HDTV. About a year and a half ago, it was new and exotic stuff. I wrote a MacDevCenter article about watching HDTV on your Macintosh. I discussed buying an HDTV tuner card, installing it on your Mac and watching free-to-air ATSC HDTV broadcasts. Recently I had a chance to revisit HDTV by testing a Miglia/El Gato “TV Mini HD” receiver, an ATSC-tuning USB 2.0 unit with plug-and-play HDTV reception.
The Mini is the product of an interesting merger between Elgato, known for its EyeTV hardware/software offerings, and Miglia, which I previously only knew from its Analog-to-Digital converter boxes (along the same lines as the Canopus A/D converters). The “mini” name is apt. The shiny metal box is smaller than an index card and only about an inch thick and will set you back approximately $249.
The TV Mini HD package contains an antenna, USB cable, remote control, software CD, soft carrying case and the TV Mini unit itself. To set up the hardware, you must connect the unit to your USB 2.0 port via the included cable and then attach it to an antenna. You can use either the included antenna for free-to-air ATSC transmissions or connect directly to your home cable if you subscribe to digital cable.
The TV Mini HD uses Elgato’s EyeTV software. I found that the installation went smoothly from the CD. You will need an activation key (included in the box) to enable the software for use. It always takes me aback when a hardware manufacturer insists on using an activation key with its software. I’m not sure how useful the software would be without the hardware anyway and it’s always too easy to lose those cardboard slips with the activation numbers on them.
The entire set-up procedure, both hardware and software, took just a few minutes. I was able to launch EyeTV and start scanning for channels right away. If you’ve worked with computer-based HDTV before, you’ll know that this scanning routine always takes some time, whether you’re looking for terrestrial or cable channels. The Mini performed reasonably well in both cases, finding the terrestrial channels a bit more reliably than the cable ones.
Playback and Scheduling
Once tuned, I could select any of the channels and watch them. Playback, even on my extremely underpowered 733 G4, was smooth and watchable both for HDTV and traditional channels. I did not have to deal with any block artifacts or other visual errors. The colors were crisp, the sound excellent. It was exactly what you’d expect from an HDTV receiver.
Because EyeTV supports integration with the online TV schedule site TitanTV, I signed up for a TitanTV account. I told it my address and my local cable provider. Immediately, the EyeTV software downloaded schedules for the free-to-air channels. The program guide allowed me to pick from the four available channels, to tune-to immediately or to schedule for later recording. It all worked well and beautifully for these channels.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the software work with the Titan TV digital cable listings. Instead, I was forced to manually set the names of each channel and I could not schedule via the program guide. Worse, the software randomly forgot some or all of my settings whenever I quit out and relaunched. What’s more is that when I scanned to find the cable channels, I kept getting different results each time. I’m not sure if this is the fault of my cable provider and the way they pack encrypted channels in the same groups as unencrypted channels or the fault of the TV Mini tuner or the EyeTV software. Where-ever the fault may have laid, I could not consistently tune into certain channels, such as the Disney TV channel which is part of my basic cable package.
One of the features I was most looking forward to is the EyeTV integration with iTunes. EyeTV allows you to request that your video be sent to iTunes and synced with your iPod. I was disappointed to learn that far from recording direct to an iPod-compatible format, the TV Mini stored video in full high-definition data files, with all the disk space that entails, and then converts those files to iPod format. Unless you have masses and masses of disk space available, this option may not be realistic for your computer.
I thought the TV Mini HD performed extremely well. It produced excellent watchable video even on an older Macintosh. Scheduling and recording free-to-air ATSC video worked seamlessly. The software still has a few bugs in it and the unit’s integration with digital cable is still rudimentary, but overall for free-to-air ATSC reception it does great. It costs a bit more than the do-it-yourself solution I wrote about last year, but the ease of its plug-and-play unit, backed by companies with good customer service may well be worth the additional cost to you.