My Mac Mini HTPC saga: TV tuners

 

Do I really *need* a tuner?

One of the major hang-ups I had – in making the switch from Windows Media Center to a Mac Mini – was worrying whether I’d be able to plug in enough TV tuners into the Mac Mini to be able to record all the TV I usually watch.

However, after having been *without* an HTPC for almost a year, it’s amazing how little I feel like I *must* get record whatever current-run TV shows are being played.  What with the availability of almost every TV season on Netflix instant watch, or a full season on DVD, or (theoretically) a quick download via bittorrent, there’s almost no sense of urgency left to the act of watching TV, and if we happen to miss it – oh well, I’m sure I’ll be able to get it real soon. I’ve caught up on a year’s worth of The Big Bang Theory just recently, and I’m about to re-orient myself to two years’ worth of Supernatural (so I have the possibility of watching current-run episodes within the next few weeks).

All that said, I can’t quite bring myself to give up my ability to accumulate a “taped” copy of the shows that were broadcast to me, for later viewing when I have more time.  Breaking the cycle of dependence between me and the timeslot the broadcaster decides to air the show is a powerful mental leap to make, and makes me feel less like a prisoner of the networks (and their increasingly hostile attitude towards their audience).  If only to make myself feel like I have a modicum of control over my TV habits, I’ve decided to drop another $200 on an Elgato EyeTV 250 Plus tuner.

Why that brand and model?  Couple of reasons:

  1. My research into Mac-based HTPC’s and Mac-compatible tuners seems to mention the Elgato products more than any other brand.  It feels like what I saw with Hauppauge for Windows Media Center, and if my satisfaction with the Hauppauge products is any indication, the Elgato products should be good.
  2. It’s not just the hardware – apparently the EyeTV software is the best available for recording and managing playback of recordings on the Mac.

Finding all the digital channels available to be recorded with your tuner

If you’re going the OTA route, then this seems like a great way to see what all is available without a prescription (ha – I mean, subscription):

http://www.equinux.com/us/products/tubestick/tuningmap.html

If you’re stuck (like me) with wanting to get the few remaining channels that haven’t gone the full-streaming/Hulu/TV.com type of approach, and you *need* that subscription to bastards like Comcast, then your tuner has one of two uses:

  1. Analog tuner (receiving the analog output from a DTA box), in which case be prepared to buy an “IR blaster” (device that allows your HTPC to direct “change channel” commands to the IR receiver of the DTA box).  This way, you get all the channels to which you’ve subscribed – whether the cable company is encrypting those QAM signals or not.
  2. Digital tuner (receiving whichever unencrypted (aka “clear QAM”) channels your cable company hasn’t yet obfuscated with the 56-bit DES encryption that (so far) is only supportably-decryptable by the DTA and/or full cable box solutions they hook up on your behalf).  This way, you get all the channels your cable company hasn’t yet encrypted – usually including the “extended basic” channels, and probably a few others that might not be high on their list of “must-have” channels.

The EyeTV software that comes with Elgato products includes a feature called “Exhaustive Scan”, which picks up the digital channels that aren’t sent out on the typical frequencies that are publicized by Comcast.  I was able to find about 80% of the non-local channels that I normally watch (and a bunch that I’ll *never* watch, no matter *how* high-def they are).  However it took me most of the afternoon to map those channels out.

Be careful though: I don’t know why, but somehow all the configuration that I did to map those channels went up in smoke the next time I rebooted the Mini. Now maybe the system crashed before shutting down EyeTV – but is this software *really* so fragile that it doesn’t cache these settings as soon as they’re configured?  And make sure that the file that stores these settings doesn’t get wiped out by an errant half-open write operation or something?

 

Future question:

Is there a similar Plex plug-in for EyeTV as is available for Boxee?

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