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Review: EyeTV Hybrid US - ATSC Digital & Analog TV Tuner for Mac

I couldn't wait to get my hands on the new EyeTV Hybrid US from Elgato Systems. Eyetv Hybrid VerticalWhen I read the technical specs, and saw that it was going to offer the best of both worlds (Digital and Analog) into a small USB dongle, I knew it would be the answer many of us have been looking for, all in a quest to turn our Macintosh into a TV media center. After extensive testing and using the EyeTV Hybrid for the last month, I am quite smitten with it. Check out their online demo, and read on and you will see why it made it into our Holiday Guide, and why I wish I didn't have to give it back. Overview Elgato has brought to the market a small two-in-one TV interface for your Macintosh. It delivers unencrypted free over-the-air ATSC Digital television (standard & HDTV) and Analog NTSC television from your antenna, cable, or satellite provider. It even adds versatility for those of us that want to use our Mac as an all in one solution, and hook up S-Video or Composite sources, such as video game consoles. Beefy Hardware Requirements The EyeTV Hybrid requires at lease one built-in USB 2.0 port on your Macintosh. Any Mac manufactured within the last several years will have at least one on board USB 2.0 port. If your Mac doesn't, odds are your machine isn't capable of running this unit anyway. To get the best quality out of the EyeTV Hybrid, you really need a powerful Mac, since compression and conversion take a lot of CPU power. You can get away with a G4 processor, but if you want to really enjoy the quality this product provides, I recommend a Dual G5 processor based Mac, or even better, one of the new Intel Core Duo or Core2Duo Macs. To decode the high resolution HDTV signals, you are going to need at least a dual G5 processor. Since this product uses the CPU for compressing the Analog stream during recording, it will require a fast CPU to do the background processing. cpu processor Elgato specs say that 256MB of RAM will do (they recommend 512MB or more), but if you plan on using all of the features of the software, and want to play the Digital TV streams in HDTV 720P or 1080i, giving your Mac as much RAM as possible will certainly increase it's performance. If you plan on recording any of content, hard disk space is also another hefty requirement. Through the preferences, you can setup a default location for your videos to be saved. If you have a skimpy internal drive, you may want to look into a high capacity external firewire drive to save the videos onto. Recording sizes will vary, but an uncompressed typical ATSC Digital signal will be about 8GB for 60 Minutes of recording. Analog is less, and with DVD quality, for a 30 minute show, we averaged around 1-2 GB, depending on the content. Space for your saved recordings will vary, since you can choose different quality settings for recording. Space Requirements
  • VCD ( 352x288 - MPEG-1 / 589 MB per hour.
  • DVD (120Min) - 352x576 / MPEG-2 / 1.8 GB per hour.
  • DVD (90 Min) / 720x576 / MPEG-2 / 2.7 GB per hour.
The digital signals are completely viewed and recorded unmodified from the original transmission, and if you are watching HDTV content, file sizes will quickly eat away your hard drive space. If you are watching the Digital TV stream, the live buffering (which allows you to pause/rewind/fast-forward) defaults to 2GB of space, but you can set this manually and choose your preferred amount. I found 4GB to be a nice spot, providing more rewind time. Unless you are recording the Analog signal, you cannot Pause, Rewind, and Fast-Forward live TV -- this only works with Digital. Hardware Features Elgato has done a great job integrating a hardware digital and analog tuner inside this little stick. It supports the digital ATSC signals (yes, this includes HDTV!!) , and Analog signals, hence the moniker, Hybrid. Depending on your geographic location, you may not be able to receive digital channels over-the-air, without an outside antenna. The good news is, by 2009, all broadcast channels are mandated to move to digital, so even if you can't pick anything up now, you will be ready when the television stations switch to digital. Cable-TV subscribers cannot receive digital channels through the EyeTV Hybrid, since it's hardware doesn't support Clear QAM. However, you can view your existing analog Cable-TV channels. If you rely on a digital cable box or Satellite decoder to receive digital channels, you won't benefit from the scheduling and digital decoding that the EyeTV & it's software provide. To connect your EyeTV Hybrid to a cable or antenna source, they supply you with a F-Connector which is a standard connector for connecting to Coaxial cable. You can connect your cable box, antenna, or satellite receiver via the F-Connector or through the supplied breakout cable. The breakout cable allows for a better picture, since it has an S-Video input & Composite input, and that is the recommended method for connecting one of the non over-the-air sources. hybridbreakoutcable To receive the digital ATSC channels, you will need an external antenna. As I said before, your geographic location and the amount of stations broadcasting Digital TV in your area will determine what kind you need. If you live in a metro area, you can probably get away with an indoor antenna. If you live in the middle of no-where, opt-in for an outdoor antenna from Radio Shack. For Antenna recommendations, I would check out Antennaweb.com. You can punch in your Zip Code, and they can give you a list of all of the digital channels in your area, and what type of antenna they recommend to receive them. eyeTV 2 Software EyeTV2 is the de facto standard for recording, editing, and exporting TV on the Mac. There is a reason for that - it does a fantastic job, and gets better with each update. It offers a plethora of scheduling, conversion, recording, and editing options. You can really tell that they focus on Mac products, and the quality shows. There are way to many features to cover in this review, but I will hit some of the ones most people will be interested in. I recommend you go to their web site to get a list of all features. Program Guide In the USA, the program guide is provided by Titan TV. You have to sign up for a subscription there, but it's free with your EyeTV. After you sign up and configure a profile, you will have the local listings available for your area. Having the guide online is extremely powerful, because you can leverage online access to it, to allow for remote scheduling of television shows. Program Guide For example, if you are at work, you can login to your TitanTV account and check the program guide. If you find a program you need to record, but won't be home to do it, you can add a remote scheduling event, and the next time your Mac checks for remote events, it will see that you added a program and will record it. remote scheduling This process does require that you have your Mac connected to an 'always on' Internet connection, and that you have your EyeTV2 software properly configured to check for remote schedules. During my testing, I continually had troubles with my EyeTV2 Software connecting to the update server that handles the remote scheduling. I was using the beta version, so this could be a reasonable explanation. I had no problems at all with the Program Guide updating, it worked perfectly. Front Row-ish Interface One of the coolest features of the EyeTV2 software is the ability to bring up a full screen 'Front Row-ish' interface, even if your Mac doesn't have Front Row, or come with the Apple Remote. The EyeTV Hybrid has an infrared sensor on it, and accepts commands from the 6 button Apple Remote or the included EyeTV remote. (Editors Note: My review unit came with a remote control. However, the box doesn't list it as an included accessory. At the time of this writing, on the Elgato web site, it does list it as included in the box). Eyetv Fullscreen stock image With the push of a button, you can bring up a blue screen that lets you browse the program guide, record a show, switch the video inputs, switch to Picture-in-Picture, and lots more. The Program Guide is very easy to read on screen, but I would like some options to make it transparent over the video, so you can continue to watch the video while you are browsing the guide. Most of the standard DVRs you get from the cable company have this feature, and it would be a welcome addition. Additionally, a way to page up/down, or scroll fast through the guide would also be useful. Goodbye Commercials - Built-in Editing If you are just recording 'The Game', your favorite weekly series, etc., you may never use the editing features. Unless you want to keep the video, there really is no reason to edit. If you want to save your favorite series, and remove all of the commercials - then this becomes extremely relevant to you. After you have recorded a program, you simply click on the 'Recordings' category, right-click on a recording, and choose 'Edit'. Your program comes up inside a very basic editing screen that offers very little information on what the functions do. If you are familiar with iMovie or Quicktime Pro, you will figure it out quickly, but even with limited options, to the novice, it may take some playing around. You have two editing modes available: Fine & Normal. Normal shows a time line that shows frames from each minute of the show, which makes it a breeze to get to a starting location of what you want to cut. For more precise editing, such as a few seconds here and there of residual commercials, you can go to the 'Fine' edit, which provides frame by frame accuracy. editing Once you come to a spot you want to edit, you click on the 'Triangles' and it places a set of editing markers on the time line. Simply drag surround the area you want clipped with them. You can also do multiple edits, just click the 'Triangles' for as many edit points as you need. When you have completed the edit, you click the drop down menu, and choose 'Compact', which removes the content within the edit points you selected. This can take awhile, depending on the size of the file, amount of edit points, computer speed, etc. I removed 3 commercial stop-sets from a 30 minute show, and it took less than two minutes on my iMac. compact edit Exporting Your Content As consumers, we are demanding more and more versatility to allow for moving our content around. Elgato has recognized this with their EyeTV2 software. Any program you record can be exported to all of the popular formats, and moved to any media type of your choice. You can burn it to DVD (if you have Toast Titanium), export to your favorite video device, iMovie, iDVD, PSP, iPod, and even Email. The only thing missing is a You Tube option, and I would be surprised if that wasn't on their to-do list. Now, all of these exports take CPU cycles, so the faster your Mac is, and the more RAM you have available, your speed will be directly related. Depending on whether or not the content is analog or digital, and what format you want to move the video to (DVD for example), you may need to re-encode the video to a stream that's appropriate for the media type. I exported a 60 minute show to iPod H.264 640x480 in about 15 minutes. After it exported, it added it right into iTunes. If you have syncing enabled on your iPod with Video, the content will be added automatically to your iPod. One caveat I discovered is that when the content is added to iTunes, it doesn't show up under 'Television Shows' or 'Movies' etc. To find it, I had to look under my 'Recently Added' smart playlist. A feature that would be useful would be to ask the user to enter the info. While the CPU is working on exporting, pop up a dialog for us to add detailed info to the categories and episodes, and choose a frame for the artwork. If you edit a show under the 'Schedules' area, you can select a playlist to add it to, but I would like it to be more granular, and at least offer all of the tags that iTunes offers for Movies & TV shows. Picture Quality Analog TV looks like, well, Analog TV. The lower TV channels on your antenna/cable system will look OK, but not great. analog example The higher numbered channels usually look sharper & clearer, and are more suitable for a full screen setting. This is a factor of Analog TV in general. As we use higher resolution displays, such as our computer monitor, we see more clearly the impurities in the signal. This is a major reason non-digital content on a big screen HDTV doesn't look as good as on an old CRT TV. Any format of Digital TV on the Eye TV Hybrid looks incredible, 'nuff said. digital blue Also supported are multiple screen aspect ratios (4:3, 14:9, 16:9, and Wide), or you can set it to Auto, and it will choose the correct ratio for the content. For those that need Closed Captioning support, this product does a wonderful job at decoding the stream. I found the text and fonts they use very easy to read, even across the room. If your television show supports it, the EyeTV2 can decode CC1, CC2, CC3, and CC4. Audio Standard stereo audio is available from the analog channels, and the Digitial TV channels usually contain a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack. I don't have the hardware setup to test the Dolby Digital, only the standard stereo. Audio was fine listening via the iMac built in speakers, but when I connected it to my external speakers, via my Griffin iMic, the high pitched tone you usually hear from a TV becomes more evident, but not a nuisance. I would love to hear any comments from those that have expereince with the Dolby Digital via their Optical output. Pros: - Digital and Analog tuner. - Multiple inputs - F- type Connection, S-Video, and Composite. - Exporting to most video formats and devices (iPod, PSP, Mac Applications). - Front Row-ish interface, even if your Mac doesn't support Front Row. - Portable, it can be taken with you on the road. - Multiple versions: North America, Europe, Australia, and more. Cons: - Requires a high powered Mac for optimal performance. - EyeTV2 navigation needs refined a bit. - Requires Toast Titanium (not included) for direct burning to DVD. - Cannot Pause, Rewind, and Fast-Forward Live Analog TV, unless it is being recorded. Conclusion: Overall, Elgato has created a fantastic product that offers ATSC Digital and Analog tuners built into one compact unit. For optimum performance, you need a beefy Macintosh and a hard drive with gigabytes to spare. Paired with the included EyeTV2 software, this is a complete solution for anyone that wants to record and export television programs on their Mac, and seamlessly sync them to your iPod. Pound for pound, this little device offers the best Digital TV solution for under $150 bucks. 4.5 out of 5