The launch of the Mac mini in January started a whole new industry of people who are designing solutions to enable the mini to be used as the basis of a home theater set-up or as a media server.
However, for those who just want to use their mini, or any other reasonably powerful Mac as a viewer and recorder for HDTV, there’s already an excellent solution. Elgato’s EyeTV 500 is a HDTV receiver which can tune into free to air and unencrypted cable (QAM) HDTV broadcasts and play them on the Mac or save them to a hard drive. However, if you want to get the best from it, you’ll have to be quick. On 1st July 2005, the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadcast Flag rule comes into effect and from that date onwards, all HDTV receivers shipped will have to comply with the Flag, which will severely limit their ability to record HDTV and constrain users’ ability to view HDTV in the way that suits them.
The good news is that units shipped before 1st July don’t have to listen for the Flag, even when the ruling takes effect. So if you’ve been thinking about investing in the EyeTV 500, or any HDTV kit, now’s the time to do it.
The EyeTV 500 is a silver box which connects to the Mac using a FireWire cable and has ports on the back to connect to an antenna and a digital cable TV box. No antenna is supplied, however, you can pick-up an indoor HDTV antenna for around $30, and reports suggest that these work well with the EyeTV 500.
Elgato’s software allows you to watch off the air or cable HDTV and SDTV broadcasts and record them to your Mac’s hard drive. It hooks into TitanTV’s electronic program guide which makes setting up one-off and scheduled recordings very simple. The EyeTV software also allows you to edit recorded programs and auto- detects the aspect ratio of a broadcast so it can re-size the playing window appropriately. It’s an excellent solution for viewing and recording HDTV on the Mac.
However, there are a couple of caveats. The sheer amount of data contained in an MPEG-2 encoded HDTV broadcast means that you need acres of disk space to record it. Each hour of HDTV takes up about 7GB of disk space. And because of the way Elgato’s software stores recordings (in one archive folder) it’s not easy to split your recordings across multiple disks - although it can be done. Transcoding the HDTV recordings from their native MPEG-2 transport stream into a format suitable for watching on DVD or VCD is slow and not always successful. Also, displaying HDTV on any computer is an incredibly processor intensive task and if you want to use your Mac for watching HDTV, rather than just recording it to watch somewhere else, you’ll need a fast Mac, a dual processor G5 is about the only choice if you want smooth playback. That said, if you just want to use the Mac to record the HDTV, and G4 or G5 will do the trick, so you can use that new Mac mini as HDTV PVR.
In any event, if you want to use your Mac to record HDTV, do it before July 1st, because after that, if the FCC has its way, and Broadcast Flag becomes law, it will be a whole different ball game.
Robert Armstrong is a contributor to The HDTV Tuner - a guide to the kit, the technology and the programming on HDTV.