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KELLNER: A tuck-it-away TV tuner

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

ON COMPUTERS COLUMN:

Just after I'd written about the many ways you can find broadcast television that does not involve the use of "rabbit ears" or cable TV connections, the folks at Elgato Systems came along to show me some useful purposes for having the aforementioned antenna — and it'll set you back far less than you might think.

The $149.95 Elgato EyeTV Hybrid combines an over-the-air (or cable) TV tuner with DVR capabilities and puts this all on a USB-friendly "stick" that plugs into the back of an Apple iMac or any current Apple notebook.

Add the antenna or cable hookup, and you're ready for HDTV at your desktop. I'm not sure if the small size or the great price is the more amazing facet here, but I'm also glad a choice isn't necessary.

The EyeTV Hybrid is my second device from Elgato, which specializes in the devices for Mac users; other makers offer similar products for the Windows side of life. Unlike the EyeTV 200 unit I used earlier, the Hybrid is tiny, saves desk space and draws power from the USB port. Competing products require a separate power supply.

You can also use the EyeTV Hybrid to move recorded shows from your Mac to an iPod or iPhone, or to an AppleTV unit connected to another set in the house. It will also let you hook up a VCR and convert old tapes, such as family movies, to computer-based recordings that can be burned to DVDs or CDs; a "basic" copy of Roxio's Toast 9 software is included with the device.

The only "shortcoming" is that unlike Elgato's EyeTV 250 device, a stand-alone box costing $50 more, the Hybrid doesn't have its own hardware encoder built in, relying instead on computer software and the Mac's processor to do the heavy digital lifting. The 250 will produce somewhat smaller video files, and those doing a lot of conversions will want to go for the more expensive product.

Still, the Hybrid should be good for most of us, and certainly good enough for someone like me, who wants to watch more than record. I tried it with my Verizon FIOS cable service, which meant I got standard-definition pictures, not hi-def, since the box I used it with was of that caliber. I had previously used the older EyeTV 200 this way, although I could use an external antenna to pull in high definition broadcasts if I wanted.

The Hybrid did its job nicely, and the new EyeTV 3 software is better than the predecessor. What I do (don't tell my boss, please) is sometimes watch while writing. In default mode, the TV-viewing window pops up in a size large enough to watch, but not full-screen. Click on a menu option, and it'll zoom up to take the full-screen area.

Picture quality is excellent, due partly to the tuner and partly to the iMac I'm using at home, which has a 24-inch display. Because it's hooked up to cable, I depend on the cable remote, and not the one supplied with the Hybrid, to change channels on the cable box. There's a small control window that pops up when viewing television; you can (and I do) dump it quickly with the press of two keys on the computer's keyboard.

Recording shows is easy, and can be programmed in advance using the TV Guide service provided, for one year, with the unit, or on an ad hoc basis. You can also "capture" a frame from video, something that bloggers in millions of basements, among others, will likely applaud.

The basic reason for adding a TV tuner to a computer makes sense: You've got processing power, you've got — almost always now — a screen that can easily display HD broadcasts, and most homes are either cable- or satellite-wired and/or have computers in rooms with good access to over-the-air signals. For those in studio apartments or dorm rooms, having this device can add usefulness in small spaces.

I like the EyeTV Hybrid for its price, ease of use, performance and tuck-it-away style. If your needs are similar to mine, you might enjoy it, too. Information can be found online at www.elgato.com.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.