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Summary:

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?) […]

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, www.miglia.com. El Gato Systems offers a large array of all sorts of video digitizers, both analog and digital, at www.elgato.com. 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…

  1. Jason Terhorst Tuesday, June 28, 2005

    Just to clarify the purpose of this article: I’m looking at TiVo alternatives to use with the Mac – things that let your Mac function like a TiVo, or even a Media Center computer. Since TiVo has decided not to support Macs, and have signed a deal with the devil himself (Bill Gates), we Mac users need other options. Check out this cool project that was featured a while back: Center Stage/Mac Media Center.

    Here are the devices that they plan to make it inter-operate with: El Gato EyeTV, Formac Studio, and Alchemy TV DVR. All of these devices, and others not listed here, have various prices (like the iPods), and have features that you can compare. The Center Stage Project is accelerating development, and looks really cool. Because it’s open source, there is lots of potential for really cool stuff to come out of it. The reason that the TiVo is so cheap right now is because it’s unable to compete in what is becoming a very crowded market. The other offerings out there are just so much more appealing.

  2. What happened to the Center Stage Project?

    I ran across your blog when I was looking for the same thing… decent software to watch/record TV signals. So far, I have had no luck.

  3. Jason Terhorst Sunday, July 10, 2005

    Just check out centerstageproject.com

    For some reason, that link in my previous comment broke. It sounds like they are still there, they just don’t like to waste time writing posts or emails. Instead, they like to code. Cross your fingers, and find ways to encourage them toward the goal.

  4. Eskape just came out with a low price device for the mac called MyTV.pvr. Haven’t seen it reviewed anywhere, but like the ElGato EyeTV, it does the encoding of video in its hardware, depositing on your hard drive as mpeg-2. It’s less that half the price of the EyeTV 200 at $145 at CompUSA, but its software is not quite as robust as ElGato’s – there’s no ability to edit out the commercials in MyTV, which you can do without any reencoding with EyeTV.
    I just ordered a ConvertX, Plextor’s USB 2.0 version of EyeTV for the Mac. It uses the EyeTV software, and it does hardware encoding to Mpeg-2, and will also encode files in DivX and Mpeg-4, making it the most robust of the options I’ve found. Best of all, it’s under $200, only a bit more than MyTV, and a hundred or more less than EyeTV.
    Even with a G5 (I have a 1 gig G4) you’re much better off with hardware encoding, so you can watch, pause and record TV AND still use your Mac for other stuff without much of a problem.

  5. Hey Gilgamesh, have you taken delivery of that Plextor ConvertX for the Mac yet? If so, what do you think? I’ve been looking long and hard that this product. I’ve been holding off because I don’t know what I would be giving up in going for it. Why is it so much cheaper than either the El Gato EyeTV 200 or the Miglia EvolutionTV, both of which have similar functionality? Is the extra price for the EyeTV exclusively down to the Firewire connecter that obviates a power adaptor? What about the Miglia EvolutionTV? It’s US$50 more expensive, but has pretty much exactly the same functionality. I wish there somebody had done a head to head comparison of the EyeTV 200, the EvolutionTV, the ConvertX and the Hauppage MyTV.PVR. Anyone heard of it? All I want to do is be able to record standard definition TV over S-Video and audio jacks into my Mac, preferably with hardware encoding into MPEG-2,-4 and DivX, so that my poor underpower G4 doesn’t choke, then be able to burn the file to DVD for viewing on TV. I’m not sure the DVR functions are ready for prime time.

  6. Have the ConvertX from Plextor using ElGato’s EyeTV software on an old G4 dual 450. Built the G4 as a DVR with 2 large HDDs w/ATA 133 PCI card and a 5 port USB2.0 PCI card.

    It doesn’t take long to fill up the drives with video. Currently looking for S-video out to port video to TV. For DVD burning I’m considering MPEG2Work4 shareware, I’m too cheap to get Toast.

    G4 doesn’t choke, most of the heavy lifting done in Plextor unit. However, export function conversion via EyeTV software takes forever (talking hours) to convert files.

  7. VideoArchivist Monday, August 8, 2005

    I’ve posted my review of the Plextor ConvertX at Amazon.com. I go into detail on why it only gets three stars, and is not anyone except the casual user. (Pro users should look elsewhere.

    The Hauppage unit sounds interesting. If anyone can gmail me a small MPEG-2 clip, then I could see if the MPEG could be edited with PixeDV. PixeDV comes with ADS Tech’s USB Instant DVD, and it can also edit Quicktime-rendered MPEG-2 files. Unfortunately, it cannot edit MPEG’s recorded on Plextor’s ConvertX, or MPEG’s recorded on my relative’s PC setup. It’d be nice to know what other converters (Miglia Evolution, EyeTV200, Hauppage) would work well with PixeDV.

  8. I returned the Convertx to Newegg after I found out it deinterlaces everything (no way to turn it off). This is bad for DVDs meant to play on a regular TV. El Gato and Plextor say nothing about this “feature”. But when I inquired to El Gato, they admitted they noticed it when they did the software development, couldn’t get Plextor to change it, and have no way of disabling it.

  9. I recently purchased the MyTV.PVR from CompUSA and must say I am pleasantly surprised with it. It does record in MPEG-2 format and the included software leaves a lot to be desired but it does what its meant to do (plays, pauses, and records live TV). I use D-Vision to encode it to another format (.avi) and then I can edit and do all I want to do in iMovie or iDVD. It also has several different settings for record quality from SVCD which is 1.5Mb/sec to full quality DVD which is 6.4Mb/sec. I have been using it on LiveTV quality which is 720×480 and 4.8Mb/sec and an hour long show is approx 2.3GB in size.

  10. Geoffrey Sneddon Thursday, September 29, 2005

    Has anyone actually hooked up a console to the card? Is it playable?

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