I don't own a television for a few reasons. My schedule is typically too erratic to keep up with regularly scheduled shows, and even if that weren't the case, I abhor the way commercials continuously interrupt the flow of a good scene. Televisions usually doesn't do much for the feng shui of a sitting room either. But at the same time, who likes shelling out cash on iTMS for shows that you may not watch more than once, or worse--waiting until a show like Lost becomes available on DVD?
This conundrum recently led me to investigate the analog TV tuner market, and I was quite pleased with one product in particular that I stumbled across: the Miglia TVMicro. It's a small USB device and comes bundled with a remote control and the renowned EyeTV application, which makes it trivial to pull up program listings, schedule recordings, and more. Costing roughly $100, this is a purchase that might just pay for itself sooner than you think, if you frequent iTMS to keep current on your favorite shows. In addition to providing a great user interface, the EyeTV software seamlessly integrates with the online TitanTV service for the U.S. (tvtv for Europe or iEPG for Japan), which allows you to pull up a program guide and provides you with a summary of what's currently playing on the bottom of the screen as your surf through the channels. EyeTV also supports an extensive AppleScript vocabulary, so there's quite a bit you can do in the way of automating recordings, writing scripts to scan channels, exporting to various formats, etc.
Figure 1. The TVMicro is about the size of an iPod Shuffle and comes with a handy remote control and USB extension cable (not shown). Image courtesy of Miglia.
What impresses me most about the TVMicro itself might be its size. Checking in at about the same size as an iPod Shuffle and requiring no external power, it's small enough that you hardly even notice that it's there. This small size is especially convenient when you're traveling, because it's guaranteed to fit nicely into whatever carrying case you tote around. While the side of the TVMicro that interfaces to your computer has a standard USB 2.0 interface, the other side provides an equally convenient coaxial connection that you get by snapping in a small metal widget. Although this connection might not stand up to intentional abuse, it feels like a pretty sturdy connection and should stand the test of time as long as you're mindful to take moderately good care of it. More times than not, even tripping over a cable connected to the TVMicro would probably just yank the metal widget out of its socket, resulting in a fairly uneventful mishap. This makes the separate metal attachment seem like a good design choice when you consider some of the alternatives that could happen with a more permanent fixture.
EyeTV is a native Cocoa application that's fully AppleScriptable, has a viewing interface very similar to DVD Player, and provides a library management console that's remarkably similar to iTunes. As you might expect, EyeTV intercepts the signals from the bundled remote control to change channels, adjust volume, etc. The remote control also has shortcut buttons to bring up and navigate the program guide and to toggle in and out of full-screen mode. Overall, EyeTV's interface does a very nice job of managing its complexity and provides you with what feels like a familiar, lightweight control panel that's very similar to what most cable and satellite TV companies offer.
Figure 3. As you surf the channels, EyeTV provides you with a nice overlaid description of the current show, its start and end time, and even tells you what's coming on next. (This station is being picked up free of charge using an old rabbit-ear antenna.)
If you're sitting back to relax and watch something, you'd probably want to use the remote control that comes with the TVMicro; however, if you're watching the news or catching some reruns while getting work done, it's more convenient to resize the main window to fit somewhere on your screen and opt to use the on-screen controller, which provides an intuitive interface for accessing many of EyeTV's main features. You can easily hide the control with shortcut keys, so it never really gets in your way.
Figure 4. The on-screen controller provides an intuitive interface for many of EyeTV's most commonly used features and the Program Guide gives you a nice synopsis of what's currently playing. (Click for full-size image.)
While navigating through the Program Guide, you can click on a show (or use the remote control) to bring up a brief synopsis. From there, it's easy to schedule a recording by simply clicking on the "Add Schedule" button to instantly add it to your schedule. Once it's been added, the button changes to "Remove Schedule", which you can select if you change your mind. The "Edit Schedule..." button allows you to do things like add the episode to a playlist, repeat the recording according to a schedule, and automatically export the episode to your iPod when it's finished.
Figure 5. When you choose to edit a schedule, EyeTV allows you to set up routine recordings, export to your iPod, and more.
EyeTV uses about 650MB of disk space per hour of video that's recorded, but once it's on disk, you can use a pretty generous variety of export formats for compression and conversion. If one of these options isn't what you're looking for, this is where a dab of AppleScript or an Automator action could come in handy.
Figure 6. EyeTV offers a generous variety of export formats once you've completed a recording. (Click for full-size image.)
Like any other piece of complex software, there are tons of smaller features that you can discover if you dig around in the menus and explore a bit, but we've touched on most of the broader strokes. So what don't I like about the TVMicro and EyeTV? Not much. In fact, there's really only one minor complaint I have with EyeTV as of version 2.3, and it's an obvious bug involving fast user switching.
Here's what happens: let's suppose I start EyeTV as one user, stop it, fast switch to another user, and then try to start EyeTV again. Instead of seeing it fire up like you would expect, nothing happens. EyeTV instead opens in the background for the initial user who started it, and when you switch back to that user, there it is running. (A bug report has been filed, so the developers are aware of the issue.) If you run into the same problem, a temporary workaround is to kill the EyeTV Helper process in Terminal, which seems to be at the crux of the problem. In the grand scheme of things, however, this little bug amounts to nothing more than an annoyance, and I'm sure it'll be cleared up with a bug fix sooner than later.
In addition to using a TV tuner for watching television on your Mac, there are at least a few other creative options that come to mind. Hooking up a VCR and dubbing your VHS cassettes to a digital format is one chore that's pretty trivial to get done. Simply connect the VCR as normal, use the included EyeTV software to digitize it, and then compress to your format of choice or burn to DVD. There's bound to be some old family videos lurking around somewhere in the attic. (Miglia actually recommends TVMax for this job, but I've been getting great results with the TVMicro.)
Plugging in a video game console and using your computer screen instead of a television is another option, especially if you want to record and show off your old-school Nintendo skills on YouTube or would like to put together a video tutorial that illustrates how to complete a particularly difficult level. Besides, wouldn't you rather use the space that old dusty television is occupying for something else? You might get twenty bucks for it at your next garage sale to credit toward your TVMicro purchase.
Configuring a schedule in EyeTV to automatically convert and export recorded television shows to your video iPod is one particularly appealing option we briefly glossed over earlier. In addition to saving you some cash, it might also save you some time if you routinely wait on your iTMS downloads over a slow connection. Another thought might be to put together a script that provides a simple means of logging in remotely and scheduling a recording; you never know when you'll end up working late.
A final option to consider is picking up a reasonably sized antenna so that your backseat passengers can have something better to do than sing songs or ask "Are we there yet?" on your next family vacation. This could also be a prime opportunity to hook up that video game console. The only other piece of equipment you'd need is a good power inverter.
Other than a very minor issue I've experienced with EyeTV that involves fast user switching, I have nothing but good things to say about the TVMicro and EyeTV. For a very modest price, this package is great to have on-hand--especially for folks who are cramped on space. Even if you already own a television, you might want to consider how this product can save you some cash or automate some of your recordings. Of course, Miglia has many other flavors of excellent TV tuners that are also worth checking out, including the TVMini, which can also handle digital TV.
Wouldn't it be nice if Apple offered these TV tuners as optional components that could be built right into your next computer purchase from the Apple Store?
Matthew Russell is a computer scientist from middle Tennessee; and serves Digital Reasoning Systems as the Director of Advanced Technology. Hacking and writing are two activities essential to his renaissance man regimen.
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