Hands on with El Gato's EyeTV

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Though Apple is pushing the Mac as a hub for the digital lifestyle, there are some digital capabilities that Macs don't come with out of the box. One is the ability to watch and record TV. Now you can do just that with El Gato Software LLC's nifty US$199 EyeTV product. Think of it as the Mac equivalent of TiVO and ReplayTV.

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Boasting many of the features of the previously mentioned PVRs (personal video recorders), EyeTV is a nice companion for a Mac -- and a gotta-have goodie if you're really into building a digital hub.

Introduced at Macworld Expo in New York last July (where it won a "Best New Product" award), El Gato's EyeTV is a USB-based peripheral that enables you use your Mac as a TV, complete with a free Web-based programmable channel guide (in the US, anyway). The EyeTV is equipped with a coaxial antenna connection and composite video input, as well as stereo audio input. You can view TV signals live or record them to hard disk for later viewing. Throw in Roxio's Toast Titanium software, and you'll be able to burn the content to CD in VideoCD format, which is playable by most current DVD players.

The EyeTV box contains a 124-channel cable tuner and a hardware encoder that turns an incoming video signal into MPEG-1 video -- in real time, no less. And it doesn't require a power supply, since it draws juice from a Mac's USB port into which it plugs. Of course, it works fine with a powered USB hub, as well.

The software lets you watch TV shows, pause 'em, and record 'em. The set-up is a breeze. You begin by using the Auto Tune feature to configure the software and tuner to recognize the stations you receive. Then you go online and register with TitanTV, an online TV scheduling site.

As with QuickTime you can watch TV full screen or in a smaller window. I recommend viewing at the Normal (320 by 240 pixels) setting; anything bigger begins to pixelate (again, much like a QuickTime video). An onscreen remote offers a variety of play-record options, though there are keyboard equivalents if you prefer.

You can cache live programming, which allows you to pause, rewind, and record programs. The EyeTV software is both useful and aggravating with its Web integration. You can look up programming info online and have it localized for you as part of the EyeTV set-up procedure. The programming guide is used to select shows for future recording. An icon appears next to each upcoming show in TitanTV's programming grid. Click it, and the EyeTV software automatically configures for recording it. A New Schedule Info dialog box lets you set repeat recordings (daily or weekly).

When recording programs, you can choose from Standard and High quality. Standard will consume 650MB of hard disk space for each hour of recorded video; High takes twice as much, but offers better quality. Standard quality recordings resemble a so-so VHS tape recording. But high quality recordings can't be burned in the VideoCD format.

You can export a recorded show as a QuickTime movie. The result is an MPEG-1-format movie with pixel dimensions of 320 x 240 pixels. Copy the movie into Roxio's Toast Titanium software to burn it in VideoCD format.

You can play back one show while you're recording another. Or you can play back several shows simultaneously (though I'm not sure why you'd want to). But if you do, you can only hear the sound of the foremost show.

EyeTV doesn't offer the full functionality that TiVO and ReplayTV do. For instance, though the cable connection can use a built-in 124-channel tuner, you won't be able to access channels found on digital cable. To do this, you'd have to have the converter provided by your cable operator. On the other hand, there's no monthly charges as with TiVO and ReplayTV, a definite plus.

EyeTV doesn't offer closed captions, something that Windows equivalents provide. Hopefully, this is something El Gato will offer in a future version of the software.

Finally, you can't edit MPEG files with commercial programs. This means you're stuck with commercials, though at least you can fast forward through 'em.

Despite these "gotchas," EyeTV is a fine product and one great for folks like me who keep some strange working hours. Now I can watch "The Simpsons" or "Smallville" while I finish up MacCentral articles.

By the way, ever wonder why El Gato made this a USB product rather than FireWire? El Gato spokesman Victor Nemechek said that they wanted the first version of EyeTV to be low cost and USB is at least $20 cheaper to make than FireWire. "We only use 30 percent of USB bandwidth so FireWire wouldn't help anyways," he added.

This story, "Hands on with El Gato's EyeTV" was originally published by PCWorld.

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