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.
Streaming to an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch
We tested the EyeTV app on an iPad, and found it worked pretty well, all things considered. The $5 app streams the live TV connection from a local computer over Wi-Fi, and even allows channel surfing. It's a lot like the SlingPlayer app, with a similar quality of resolution. The app will also stream recorded shows on the EyeTV-connected Mac or PC in question. While the TV content was put into a narrow box that didn't fill the screen, it also streamed with some loss of frame rate, and at a delay from the live broadcast.
When the Elgato app is opened, a list of available channels is displayed to browse through. Selecting a channel will change the tuner back on the computer and begin streaming the channel in question. It wasn't instant--streaming took over 10 seconds to buffer and play on our iPad. Changing channels was an awkward process; we had to go back to the channel listing, select another channel, and begin buffering/streaming again. Another option on the app is to play back recordings made back on the computer with the EyeTV device attached.
The best function of the iOS app, in our opinion, isn't simply its live TV streaming: it's the ability to pause said "live TV," much like a DVR. The EyeTV 3 software sets a buffer on your Mac's hard drive for live pausing, which could be the best news yet for sports fans who have cut the cord on cable but haven't invested in an antenna-friendly DVR.
A recent update to the app adds Apple AirPlay functionality, allowing that streamed content to be sent to a nearby Apple TV and played on an HDTV. While this would be a ridiculous proposition for live TV (which is, presumably, already hooked up to the live TV source in question), it's an interesting but convoluted wire-free solution for playing back that DVRed content on your home entertainment center or to a secondary TV in the house, provided you've got an Apple TV.
Other EyeTV products
The EyeTV Hybrid is one of several products in Elgato's line. They all have very similar names and, frankly, it's sometimes hard to tell them apart. Here's a quick cheat sheet.
EyeTV Hybrid: This is the USB TV tuner product reviewed here.
EyeTV One: This is an older version of of the EyeTV Hybrid. It's cheaper because it can decode digital but not analog TV channels. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same as the Hybrid.
EyeTV HD: The EyeTV HD is a supersize version of the EyeTV Hybrid. It's a standalone box that converts video from your cable or satellite box so you can view, record, and pause TV programming on a Mac. It includes an IR blaster for changing the channels on a cable/satellite box as well, so you can set recordings when you're not at home.
EyeTV 250 Plus: The EyeTV 250 is a step-up version of EyeTV USB products that includes a built-in MPEG-2 hardware encoder. That allows it to encode analog video sources without taxing a PC's internal CPU.
With TV content flooding the Web and becoming increasingly offered through apps, some may say the PC TV tuner is already a relic. There's some truth to that, but there's still an audience for those who want to get free over-the-air content without paying monthly fees to the likes of Netflix or Hulu.
For those people--if they're Mac owners--the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid works, and its recording functionality could be something of a killer app. As mentioned above, we think the best-use case is probably an antenna household with an under-the-TV Mac Mini (or similar small form factor PC) or a bedroom iMac (or other big-screen all-in-one PC), both of which would add much-needed DVR functionality, electronic programming guide, and streaming capability to the over-the-air TV viewing experience. The one caveat is that pesky $20-a-year TV Guide service that kicks in after the first year's free service--but that's less than $2 a month. However, for cable-cutters and Mac owners, this could be your best bet for a flexible DVR with iOS app support.
While we normally don't split our scores, in this case we'd say Mac users should consider this product a 7, Windows users, a 6. We're splitting the difference and saying it's a 6.5 overall. Make your decision accordingly.