Two years ago I reviewed a hardware product from Elgato called the EyeTV One. You hook it up to your computer and attach an antenna to it to watch or record over-the-air HDTV on your computer. I described how you could use the product with the $4.99 EyeTV app on an iPhone to either watch live or recorded TV on your iPhone (by streaming it from your computer) or by exporting the video to a format that works on the iPhone. I thought it was a neat and useful product.
I am writing today to update that review because as nice as that product is for the iPhone, it is amazing for the iPad, especially the new third generation iPad. Watching video on an iPhone works fine, although obviously the screen is rather small. In contrast, the iPad is great for watching video, and when you combine an iPad with EyeTV, you get something really special.
First, you get the ability to stream live (or recorded) TV on your iPad. I've used the EyeTV app on my iPad to watch TV in an airport (the ones that have free WiFi) when traveling. When I was in Florida for about a month last year to try a case, I used this combination to watch live Saints football games being aired in New Orleans, even when the local TV station in Florida wasn't showing the game. Hook up your iPad to a projector, and you have a wide-screen TV that shows what you could have been watching at home, no matter where you are.
Everything that I just described works with the iPad 2. But with the new third generation iPad, I've found that I am loving EyeTV even more for a second reason: it provides the best viewing experience that I have ever seen on a portable device.
The third generation iPad with its retina display can show 1080p video. You can certainly purchase TV shows in 1080p from the iTunes Store, and they look very nice on the iPad. (Note that you need to go to the iTunes Preferences and then click on "Store" to tell iTunes to get the 1080p version instead of 720p; there is a difference in quality, as Iljitsch van Beijnum noted last month in this article for Ars Technica.) A 1080p show from iTunes can look amazing. But with the EyeTV, you can record raw, uncompressed, over-the-air HDTV on your computer, and then you can export that to a 1080p file that has compression but looks better than what you get from iTunes. You sync EyeTV-created videos to your iPad the same way that you would do so if you downloaded a show from iTunes, and EyeTV adds all of the info you need like show title, series title, a description of the episode in the comments, etc.
The resulting video quality on the iPad is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. My home TV is a large 57" screen, and when connected to my Blu-ray disc player, the image quality can be stunning. But when you pack all of those pixels into a smaller screen the size of the iPad and you hold that screen a normal viewing distance away from your face, the iPad screen looks even better than a 57" HDTV. If I am watching a show with others, the TV is the best option of course, but if I am just watching a show by myself, I'd rather watch an EyeTV-created 1080p video on my third generation iPad than watch the same program on my big screen TV. I never thought I'd say that when I first tried out EyeTV with just an iPhone two years ago.
Note that you pay a price in file size. On the iTunes store, a 1080p one-hour TV show doesn't have commercials and is about 42 minutes long with a file size of about 1.7GB. So if the commercials had not been stripped out, a 60 minute show would have been around 2.4GB. When you record an over-the-air hour long TV show on your computer using the EyeTV One hardware, the file size on your computer is about 8GB. When you export that to a 1080p file using the EyeTV software (using standard H.264 compression that can be read by your iPad), the file size is about 4.5GB. All of this math means that when you download a 1080p TV show from iTunes, you get a file that doesn't have commercials; when you instead use EyeTV to create the TV shows, you end up with a file that contains commercials (unless you take the time to use the EyeTV software to manually remove the commercials) and that is way more than twice as large. You really need to have a 32GB or a 64GB version of the iPad to have the space to carry a bunch of 4.5GB TV shows around.
But boy is it worth it. I tried to take some screen shots on my iPad to add to this post, but a still image really just doesn't do justice to the video quality. Suffice it to say that the video just looks more amazing than anything that you have ever seen before. The video quality is so good that I sometimes find myself not paying attention to the story in the TV show because I can't help thinking about how amazing the picture looks.
Note that the EyeTV One that I reviewed two years ago isn't sold by Elgato anymore, but you can still buy it on Amazon for $85. Elgato is now just selling the EyeTV Hybrid, which you can get for $130 on Amazon. That model adds more features, such as the ability to view and record unscrambled cable in addition to over-the-air HDTV. I haven't tried the Hybrid, but my guess is that the HDTV that a cable company gives you is noticeably compressed compared to a raw over-the-air HDTV signal that you pick up using antenna. The EyeTV Hybrid also (currently) includes two years of the TV Guide service, which normally costs $20 a year and is something that you definitely want so that you can easily find upcoming programs and set your EyeTV to record (much like you would using a DVR). I suppose if you take the $40 TV Guide feature into account, the two $85 EyeTV One and the $130 EyeTV Hybrid end up costing about the same.
Note that depending upon where you live, buildings around you, etc., over-the-air HDTV may not always be perfect. In my house, the EyeTV tuner can get a great NBC, FOX and ABC signal, but every once in a while I have trouble with CBS, and I can never get the PBS channel to display. When you download a show from iTunes, you know it is going to work.
I realize that EyeTV is not the best solution for everyone. First, you have to buy the hardware, which as noted is going to cost you over $100. You also need an antenna to pick up the over-the-air signal, such as this $30 model from Terk. So altogether you are spending around $150, which could have paid for around 50 $2.99 episodes on iTunes (but if you record a few full seasons with 26 episodes each on EyeTV you may come out ahead on cost.) And then there are a few more steps to get a show. On iTunes, you just click a button to download an HDTV version of a TV show. With EyeTV, you set the software to record when the program is aired, then you export it to a file to your desktop, then you drag that file to iTunes to add it to your library — not a big deal, but more than the one-step download of iTunes.
But if you do go the EyeTV route, you are gain the ability to watch a TV show on your iPad in the best quality possible. Whether you end up watching on your sofa, in your bed, or on an airplane, your eyes are in for a treat. Plus you get the ability to use the EyeTV app to stream live TV from your computer, which comes in handy at times. The EyeTV hardware is an amazing accessory to a third generation iPad, albeit an accessory that connects to your computer and not to the iPad itself. If you like to watch TV shows on your iPad, this is definitely an option to consider.
Click here for EyeTV One on Amazon ($84.95)
Click here for EyeTV Hybrid on Amazon ($128.99)