You’ve probably heard of services such as TiVo and ReplayTV — you may even use one of them. Now El Gato Software’s EyeTV brings the concept of the personal digital video recorder (DVR) to the Mac, letting you record shows directly to your hard drive so you can watch them whenever you want. EyeTV isn’t for everyone, and it has a few kinks that need to be worked out, but it’s a very appealing first step toward integrating your Mac with the latest TV-watching technology.
EyeTV’s hardware is a white box about one-quarter the size of a set-top DVR, and it’s powered by USB from your Mac. The box contains a 124-channel cable tuner and a hardware encoder that turns an incoming signal into MPEG-1 video in real time. On the outside of the box are a jack for a standard coaxial cable; composite RCA jacks that let you capture video from a VCR, camcorder, or other analog source; a USB port for connecting EyeTV to your Mac; and lights that indicate the recorder’s status.
It’s the software, however, that makes EyeTV not just a USB video-capture device but a full-fledged DVR. Once you use EyeTV 1.0.2’s simple Setup Assistant, you’re ready for prime time and can begin watching live TV on your Mac. A floating on-screen interface that looks like a remote control gives you access to functions such as play, pause, record, jump (for skipping 30 seconds at a time — ideal for avoiding commercials), and instant replay (for jumping back 7 seconds). Although EyeTV doesn’t come with a handheld remote, Keyspan’s $49 Digital Media Remote (510/222-0131,
www.keyspan.com ) is compatible with EyeTV.
The Live Stuff
Like other DVRs, EyeTV has a recording buffer that captures whatever you’re watching — it’s this feature that allows for conveniences such as pausing live TV and using the instant-replay function. While TiVo’s buffer is set at 30 minutes, you determine how much hard-drive space EyeTV puts aside for its buffer, which can accommodate much more than 30 minutes. But unlike TiVo, EyeTV doesn’t let you record an entire program if you begin recording after it has started.
You can view live programs in windows of several sizes (even as large as the full screen) as you watch them. But viewing them at anything larger than the Normal Size setting, which is a very small 320 by 240 pixels, will result in a slightly pixel-ated and blurry picture.
One nagging problem is that EyeTV takes several seconds to actually change a channel after you click to change it, so EyeTV isn’t a good option for channel surfers.
You can record a program simply by clicking on the record button on EyeTV’s on-screen remote or by manually inputting start and stop times for a particular channel, as with a VCR — but the real power of a DVR lies in its ability to schedule programs with much less fuss.
EyeTV gives you access to upcoming program listings via a Web site, TitanTV.com. The listings are free, unlike those offered with set-top DVRs: on top of hardware costs, TiVo charges $12.95 per month or $249 for a lifetime membership; ReplayTV charges $250 for a lifetime membership. (One caveat is that you must use Internet Explorer to access the TitanTV.com listings.)
When you find a program you want to record, click on the red record icon in the listing on the Web site. Click again, and your browser downloads a small file that tells EyeTV what to record and when. From within the EyeTV software, you can also schedule manual recordings, pad them on either end, and create recordings that repeat daily and weekly.
One important difference between EyeTV and set-top DVRs is that a set-top DVR is a computer that’s always running, but using EyeTV requires that your Mac be on and awake whenever you want to record. EyeTV won’t start up your computer, nor will it wake your Mac from sleep to start a recording.
The amount of hard-drive space EyeTV uses is hardly paltry, but it’s reasonable given the picture quality you get. The size of recordings always appears on your monitor at 320 by 240 pixels, but the quality is not as good as that of MPEG-2quality DVRs. You can pick one of two quality settings for recording your shows. The Normal Size option uses a data rate of 170 Kbps, which translates to about 615MB of hard-drive space per hour; the high-quality option is double the data size, and it looks better.
You can pick either option for all shows, but currently the software doesn’t allow you to record individual programs at different quality settings. You can also opt to record to any hard drive you want, and the number of hours you can store depends solely on the size of your drive.
Once you’ve recorded something, you get to take advantage of the nonlinear, hard drive based benefits of EyeTV. Just as with a DVR, you can watch any program in any order and delete individual shows. You watch programs from within the EyeTV viewer, and can do so at any size, just as when you use EyeTV to watch live TV.
EyeTV also gives you the power to permanently archive your shows after you’ve watched them. You can save them as QuickTime MPEG-1 files, playable on any Mac (or PC) with QuickTime Player. Also, you can burn standard-quality videos to a VideoCD, which will play on computers and many newer set-top DVD players.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
EyeTV is not a direct replacement for a set-top DVR, but it brings most of the benefits of DVRs to your Mac — and in some cases adds to them. At only $199 and no monthly fees, the price isn’t bad. And for anyone who travels often with a laptop — or who wants to use a Mac as a primary TV viewer or video archive — EyeTV is a very creative solution.