As TVs and computers continue to converge, most people are familiar with the on-demand, online services like the iTunes Store or Hulu. But you have to wait until after shows air to view them, and in some cases you have to pay to watch programs. But you can still get a digital TV signal over the air and watch shows from the major networks, and with a device like AverMedia’s AverTVHD Volar Max you can watch those shows on your Mac. The Volar Max is a USB TV tuners that works with bundled software to play and record broadcast TV on your Mac.
The hardware components of the Volar Max comprise a USB dongle that you plug into your Mac and a small 75 Ohms TV antenna. You can plug the antenna into the USB dongle to get over-the-air digital SD and HD TV broadcasts, or you can connect a coaxial cable that’s used for cable TV—but Volar Max will only play back unencrypted cable TV signals (often called ClearQAM by cable TV providers). Whether you’re using over-the-air or an unencrypted cable TV signal, your TV channel selection will be limited to local networks and broadcasts. You’re not going to get HBO, ESPN, or other pay channels.
The Volar Max’s performance with over-the-air broadcast TV depends on the signal quality in the area. When I tested the Volar Max at Macworld’s downtown San Francisco office, I was able to pick up 22 channels. With many of those channels, I experienced stuttering; sometimes the stuttering would happen once or twice in an hour, sometimes it would happen so often it made a show unwatchable. Replacing the Volar Max’s bundled antenna with my own amplified antenna didn’t help.
An AverMedia representative told me the stuttering problem was most likely caused by a weak TV signal at the Macworld office. When I tested the Volar Max at my San Francisco home (about five miles southwest of the office) with the bundled antenna, the Volar Max performed dramatically better. I didn’t experience any stuttering, and I was able to pick up 20 more channels to boot.
To watch TV on a Mac with the Volar Max, you’ll need to use the AverTV for Mac software. I tested with version 2.0.9, which you can download from AverMedia’s Website. The software lets you watch TV, record shows, play back shows you’ve recorded, and peruse the daily programming guide. Though AVerTV provides menu selections and keyboard shortcuts for the controls, you’ll most likely use the software’s Control Panel.
To watch a show, all you have to do is click a channel in the AverTV’s Program Guide. You can change channels through the Control Panel, or you can also press a number on your keyboard, and a channel guide will appear in the Live TV Window; you can then use the up arrow, down arrow, and Return keys to select a channel. You can also use the up arrow and down arrow keys while watching a show to move up or down a channel without seeing the guide.
The Volar Max has a TimeShift feature that tells the software to record the show as it’s playing. You can then pause and resume when you want, and you can also fast-forward, rewind, or skip to a section of the video by clicking or scrubbing on the Playback Seek slider bar at the bottom of the Live TV Window. TimeShift is easy to use and understand, but it’s not on all the time. You must turn it on by clicking the TimeShift button in the Control Panel.
To record a show as you are watching it, you can click on the Record button in the Control Panel or press command-R. You can also schedule a recording ahead of time, and fortunately, you don’t have the keep the AverTV software open in order for the software to record as scheduled, and you can set the software to quit, shut down the computer, put the computer to sleep, or to switch to regular TV mode when a recording is done. The software can’t wake your Mac from sleep or boot your Mac if it’s shut down, however. Recorded shows appear in the Playlist section of the software, where all you have to do to watch a show is double-click it.
The biggest problem I had with the Volar Max is that the AverTV software saves video as multiplexed (muxed) MPEG-2 files. As such, there’s no export option for saving files for an iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, or any other device. That means you need to use other applications to convert the video files for your portable devices (by default, the software saves videos to your Documents folder, but you can change this in the software preferences). Fortunately, I was able to use the free HandBrake ( ) to successfully create iPhone-compatible versions of my recorded videos. You can also use the free MPEG Streamclip to convert the files. The free VLC media player, which you need to install if you use Handbrake, can play the MPEG-2 files with sound, but if all you want to do is watch the recorded videos, you can just watch them within the AverTV software.
While there are workarounds for dealing with the MPEG-2 files, they certainly aren’t convenient. The Windows version of the product saves files in H.264 format, and AverMedia says that H.264 support is coming to the Mac version of AVerTV, but can’t say when that will be. It’s hard to justify the lack of support when there are competing products such as the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid ( ) that offer convenient, built-in export tools.
The other quibble I have with the AverTV software is the Electronic Programming Guide (EPG). In my testing, it provided incomplete program information, showing data only for the first dozen channels in the listing. After that, everything else was blank, and updating the EPG had no effect. If programming info is missing of the show you want to record, you’ll have to set up the software manually to record. According to a AverMedia representative, the software gets its programming info from the over-the-air broadcast signal. The other issue is that it only provides guide data for one week in the future, whereas the EyeTV software (and most set-top DVRs) offer two weeks.
Channel Preview is a nifty feature that channel surfers like me appreciate. This allows you to see four, nine, or 16 channels on the whole screen at once. The catch with this feature is that only one channel is active at a time; click on the channel on the grid, and that portion becomes active while the other channels are “frozen.” While you can’t really view multiple channels simultaneously, it’s a fun way to flip to other channels during commercials.
Macworld’s buying advice
The AverTVHD Volar Max isn’t as advanced as other TV receivers, but it’s also not as pricey. The basic TV viewing functions work well, as long as you have good TV reception. The personal video recording capabilities are limited, but it worked just fine. If you don’t mind possibly manually entering in program info for scheduled recordings, and you can put up with the workarounds for saving recorded videos to your devices, the Volar Max is a decent value.
Editor’s note: Update 6/18/10 at 9AM with information about the programming guide.
[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]