Monday, June 11, 2007

Country Road

A snapshot while taking a walk. This picture (or at least the full resolution image) illustrates why it is not good enough to have a camera with you at all times, it really should be the best camera that you have. If you don't have a clue what I am talking about, have a look at the three birds in the picture. What three birds? Exactly! With a better camera you would see the birds in their full glory.

I'm still posting the image because I like the light summer feeling which it captures.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Country Road"]Country road with a tree and blue sky[/caption]

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Review: Elgato EyeTV 310

I purchased an Elgato EyeTV 310 which is a digital satellite tuner and personal video recorder for the Mac. It will decode DVB-S which is what most(*) digital TV and radio satellite feeds are. The feeds can be saved to the hard drive and time-shifted or edited and/or converted and burned to CD or DVD.

(*) Most are DVB-S. Most high-definition feeds are DVB-S2 (which uses MPEG-4 instead of MPEG-2 for compression) which the EyeTV 310 does not decode. If you want to receive HD satellite feeds, this is not the product for you.

The EyeTV 310 is a small box that has a connector for the satellite feed, power, and two Firewire 400 (IEEE-1394) ports. Plug it all in, install the software from CD, and get going ... Except that when I did, nothing happened. The EyeTV did not find any channels.

I knew the satellite feed was good because it worked with a stand-alone receiver. I tried various settings, but nothing helped. So I contacted Elgato tech support using the website. Within less than a day, I had a knowledgeable, friendly reply. No boilerplate, no automated junk, a real human tech-support contact. I was pleased.

What the tech suggested did not work, so I made some screen shots and saved some log files, wrapped them up in a .zip archive and sent another email. Within a minute of sending the email, my message had been entered into the tracking system on the Elgato website. This time, I was amazed.

I though Elgato would fumble the ball on a same-day response, but I got an answer later that evening from my original support contact. No playing hot potato, the guy who knew the case kept it. The message was friendly and again very helpful. Someone clearly knows his stuff here!

The tech suggested that I try eliminating all the pieces of equipment starting at the LNB to find out what was causing the problem - he thought that despite the stand-alone receiver working the EyeTV was not getting a signal.

O.K., I will admit it: I was skeptical. After all, I had seen it work, right? But the next day, I sat down and did what I should have done from the start, I eliminated the possible causes for the error one by one.

Guess what? It turns out that I was using a bad cable. Swap the cable and the box works like a charm. At this point, I was ecstatic, and I let the tech know.

So how does the EyeTV perform? On a lowly Mac mini Core Duo with 1 GB RAM, the CPU utilization is just above idling when I watch a TV feed or listen to a radio feed. The picture quality is excellent, as you would expect from a digital feed. There is no discernible lag in frame rate, decompression artifacts, or other weirdness.

Most DVB-S feeds come with program information. In a view slightly resembling iCal, all the channels and programing are listed. A simple click on an entry brings up additional descriptions. To schedule a recording, a single button press is enough. There is nothing else to configure.

EyeTV also comes with a one year subscription to an EPG (electronic program guide) service which should list all feeds, even if they do not broadcast program information. I have not tried this because the Mac mini is offline.

Once a feed has been recorded, it becomes available for playback, editing, or archiving. If you happen to have Toast, EyeTV will pretty much automate burning a feed to DVD. That's a nice touch.

There are some things the EyeTV software could do better: there seems to be no way to show all program entries of a certain type (say all movies or all documentaries) in the EPG view, for example. I would also have liked the level indicator to correctly show that the EyeTV was not getting a signal when I was troubleshooting. It would be nice to have more options in organizing the channel list.

But by and large, this is not just a good product, it is excellent and though much more expensive than a Windows solution well worth the money. I was (and still am) impressed by the support I got. Good support is hard and not cheap, but Elgato seems to go the extra proverbial mile to deliver it.