My other Mac is a DVR

Macs, as we all know, are the best thing for video editing. But what about TV watching and TiVo-like tasks? Before I used a Mac, my Windows computer had an ATI All-in-Wonder Pro PCI video card with 8MB of VRAM. (Remember when that was something cool?) ATI still makes the All-in-Wonder series, but not for the Mac. Obviously, that old card couldn’t do 3D for gaming, and it’s long since obsolete, so I’ve been scrounging through the Mac TV-card market for getting the same sort of thing on my newer Macintosh computer.

Then, for Christmas, I recieved the AlchemyTV DVR PCI-based card, and stuck that thing in my G5. Works great, but has a few issues that I don’t quite like. For instance, if you try to do anything else with the computer while it’s running a scheduled record, that recording will end up with out of sync video and audio. I’m continually trying to tweak the settings to keep that from being a problem, but it seems like the processor does most of the work no matter what, so there’s little change. Apparently, there are other cards out there that handle the video in various ways, but from the reviews I read, I don’t know if they can get the good resolution I’m getting now – 640 by 480.

Have you ever taken a TV recording on a video tape or digital recording device? You may have noticed that there are a couple lines with little white dashes that jump around at the top of the screen. Most TVs don’t show it, because those lines, from what I’ve been told, are basically the closed captioning data. This is something that irks me about my card – the AlchemyTV DVR doesn’t have decoding of this data. My old All-in-Wonder had it, and I really liked that feature. However, the El Gato USB 2 device (which is based on one of ATI’s products) does have it. Most of Apple’s new machines have USB2, so that seems to be the best solution. PCI also works well.

Something else that’s cool about the newer devices that use better bandwidth is their lack of the lag that older cards and devices had. The earlier El Gato devices couldn’t be used to, say, plug in your Gamecube or PS2 and play them. The lag would be almost a second long, which would mean that your enemies would beat the living slime out of you before you saw them coming. I haven’t tried this on my card, but the newer devices are able to handle it, and since mine is using PCI, I’d assume that this is no sweat.

Another thing that affects performance, that I hinted at earlier, is whether or not the TV device handles the encoding. If it doesn’t, it just hands it off to the computer. Depending on where the conversion/encoding/etc is done, you may or may not get lag or crappy quality. It also depends on how good of a job the software/hardware handling of this data is. El Gato seems to do a good job with software (that’s why they just licensed the ATI device, rather than making their own), and Miglia makes good hardware (the Alchemy devices), but their software leaves something to be desired. What I like about the Alchemy card, but I don’t know if the others do this, is that it just passes the video off to the QuickTime engine as live video, so some apps think it’s a FireWire camera, and you can even use it in Quartz Composer for a live video stream.

These are the major players for video right now, from what I can find. Formac used to be a major player, but it seems like they’ve fallen out of the market, since no one speaks well of them anymore. And their stuff costs more. Miglia offers a few select products – professional and consumer – at their website, El Gato Systems offers a large array of all sorts of video digitizers, both analog and digital, at I’d advise staying away from the U.S. “HDTV” devices (and HDTV sets, too), at least until the standards are hammered out, as it seems that the government can’t decide on anything yet. Analog is going to remain the standard for a while.

What’s my point in all of this? Well, just hook up one of the cooler of these TV cards into a PowerMac G5, and plug said G5 into a really nice projector, and you’d have a nice home theater. Most people don’t realize it, but the G5 has most of the stuff you’d need already. DVD drive, digital audio, etc. The optical audio out can plug into that huge Dolby Digital/EX system that you have (with the sub woofer that’s bigger than your car). Not to mention DVI, which can work well with the newer projectors that have DVI. Or an Apple 30-inch display. The makings of a cinema in your basement.

Are there any really good ones out there that I’ve missed? Put it in the comments…

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