Review: Equinux TubeStick Hybrid
Without question, TV-to-iTunes recording has continued to increase in importance with the release of each new video-capable iPod and the iPhone, as many consumers prefer to create their own recordings of programs rather than purchasing them individually from Apple's iTunes Store. Ideally, digital video recorders would create their original files in iPod and iPhone-friendly MPEG-4 or H.264 format, but instead, they record first into an intermediate format, and users are forced to go through some sort of transfer and conversion process before the files are ready to be used on the go.
A German company called Equinux has recently released TubeStick ($129), a USB attachment that enables Macs or PCs to display and potentially record video directly from one of several sources: an included over-the-air broadcast antenna, included composite or S-Video cables, or a user-supplied analog or digital cable connection. From a hardware standpoint, TubeStick is extremely similar to Elgato System’s earlier EyeTV Hybrid—with a couple of non-trivial differences—but where the products differ significantly is in their software.
Elgato currently dominates the TV-to-Mac recording space with its EyeTV software and hardware products, which start at $150 and work their way up from there. For that price, you get similar video cables to Equinux’s $129 solution, plus a remote control that’s not included or optional with TubeStick, but you don’t get Equinux’s over-the-air broadcast antenna. This antenna, smaller and nicer-looking than many we’ve seen for TV tuning, actually enables you to pick up unencrypted high-definition and standard-definition broadcasts for viewing on your computer, assuming that you can position it close to a window and in the correct general orientation for reception; picking up stations as a general rule with a small antenna is not easy.
Though Equinux includes a Mac tuning program called The Tube, capable of toggling through TubeStick’s varied input sources, we experienced a number of issues with its performance. To start with a positive, should you install the software and connect TubeStick to your Mac, you’ll find that the software does enable you to tune in a live television channel, use a user-defined length of TiVo-like pausing to stop and continue the broadcast, and initiate a recording of whatever you’re currently watching—assuming of course that you’ve connected a coaxial cable or the antenna for reception. Video looks similar to Elgato’s EyeTV Hybrid, displaying automatically in the correct aspect ratio, and with a very watchable level of detail on either standard or high-definition mode, so long as the cable or antenna source is stable.
Where TubeStick runs into trouble, at least in the United States, is the rest of its software functionality. First and foremost is its lack of a U.S. channel guide of any sort; unlike EyeTV, which has canvassed a number of territories to provide channel tuning information, The Tube generally gives you a collection of generic station names “Channel 02, Channel 07” with only the barest of information on what they are, and nothing on what their future programming may be, precluding scheduling and sophisticated channel surfing. Fragments of programming information are sometimes available for currently playing shows; our HD antenna feed picked up partial details for some shows, and better details for others. Equinux apparently provides a complete programming guide solution for German users, which is great if you’re in Germany, but not elsewhere.
Apart from the channel guide, performance of the tuner was decidedly mixed. You cannot use both the included antenna and a cable connection at the same time with the included hardware, so you need to pick one or the other, and then toggle the software manually between analog, digital broadcast, and digital cable sources. Though we found that it struggled with encrypted and even some unencrypted digital content, with broken-up, blocky video and intermittent audio, TubeStick did best with traditional, analog cable, and could actually pull off a couple of neat tricks with this sort of feed. You can share a live TV stream with another viewer via Mac OS X Leopard’s iChat Theater; this requires manual user initiation and a drag-and-drop action, but it’s still pretty cool. Our editor reported that the video was “very watchable” and “better than YouTube quality,” but noted that the audio echoed because we were using an external microphone that wasn’t automatically muted by the software. Moving the mic away would let you watch a TV show with a friend in a different time zone, and even talk about it at the same time; unplugging it would let both of you focus on the show.
Another feature, TubeToGo, is designed to let you easily publish and share TubeStick-recorded videos through a central, iPhone-friendly Equinux URL that points to files on a .Mac account, FTP server, or local area network. Unlike a similar feature in Elgato’s EyeTV 3, which provided immediate local-area access to EyeTV files, TubeStick’s feature requires some expert-level user configuration—namely, setup of a special remote storage location for your recordings—before you can view the files.
A more critical feature, exporting of videos into either iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV formats, had problems. A high-definition video recording that was supposed to be converted into an Apple TV format was rendered out at an astounding 1920x1072 resolution in H.264, regrettably way above Apple TV’s current maximum video capabilities. An iPod format video output got stuck for half an hour and needed to be cancelled, then restarted after the software was quit and reloaded. However, when it was tried again, the video properly recorded into 640x352 H.264 format, playable on an iPod or iPhone.
Perhaps the most critical wrinkle in the entire package is Equinux’s support for Windows PC users: there isn’t a lot. PC users will discover that the CD includes only a driver that you’re supposed to use for tuning content with Microsoft’s Media Center software. We had problems getting the driver to work correctly, but then, there seemed to be a lot of problems on the Mac side with things that should have “just worked” right out of the box.
To Equinux’s partial credit, the company appears to aggressively update its software with bugfixes and features, such that there were two updates to download during just the time we were reviewing the software. On the Mac side, the company also has an attractive full-screen media playback tool called MediaCentral that looks about as polished as anything we’ve seen on the platform, but suffers from similar functional oddities, including configuration issues; one crash in the software even had us wondering if we’d lost our work on this review.
It’s obvious at this stage that Equinux has a number of assets on its side—a product that’s easy to connect, software that looks great, and the promise of both Mac and PC compatibility. But it’s equally obvious that a lot of users are going to be disappointed to find that features they’re expecting to work don’t perform as anticipated, and that they may be left grasping for solutions and workarounds. For now, TubeStick may be a good option for German Mac users, but for the rest of us, there’s a lot left to do before it’s a viable TV recording and exporting solution. While we’d welcome an aggressively priced option such as this one, there’s no getting around the fact that EyeTV offers a far more complete package at this time.