Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hardware Review: ElGato EyeTV 250 with QAM


Elgato EyeTV 250 with QAM

Watching TV and using a computer are fairly distinct activities. TV programs do not crash. The characters on "Lost" don't start walking slowly and stuttering when too many people are watching the show at the same time. Unlike Microsoft Office, Dwight Schrute from "The Office" won't unexpectedly quit at the worst possible time (which is more then can be said for his writers!)

Still, TV does have a lot in common with your Mac...both require you to watch what goes on on a screen, and these days, both contain digital content that you, as a consumer ought to be able to watch and use at whatever time you see fit. In our brave new world of TiVo, video on demand, and YouTube, television is no longer "broadcast" to your home on the schedule of some fat cat TV executive; consumers today have more control then ever of how and when they watch their favorite shows.

The EyeTV 250 (with QAM) from Elgato brings the party to your MacOS computer in a big way. This small (about the size of two desks of cards) USB device allows anyone with a modern Mac to enjoy TV on their computer. At its most basic, the Elgato device is a TiVo for the Mac; you can watch live TV, pause shows in the middle (great for bathroom breaks on your schedule), and record your favorite shows. Recorded shows can be watched faster then if they were live, because you can quickly fast-forward through commercials. You can enjoy shows on your Mac's crisp LCD display, or if you want, export them to your Apple TV to watch on your big-screen in the living room, or save shows to your iPod to watch on the go.

The EyeTV works in conjunction with the free TitanTV online programming guide to give you an interactive listing of TV programs, similar to what you might see on a TiVo or TV Guide. As you view a listing of channels and shows in the familiar grid, you can click on any show title to get a complete description of the episode and schedule it for recording. If there's a show you watch every week, you can set up a "season pass" to have the EyeTV automatically record each week's new episode.

In addition to a more traditional computer-like interface, with an on-screen 'virtual' remote control for controlling normal TV functions, the EyeTV has the capability to enter a full-screen mode. This can be controlled using the Apple remote as well as EyeTV's own included full-function remote. Utilizing a view similar to the Apple TV, you can scroll through the channels you receive to watch live TV, or browse your previously recorded shows. This mode works great with the new iMacs, and watching TV on one of these systems (especially HD programming) is an amazing experience.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can enjoy all of this, you do have to set up the EyeTV. Luckily, Elgato's software walks you though most of the process automatically (with one big exception - more on that later). You hook the USB device to the back of your Mac, install the software, enter your activation code, and then EyeTV will ask you some basic questions about your setup, such as where you live (so it can download the correct program guides for your cable service). After scanning for channels (which takes a few minutes) you are ready to go.

The EyeTV 250 (with QAM) works with analog cable TV (the cable most of us have) as well as with digital over-the-air television (if you have an external antenna). There is also a port to hook up a VCR or other analog input device such as a game console or older camcorder. The newest EyeTV 250 also supports free digital cable, which is known by the industry acronym QAM. Both over-the-air digital signals and QAM digital cable signals can optionally, depending on the station, be high definition, which the EyeTV supports (both 720p and 1080i for those who speak geek).

Now a brief digression (if you were watching "Mythbusters" right now, you would see the "Warning: Science Contents" alert at this time!):

QAM is a geek feature. For those lucky enough to have cable companies using unencrypted QAM, and those with the geek skills and patience to use it, the EyeTV 250 will give you many dozens of crystal-clear digital channels, including (possibly) many HD channels, all for free (well, free beyond the normal monthly fee you already pay for cable). QAM is not documented much by Elgato, and not at all by your cable company, so actually using it is an arcane art, primarily because the cable providers do not provide the "channel mapping" for QAM that they do for regular, old-fashioned analog cable. QAM channels also sometimes (but not frequently) might "jump" to different locations depending on the whims of the cable gods. Anyway, if you use the QAM feature of the EyeTV, you end up with a list of some 100 or more unlabeled channels with names like "105-14." You, the geek, can then manually tune each of these channels, figure out what network it is by the programming being shown, and then label the channel in the EyeTV interface. Once you do this time-consuming step, you then will have a nice list of properly-labeled channels and can use the program guide. It is well worth the effort it takes to do this - your reward is usually a bunch of crisp digital channels and a lot of glorious high definition programming. If any non-geeks have ready this far, please do not be scared away - you can enjoy easy-to-use program guides and properly labeled analog cable with the EyeTV without doing anything at all beyond running the installation wizard. QAM and its complexity is just for the geeks. Nothing to see here, so move along.

Obviously, you can use the EyeTV for simple channel surfing, but you'll probably start using it to record shows. As I mentioned above, the interface to do this is very easy, a matter of simply clicking on a show's title in the on-screen program guide. When it is time for a show to be recorded, the EyeTV software will launch (if it is not running) and record the show. After a show is recorded, you can watch it in EyeTV itself, or automatically have the show exported to iTunes where it can then be transferred to your iPod or an Apple TV. This is a very powerful feature, since the Apple TV doesn't include DVR functionality. Even if you do not have an Apple TV, the EyeTV software itself supports streaming over your household wireless connection to other computers, so you could record television on your Mac in the home office and later watch it on your MacBook in the bedroom.

If you already have an Apple TV, the EyeTV is a perfect companion, especially if you would prefer to record shows yourself rather then pay Apple $2.00 per episode. Likewise, plugging in your iPod in the morning and having last night's TV shows copied to it is a great convenience if you need something to watch on the morning train ride to work. Shows are exported as they were recorded, which means the commercials are included, but the EyeTV software includes a basic video editor, so if you have the time, you can edit out the commercials directly from the EyeTV software interface prior to watching or exporting the video.

Finally, the EyeTV has the standard RCA component inputs, allowing you to hook up a VCR or old camcorder. This is a great way to digitize your VHS video collection or any old camcorder tapes you might have. Once your video is in EyeTV, you can then edit it or export it into iMovie or another dedicated video editing application.

The EyeTV is indisputably one of the most useful and fun devices available for the MacOS. However, it is not without a few flaws. The EyeTV software, which just recently got updated to version 3.0, is somewhat buggy, and I have had it crash on me a few times. Elgato is aware of many of these problems and just released 3.0.1, which I am hoping improves stability. My EyeTV 250 also initially would not properly display analog signals from cable or a VCR, resulting in a screen full of wavy lines. I was able to resolve this issue by power-cycling the unit, but still, this was not a good first impression. Since then, the unit has performed fine, however.

Another issue with the EyeTV is not so much a technical failure of the device itself, but rather a risk that Elgato may be left behind by rapid technical changes in the cable television industry. Analog cable is gradually being phased out, and future digital cable technologies may require additional equipment from cable companies to utilize new features such as video on demand and encryption of digital content. The EyeTV cannot receive encrypted content, such as premium channels (like HBO). Future Elgato products may support the addition of a special card, called a cable card, to allow it to receive encrypted channels, but for now, you cannot use the EyeTV to watch this content.

One additional concern is that the Elgato technical support is very, very slow. I reported an issue with the EyeTV in order to test out their support process, and it took over a week before I got any kind of response through Elgato's formal channels. Luckily, Elgato offers an online forum where other uses, and Elgato technical staff, often visit, which got me a quick answer to my questions. Unless I had to, I would skip the "official" support system and just use the forum.

These minor issues aside, I strongly recommend the EyeTV 250 to any Mac user who wants to watch television on their computer. Simply put, the EyeTV is one of those "wow" devices that will make both your television and computer experiences better. The software and hardware is well-designed and easy to use, yet also offers advanced features for experienced users. It is a winner.

Pros: excellent hardware and software design, very easy to use, packed with features, supports both analog and digital sources and HD content

Cons: doesn't support encrypted digital cable

4.5 out of 5 dogcows

Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right