Elgato Systems $199

Last month I reviewed Elgato’s EyeTV 200, the versatile hardware box that lets your Mac work as a digital video recorder, a TV tuner and a video encoder. The EyeHome provides the other half of the television to Mac equation: it lets you view and listen to digital content from your Mac on your television. Why crowd around a Mac when your family and friends can enjoy your movies, slide shows and music in the comfort of your living room?

The EyeHome works as a stand-alone, remote control device for viewing and listening to your iPhotos, iTunes, and videos in certain formats, and even for surfing the web on your TV. When you use EyeHome in conjunction with the EyeTV, you can navigate and view the videos you’ve recorded from your television, camcorder, VHS or DVD player on your TV at full quality. It’s a sweet combination that offers significant advantages over regular digital video recorders.

If you have more than one Mac, it gets even better. The EyeHome can access digital content from any Mac on your network, as long as it meets the system requirements.

EyeHome is a brushed silver hardware box with a diminuitive form factor (8 x 6 x 1") virtually identical to the EyeTV. The EyeHome connects to your Mac through a wired or wireless network connection, and connects to your television via stereo or optical digital audio and S-Video, component or composite video ports. An ethernet cable and power adapter are provided, but you’ll have to provide your own audio and video connector cables. On the television end, connect the audio and video cables to the AV 1 or AV 2 ports found on most newer televisions.

The EyeHome works as a network device. If your Mac uses an ethernet cable to connect to the internet (most cable modems use this connection), you’ll either need to connect to an empty port on your router or add a router if you don’t already have one. I had to add a four port switch (less than $30) to my network gain an empty port, but most folks with routers will find that they have ports to spare.

To connect wirelessly, you’ll need to add an Airport Express or other wireless bridge (Elgato recommends D-Link models) to an existing Airport Extreme or other 802.11g wireless network. This method is not totally wireless, as the Airport Express plugs into an electrical outlet and connects to the EyeHome by an ethernet cable, but at least this way you don’t have to run a cable all the way from the EyeHome to your router or Mac. If you’re not using the ethernet port on your Mac (the port looks like an outsized phone jack and has the <··> symbol), you can connect the EyeHome directly to your Mac with an ethernet crossover cable.

When planning your setup, be sure to locate the EyeHome box close to your television so you can use the included hand-held remote control to navigate the on-screen menus. The EyeTV, in contrast, should be close to your computer so you can control and edit recording on your Mac’s display. This doesn’t matter much if your Mac and television are nearby, but is something to bear in mind if they’re located in different rooms.
Still with me? Don’t worry, making the connection is the hardest part. Once you’ve done the setup, turn on the television and switch to AV 1 or 2 to see the EyeHome menu. Select the Mac whose content you want to access from the on-screen menu with the remote control, then choose EyeTV, Movies, Music, Pictures or Web. Now you’re ready to enjoy digital content from your Mac.

Movies, Music and Pictures access the entire contents of those folders, so if you have folders and sub-folders of photos in your Pictures folder along with an iPhoto library or few, you can view them all.

Movies lets you view MPEG-1, 2 and 4 and DivX files from your Movies folder. Music gives access to iTunes songs and playlists, as well as other audio files in your Music folder. If you want visuals with your music, you can create an album of photos in iPhoto to add eye candy.

Pictures displays a thumbnail of the first photo in each roll or folder along with the folder name, making it easier to find what you’re looking for, especially if you have a massive iPhoto library or lots of picture folders. Navigating the Mac-like menus and submenus is straightforward using the arrow and number buttons on the remote.

Web lets you access the internet, and accesses your Safari Bookmarks bar for navigation. It’s a bit cumbersome, but it works, which is amazing in itself.

If you have an EyeTV, you’ll be in glory. The EyeHome can play, pause, rewind and fast-forward any recording you’ve made at gorgeous broadcast quality. I’ve been happily recording Nero Wolf mysteries from the Biography channel using EyeTV, editing out the commercials, and watching them when my schedule permits. Even though we have a digital video recorder from Time Warner, EyeTV’s editing and naming capabilities put it ahead in my book.

Now for the gotchas, most of which have to do with formats. EyeHome does not currently support all audio and video file formats. This means that music added from CDs and anything in AIFF, MP3, WAV or (unprotected) AAC format can be played just fine, but music purchased from the iTunes Music Store is encoded in a format that EyeHome can’t handle. Also unreadable, alas, are recordings from my beloved Blame it on copy protection. Guess I’ll need to stick with my iPod for Audible and iTMS listening until Elgato can work out agreements to access these two formats.

I also discovered that the EyeHome software can be sensitive to otherwise undetectable problems in an iTunes library. iTunes music from three of our four family computers played fine with the EyeHome, but my iTunes library balked. Elgato’s tech support suggested that I back up my iTunes library, then delete and re-import its contents to fix the problem. Unfortunately, for reasons that had nothing to do with the EyeHome, the re-imported iTunes library was missing about three-quarters of its contents. Ouch. Since the previous library worked fine with my Mac and iPod, I decided to bring back the backed-up version, sacrifice EyeHome compatibility for the time being, and leave the iTunes troubleshooting for another day.

Video formats turned out to be more problematic. When I tried to play the dozen or so QuickTime videos in my Movies folder, I got “unknown audio video codec” or “unknown video codec” error messages. An informative call to Elgato tech support revealed that there’s a bewildering array of video encoding formats out there, and EyeHome only supports some of them.

To find out what codec a particular QuickTime video uses, I was instructed to launch the video on my Mac, then choose Movie > Get Movie Properties > Video Track > Format where all would be revealed. Sure enough, my QuickTime videos from Apple use Sorenson compression and my iMovies and slide shows use Photo JPEG, neither of which are supported. QuickTime videos can be converted to a codec that EyeHome supports, but that seemed like too much bother for casual viewing. None of these gotchas were deal-breakers for me, but they were annoying.

The EyeHome lets you bring the best of your Mac’s multimedia – your photos, EyeTV recordings and, with some limitations, music and QuickTime videos – to your television. It’s powerful and appealing in its own right; combined with an EyeTV, the EyeHome simply can’t be beat.

–Elsa Travisano
System Requirements: PowerPC G4 or G5 processor; Mac OS 10.3 or higher or OS 10.2.8 witth QuickTime 6.4 and QuickTime for Java 1.4.1 (available via Software Update)
Network requirements: One 10.100 RJ-45 port on a router, hub or switch; or AirPort Extreme Network via a 802.11g Ethernet adaptor (not included); or connection between EyeHome and a Macintosh computer via a crossover Ethernet cable (not included).
Inputs/Outputs: 10/100 BASE-T (Fast Ethernet), composite video out, stereo audio out, S-Video out, component video out, optical digital audio out.
Copyright ©2005 by Elsa Travisano. This review appeared in the April 2005 issue of Newsbreak, the newsletter of MUG ONE - Macintosh User Group of Oneonta, NY.