Watching free over-the-air digital TV with a Mac-compatible solution.
February 5, 2008 7:18 AM   Subscribe

What is the best system to watch over-the-air digital TV with a Mac-compatible solution, and utilize the Mac as a DVR?

I'm interested in using my Mac with a for-Mac digital tuning system to watch free, over-the-air digital TV signals, and to utilize DVR functions. I currently do not subscribe to cable. Will Miglia, Formac Studio TVR, or Elgato Systems EyeTV allow me to watch free, over-the-air digital TV signals? Which are best, and do they all allow integration with Titan TV? I am a newbie as far as this is concerned, so clear explanations without too much jargon are very much appreciated. I currently have a G4 1 GHz Powerbook, but am considering getting a Mac mini or iMac if I can be persuaded of the advantages. Also, I have a relatively old Sony analog TV - could I use this as the monitor?

I apologize if this has been covered before, but I did not find too much relevant to this particular question in an Ask MeFi search.
posted by cahlers to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I've got one of these. It does everything you say you're looking for, though it doesn't have any video out option to use a tv as a monitor. (I'm sure you could get a separate USB device for this.) But, if you want to watch your TV in HD I don't think you'd want to run the signal into an analog TV. Seems as if that would defeat the purpose.
posted by 1 at 7:31 AM on February 5, 2008

I've looked into this recently for the PC as I've been interested in tuning into DVB-T signals. From what I've seen for the mac along the way, Elgato's EyeTV has very good reviews for what its worth. It should allow integrating with TitanTV as well (being that they are basicially the same as the Hauppauges).

As long as you have RCA or S-Video outputs you can hook up to an analog monitor fairly cheaply. Otherwise you will need to look into a vga/dvi -> analog tv converter. In both scenarios you might need to fiddle with the vertical sync to get it lined up correctly.

Also, with these DVB-T tuners you will most likely need an amplified antenna to get the most out of it. There is one made by Phillips on amazon that has really good reviews.

Again, I haven't done this quite yet and am still researching it, but this is the best of my knowledge so far. I'm waiting for the Hauppauge 950Q to hit the market (same as the 950 but also includes ClearQAM support which will allow tuning into higher digital channels)
posted by samsara at 7:35 AM on February 5, 2008

The El Gato device that 1 linked to does actually come with the cables you'd need to hook your PowerBook up to an external TV.

No matter what input solution you choose, the outputting part will be simple. You just need the appropriate cable for the s-video out port and your audio out port.

With my old TV, I have to use a VCR as an intermediary since it has composite inputs that can hook up to the outputs on the PowerBook (the yellow video port plus white and red audio ports) but my TV only takes coaxial cable (cable TV style screw-in cable).

You can add a Displays icon to your menu bar by visiting the Displays system preferences; then when you want to use your external TV, you just plug it in and choose the menu bar item so it scans for new devices.

I've had no problems with this in seven years of PowerBookin'.
posted by bcwinters at 7:36 AM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: Also, with these DVB-T tuners you will most likely need an amplified antenna to get the most out of it. There is one made by Phillips on amazon that has really good reviews.

Samsara, could you provide a link to this antenna or give a bit more information on it, such as the model #? I wasn't able to find it on Amazon in a cursory search.

Looks the Elgato tuner is the way to go...
posted by cahlers at 7:43 AM on February 5, 2008

From this list the top two are the Phillips high performance and Terk Indoor. I had the Phillips one in my cart but I'd take a look at both and compare the reviews/price/etc to get the one you're most comfortable with. I think I picked the Phillips because it looked like it could be disassembled easier for carrying in a laptop bag.
posted by samsara at 7:52 AM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: Is the EyeTV 250 a better bet for G4 Powerbooks because of the hardware encoding included in this unit?
posted by cahlers at 10:43 AM on February 5, 2008

Hardware encoding will free up your cpu. However I think the transition from digital TV is a bit less intensive than analog since it's already in the right format.

Your hardware solutions will generally be bulkier, but might be better for smooth captures (or running multiple apps). Yet again, this does not apply to HDTV cards which are already receiving mpeg2 streams.

You'll most likely want to look at digital receivers, not analog or hybrid ones, as the FCC is making all broadcasters move to pure digital in 2009 (the existing analog frequencies are going to be used for something else). So in that line of thinking, you shouldn't have to worry as much about hardware encoding unless you plan to stream video on through other analog means.
posted by samsara at 10:53 AM on February 5, 2008

As far as I'm aware (and I could be wrong) the EyeTV Hybrid linked up by 1 and mentioned by bcwinters doesn't have any sort of output. The adaptor provided with the composite (RCA) cables are only for input.

As I'm writing this, I'm watching CNN on my iMac through my own EyeTV Hybrid. Its truly a fantastic little piece of hardware. The new EyeTV3 software allows you to set up smart recording playlists (similar to smart playlists in iTunes) so now I'll never miss recording another episode of House.

If you wanted to bring the video signal out to a television, thats going to be a little trickier depending on the Mac you're using. If your last post on here is any indication of what Mac you're using, your PowerBook G4 should have an S-Video out on it. I know my old one did and it came with a little S-Video to RCA adaptor I could plug into my TV. I no longer have that PowerBook, so I cannot test the Hybrid on it. But I used an EyeTV 200 on the G4 without any problems.
posted by Becko at 11:00 AM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: Becko, thanks. Do you think the G4 is powerful enough to run software encoding with the EyeTV Hybrid?
posted by cahlers at 11:22 AM on February 5, 2008

Cahlers, make sure you're going for the EyeTV 250 Plus and not the standard 250 as the Plus version will have digital TV support. The requirements are located here for quick reference :)

Macintosh® computer with a PowerPC® G4,G5 or Intel Core® processor
512 MB of physical RAM
a built-in USB 2.0 port
Mac OS X v10.4 or later
Internet connection required to download Program Guide data

The hybrid requirements are the same and are located here.

Macintosh® computer with a PowerPC® G4,G5 or Intel Core® processor
512 MB of physical RAM
a built-in USB 2.0 port
Mac OS X v10.4 or later
Internet connection required to download Program Guide data

I think for portability the hybrid would be the better choice (considering analog will be out of style within a year). But if you're into hooking up dvd players, vcrs, etc the 250 Plus might be worth the extra pennies.
posted by samsara at 11:48 AM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: The EyeTV linked by "1" is a EyeTV hybrid. On Amazon, there is a hybrid, and a hybrid (NTSC). The NTSC has many reviews, but the EyeTV hybrid has no reviews. What is the difference between the two products? The NTSC does not seem to be available on the Elgato website.
posted by cahlers at 11:56 AM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: Samsara, thanks. I agree about better portability for the hybrid. My only concern is that the hybrid uses computer processing power for HDTV. I'm not necessarily interested in HDTV, just over-the-air digital, non-HDTV. I don't know enough about digital TV - are OTA signals automatically HDTV, or are the network stations non-HDTV? if there are free, OTA digital stations that are not HDTV, would I be correct in assuming that a G4 Powerbook would be ok in receiving those non HDTV signals?
posted by cahlers at 12:08 PM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: As another clarification, say I want to watch "Lost" in non-HD, but using the digital signal. Is this possible? The answer to this will impact whether I need to buy the EyeTV 250 or hybrid, b/c as far as I understand the 250 will process the HD signal (if digital signal not avail as non-HD) vs the hybrid.
posted by cahlers at 1:19 PM on February 5, 2008

Elgato released EyeTV 3 last month. I haven't used any of the other Mac-based PVR software packages (Miglia and Elgato terminated their agreement, so Miglia now packs something else in the box with their tuners), but EyeTV 3 hasn't given me any reason to go looking. EyeTV works directly with TitanTV, but that's a mixed blessing as TitanTV isn't the most reliable source. For a while there I was lucky to get a single successful guide update in a week.

To answer your original question's other constituent parts: Your PowerBook G4 meets the minimum hardware requirement for EyeTV, so with the proper tuner (you can start with the list of compatible ones) it will be able to record and play back standard-def OTA digital television. Your analog TV can work (assuming your G4 has an S-Video out, either as a port or with an adapter, depending on its actual vintage). The analog TV won't work, however, with a Mac mini, IIRC. There's no easy way to convert the video output from the Mac mini into something the TV can deal with. As for antennas, if you're in an area with good reception you can use an indoor antenna like the Silver Sensor (as that page explains, other companies sell essentially the same antenna, and there's a picture so you know what you're looking for). Otherwise hit up AntennaWeb or TV Fool for an idea of what you can expect to receive and some indication of what antenna you'll need.

As for Elgato's web site, make sure you have your region set. If it thinks you're in Europe, it won't show you the NTSC models, and vice versa.

The bad news is, there might not be much in the way of non-HD digital OTA broadcast where you are, but that will vary by market. Each digital broadcaster has a set amount of bandwidth, into which they can squeeze as much or as little as they see fit. So a single digital "channel" is actually made up of a multiplex of "subchannels," all broadcast together in one stream. Here in the DC area, the NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates each broadcast a subchannel of weather radar in addition to their single HD feed; the ABC affiliate also broadcasts another, SD subchannel called "Local Point TV". The FOX and CW affiliates, by contrast, carry only their single HD feed, and the PBS stations each have two or more SD subchannels. Since any bandwidth for a subchannel tends to come out of the HD feed, the stations also have to deal with their customers screaming bloody murder if the HD picture quality drops visibly.

So, while the content being broadcast might not have been recorded in HD, for all of the commercial DC locals I mention above, the primary subchannel is always broadcast in HD (SD content is upscaled before broadcast), and there isn't a secondary subchannel with the same content in SD. The PBS stations do broadcast the same thing in HD and SD, but sometimes on a different schedule (which is weird). And the bad news here for you is, the PowerBook G4 doesn't have enough power to play HD content. It could easily record the feed (there's no encoding to be done, as it's just streaming what it receives straight to disk), but playback will be very choppy. "Lost", like all HD content on ABC, is broadcast in 720p, and your PowerBook won't do very well with it. I played around with EyeTV on a similarly aged PBG4 (867Mhz, I think), and the picture was too jerky to watch. The software tries, but there's too much data for it to scale smoothly.

If you can afford a Mac mini or an iMac, though, you're good to go. I have a Core Duo Mac mini connected to my HDTV, and use it daily for OTA programming. I've used a Miglia TVMini HD, and I just got an HDHomeRun so I could both record two shows at once and shorten the runs of antenna cable from the roof. I would suggest getting an Elgato product simply because it would come with EyeTV 3, which is great.
posted by fedward at 5:25 PM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: Fedward, thanks. I'm able to view downloaded HD "Lost" episodes on my G4 though - is this different than viewing them live?
posted by cahlers at 5:49 PM on February 5, 2008

It is indeed different. The OTA broadcast is 720p/60, meaning that a new, 720 line frame is sent 60 times a second. If there were no other subchannels, they could take up to about 19 megabits per second (Mbps) to send you that (whether they actually do is another story).

If you're viewing episodes on the ABC web site, they are compressed and encoded to match the bit rate that will stream "live" over a home internet connection. For the sake of discussion, that's somewhere between, say, 1.2Mbps (the real-world speed for a "1.5Mbps" line) and, oh, 4Mbps on the high end (real world speeds for high-end DSL, cable, or fiber lines are beyond the scope of this answer, but I'm willing to bet the target data rate is less than 4Mbps in any case). One thing they can do to fit video in that much smaller pipe is send you fewer frames -- 24fps instead of 60, but that works out fine because film cameras work at 24fps anyway. If the 720-line frames were exactly the same that would cut the 19Mbps requirement down to 7.6Mbps, still too big for the home pipe. So the 720p frames are further compressed in some way to get the total bandwidth down to a reasonable number.

If you're buying episodes from iTunes, the details are different (the video doesn't have to be optimized for streaming) but the end the result is roughly the same. Your computer just has to play back the version with the lower framerate and less data per frame, which is why it copes just fine.
posted by fedward at 6:44 PM on February 5, 2008

From this list the top two are the Phillips high performance and Terk Indoor.

I can vouch for the Terk indoor antenna being a pretty good one. I do get periodic hiccups, but my understanding is that that's par for the course with indoor antennae. Overall I'm very happy with it -- my wife and I were about to finally end our policy of never ever paying for TV ever again, just because we were tired of lots of snow and no viewable PBS signal. But buying the HDTV and hooking up the new antenna fixed all that -- NBC Nightly News now looks better than my DVDs do.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:28 AM on February 6, 2008

Response by poster: Middleclasstool: to clarify, you use your HDTV and the Terk indoor antenna, without using a computer?
posted by cahlers at 6:21 AM on February 6, 2008

Yes, I haven't tried going through my PC to use as a DVR or anything, just plugged the coax cable from the antenna to the TV directly.

All research I've done on this indicates you'll get fewer freeze-ups and hiccups using a good solid outdoor antenna, and that's what I ultimately intend to do, but for now I'm pretty happy with the Terk indoor.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:40 AM on February 6, 2008

Response by poster: I agree about the outdoor antenna, but it looks like installation is more involved for those. I don't own an HDTV, and can't afford one right now. I was hoping to use my Mac Powerbook G4 connected to a TV, but it looks like the G4's processor is not powerful enough to view HDTV. I don't really care about viewing in HD, but it seems that all digital signals, at least in some areas, according to fedward's post above, are automatically in HD. Has this been your experience too, middleclasstool? Or do you only what the shows that are in HD?
posted by cahlers at 7:04 AM on February 6, 2008

Have you checked your local listings? I forgot to link Tvfool earlier which should show you what will be available within your area. (of course for the weaker signals you'll need a stronger that should help with your purchasing decisions if there's a must have channel).
posted by samsara at 7:12 AM on February 6, 2008

Oops nevermind fedward already linked tvfool....regardless it's a great resource and his post is very informative. As for channels coming in HD, you'll need to look at each of the stations you find with tvfool or antennaweb to see how they are broadcasting their signal. You may have a lot of digital SD, unlike DC which upscales theirs.
posted by samsara at 7:22 AM on February 6, 2008

I can't speak to the technical aspects of the signal coming in, but as far as picture quality goes, here's the lowdown -- not every program is available in HD (local news here in Little Rock, for instance), and so they show at normal resolution (which actually looks worse on an HDTV than it does on an older TV).

However, if the show is available in HD, there's no way I can watch a non-HD version of the show on the digital channel. So for instance, NBC Nightly News has a hi-def widescreen broadcast here on channel 4.1. The only way I can watch the non-HD version of this broadcast is to flip over to channel 4 and watch the non-digital signal. Which, as you can imagine, has suck picture quality and your normal rabbit-ear snow and distortion.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:25 AM on February 6, 2008

Response by poster: Samsara, thanks. TVFool is quite helpful. A colleage also clarified the HDTV vs standard definition digital broadcasts for me. Apparantly ABC, for example broadcasts in both standard definition and HD. How can I choose to receive the SD but not the HD signal? I want to prevent my G4 from working too hard to process the HD signal, as fedward describes above.
posted by cahlers at 7:30 AM on February 6, 2008

Response by poster: On TVFool or antennaweb, how can I determine if signal is HD or std def digital?
posted by cahlers at 8:44 AM on February 6, 2008

They should just appear on different sub channels I would think (again I haven't quite gotten that far as I'm still holding out for the 950Q). When you set up your tuner software you can simply exclude the HD channels as they come up for the G4. (at worst they will just be choppy and the screen will tear a lot)

As far as telling which are HD and which are SD (or even ED if those exist), I think googling the station names should be helpful. I looked around a bit to see if there was a database that included subchannel definition types but no luck so far.
posted by samsara at 11:11 AM on February 6, 2008

Actually from what I'm reading on other forums, the case that fedward described about HD channels carrying downgraded SD broadcasts might be true for NJ as well (it is for PA). I think the only way you'll find out for sure is testing it out, and if it doesn't work grab a mac mini or better.
posted by samsara at 11:20 AM on February 6, 2008

Response by poster: and if it doesn't work grab a mac mini or better.

I'd love to do that, except the whole idea is to keep costs low.

Thanks for the links to the other forums, samsara, that's helpful. You're probably right about just testing it out.
posted by cahlers at 11:55 AM on February 6, 2008

Yea I wish I could be more helpful in the cost arena...and who knows there might be a way to tell the tuner to downgrade the signal for you as it streams...which makes me think the 250 Plus might be a safer bet for an older processor. (eg. if you're able to re-encode the digital stream on the fly).

As mentioned in the forum I linked earlier most DVB-T receivers can automatically do this, but with the Hybrid I bet it's going to be relying on the G4 processor if there is a downscaling feature.

Hopefully someone who's had more experience with Elgato could jump in and elaborate... I'd grab the tuner from a place that doesn't nickle and dime for restocking fees (best bet, try a local computer shop like Best Buy or Circuit City). Then grab a better antenna afterwards once you've got proof of concept

best of luck!
posted by samsara at 12:23 PM on February 6, 2008

there might be a way to tell the tuner to downgrade the signal for you

I've been googling like hell about just this, and if there's a solution, this would have to be it. In most markets, there's only one digital channel for main network content (one NBC, one CBS, etc.), no special one for SD only shows. But surely SDTVs will have to be able to receive this signal after 2009, so the digital tuner would have to downgrade the signal for the TV.

This is all I've found from the FAQ:

The full widescreen image is up to 1920 by 1080. You can view this at a smaller size if your screen is not HD ready. 4:3 content will be displayed normally.

That doesn't speak to downgrading the signal itself, though, I don't think.
posted by middleclasstool at 1:09 PM on February 6, 2008

A dedicated DTV receiver is most likely going to have a hardware scaler in it, capable of downgrading HD picture to SD output. Especially considering the DTV switch happening next year, which would otherwise obsolete millions of sets nationwide (probably hundreds of millions of them, actually). Bought in bulk such scaler chips are cheap. It is somewhat amusing that you can get a $40 coupon towards a digital converter, but only one that "does not contain features or functions except those necessary to enable a consumer to convert any channel broadcast in the digital television service into a format that the consumer can display on television receivers designed to receive and display signals only in the analog television service, but may also include a remote control device". Eligible devices are thus not allowed to output HDTV, but they're required to convert it. You could also buy an HDTV receiver like this one -- that would convert HDTV to SD analog for your old TV, and would also work with a so-called "HD-ready" display (these were sold before the HD receiving and decoding chips were plentiful and cheap), but you can't apply the coupon to it. Also, since it lacks PVR features (and any new TV you'd buy now would have a digital tuner in it already) you might not want it anyway.

The problem with an EyeTV setup -- with any hardware -- is that there aren't any tuners that do hardware scaling on the playback (to the best of my knowledge, anyway).

<soapbox>EyeTV also has a problem in this regard because Apple has never published how to use the built-in graphics capability of modern Macs to accelerate video scaling, so all EyeTV playback is CPU-dependent. The newest Macs *would* be capable of hardware-accelerated video, if only Apple would share. It won't.</soapbox>

It occurs to me you might also be able to identify what non-HD channels you get, using the program guide at TitanTV, but it'll be sort of painful. Plug in your zip code, view the digital grid, click the "HD only" box, and write down all the subchannels that have HD programming in prime time. Knock out those particular channels from your list, and you'll be left with all the SD digital channels. I can't actually receive Baltimore channels with the antenna I have, but they show up in my grid anyway, and I can see that ABC affiliate WMAR does have an SD subchannel with their prime time programming. They're the only commercial network doing that, but at least you could watch "Lost."
posted by fedward at 3:21 PM on February 6, 2008

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