Once upon a time--before Netflix, Hulu, and Slingbox--TVs and computers weren't great bedfellows. If you wanted to watch TV on your computer--say, an episode of your favorite sitcom, or a news report--you'd need a TV tuner or a video capture device. The Elgato EyeTV Hybrid ($149 list) is an example of the former: this USB stick isn't much bigger than a standard thumbdrive, but it's a full-on TV tuner, complete with a coaxial jack on one end. It's compatible with over-the-air HDTV and unencrypted cable. What it does, essentially, is allow you to watch and channel-surf live TV on that computer. And it does more than that, too--the Mac-compatible EyeTV software can double as a programmable DVR (recording shows to the PC's hard drive), and stream video to an Elgato app available on the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad. But, let's focus on the live TV function first.
TV tuner on a stick
These days, computers and particularly iPhones and iPads are playing better than ever with TV content. Services like Hulu and Netflix offer large libraries of content, and cable providers are increasingly offering online sites and mobile apps for accessing streaming channels and on-demand content. While a device like the EyeTV offers fewer restrictions--you're not restricted to streaming video within your home network, for instance--it also requires a small but awkward USB dongle to jut out of your computer. And the computer itself can't be mobile--you'll be tethered to a coaxial TV cable. That setup seems more ideal for a desktop computer or all-in-one like the iMac, or a small TV-compatible companion like the Mac Mini.
For the Mac Mini, the EyeTV could indeed turn your Mac into a pretty full-featured DVR. Even better, the program converts those recordings into iPhone- or iPad-ready M4V files. Some of that easy-share DVR functionality crosses over into the fuzzy land of piracy, but Elgato leaves that moral debate to you.
A word of warning on those resolutions, though: when we used it with our iPad, Elgato recordings were windowboxed (black bars on all sides), much like what we've seen on the SlingPlayer app. While it's suitable for most content viewing, it won't leave fans of HD-quality content happy.
Using the EyeTV on a computer
Though the EyeTV Hybrid says "Windows/Mac" on the box, buyer beware: the USB tuner stick's compatible software that's included in the box, called EyeTV 3, is Mac-compatible only. The disc wouldn't open on our Windows PC, and the EyeTV Hybrid USB tuner stick needed drivers downloaded from Elgato's Web site to be properly installed on a Windows PC. But, once we started up Windows Media Center, it eventually recognized the TV tuner and was able to find over-the-air stations, as well as record shows using Windows Media Center's built-in DVR functionality. It's hardly plug-and-play for Windows users, but it worked.
However, on a Mac, it's a different, and much more pleasant, story. Setup of the EyeTV on Apple hardware was pretty simple. Software can be installed from the included CD or downloaded straight from Elgato (a registration code is included in the box). You'll need to supply an antenna or cable connection to the TV tuner stick, which in turn plugs into the Mac's USB slot. Then, the EyeTV 3 software begins mapping out channels. Using a standard UHF antenna, our EyeTV recognized over-the-air HD channels within seconds, and once setup was complete, we were able to channel surf with relative ease, using an onscreen interface or the included IR remote, which controls the USB stick. Users can also subscribe to a program guide with upcoming listings, courtesy of TV Guide. The guide listings look and function like those on a DVR, but subscribing to TV Guide only gives Elgato users a one-year subscription for free; after that, it's $20 a year. The DVR software can be programmed to record and offers a fair amount of flexibility, but we're not wild about paying for the guide service.
Recordings show up in an easily browsed library, saved as "eyeTV" files that need to be opened in EyeTV 3. However, EyeTV 3 software will convert these recordings into iPad- or iPhone-ready M4V files at the press of a button. These files, at 1,280x720 or 852x480 pixels, get added automatically to iTunes' video library, but they can also be edited by other software. An icon for Roxio Toast appears on the EyeTV 3 interface for easy export, but you'll need to provide your own copy--it doesn't come included.
The EyeTV can access digital and analog programming, either from an over-the-air antenna or from a cable TV feed. Over-the-air is pretty straightforward--you can receive whatever digital (ATSC) and analog (NTSC) channels--you'd get on a standard TV using an antenna you supply yourself.
Cable is a less straightforward proposition. The EyeTV Hybrid doesn't work with a cable box (for that, you want the step-up EyeTV HD box, which includes an IR blaster). Instead, it's designed to work only with the unencrypted cable channels that are available by plugging the RF coaxial cable directly into the EyeTV dongle--that includes analog channels and so-called Clear QAM digital ones. It works well enough--we were able to get most of our local broadcast stations in HD, plus a handful of decent cable channels like TBS. But it was mostly community access channels, C-SPAN, home shopping channels, and Spanish-language networks. Don't expect to be pulling HBO or any other premium channels onto your PC, unless you have the rare cable system that offers these networks unencrypted (most don't).
Alternatively, you could always experiment with the EyeTV Hybrid's composite and S-Video inputs (available via an included breakout cable). The EyeTV Hybrid will record any analog signal this way, including stereo audio. It won't record HD video, however, and it's just a raw dump of whatever the source is (such as a cable or satellite box), without the ability to automatically change channels.
The TV tuner stick is compact, but beware: we tilted the coax cable up and nearly cracked our tuner stick in half. It's cumbersome to keep plugged in on the average laptop, which is why we'd recommend it as a desktop/set-top computer solution only. It seems perfect for Mac Mini or iMac owners who are hungering for live TV recording and place shifting (live TV pausing) and don't own a DVR or a cable set-top box.