Review: Elgato Systems EyeTV 2 Digital TV Recording Software
Pros: A powerful but elegantly simple piece of Macintosh software that provides TiVo-like TV directory, recording, and live-action pause/rewind/fast-forward features, plus a one-click or checkmarked Export to iPod feature. Easy to install and reasonably priced for stand-alone purchase.
Cons: Initial recording isn’t in an iPod-ready format, and the Export to iPod process can consume considerable additional time. No auto-commercial elimination feature. Requires hardware encoding device that adds significantly to total cost of purchase, yet isn’t fully exploited during iPod conversion process.
At the Macworld Expo in early January 2006, Elgato Systems unveiled EyeTV 2 ($79, introductory price $49), the second version of its television recording software for Macintosh computers. We were impressed enough by the software to present Elgato with one of our Best of Show awards, and now we’ve had a chance to give the program a more thorough examination. On June 23, 2006, after having an opportunity to evaluate several competing options in this category, we added a flat B-level rating to this previously unrated program.
The Problem: Expensive iPod-Ready Videos
The biggest problem with Apple’s video-ready iPods today is content: unless you’re willing to pay $2 per TV episode, Saturday Night Live skit, or music video to the iTunes Music Store, it’s not easy to bring TV programs or movies onto these devices. And if you’re paying for downloads, the numbers will quickly begin to add up. At $2 per skit, users of VCRs and TiVos save over $20 every time they record one episode of SNL, broadcast for free over the public airwaves. Such financial considerations led us to ask this question: is your money better spent on multiple $2 downloads or a $50-350 television recording solution?
Right now, our feeling is that both alternatives have their benefits - downloads are especially great for shows that aren’t on the air any more, and they’re generally commercial-free and convenient. Of course, they have the potential to be even better, and less expensive. There’s similarly no doubt that video recorders are going to be less expensive over the long-term, and today’s options offer users the prospect of higher-quality video, as well as less “transfer time.” Once the recording’s finished, you have it without the need to wait for today’s episode to be posted online tomorrow, or downloaded. But most recorders don’t make it easy for users to create iPod-ready video files, and they don’t uniformly do a good a job of recording or eliminating commercials as they could.
The EyeTV Concept: Software and Hardware
Elgato’s EyeTV - a combination of software and hardware - eliminates some of the difficulty generally associated with creating iPod-ready videos. Like a number of other software packages on the market, including the popular Windows program SageTV, the program EyeTV 2 provides TiVo-like live TV playback, pause and rewind functionality, a complete channel guide with show-by-show text tags, and a system for scheduling recordings. You can buy the software separately at the prices specified above, or get it with the purchase of a hardware encoding box. The boxes feature realtime MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 encoders, the former format ideally suited to recording your own DVDs, the latter presumably superior for iPods and other MPEG-4-compliant devices.
The standard-definition TV recorder is called EyeTV 200 ($329), sold for less ($199) if you’re willing to take a refurbished unit. When attached to your existing home television antenna, cable line, or composite/S-Video output device, it can record over-the-air or cable TV broadcasts at or below DVD-quality resolution. A high-definition version called EyeTV 500 sells for $349, with the same deal for a refurbished unit, recording better-than-DVD-quality video that can be scaled down for DVD burning or portable viewing.
Connecting either recorder to your Mac couldn’t be much easier. An included FireWire cable bridges the two devices; no separate power supply is required. A second FireWire port on each unit’s back serves as a passthrough for other devices you may have, while a coaxial cable port lets you connect your standard or high-definition television cable to its rear. This is only an issue in that you’ll need your Mac to be near your antenna or other cable line. The EyeTV 200 model also includes video inputs for recording from a video camera or DVD player; EyeTV 500 does not.
Both models come with a matching remote control that handles TV tuning and recording features. Since we’re primarily concerned with the EyeTV 2 software as it relates to iPods, we won’t get into further details on the EyeTV hardware boxes or remote, but it’s worth noting that the software works with other companies’ TV recording hardware, as well.
Using EyeTV 2 to Create iPod-Ready Videos
EyeTV 2’s main window uses a clean interface that’s generally similar to Apple’s iTunes. A Categories pane on the left provides access to the software’s four major lists - already-finished Recordings, your programmed recording Schedules, a complete directory of Channels, and a TV Guide-like Program Guide. Simple buttons at the top of the window let you play any recording, burn it to a disc using Roxio’s popular Toast software, or convert it to iPod format - assuming it hasn’t already been converted. A separate floating window displays the channel currently tuned by your hardware device, which can be resized to small or full-screen sizes.
The right pane holds details on whatever recordings you’ve saved or are planning to make, including the program’s name, episode title, and whatever description has been provided by the Program Guide. TitanTV is EyeTV2’s default guide service, provided at no charge to the user; as suggested by this photo, the descriptions vary considerably in detail from show to show.
You can use the remote control - or an on-screen version - to change stations and control play/pause/rewind/fast-forward features. Simple program information is provided on EyeTV’s viewing screen.
The most powerful features of EyeTV 2 are the recording options that emulate TiVo: you can call up this program guide and check listings for all of your local channels. Selecting any of the listings will bring up a page specific to that program.
Clicking on the “Add Schedule” button will add the program you select to the Schedules menu. Once added, you can edit the details in an Edit menu, shown below.
In addition to making the recording recurring - weekly People’s Court episodes, for instance - you’ll notice that there’s an Export to iPod bottom at the bottom of the Schedule Info window. iPod owners will unquestionably want to check this box, which will begin the export process immediately after recording has ended.
If you haven’t checked that box, you’ll need to manually convert the video after it has finished recording. From the Recordings category, you’ll click on the iPod icon at the top of the screen - a single button press - and an Exporting time bar (highlighted by us) will appear.
The Good and Bad of EyeTV 2
The pictures above pretty much explain the software’s simplicity and appeal - pick a show, schedule recording, click the iPod button, and you’re done. If the computer’s asleep (not powered off) when a recording’s supposed to start, EyeTV 2 will wake it up to begin the recording. This all works very well, and by computerized recording standards - even by comparison with the aforementioned PC program SageTV - Elgato’s program seriously simplifies the “TV-to-iPod” transfer process, the reason we picked it as a Best of Show winner in January. There’s no other program we’ve seen that handles the entire end-to-end process as easily as this one, and compelling alternatives (such as TiVo’s TiVoToGo for iPod conversion tool) have yet to be released, making this a good solution for people who need something good today. Additionally, thanks to support for HDTV recording and multiple compression standards, videos recorded by the EyeTV 2 software have the potential to look considerably better than ones recorded by today’s TiVo-like devices, as well as videos downloaded from the iTunes Music Store.
But Elgato’s process is unfortunately not as simple or fast as it could be. There’s no auto commercial-skipping feature; you’ll need to edit them out yourself after recording by using a simple built-in (but not especially conspicuous) editing tool, which was pointed out by one of our readers. And as it turns out, EyeTV’s Export to iPod feature is essentially the equivalent of running QuickTime Pro’s or iTunes’s similarly named conversion utility on a movie file, which draws upon your computer’s processor to re-encode the entire recorded TV clip a second time for iPod viewing. This shouldn’t be a disappointment to HDTV fanatics, who would rarely want to have low-resolution iPod-ready clips as their only copies of TV shows, or those solely looking to create DVDs of their standard-definition recordings; EyeTV does well for their needs. But hard-core iPod video lovers will feel otherwise. EyeTV’s Preferences menu is shown below, with three different MPEG-4 settings, none of which appears to create a file that can be played back on the iPod without additional conversion work. Inexpensive computers, such as our test Mac mini, will have this process take at least as long as the original recording took - one 31 minute clip took over 40 minutes to convert, while another (compressed differently) took an hour and 40 minutes.
Faster computers will, of course, have better results, but none as fast as an EyeTV solution that would simply record to an iPod-ready file format in the first place, or one that uses the EyeTV 200 or 500’s internal MPEG-4 hardware to handle conversions rather than demanding that your less efficient computer do the work. As a result, the question then becomes whether your fastest Mac is close enough to the cable TV line to handle conversion, which in our case, it was not - and not moving, either.
From what has been said about TiVo’s upcoming iPod solution, similar computer conversion issues will arise there as well - the TiVo box won’t make iPod-ready videos on its own. And that’s a shame, because there’s great appeal in a standalone device that doesn’t depend upon a computer linked to a coaxial cable for any part of its recording functionality. While there are such options today, they’re not close to EyeTV 2 on user interface. For instance, a competing MPEG-4 recording box that we’ve been testing from Neuros (MPEG-4 Recorder 2) instantly creates iPod-ready MPEG-4 files from television broadcasts, but lacks EyeTV’s sophisticated program guide, amongst other features, and doesn’t have any hardware to transfer its files directly to the iPod once recorded. You need to save files on a CompactFlash or Memory Stick card and then physically bring them over to your computer.
What’s the Ideal Solution for iPod Owners?
At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any perfect solution for iPod owners who want to create instant recordings of live TV programs to carry off on their iPods, but we can picture how it would work. In the absence of broader Apple support for open video standards - something we consider a major omission from today’s iPods - the recorder would be a standalone device with an EyeTV 2/TiVo-like program guide and interface, yet capable of recording television programs in iPod- and iTunes-ready formats, preferably including both MPEG-4 and the newer, more advanced H.264. It would be able to skip commercials automatically, and provide simple editing features for users to cut clips down to their preferred size. Of course, it would be able to easily transfer files to an iTunes-equipped computer (or the iPod itself), which CompactFlash/Memory Stick-based recording devices such as the Neuros Video Recorder 2 lack. And finally, it would be reasonably priced.
Though it misses our ideal mark by a bit, EyeTV 2 unquestionably provides an easy way for Macintosh owners to record and convert television programs to an iPod-ready format - a better end-to-end solution for iPod 5G users than any other Mac, PC, or standalone competitor we’ve seen. If you’re willing to leave your Mac turned on and near a cable or satellite line to record programs for you, it’s certainly worth your time.