A featured review by Kynan Shook.
HDHomeRun and EyeTV
For the past month, I’ve been testing out an HDHomeRun, a networked dual HDTV tuner. What does that mean for a user? Well, you plug the small box (a little smaller than a DSL or cable modem) into your Ethernet network, and then any computer (Mac, Windows, Linux, etc.) on the network can watch TV. Not only that, but you can watch two channels at once, whether one each on two computers, or use EyeTV’s picture-in-picture to watch two channels at once, or record one channel while watching another, or record two channels at once… It’s great if you have multiple TV-watchers in your home, but it’s also good if there are multiple shows you want to watch or record at the same time.
The HDHomeRun has two coax plugs – you can supply two antennas, two cable TV hookups, or one of each. However, it can only receive digital signals. Over the air, this means HDTV, but cable providers vary. When I last had cable about a year ago, I was able to get all the basic channels with a digital receiver for a while. Eventually, Charter started filtering the digital signal though (since, technically, we were only signed up for analog cable – I just happened to try it with my EyeTV 500 digital tuner). Your mileage may vary greatly, and may change at any time. To receive cable channels, they must be broadcast as clear, unencrypted QAM. Sometimes that’s only the local channels, sometimes that’s basic cable, and sometimes it’s nothing. A cable box doesn’t help – those output analog signals for your TV, not digital like the HDHomeRun needs.
Also of note is that it requires Ethernet. This may or may not be an issue for you; for me, I only use wireless internet, so I had to string cables across my apartment. I did try to use it over wireless (802.11g on a cheap router, with a strong signal, and a transmit rate of 54 Mbps), and it just didn’t work, even for a low-bandwidth standard-definition signal (around 4 Mbps). I don’t have any 802.11n equipment to try it with; those have higher bandwidth capability, so they might work better, or they might not. In any case, you shouldn’t buy one unless you’re willing to have all your TV-enabled computers on an Ethernet network. Reports on the internet vary widely on this topic.
Now, I can hear everybody asking (and this included me too) ‘Can I just plug the HDHomeRun into one computer’s Ethernet port, and use it like a USB or FireWire TV tuner?’ The answer is no – HDHomeRun requires a DHCP server to get an IP address. This is normally performed by your router. With the right configuration, you should be able to enable a DHCP server on your Mac, but I was unable to get it working right with a quick try (I think I would need to create the appropriate configuration files, which were not present). It would be nice if you could just turn on Internet Sharing and have it work (and, given a proper configuration file, it might), but this was not the case for me.
So, time to get started setting up the device. Plug in an Ethernet cable, a coax cable or two, and a power cable. Since it’s a networked tuner, it doesn’t have to be anywhere near a computer – it just needs Ethernet. Elgato’s Setup Assistant is a breeze. Unfortunately, getting it to work with the HDHomeRun is not. I had to run the Setup Assistant about 3 times on my PowerMac before it would see the unit. When I tried the same thing on my PowerBook, it quickly became clear that there was something wrong – repeated attempts didn’t work there. I eventually narrowed it down to Leopard’s firewall. My desktop is set to allow certain applications; EyeTV is one of these, however the setting doesn’t appear to take effect immediately. My laptop is set to only allow essential services, blocking the HDHomeRun’s communications. Switching to allowing on a per-application basis fixed the problem, but not immediately. Turning off the firewall completely did fix it immediately, however. The one thing that’s missing here is a useful error message – EyeTV reports “No hardware is available which supports the TV standards of the selected country.” That’s not exactly indicative of a firewall problem.
I’ll put this note here because it may affect this, and other notes I make – I’m using EyeTV 2.5.2. Elgato released EyeTV 3 earlier this year, however version 2 is what was included with the review unit I received. New units should ship with the new software, and some of these software problems may have been fixed.
Anyway, back to the setup. Once I had that problem figured out, it really was easy to get going – EyeTV runs its auto-tune process for a while, then downloads the electronic program guide for the channels you receive. Then you’re ready to watch and record. EyeTV 2 is very nice, as noted in my review from a while back. The program is still missing the polish I wish it had, but they do keep adding nice features; for example, you can now start recording something that is not live (eg, you’re watching a show 15 minutes behind the live broadcast, then you decide you want to record it – you can go backwards in the live TV buffer and start recording at that time). Setting up recordings is very easy – find the program you want, click a button, and it’ll schedule a recording. When the time comes, your Mac will wake up automatically.
After it had tuned, the first thing I noticed was that the tuner was MUCH better than my current one, an EyeTV 500. I’ve always had problems receiving TV well with it, and my current apartment has the worst TV reception of any I’ve been in – on a good day with my EyeTV 500, I can receive Fox and NBC (but nothing else). On a great day, I can receive both at the same time without having to move the antenna. On a truly exceptional day, I can get both and not have frequent signal dropouts. However, the HDHomeRun is another story; it found 13 channels on 6 frequencies (compared to 3 channels on 2 frequencies), and most of them work well most of the time. I’m using two antennas; one is an expensive amplified antenna, the other is a cheap one that would probably cost about $3, if it hadn’t come for free with my roommate’s cheap TV. The expensive one receives more channels, but both are useful. The one thing I wish, however, is that I could tell EyeTV which tuner to use for which channels; some channels only come in on one of the antennas, and if EyeTV chooses the wrong tuner for that channel, I end up with an empty recording.
There are some things that you may not know about digital TV, if you’re used to analog tuners. In digital, a station can choose to broadcast multiple channels on the same frequency, something known as multiplexing. On digital cable, they might have as many as 10 standard definition channels at once – you can watch as many of these as you want and still only use one tuner. Of course, you have no control over which ones are grouped where, so this often isn’t useful. Also, EyeTV won’t take advantage of this by itself – if you want to record two programs off of PBS (which broadcasts 5 different channels of programming, though at most 4 at a time), it will use two tuners. If you just watch them (even if you keep one paused, using the live TV buffer to keep a temporary recording), you can do it on just one tuner. However, you can start a recording, then start watching one of the multiplexed channels on the same tuner (open the in-progress recording, then hold control while choosing Open Live TV on Multiplex from the File menu), but only on the computer making the recording.
In addition to the improved receiver strength of the HDHomeRun, I also appreciated changes to the signal strength and quality meters; for the EyeTV 500, the Signal Quality is either at 100% or 0%, depending on whether the channel is coming in. On the HDHomeRun, both of these meters give reasonably meaningful results, which should help more if you’re trying to position an antenna. Another nice touch is that the unit comes with all the needed cables; two coax cables, one Ethernet cable, plus the obligatory wall wart for power. The only disadvantage here is that the wall wart has a very bright red power light – something I find annoying in my bedroom at night. Black tape might come in handy to cover it up. There’s no remote included, but if you have a recent Mac, you can use the Apple remote to control EyeTV. There is an IR Receiver on the HDHomeRun, but as far as I know, it only works with MythTV on Linux.
There are a couple small bugs I encountered. First, EyeTV wastes about 6% of my CPU (a dual 2.7 GHz G5) and a small amount of network traffic to continually query the HDHomeRun for its status. It uses about 4% of the CPU on my laptop (a 1 GHz PowerBook G4 – incidentally, too slow to watch high definition channels without jerkiness). Not a big problem, but I dislike applications using the CPU when they don’t need to. This is only a problem with the HDHomeRun; EyeTV is completely idle when connected to my EyeTV 500. Also, I’ve occasionally seen cases where I’ll open a live TV window, and it’ll say “No Signal” until I change the channel away and back again. Occasionally, this seems to have happened on a recording, too, resulting in an empty recording. Finally, EyeTV still has a bug where, if you’re watching a show that is being recorded, EyeTV will jump to live TV as soon as the recording finishes, which is annoying if you’re only halfway through watching.
So, what’s the overall verdict on this device? Well, it’s a great TV tuner. Everybody in your house can use it, so you’re not limited to watching TV on just one computer. It’s also handy to be able to record multiple shows at the same time. The price is also quite good at $200 (the EyeTV 500 was $300 when I purchased it about 3 years ago – and it’s not networked and only has one tuner). That price includes the EyeTV software; the HDHomeRun can be purchased elsewhere for $170 without software (the HDHomeRun itself is made by SiliconDust, not Elgato), but Elgato’s bundle including the EyeTV software is an excellent deal. The price difference is even less than an upgrade from EyeTV 2 to 3 (currently $40). It’s a perfect first TV tuner for your house, and it’s a great upgrade for those who already own a TV tuner. Being able to use the HDHomeRun with pretty much any operating system is a big plus. However, you’ll need to find appropriate software (such as VLC), most of which is not as good as Elgato’s EyeTV for the Mac. However, if you rely on analog sources, such as a game system you want connected to your computer, or if you can only get analog cable, the HDHomeRun isn’t a good choice. It’s also not for you if you don’t have an Ethernet network in your home, and you’re not willing to wire up your computers. In either case, however, I would recommend checking out Elgato’s other tuners at Elgato’s Web site.
More information about the HDHomeRun can be found at the product page