can even take several hours to complete. HDTV is simply extremely demanding by nature, but I still have to wonder if it could possibly be transcoded at least a little bit faster.
EyeTV has also included an advanced remote control with buttons to control virtually every aspect of the viewing experience. However, if you have a Mac that supports Apple's own infrared remote, then the EyeTV software has built-in support for this remote as well, which is a nice touch. A "picture-in-picture" mode is also included, although the device can only tune into one station at a time, so at least one of the two "channels" in this mode must be a local file already on your computer, making it seem like a bit of a novelty feature that is truly useful only rarely.
Me, Myself, and Eye
It seems like some manufacturers of cool peripherals decide to include Mac compatibility, only to shoot themselves in the foot by including poorly designed software that feels like it is recycled from System 6. With the demanding nature of HDTV, software like that would certainly not cut it for the EyeTV Hybrid. Thankfully, EyeTV has proven that they do actually care about software in addition to hardware by including a Universal Binary that performs well on the latest Macs, with most Intel-based Mac models enabling you to watch HDTV in the background and still carry out other tasks in the foreground without any lagging, although the program's performance did seem somewhat strained when simultaneously watching and recording an HDTV program.
The reliability of scheduled recordings was good, except for a couple of issues. The EyeTV Hybrid purports to have the ability to wake up or start up your Mac for a recording, if necessary, and although this generally worked as described, the EyeTV made it difficult to put my MacBook to sleep at all. As Mac users may be aware, Macs tend to wake themselves up anytime a USB peripheral powers itself up or down (or is connected or disconnected). The EyeTV Hybrid seems to make this problem worse, since my Mac would constantly wake itself up immediately after being put into sleep mode, whenever the EyeTV was connected. If you plan to have your computer sleep most of the time and wake up only for recordings, this issue might get in your way. Also, if you have a login screen or screensaver that is password protected, there is no way the EyeTV can get past that upon waking or booting your Mac.
The picture and sound quality are both impressive, especially for digital channels, which are generally clear and without distortions or artifacts, unlike analog TV. Although the credit for this belongs with HDTV in general and not the EyeTV specifically, the EyeTV does a great job of displaying the image on your screen with a high frame rate and without degrading the quality. The analog image is also comparable to the best you could expect from a regular analog television set.
The Eyes Have It
The video quality and convenience of the EyeTV Hybrid are quite impressive. The sleep issues can be frustrating, but Elgato has shown impressive attention to detail with its elegant software and compatibility with Apple's own remote. Overall, the EyeTV Hybrid is one of the most impressive methods I have used for watching television on a computer. It is certainly powerful enough to prevent you from having to do any actual work!
Pros: Combines analog and digital TV capabilities in a single, compact unit; elegant, intuitive software, which is also a Universal Binary; supports Apple's remote in addition to its own; terrific integration with online scheduling information; surprisingly affordable considering how much it offers.
Cons: Not compatible with cable HDTV; has some issues related to a Mac's sleep mode.