Are you a Mac user who wants to create an entertainment center? Well, you have two choices. You can blow more Mac Bucks on an Apple TV, which is basically a wireless media hub that allows you to move multimedia content from your computer to your TV and stereo equipment (a.k.a., your "media center"). Or you can beef up your current Mac with a TV tuner.
TV tuners allow your computer to receive and capture TV signals, recording your favorite shows onto your hard drive. Connected to, say, a Mac Mini (which was my system of choice), you can also use the computer's 802.11b/g wireless capabilities to handle streaming video and audio from an upstairs network, its integrated Bluetooth to offer freedom of a wireless keyboard and Apple's wireless Mighty Mouse, and you can capture your favorite TV shows for later viewing.
I tested three USB tuners to see how they rated as components in a Mac-based entertainment center: Miglia’s TVMax+, Plextor’s ConvertX PVR PX-TV402U, and Eskape Labs MyTV.PVR.
The three tuners do have some things in common. For example, all three offer hardware compression, which can be very important, especially with a less-than-bleeding-edge processor (my Mac Mini has a 1.83-GHz processor, which only the abnormally devoted would call a powerful CPU). Rather than push the video compression to the computer, the tuner does the bulk of it onboard. It’s less taxing to the system as a whole and tends to prevent annoying video/audio sync problems.
In addition, all three of these tuners take advantage of TitanTV’s electronic programming guide (EPG). Basically, it’s an online guide to TV programming, usually spanning about two weeks, that lets you select programs to watch and/or record.
And all three come with software that does the nitty-gritty TV work (preferences for screen size, recording quality and location, even channel changing) and, in conjunction with a good EPG, can turn the computer you already own into a TiVo-like system. Plextor uses Elgato’s EyeTV DVR software, which works fine but had a few issues -- while EyeTV claims to capture video directly to MPEG format, nothing I had would play the videos except EyeTV until I used EyeTV to convert the files to MPEG. Miglia has recently switched from EyeTV to its own branded software, (that’s the reason for the "+" in the product’s name), and it has definable recording formats for a variety of playback devices. The third tuner, Eskape, also uses its own proprietary application which can also capture in a variety of formats, and which was ready to be played by other applications as soon as I was done.
None of these three tuners are compatible with High Definition (HD) or Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). There are a few USB devices out there that can handle HD, but QAM, a method used by cable broadcasters to send digital signals down the same line as their analog programming, is almost nonexistent in the genre. In addition, none of these tuners support IR blasters, so you won’t be controlling external cable or satellite boxes with them. They are simply analog solutions for cable TV.
Of course, along with the cable F-connector, all three have standard RCA-type AV input jacks and SVHS inputs so you’re not limited to just watching TV. Plug in your DVD player, your iPod, your video camera, or anything else with a matching output. Any of these tuners turn the Mac Mini into a very capable video hub.
Along the way, I did hit an interesting problem. Two of the tuners caused mild rippling effects on the TV picture, which could have been caused by a poor tuner, problematic cable signal, or simply physically degraded cable lines or a bad splitter. By feeding the USB tuners into the VGA input of the my testbed TV (a Vizio VX37L 37-inch LCD HDTV) and comparing their images to the image that the TV picked up directly from the cable box (using the Picture-in-Picture feature), I was able to compare the two.
Finally, some words of advice for those with limited hard drive space: An hour of DVD-quality recording can easily eat up 3.4 Gbytes of space. If you do intend to use your Mini (or other Apple system) as a media hub and don’t want low definition playback, make sure either that you've got a good-sized hard drive or tack an external USB drive to it.