Watch Live TV on Your Mac… and Record it Too!
Turn your Mac into an HDTV and DVR combo with Elgato and OWC!

“The Digital Hub” has been a major factor in Apple’s direction over the last few years and, as such, many Mac owners have integrated their Macs into their entertainment centers. In many cases, (especially people with very little space) Macs have all but replaced the traditional components for playback of movies and music. However, outside of special-edition Macs (such as the Power Mac 5x00 series, which don’t run OS X) or hard-to-find video cards, there has not been a way to get television programming onto your Mac with any degree of convenience.

The folks at Elgato saw this need, and gave us the EyeTV series of peripherals, which allow you to not only watch TV - both standard and HD* - on your Mac, but record it for later viewing, as well.

*EyeTV 250 Plus and EyeTV Hybrid can receive both SDTV and HDTV signals via the digital antenna/aerial input. That includes 720p and 1080i signals. A Dual G5 or Core Duo Mac is needed to properly display HDTV signals.

Choose your inputs.

Digital or Analog?

Just having digital cable or satellite service does not necessarily mean you can record the digital stream. Many setups require a set-top converter box, which puts out an analog signal, even though the source was digital.

Please refer to these lists as to what kind of signal you'd be receiving when using the Elgato units.

Analog

  • Antenna - Standard broadcast TV via a direct connection. Can tune using EyeTV software. (Note: this option will cease for US viewers on Feb. 17, 2009, when all broadcasts go digital.)
  • Antenna - Digital Broadcast via converter box - change channels using converter box .
  • Unscrambled Analog Cable (channels 1-124) - using tuner input
  • Premium Cable (using cable box first) - change channels using cable box
  • Digital Cable (using cable box first) - change channels using cable box
  • Satellite (using receiver first) - change channels using satellite receiver
  • DVD/VCR/Camcorder (via A/V inputs) - S-Video or composite

Digital

  • Antenna - Can tune using EyeTV software.
  • Digital Cable - Direct connection, Clear QAM access. Can tune using EyeTV software.
  • These units cannot receive satellite signals directly (no DirecTV, Dish Network, or DVB-S), and cannot receive component or other high-end inputs.

Elgato has a pair of units available to bring in the signal: the EyeTV Hybrid and the EyeTV 250 Plus. Both units are very compact and, unlike those TV tuner cards of old, work simply and easily to bring in your favorite television programming, be it analog or digital, broadcast or cable. Both units process digital programming in the format that it is broadcast (usually MPEG-2, like DVDs). The main difference between the two units is how they handle the real-time conversion of analog data into something your computer can use.

The less-expensive, yet bus-powered and portable Hybrid relies on your processor to convert the signal coming in to a digital format, so that it can be viewed or saved on your Mac - the speed of your CPU determines the quality and the size of the file. The 250 Plus, on the other hand, does all its analog conversion in the unit itself, resulting in smaller files with higher quality, regardless of machine speed.

If you plan on using your EyeTV to convert your library of VHS tapes or record from other analog sources, the desktop-oriented, AC-powered 250 Plus can speed up the process, as its self-contained analog-to-digital encoding takes some of the load off of your processor. The Hybrid, on the other hand, relies entirely on the processor, making it better suited for applications where a digital signal is going to be the primary input.

The real star of this show, though, is the EyeTV software itself. Included with both the Hybrid and the 250 Plus, it installs with a simple drag and drop. After a user-friendly Setup Assistant walks you through configuration, you are ready to go!

Watch what you want, how you want it.

The most basic use of the EyeTV hardware and software is that you can watch all your favorite television programs right there on your desktop. You can resize the player window and place it in a corner, so you can follow your shows while continuing to work.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can expand the window to view your programs full-screen, taking advantage of the superior picture quality on your Mac, as compared to a regular analog television set. For those with limited space (such as college dorms, studio apartments, and the like), you can save the space normally taken up by a television by letting your Mac pull double-duty. Both units even come with an infrared remote control, so you can flip through channels, just like on a regular television.

Capture what you want.

The EyeTV software lets you watch the TV input signal live, just like you get from a standard television set. It also does a number of things plain television can’t, such as pausing/rewinding live TV or selecting and recording just the shows you want. To get that functionality on a regular television or cable setup, you’ll need to add a DVR unit and/or a monthly subscription to the service. Even then, what happens when you fill the drive in the DVR, or you want to move them to another location? That's right - you're stuck.

The Elgato units don't have these restrictions. The EyeTV software, while acting like a DVR unit, is more flexible. You can store your recorded programs anywhere you like. Digital signals are saved in the in the format they are broadcast. Analog signals are converted real-time to a digital format, as explained earlier. This makes storing your video on a large external drive like the OWC Mercury Elite Pro AL a breeze. You don’t need to worry about filling up the drive, either; if you run out of space on one, you can easily add another.

Edit out what you don’t want.

Nobody likes commercials. This is doubly so when they’re taking space up on your hard drive. The EyeTV software has you covered there, as well. Simply select the advertisement in the EyeTV edit window, select “Compact”, and it’s gone. The inverse also works; select the clip you want to keep, and choose to save just that. It’s all in how you choose.

Watch where and when you want.

Having these video clips on your Mac is great, but who wants to be tied to their computer for watching video? Again, the EyeTV software makes it easy to watch your video content wherever you want. Looking to put that recording on your AppleTV, so you can watch it in your living room? With a click of a button, it’s done. Same goes for converting it for your iPod or sending it to Toast Titanium for burning to DVD.

Additionally, the EyeTV software can share its recordings over your local network. Got other computers in the house? Install the EyeTV software on them, as well, and you can watch your recorded programs on any Mac you choose. You can even set your EyeTV up to stream video to your iPod Touch or iPhone via WiFi, using their built-in Safari browser.

Turbo boost.

While the EyeTV lets you convert your video to something playable on your iPod or AppleTV, the process can be time consuming - especially if you have an older machine. To speed the process up, Elgato released the Turbo.264.

Turbo.264 is a video encoding device that quickly converts any video to the advanced H.264 (MPEG-4) format – as used on your iPod, AppleTV, PSP and many other popular video playback devices – on its own, leaving your Mac to perform other tasks. The benefit here is quite considerable; according to Elgato, you can encode up to four times faster on an Intel-based Mac, and up to 10 times faster on a G4! Add to that the fact that you can use the Turbo.264 on any QuickTime-playable video needing conversion, and its value becomes even more apparent.

Converting video without the Turbo.264 is extremely processor-intensive, using almost the entire processor while doing so, negatively affecting performance of any other applications that may be running. In our own independent tests, we took a five minute Digital TV broadcast recorded through EyeTV, and converted it for use on an AppleTV using a number of different computer configurations. Just to determine if upgrading the memory would have any effect on conversion time, we ran the conversion with both 2GB and 4GB configurations on some of the models; only a couple seconds separated the two tests. Clearly, converting the video is limited by the speed of your processor.

Configuration (All models running OS X 10.5.5) Time to encode
5 min. video for AppleTV
iMac 2.8Ghz Core 2 Duo 371 seconds*
iMac 2.8Ghz Core 2 Duo + Turbo.264 447 seconds*
MacBook Pro 1.83GHz 822 seconds
MacBook Pro 1.83Ghz + Turbo.264 494 seconds
Dual 1.25GHz MDD G4 2161 seconds
Dual 1.25GHz MDD G4 + Turbo.264 495 seconds
1.5GHz PowerBook G4 3424 seconds
1.5GHz PowerBook G4 + Turbo.264 530 seconds
*while the iMac converted the video faster without it, running the
conversion with the Turbo.264 used 1/5 the processor power as without.

In three out of the four tests we ran, the Turbo.264 posted a significant increase in performance, with Turbo.264 getting the job done on a 1.5GHz Powerbook G4 in one sixth the time it took to do without it. Also notable was that the performance of the Turbo.264 was remarkably consistent, regardless of what model computer it happened to be hooked up to, so the older the machine was, the better the gains we saw.

As the Turbo.264's conversion time remained reasonably consistent across computers, the only model tested that didn't seem to benefit from the Turbo.264 was the iMac 2.8GHz. It should be noted, though, that when these tests were run, no other processes were going on at the time; the EyeTV software had full access to all system resources.

However, in "the real world," our computers rarely have the luxury of running just one thing. We've got them running other applications, playing back other files, and using system resources in ways that are not covered in a "lab" situation.

As it is an external processing unit, converting video with the Turbo.264 does not affect, nor is it affected by, other programs. Its processor use was minimal; on the iMac, converting a movie took up no more processor time than iTunes playing a movie. You could easily perform other tasks without a notable performance hit.

Doing the conversion without the Turbo.264 while performing other tasks would not only slow down the conversion process, but it would also slow down your other apps, too. Video playback would be choppy, programs would run slower, and your whole system would seem more sluggish. In order to work normally, you'd have to stop, wait for the video to finish, then pick up where you left off. That's hardly a time-saver. Clearly, the Turbo.264 offers a time savings in multitasking, if not in the benchmarks.

Overall, if you’ll be converting a large number of videos for other video devices like the AppleTV, iPod/iPhone, or PSP and/or you have an older computer or one that gets used for a number of different things at once, the Turbo.264 can save a lot of time.

Bottom Line

  Eye TV Hybrid EyeTV 250 Plus
TV Tuner Type Hybrid TV tuner for free over-the-air HDTV, clear QAM, and analog TV. With inputs for set-top boxes. Video converter and hybrid TV tuner for free over-the-air HDTV, clear QAM and analog TV. With inputs for set-top boxes.
Common Features EyeTV 3 software to watch, record, & edit TV shows on a Mac, and play them on an iPod, Apple TV, or iPhone.
Unique Features Compact USB TV stick; can convert VHS tapes to digital files - quality depends on speed of Mac's processor; bus powered. Convert VHS tapes to digital with a "VHS Assistant". Produces high-quality digital files in small files sizes. Toast 8 Basic included.
Encoding In analog mode, uses software to encode and relies on Mac's processor; in digital mode, as encoded by the broadcaster. Hardware encoder - does not use your Mac's processor to encode analog video. Higher quality analog video & smaller file sizes.
Audio/Video In Coaxial (cable & antenna). Comes with breakout cable for with S-Video, Composite video, and RCA audio inputs.
Video Capture Formats Digital signal: Fixed by broadcaster, usually MPEG 2. Analog TV and analog video sources: MPEG-1, MPEG-2.
Video Resolution Digital mode: Fixed by broadcaster, usually 720x480, 720p, 1080i (HD features require dual G5 or Intel Core processor). Analog mode: Up to 720x480.

Whether you want to save TV shows for later, watch them on any of a number of portable and external devices, or just enjoy your favorite program while you're working, Elgato's got a solution for you. The decision on whether to buy the EyeTV Hybrid or the EyeTV 250 Plus ultimately comes down to your needs for portability and performance.

As mentioned above, there are many similarities and differences between the two models, and sometimes it helps to see the important bits side-by-side. The table to the right illustrates the main features of the two models and how they compare to each other.

If you're looking for a more flexible, easier-to-use, and better-valued alternative to the traditional DVR, Elgato's EyeTV hardware and software is just the ticket.