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Submission + - Review: EyeTV Hybrid

nsayer writes: "A while ago, I submitted a review of the ElGato EyeTV 500 ATSC receiver for the mac. This review is of the brand-new EyeTV Hybrid ATSC/NTSC receiver and the new EyeTV 2 software that comes with it.

The old EyeTV 500 was a box the size of a paperback book. It could only receive ATSC (that is, digital) TV signals. Since the amount of CPU required to properly decode and display 1080i programming was (and still is) pretty hefty, the system was limited to show only quarter-resolution video (slightly better than 480p) for other than dual G5 macs. This is still the case, but now the list of systems that can process full resolution video also includes any dual-core Intel mac. That lowers the bar significantly from a machine costing more than $2k (at the time) to the $599 mac mini.

Back when we had an EyeTV 500 it was plugged into a PPC mac mini and we didn't really notice the degredation in the video very much. We bought it mainly so we could easily see what HD would do for us (we originally had an old analog set in the living room, but the mac mini display looks terrible in 480i, so we bought a 720p DLP set). We wound up replacing the EyeTV 500 with an HD DirecTivo because the program guide integration was much better with TiVo, the dual-tuner, and the ability to record satellite programming. The EyeTV Hybrid addresses all of those issues except the dual-tuner one.

First, the software. Just drag the application to the applications folder. Simplicity itself. The first time you fire it up, it goes through a setup procedure. One annoyance is that they ask you for a software activation key. This is because they sell EyeTV 2 as an upgrade for those with older devices. Still, it's a bit annoying to have to dig a piece of paper out of the box when there's a perfectly good piece of hardware in the same box that is required to use the software. Couldn't they have detected the newer hardware and bypassed the license key?

Now, let's take a look at the hardware. It's remarkably smaller. It's about the size of a BIC lighter, or slighly larger than an older USB memory stick. On one side is a USB connection (it includes a cover), on the other is a standard F connector for RF input. On the side is a small hole into which plugs an optional dongle for receiving S-video and stereo audio from an alternate source (such as a satellite receiver or video game). You plug the antenna into the one end, then plug the USB end into the computer.

And nothing happened.

As I began to check things, I noticed that there was a tiny spark between the USB connector's outer case and the computer case as I began to insert the connector. That was a bit scary! It dawned on me that we have a combiner/splitter/amplifier and that some of its power supply voltage must, somehow, be leaking into the shield, making its way into the EyeTV Hybrid, and resulting in some sort of ground potential difference between the two. It's possible that that is not the correct explanation, but the observable symptoms were that the device was recognized, but got no reception and sparks could be seen when you tap the plug against the case of the Mac Pro.

The EyeTV Hybrid comes with a short A-B USB cable. I thought to myself that perhaps if it was the cheap variety, it would only pass the 4 data/power pins and not connect the shield — thus, it could be used to isolate the two grounds. Sure enough, that solved the problem. As soon as I connected it that way, I heard audio and then saw a picture on the mac. Whew!

It's worth mentioning that the EyeTV Hybrid doesn't come with an antenna. Unless you live in the heart of the urban jungle, you're probably going to require an outdoor antenna anyway (even if you do live in an urban environ, you may want an outdoor antenna to cut down on multipath problems. Multipath results in ghosting on analog, but can cause you to lose signal completely with digital).

I then took the software through the auto-detection of the local broadcasters without incident. I chose only to look for ATSC services, so I haven't tried out the analog receiver capabilities. Here in the South SF Bay Area we're fortunate that all of the local broadcasters have digital transmitters up, all but 3 of them are on one of two mountaintops in the same direction, and the remaining ones are close enough that receiving them "off the side" of your antenna is easy.

It's worth noting at this point that the advertising of the Hybrid shows it plugged into a MacBook/PowerBook. Which is fine. But keep in mind that if you intend on watching TV while you're actually on the move (say, on a long car or train trip), you'll have to perform the auto-tune procedure as you go from one market to another, or repeat it if the terrain changes while doing it. This may be a little on the tedious side.

The biggest improvement in EyeTV 2 is the fully integrated program guide. It still gets program data from TitanTV, but it used to be that there was a relatively clumsy integration between the two. You used Safari to view the TitanTV web site, and then clicks there were handled by a URL handler in the EyeTV software. Well, that has all changed. The program guide lives in a window within EyeTV itself. Want to record a show? Just click a small pink circle on each show and it will instantly change into a red dot with clock hands in it. Clicking on a show will bring you right to that show's details where you can also decide to record it, or edit the recording schedule. It's still not a TiVo season pass — if the show changes its day or time, you have to fix the schedule, but overall it's much less messy than before.

We also found some lack of reliability in scheduled recordings with the old system. It's too soon to say if that's fixed now or not. If it is, then hooking one of these up to your Mac is as close to the TiVo experience as you're going to find.

Which takes us to the last point of comparison — price. When I bought the EyeTV 500, the price point was double the asking price for the Hybrid — $149. That's progress indeed.

Overall, this is a worthy 2.0 product follow-on to the EyeTV 500. At half the price, twice the functionality and a fraction of the size of the original, I'll take two."

Today is the first day of the rest of your lossage.