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Articles: Getting TV to Your iPod Video

After opening the iPod I gave my wife for our anniversary, she had only one question: "Can I get Oprah on this?" The answer was not an immediate 'yes,' but instead a tentative 'soon.'

There are really only two ways to put broadcast TV on an iPod. The first, and by far Apple's preferred method, is through the iTunes Music Store. It's certainly a simple way to add TV to your iPod, but not every show is available and the $1.99 cost per episode can add up quickly. Which leads us to the second option: capturing TV with a Personal Video Recorder (PVR). There are a variety of external PVRs, but converting video for your iPod requires many extra steps. For direct TV recording to your iPod there is one name that is universally respected. EyeTV 2 is the Mac PVR software from Elgato that turns any Mac into an impressive entertainment system. Although Elgato currently makes hardware to work with their EyeTV software, they encourage other hardware manufacturers to use the EyeTV software with non-Elgato devices.

Miglia [Mee-Lee-Ah] is the leading video hardware company using the EyeTV 2 software with their own unique hardware. To pick up where Apple left off with the Mac mini, Miglia created the TVMax (PN A-MIG-TVM-03). The TVMax looks almost identical to the Mac mini and stacks nicely underneath it to give it an integrated component feel. Also, because it has the design elements of the Mac mini, it fits nicely next to other Apple-designed computers. The TVMax has an analog TV tuner and analog video inputs. This allows it to connect to a variety of TV sources. The tuner can handle Broadcast and Cable signals and the video inputs will accept video feeds from a Digital Cable box or Satellite receiver. Most of the scheduling features are only offered for signals coming in from the tuner's coaxial connection. An added benefit of having the analog video inputs on the TVMax is that you can record your home movies from a VCR or camcorder. That feature makes the TVMax two products in one slick package.

Not everyone needs all the features and encoding capability of the TVMax. There are those who may just want to receive and record cable TV. Also, there are always some people who don't like the look of the Mac mini and might want something more visually understated. For them, there is the TVMicro (PN A-MIG-TVM-04), also from Miglia. This tiny, thumb drive-sized device will astonish you with how small a USB TV tuner can be. It's powered from the USB bus and can plug directly into any USB 2.0 Mac. Installing the TVMicro is as simple as screwing in the cable line to one end and plugging the other end's USB 2.0 connection into the back of your Mac.

Both the TVMax and TVMicro come with remote controls and the EyeTV 2 software. Each one is a USB 2.0 device with an analog TV tuner. At first glance, the only extra feature of the TVMax is its analog video inputs. With the similarity in features and the difference in price between the TVMax and TVMicro, you would think that the TVMicro would be the only real choice, but not everything fits into a micro package. The TVMax has built-in hardware encoding capabilities the TVMicro does not have. That allows you to pre-encode the video files before they are sent to your Mac.

TVMax users can choose from three different video encoding codecs. MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and DivX are all supported in multiple levels of quality. This is important for two reasons. A codec will determine how data is compressed into smaller files while still preserving the visual integrity of a video. MPEG-2 is what DVDs use for compression but those files are larger than MPEG-4 and DivX files. Most times you are looking at about 1.2 GB to 1.9 GB per hour of video. Having a wide range of hardware encoding means you will get the file you want the first time you record it. The second benefit to having a hardware encoder is that the device is doing most of the work for you and not your computer. For example, if you are running an older G4 PowerBook, you will find that the TVMicro is limited in features. The TVMicro just tunes the video and passes it along to your Mac. The Mac has to do the work of encoding it. Even watching live TV will use up more processor power than the TVMax because of EyeTV's buffering. Older Macs and slower Macs will see the benefit of having the TVMax's hardware encoder.

The binding element to any Mac PVR setup is the EyeTV 2 software. This software is what enables me to easily get Oprah onto my wife's iPod. The EyeTV software will display live TV in any sized window on the Mac's screen. It's perfect for multitaskers who can watch TV, surf MySpace, and IM all at once. For more of a TV feeling the remote can put you into full screen mode, which lets you access a Front Row style menu system. There you can chose to watch prerecorded shows or live TV. You can pause live TV and then fast forward through commercials. EyeTV 2 pulls data from a free TV guide source called TitanTV. This lets you scan through the TV listings to see what's on now or what you want to record in the future. In small screen mode you can filter the TV listings through a Finder-like search box and schedule a particular show to be recorded every day. The extra EyeTV 2 feature that made my life easier was the ability to mark every recording as iPod bound. EyeTV recorded the show at the standard compression rate, but afterwards re-encoded a version for the iPod. When it's done, you have an iPod-ready version of the show added to your iTunes library.

The default conversion codec for the iPod is set to H.264, which is a beautiful codec. The drawback is that this encoding is not done in hardware regardless of what unit you have. A H.264 conversion can take almost three and a half hours for a one-hour show. There is an option to change the iPod export to the MPEG-4 iPod format and that is about five times faster. I would highly recommend it. The video quality is not as good but you have a clean copy in the EyeTV archive if you need it.

Some of the recordings you're going to want to keep, but others you'll want to delete after you watch them. Your hard drive can fill up fast, and not every show is a keeper. In anticipation of people wanting to keep shows but having limited drive space, EyeTV 2 contains a simple video editor that makes it easy to remove commercials. That helps make room for new shows by slimming down your video files and just keeping what you want to watch.

Miglia and Elgato's partnership on these two products have made an outstanding package. Miglia has mastered hardware functionality and esthetics while Elgato has made impressive software. Together they have made my wife fall in love with her video iPod and for that, they earned my admiration. Now back to watching a little TV while I write an email.
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