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Adding DVR Functionality to Your Mac mini

The basic function of DVRs is to record TV digitally on your Mac mini and to schedule taping for later viewing without commercials and without the hassles of tapes. You can also burn video to DVDs for longer term storage. Some boxes have the "live pausing" feature found in TiVo.

You can also save money with a DVR box that plugs into your Mac compared to the stand-alone variety. Not only are Mac-based DVR boxes less expensive, but you also don't have to pay a subscription fee, as you do with TiVo and other similar devices. Fortunately, these DVR boxes are easy to install.

The parts of a DVR

To get television or digital video recorder functionality on your Mac mini, a DVR box must have the following elements and functions:

  • TV tuner: Accepts a signal from your TV cable or antenna and can distinguish among the channels. Watch out, though. You can find boxes that are only TV tuners, which, by themselves, don't give you the ability to record video.
  • Analog-to-digital converter (analog audio-in port): Converts the standard TV signals into a digital format that your Mac mini can record. This converter also lets you plug in analog video sources, such as a VCR.
  • Digital-to-analog converter (analog video out): Allows you to view the digital images on an analog TV or send them to a VCR.
  • Program guide: Lets you search for and find TV shows that you may want to view or record. Some DVR boxes include Mac mini software that accesses the Internet to get this information. You can also access program guides with a Web browser.
  • Software: Lets you control the system, change channels, pause, and do everything else you need to. All the hardware boxes come with software. The software features differ, however, and they differentiate the models more than anything else.

Comparing DVR boxes

The available DVR solutions vary in price and features. Here are some features that are common to the boxes:

  • The ability to play and record TV in a variety of digital formats.
  • The ability to schedule recording ahead of time.
  • The ability to use TitanTV to browse, search, and schedule recordings.
  • The ability to resize TV windows from small to full screen.

Some of the boxes can also pause and "rewind" live TV as you watch it, as well as let you skip ahead of commercials in live TV. (This is a big feature of the TiVo service, but here you get it without the monthly fee.) The boxes do this by buffering a few minutes of TV on the Mac mini hard drive as the feed comes in.

Some of the boxes also come with a remote to control the device.

Here's a quick tour of three DVR boxes for the Mac mini:

  • Miglia EvolutionTV: The Miglia EvolutionTV ( Miglia) is the least expensive and nicest-looking box. The picture quality tends to be better than that of the EyeTV. Like the others, the EvolutionTV can record in MPEG-2 (DVD-quality) format and MPEG-4 (used by iMovie) format, but it is the only DVR box so far that can record in DivX format.
    Although the software offers the simplest interface of the three DVR boxes described here, it isn't always obvious as to how to do something.
    On the plus side, EvolutionTV has the convenient and unique ability to use iCal for scheduling. However, the biggest deficiency of the EvolutionTV is that it doesn't let you pause live broadcasts.
  • Formac Studio TVR: Formac Studio TVR ( Formac) is a FireWire DVR device. It also includes an extra FireWire port for connection to another FireWire device, such as a digital camcorder. The Studio TVR doubles as a full-fledged video-capture device for converting your analog videotapes to digital, with a variety of analog video input and output ports, include coax, RCA (composite), and S-Video.
    Images are crisp and sharp, even when displayed at full screen, and the software is full-featured. The Studio TVR software also gives you complete flexibility regarding the size of the TV window.
    Like EyeTV, the Formac Studio TVR software offers a live-pause feature by keeping a buffer of the TV feed You can also record shows on the fly or via a schedule and export recorded shows as a QuickTime file.
    You can also do a lot of this video editing with iMovie, because the Studio DVR software is integrated with Apple's video editor. The Studio TVR software includes an add-on to iMovie called the iMovie Remote Control, which allows you to select TV channels and video sources directly in iMovie, where you can watch, record, and edit TV directly.
    On the downside, the Formac Studio TVR doesn't come with a remote. The Keyspan Express Remote does work with it, however.
  • Elgato Systems EyeTV 200: Elgato offers a whole set of EyeTV models, but at this point, the EyeTV 200 is the most flexible of the company's offerings. It is also the most expensive of the three DVR boxes described here. (The original EyeTV is the weakest of the three here —you don't want it.)
    Like the Formac box, EyeTV 200 connects to the Mac with FireWire, which means it doesn't need a power cable. It supports coaxial video, composite video, and S-Video-in and comes with a full-sized remote.
    The software has a clear user interface and a solid set of features. Like the Formac, EyeTV 200 can pause live TV, and rewind and fast-forward, through the use of a buffer. The scheduler can wake up the Mac mini from sleep mode to record a program. Unlike the Miglia EvolutionTV, EyeTV 200 doesn't support DivX.

Keep in mind that with future upgrades, manufacturers can add features that aren't currently included. Check the manufacturers' Web sites before you make a buying decision.

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