Mac HDTV Capture – EyeTV 500

While the pluses of owning a Mac are many, there are certain areas of the computing world where Apple lags way behind Windows. One area of particular note to me is HDTV. There are a myriad of HDTV capture cards that work with Windows machines of varying power and MS even went out of their way to customize a version of Windows specifically for use with a media server. This enables Windows users to build their own customized Windows-based home media servers that can be fully integrated into one’s home network. (Linux users also have this ability but I don’t know Linux and don’t have the time to learn it, hence MythTV et al’s absence here)

El Gato EyeTV 500

Only a couple of companies make video capture hardware for Macs and adding an HD requirement narrows the field exclusively to El Gato’s EyeTV 500 which retails for $350 but can occasionally be found refurbished on El Gato’s site for $199 (a deal which worked well for me). This simple metal box connects an OTA antenna (or digital cable signal) to your Mac via a Firewire cable, from which it draws it’s power. Once plugged into the Mac, EyeTV’s software does a channel scan, saving the ones it can reliably receive. Now you have your channel lineup and can use the software to schedule recordings and watch live television.

The EyeTV software requires an internet connection to access the program guide it uses, an excellent free site called TitanTV. A lot of folks compalin about it’s interface and reliability. But, while not as smooth as Tivo, TitanTV has worked beautifully for me and shows upcoming programming out to two weeks.

Recording the HD signal has very lenient system requirements, so the EyeTV 500 will work with almost any G4 processor. Playback, however, is an entirely different beast and this is where (*cringe*) Mac’s video processing capabilities get smoked by comparable Windows options.

The EyeTV 500 requires at least a dual G5 processor (aka $1500+) to playback HD signals at full resolution, creating a huge problem. I was using my beloved G4 Quicksilver at the time, which had no shot at smoothly decoding the picture. Besides, I didn’t want to park my computer (or any noisy tower, for that matter) next to my television.

I briefly considered buying a Mac Mini, which would have fit aesthetically, but I wasn’t the first to desire HD playback from the Mini and there were too many reports of people failing. Plus, it would have added at least $500 to my total cost with no guarantee of consistant playback. It goes without saying that I wasn’t going to buy a G5 tower exclusively to playback HDTV. Plus, those suckers may be beautiful but they’re really loud.

So…now I’ve got a solid programming signal in place and a way to record any of said programming onto my computer. With this in mind, my next post will deal with actually watching HDTV recordings on a Mac-based media network!

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