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Building a Mac Home Media Center, Part 2: Watching and Recording TV with Your Mac

No home media center is complete without a way to watch TV. When building a Mac media center, Elgato's EyeTV software not only enables you to watch TV, but its digital recording capabilities also allow you to replace your TiVo or the cable company's DVR device. In part two of Ryan Faas's series on building a Mac home media center, find out what hardware you need to watch and record live and scheduled TV programming on your Mac, as well as all the ways you can use that video once it has been recorded.
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Apple has positioned the Mac to be a powerful media center out of the box with Front Row as a way to access your digital media from across the room as you would a TV or DVD player. The fact that Apple’s cinema displays and the displays built into the iMac (the new 24-inch iMac, in particular) rival or exceed the quality of flat panel TVs of similar sizes make the Mac even more attractive as a digital media center. So does the relative ease of connecting a Mac to a TV (digital or analog), as discussed in Part 1 of this series. And Apple’s upcoming iTV device aims to make connecting your digital media to your TV as simple as adding a new DVD player or Tivo.

However, there is one piece of the puzzle missing that would enable the Mac to be the ultimate home entertainment and media solution: the ability to record and view television. In fact, this might be the only drawback to purchasing a 24-inch iMac for use as a digital TV. Although the iTunes Store gives you the ability to purchase episodes or even subscribe to an entire season of your favorite shows, it doesn’t give you the ability to watch live TV on your Mac and it lacks a method for letting you access shows that are not available from iTunes.

The solution is a piece of software from Elgato called EyeTV (not to be confused with Apple’s forthcoming product—the iTV actually is only a code name for the product, not its final or official name). EyeTV, combined with peripherals from Elgato and other partner companies, enables you to connect various audio/video inputs to your Mac and both watch and record live TV. It also enables you to schedule recordings via an onscreen program guide, much like Tivo or DVR devices offered by cable and satellite providers.

In fact, using an EyeTV-enabled Mac as a recording tool has some significant advantages over Tivo and similar DVR devices. First, there is only a one-time fee to purchase the hardware (which comes with the EyeTV application). There are no monthly costs to subscribe to Tivo’s service or rent a DVR device from a cable or satellite company. And with each generation of devices that cost is going down to the point where it is comparable to the cost of purchasing some Tivo recorders.

Another important advantage is that you can easily expand your storage options by adding additional high-capacity hard drives (internal or external) to your computer. This means that unlike Tivo or DVR devices, you are not limited to a set number of hours for all your stored recordings. Choosing between various video quality settings also enables you to make greater space of your available storage.

Also, because EyeTV integrates very well with Mac OS X, you have more options for any recordings that you make. Instead of simply being able to record and play back video, you can export recordings as files, burn them to DVD for permanent storage or to share with others, and convert video for use in iTunes and on a video-capable iPod. In fact, if you find that you want to save your recordings but also free up disk space, you can convert them to a format that is compressed and still store them on your hard drive.

Elgato also developed EyeTV to be a home entertainment experience. Although you can use a traditional Mac OS X–style interface to control EyeTV and to record and view programs, you can also do so using a full-screen interface that is similar to those used in digital cable and satellite systems (as well as Tivo and DVR devices). This full-screen mode can be controlled using a remote control. Depending on the device and Mac used, this can be a third-party remote or the Apple IR remote that is used to control Front Row or a docked iPod.

Basic Setup

The EyeTV setup process is extremely easy. You simply connect the device to your Mac and to your video source and then drag the EyeTV application to your Applications folder. A setup assistant runs on first launch of the application.

During setup, the assistant asks you to identify both the type of EyeTV-supported device you are using and the video type or source. Various EyeTV devices may support different inputs (either directly on the device or through the use of breakout cables that attach to the device itself). EyeTV can accept cable, antenna, and satellite video sources. Most devices also include breakout cables or ports that allow for S-Video or composite video input as well. If you select cable or antenna, you will be given the option to tune the application automatically, much as a new television would do, so that EyeTV knows which channels are available.

EyeTV also supports the use of online program guides such as TitanTV in the United States. During setup, you are asked to set up a TitanTV account if you haven’t done so already. TitanTV enables EyeTV to download program schedules for your specific location and TV type (antenna or specific cable/satellite company). It also enables Internet-based programming for EyeTV recordings. This is a particularly nice feature because you can adjust what is being recorded from any web browser, and EyeTV will periodically check your TitanTV account to see for new recording entries, giving you a nice way to add programs from work or elsewhere.

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