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Are you a Mac user who wants to create an entertainment center? Well, you have two choices. You can blow more Mac Bucks on an Apple TV, which is basically a wireless media hub that allows you to move multimedia content from your computer to your TV and stereo equipment (a.k.a., your "media center"). Or you can beef up your current Mac with a TV tuner.
TV tuners allow your computer to receive and capture TV signals, recording your favorite shows onto your hard drive. Connected to, say, a Mac Mini (which was my system of choice), you can also use the computer's 802.11b/g wireless capabilities to handle streaming video and audio from an upstairs network, its integrated Bluetooth to offer freedom of a wireless keyboard and Apple's wireless Mighty Mouse, and you can capture your favorite TV shows for later viewing.
I tested three USB tuners to see how they rated as components in a Mac-based entertainment center: Miglia’s TVMax+, Plextor’s ConvertX PVR PX-TV402U, and Eskape Labs MyTV.PVR.
The three tuners do have some things in common. For example, all three offer hardware compression, which can be very important, especially with a less-than-bleeding-edge processor (my Mac Mini has a 1.83-GHz processor, which only the abnormally devoted would call a powerful CPU). Rather than push the video compression to the computer, the tuner does the bulk of it onboard. It’s less taxing to the system as a whole and tends to prevent annoying video/audio sync problems.
In addition, all three of these tuners take advantage of TitanTV’s electronic programming guide (EPG). Basically, it’s an online guide to TV programming, usually spanning about two weeks, that lets you select programs to watch and/or record.
And all three come with software that does the nitty-gritty TV work (preferences for screen size, recording quality and location, even channel changing) and, in conjunction with a good EPG, can turn the computer you already own into a TiVo-like system. Plextor uses Elgato’s EyeTV DVR software, which works fine but had a few issues -- while EyeTV claims to capture video directly to MPEG format, nothing I had would play the videos except EyeTV until I used EyeTV to convert the files to MPEG. Miglia has recently switched from EyeTV to its own branded software, (that’s the reason for the "+" in the product’s name), and it has definable recording formats for a variety of playback devices. The third tuner, Eskape, also uses its own proprietary application which can also capture in a variety of formats, and which was ready to be played by other applications as soon as I was done.
None of these three tuners are compatible with High Definition (HD) or Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). There are a few USB devices out there that can handle HD, but QAM, a method used by cable broadcasters to send digital signals down the same line as their analog programming, is almost nonexistent in the genre. In addition, none of these tuners support IR blasters, so you won’t be controlling external cable or satellite boxes with them. They are simply analog solutions for cable TV.
Of course, along with the cable F-connector, all three have standard RCA-type AV input jacks and SVHS inputs so you’re not limited to just watching TV. Plug in your DVD player, your iPod, your video camera, or anything else with a matching output. Any of these tuners turn the Mac Mini into a very capable video hub.
Along the way, I did hit an interesting problem. Two of the tuners caused mild rippling effects on the TV picture, which could have been caused by a poor tuner, problematic cable signal, or simply physically degraded cable lines or a bad splitter. By feeding the USB tuners into the VGA input of the my testbed TV (a Vizio VX37L 37-inch LCD HDTV) and comparing their images to the image that the TV picked up directly from the cable box (using the Picture-in-Picture feature), I was able to compare the two.
Finally, some words of advice for those with limited hard drive space: An hour of DVD-quality recording can easily eat up 3.4 Gbytes of space. If you do intend to use your Mini (or other Apple system) as a media hub and don’t want low definition playback, make sure either that you've got a good-sized hard drive or tack an external USB drive to it.
Physically, the TVMax+ is a near perfect match for the Mac Mini. In fact, it’s designed to look like a Mini clone and shares the same 6.5-inch square footprint. Since the TVMax+ is 1.5 inches in height, when it's set on top of the Mini, the pair creates a stacked "tower" of just 3.5 inches in total.
The TVMax+'s rear panel has the usual audio and composite video AV inputs plus an SVHS video-in as well. There is no front or side panel connectivity, which (unlike its two competitors) makes the installation surprisingly painless -- and, if you’re using all of its connectivity, very clean-looking.
There were, of course, the rote matters of connecting the USB and cable TV cables. Miglia's TV software installed without a problem, and once the cable and USB connections were made, everything worked as advertised.
That’s not to say that things were perfect. The TVMax+ had a slight ripple in the picture displayed from some channels -- not something I hadn’t seen before with other PC-based TV tuners, but still just a bit distracting at times. This is compared to the image coming directly from the TV's tuner, where there wasn’t a ripple in sight. Color, on the other hand, was spot-on, and TitanTV’s EPG worked flawlessly as well.
The TVMax+ comes with its own remote control. While you can use the Mac Mini’s mouse to click on the various features available through the EyeTV’s on-screen remote control icon, or the Mini’s keyboard for channel number entry, Miglia’s handheld remote goes a long way to eliminate the impression that you’re using a computer at all.
The only true "ouch factor" the MaxTV presented is the price. At a range of $184 to $230, Miglia’s TVMax+ is the most expensive of the three products in this roundup. In my opinion, the remote control and its styling would be the key factor in buying the TVMax+ rather than performance, where it closely parallels the other two tuners. If a consistent look is your primary goal, then this is the TV tuner for you.
Plextor ConvertX PVR PX-TV402U
There’s no mistaking Plextor’s ConvertX PVR for a mini Mini. If not for its size (1.28 by 7.24 by 6.10 inches) or its rounded sides, the silver coloring alone would make it stand out. It’ll sit on top of a Mini, but while its power and USB connections are out back, its AV inputs are up front.
The physical connections were a snap: Cable, power, and USB cable all plugged neatly into the back and out of sight. However, the software was another matter. The ConvertX shipped with an older version of Elgato’s EyeTV (version 1.6). When I was done with the software install, I was left with a light TV image that had a herringbone pattern overlay. A few more attempts to auto tune the channels into submission were fruitless.
At some point after the last try, a pop-up box appeared on screen to announce that an upgrade to EyeTV (to version 1.8; the current version is 2.4) was available. After the upgrade, I tried what Elgato calls an "intense" auto tune, but when I noticed it was taking more than three minutes per channel, I quickly cancelled it and went back to the standard "quick" auto tune.
Interestingly, this time around, the results were outstanding. Picture quality was clear as a bell on all channels, not a herringbone or a ripple to be seen. In my side-by-side comparison with the TV's native image the ConvertX's picture was slightly more yellow. The only actual problem that remained was with TitanTV, the EPG Plextor provides. It wouldn’t recognize my zip code and couldn’t provide a channel lineup as a consequence. Without it, scheduled recordings became difficult (although not impossible if you have a TV Guide handy). Perhaps not surprisingly, this problem too resolved itself in much the same way that the picture quality did -- after a half dozen tries it decided to work.
Plextor’s ConvertX PVR PX-TV402U for the Mac is priced from $129 to a somewhat stinging $221. That makes it the low cost leader in the roundup by $5. It’s not a bad deal, even if you encounter the same problems as I did -- and they were, after all, resolved.
In fact, although Plextor’s ConvertX provided the most initial grief, it turned out to be the best performer of the trio once it settled down to business. Unlike the other two, it doesn't have a remote -- however, if you’ve set up your Mac with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, the whole issue of a remote becomes one of impression rather than practicality. Like Goldilocks, I found the ConvertX to be “just right.”
Eskape Labs is a division of Hauppauge Computerworks and the source of the MyTV.PVR USB tuner and similar Mac-friendly items. As with the Plextor PX-TV402U, there’s no mistaking the MyTV.PVR for a cloned Mini box. Although it's white like the Mini, at 1.25 x 6.25 x 5.75 inches it’s a bit smaller and has rounded sides. You can sit it on top of your Mac; its rubber feet should give it enough elevation to still allow the Mini to cool.
Installation was just a matter of following the Quick Start Guide (which, for a “quick start,” was fairly comprehensive). The process involved the usual shuffling of the MyTV.PVR application into the Mac’s Application folder and then running it. I had the unit up, connected (to TitanTV for its programming guide), and running in less than five minutes.
Unfortunately, there were some ripples on the TV screen. They weren’t intense, but they were noticeable -- and on every channel. The side-by-side comparison using the PIP image from the Vizio TV set showed no ripples. And as with the Plextor ConvertX, the color leaned slightly to the yellow side and wasn’t correctable using the available adjustments from within the software.
The MyTV.PVR comes with a really interesting add-on: an integrated FM radio. Eskape supplies a hanging wire antenna with which I was able to pick up the stronger signals in the area -- a real antenna would be the better listening option.
The unit's remote handles all of the TV and radio functions, making your mouse and keyboard nearly obsolete -- unless you want to quit the software. The "Power" button on the remote had no effect when I tried to use it to shut things down. Apparently I was ignoring an order of preference that the software had for doing things its way. I finally clicked the close icon on the application’s window, which worked -- but also brought up a warning box: "MyTV.PVR has quit unexpectedly." It’s a bit of a rough edge on a product I had expected to be more polished.
MyTV.PVR sells for $134 to $150 from a variety of sources you’ll find listed on Eskape Labs’ Web site. Should you want one? It’s the least expensive of the group and captures video in standard MPEG format that doesn’t need to be converted before it can be played elsewhere. However, it has the rippled picture quality of Miglia’s TVMax+ with a little of the yellow-tinged color thrown in from the PX-TV402U. It's up to you whether the advantages outweight the disadvantages.