A TiVo-like toy for the Mac?

A Macintosh software company plans to launch on Monday the first consumer personal video recorder for Mac aficionados.

5 min read
A Macintosh software company plans to launch Monday the first consumer personal video recorder for Mac aficionados.

Los Gatos, Calif.-based El Gato Software plans to launch the EyeTV in an effort to level the playing field between Macs and PCs. Hauppauge and Pinnacle Systems are among a handful of companies making either internal or external personal video recorders (PVRs) for PCs. But to date, there are few such products for the Mac.

Traditional recorders, such as TiVo or Sonicblue's ReplayTV, attach to a televison and appeal to consumers who record shows ahead of time and watch them at their leisure. More recently, however, manufacturers have started producing PVRs for personal computers. Sony, for example, ships several Vaio consumer PCs with a built-in personal video recorder.

El Gato executives felt the time was right for a Mac product. "We looked around and saw that people were doing this on PCs, but no one was doing it on the Macintosh," said Victor Nemechek, El Gato's product marketing manager.

But analysts warn that, like TiVo and other recorders that have failed to gain widespread popularity, a Mac device could be a tough sell. Part of the problem is the complexity of selling the devices. On the upside, though, video is one of the most attractive niche Mac features, making a personal video recorder a potentially compelling product.

"The standalone PVR, the TiVo thing, has never really taken off," said NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker. "It's kind of hard to explain. It's the kind of thing the cognoscenti love. If you know someone who has one, they love it."

Still, with PVRs making it to PCs, filling the "empty space on the Mac makes sense," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. "There is a question of how much volume you can do and how rich people feel (in this economy). But if you bring video to the Mac, that could be a volume product if you bring it at the right price point."

Is the price right?
El Gato will start selling EyeTV on Monday for $199, direct from its Web site. The device connects to a Mac via a USB port and receives a signal from a cable or an antenna through a standard connector.

TitanTV will provide the online program guide for EyeTV. That service comes as part of the purchase price and does not require any additional service fees, Nemechek said. Like personal video recorders for TVs, EyeTV is able to record shows ahead of time or stop live programming for an instant replay.

Mac enthusiasts can do searches up to 14 days ahead--using keywords, actors' names, show titles or other criteria--to find the programs they want to record or watch.

"I think that a PVR system for the Mac would be really nice to have," said Chris Coleman, a student at Penn State University in State College, Penn. "I've heard great things about TiVo, and how once you get used to it, it's hard to go back to watching television the old way."

Mac developer Formac also plans to introduce a new recorder, called the Studio DV/TVR, which is capable of recording TV shows in TiVo-like fashion. The device, which is designed for video fans and professionals, is an update to an existing product. Unlike EyeTV, the Studio DV/TVR comes with an internal hard drive, which, at 48GB, can hold up to about four hours of recorded video.

Gartner analyst Paul-Jon McNealy, in fact, faulted EyeTV for not including a hard drive.

"You're working off the hard drive of the Mac and not the device, so all this thing really is, is a modem or set-top box," McNealy said.

Formac chose to focus on video quality, opting for recording programs as digital video versus the MPEG-1 format used by EyeTV. File sizes are larger, but recording quality is potentially much better than what is available from El Gato's product. On the other hand, Studio DV/TVR's quality and added extras come at a steep premium. The device sells for $999.

The Formac unit "is way too expensive for video to make the mainstream," IDC's Kay said. "That's not a consumer product."

El Gato chose MPEG-1 over MPEG-2 or other digital formats to cut down the size of the recorded programs and make them easier to copy to CDs or DVDs. One hour of recorded MPEG-1 video consumes about 650MB of space, just small enough to fit on a single CD.

"That certainly would have appeal to consumers," Kay said.

A personal video what?
PVRs may be interesting conceptually, but they've failed to take off as expected, say analysts.

"They make the most sense in the living room, and we haven't exactly seen booming sales there," said NPDTechworld's Baker.

For the past 12 months, retail sales of personal video recorders for televisions are up 21.3 percent as measured in units, but revenue is down 14.7 percent compared with 2001, according to NPDTechworld. To encourage sales, manufacturers have slashed prices, with the average retail selling price dropping to $296 this year, compared with $421 in 2001.

Sales of PVRs for PCs barely show up at all on the sales charts.

"The volumes on these are pretty low, usually 10,000 units a month or so," Baker said. "A lot of this video capture is pretty hard to explain. It's a tough job off the shelf. There's a lot of these products on the PC side, and none of them are huge sellers."

Nemechek acknowledged PVRs aren't the easiest products to explain to new customers.

"I don't think that's our problem so much as all of our problem--the ReplayTVs and everything," Nemechek said. "People didn't understand a DVD when it first came out, but they do now."

El Gato is betting that its track record developing digital media products for other companies will be an asset in giving EyeTV a unique Mac flavor. The 10-year old company develops Roxio's Toast, the Mac version of Roxio's CD and DVD authoring software.

EyeTV may also benefit from Apple's emphasis on video for the Mac, where recording movies to DVDs is a booming market.