Review: Elgato Systems EyeTV 3
Elgato Systems' EyeTV television playback and recording software for Macintosh computers has been a favorite of iLounge editors for years, and with the January release of EyeTV 3 -- now bundled with the company's EyeTV-branded hardware, sold separately for $80, and discounted to $40 for upgraders -- the package has only gotten better over time. Rather than a traditional review of the software, which received our 2008 Best of Show award, this article focuses solely on the new version's iPod- and iPhone-specific features, and doesn't assign a rating to the product as a whole.
At this point in time, the appeal of digital video recording products such as EyeTV is nothing short of tremendous. Rather than forcing you to pay $2 or more per iTunes Store video download, EyeTV provides a complete software alternative to let you watch, record, edit, and convert whatever’s on TV into a format you can watch on your Mac or on other portable Apple devices. The hardware component, such as the small tuner box EyeTV 250 Plus or the USB key-sized EyeTV Hybrid, connects to your USB port and a coaxial cable from your antenna, cable, or satellite dish provider, communicates with the EyeTV software and a free Internet-based channel and schedule guide, and you’re all set—together, these parts provide advance scheduling, clear analog or digital signal tuning, and the background features necessary to create iPod and iPhone-formatted TV recordings. Because of Elgato agreements with schedule providers such as TitanTV, there’s no recurring charge for the schedule information, either.
What’s great about EyeTV is the incredible scope and generally smart, intuitive functionality of the software: what you get here is now officially leagues beyond what TiVo and its many lesser competitors offer in today’s digital video recorders. You still get a program guide, here with a week’s worth of scheduling data so that you can plan out your recordings in advance, and the ability to quickly skip to any date and time on the grid. Recording any program requires a single click, and thanks to new EyeTV features, such as multiple, user-created Smart Guides that canvas the entire calendar for phrases of your choice, no matter where they appear in the title or keywords, channel name, or many other potential fields, EyeTV 3 becomes an even more powerful recording solution.
Like TiVo, it also supports automatically scheduled season-style recordings of your favorite shows, with daily, weekly, weekend and semi-custom options. Much of the software’s appeal is that it handles almost everything without requiring extensive user adjustment; it generally does what it does the right way by default, and provides options solely if you want to make changes.
By comparison with TiVo systems, which tend to lag a little even when you’re navigating through their menus, Elgato’s software is fast, responsive, and almost completely in the background while you’re doing other things with your computer. Unless you’re on an older machine, you’ll find that switching from feature to feature in the software is surprisingly quick; Elgato’s hardware also includes an Infrared remote control to remove your need to mouse or keyboard through common options. If you want to keep EyeTV in full-screen mode and use your computer like a dedicated, powerful TV and DVR, you can; otherwise, you can browse the Internet, listen to music, and keep EyeTV doing what it does, all at the same time. Our single biggest complaint about EyeTV 3 isn’t Elgato’s fault: we just wish there was a super budget Mac akin to the Apple TV that could be affordably dedicated to its features all the time.
The big, general differences between EyeTV and a dedicated DVR such as a TiVo are these: EveTV lets you edit your recordings. You can set the software up to automatically convert files in 640x480 H.264 format, or in lesser, iPod/iPhone-sized versions, once they’ve been initially recorded in DVD-friendly MPEG-2. And now, thanks to a surprisingly intuitive, simple new feature, you can actually view the iPod/iPhone-format files wirelessly from your computer’s hard drive without even transferring them using iTunes. This feature worked exactly as expected in our testing, permitting viewing in either low-quality cell phone standard mode or a superior, iPhone/iPod touch-ready format. Elgato simply sets up the software as a web server to let you watch the files from an attractively designed web interface that’s incredibly easy to use on a mobile device.
Another feature designed for iPod users is somewhat less mind-blowing than it sounds. Elgato has noted that EyeTV 3 can help iPod users quickly record non-TV analog video such as VCR or camcorder output directly into an iPod-ready format, assuming that the EyeTV hardware—like EyeTV 250 or 250 Plus—has the requisite composite or S-Video inputs to do so. It turns out that this feature is a little more than a wizard that shows you how to connect up video and audio cables to the EyeTV hardware, offers a preview of the video and audio currently being played back, gives you a chance to title the recording, and lets you either automatically via timer or manually stop it once it’s started. The feature works exactly as expected, except that the file created is in MPEG-2, and still needs to be converted into an iPod-optimized form; source optimization isn’t part of the equation.
There were unfortunately some issues with the software that detracted from our overall experience. Elgato has added support for Clear QAM unencrypted digital cable decoding, enabling users to receive and watch standard- and high-definition cable channels without any additional hardware—assuming it’s on your current cable package. The tuning component of Clear QAM worked perfectly in our testing, and looked fantastic—EyeTV 3 even auto-adjusts the window with every switch of the channel to give you the correct resolution and aspect ratio, useful to making high-def channels look more like HD. But the program guide repeatedly failed to download the digital cable channel lineup, no matter what we tried, leaving manual channel entry—and potential scheduling issues—as our only choice. We could not for the life of us figure out how to fix this, despite a number of different attempts, and also had some small issues initially getting the program guide to handle our standard cable lineup, too. These issues were compounded by lengthy apparent hangs in the TitanTV/Eye TV server connection, which lasted way longer than was necessary to determine that the guide data was or wasn’t there to be downloaded. Fixes to the system’s program guide manager would really make this a lot better.
Editing, a feature that radically distinguishes the EyeTV software from TiVo and other devices that merely record programs without letting you trim them down, looks great in EyeTV 3—there’s a clean timeline of parts of the video, and the option to use a fine-tuning feature to edit within seconds rather than minutes—but using the tool isn’t anywhere near as intuitive as it should be. The process of marking and cutting out prior show, later show, and mid-show content should be as easy as just putting down clearly-labelled markers on a timeline and hitting a clipping button, but it’s not, and EyeTV’s help system doesn’t illuminate the feature, either.
There’s also the issue of the system’s iPod/iPhone exporting speed. Not surprisingly, Elgato remains concentrated on providing a recording solution optimized for Macs, rather than Apple portable devices, and as such continues to encode first in Mac/DVD-friendly MPEG-2 and then convert later into MPEG-4/H.264 format. But despite the fact that the software is now supposed to be able to link automatically into the company’s separate Turbo.264 hardware encoder to more quickly create H.264, iPhone/iPod-optimized files, we found the re-encoding process to be slow and questioned whether Turbo.264 was offering any real benefit in the version of the software we were using. Recordings quickly stacked up in the conversion queue, and you can’t do wireless iPhone/iPod touch streaming or downloading of the files until they’ve been finished. We get the impression that there are still some bugs and interface cues left to be straightened out here, and really wish that Elgato would pump out a single TV tuning and H.264 encoding hardware solution rather than requiring two USB devices and ports.
While it’s hard to be deeply critical of EyeTV 3 given that it does so much at a reasonable price, and works very well for most of its intended purposes, we think that 2008 is the year when the company should focus its attention on streamlining the MPEG-4/H.264 side of the EyeTV experience. As useful as MPEG-2 may have been, and will continue to be for much of the video EyeTV hardware processes, these new, mobile-friendly video formats are the future, and if video created by a device doesn’t play on the iPod or iPhone by default, many users won’t even consider buying it. By adding wireless iPhone/iPod touch streaming, Turbo.264 integration, and the analog video-to-iPod transfer walkthrough feature to this year’s software, Elgato has made it obvious that mobile Apple devices are important to EyeTV’s appeal. Further tweaks and better conversion speeds would really improve the software for the increasing number of people who view on-the-go viewing as more important than on-Mac viewing.