I bought myself one of those DTT sticks last week. I promised I’d let you know how it was working it, so here we go. Remember, you can click any of these pictures to make them bigger, if you want a better look:
As with all things FreeView, you’re very much limited by how the quality of the signal reception. Rubbish aerial or rubbish location and you’re just not getting FreeView.
I started off with the mini-aerial that comes with the stick. That gave me about 26% signal and meant I couldn’t watch any of the ITV channels or Channel 4. So if you’re thinking of getting this for a laptop, say, bear in mind that you’re probably not going to be able to get all the channels wherever you use the stick.
We actually have a shared aerial in our block of flats. All we needed to do was plug a cable into the aerial socket in the wall to connect to it. Except first, I needed a cable.
Fortunately, I had one stuck in the back of the TV: it turns out you don’t need to use it if you have a SCART socket. The signal got better (46%) once I switched aerial, meaning I could watch C4, etc (and ABC1), but UK TV History and Film4 are still a bit juddery. Still, that’s FreeView for you. Since the software works with any Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) service, I imagine if you take this with you on your travels, you’ll experience similar vagaries in other countries. Or maybe they’re better.
Still, the enhanced signal strength means I can actually use the stick at home as a personal video recorder, rather than as a stop-gap measure.
In practice, the stick is actually pretty easy to use, thanks to the EyeTV software provided. First, plug the stick into a USB 2.0 port; there’s an optional extender you can use, too, if your port is recessed and the stick won’t fit into it. Then plug the aerial into the stick and get EyeTV to tune in the channels.
Next, decide where you want to get the TV listings from: the guide that each channel broadcasts (marked in EyeTV as DVB), or from the tvtv online service. You get a year’s subscription with EyeTV, after which you have to pay for it, but you get many more days in the tvtv listing than you do with the DVB listing. You can also use the tvtv site to set up recordings remotely: the EyeTV software will access the Internet at regular intervals and download any schedules you’ve set up. However, not all the channels appear to be in tvtv and it’s a UK-only service, so you’ll probably end up use DVB for some channels, at least.
Once you’ve got downloaded the listings or tuned into the channel and grabbed the built-in guide, you can scan the schedules for programmes you want to watch or record. Click on the programme name, click on the “Add Schedule” button and EyeTV will record it to your hard drive. There are preferences to extend the start and end times of recordings if you suspect previous programmes are going to overrun.
If you leave the EyeTV software running, but put your Mac to sleep, the software will still wake it up at the right time to record your programmes. It’s supposed to put it to sleep again afterwards, but I’ve not managed to get it to do that yet.
You can expect to spend 1.2GB to 1.8GB of hard drive space per hour of recording, depending on the channel’s signal strength, the programme, etc, so make sure you’ve a big hard drive with plenty of free space before you start committing to recording all of I, Claudius, for example.
Niftily, you can set up any recording to repeat and it’ll record the programme on a schedule. If it conflicts with an existing schedule (for alas, the DTT stick can only record one programme at a time), it’ll warn you and let you choose which schedule you want to keep.
You can also do a text search of the entire channel listing to find a programme, or part of a programme description, that matches your criteria. Want anything that Rob Brydon appears in? Just type “Rob Brydon” into the search box and Rob Brydon’s Annually Yours as well as Little Britain will show up.
Alternatively, open the Live TV window and you can watch whatever channel you’re currently tuned into. Like Sky+, you can pause and rewind live TV: precisely how much, you determine in the programme’s preferences. You can also record it, as you’d expect.
Once you’ve recorded programmes, they sit in a folder waiting for you to enjoy them. Each gets a little icon that’s based on the last part of the recording you watched. Double-click on the icon and the programme will play, even if you’re recording TV or watching another programme in another window. The picture quality’s very good, since the DTT stick just dump the TV signal to your hard drive without any further compression.
Among the more advanced features, you can also create playlists and have the recordings added to them automatically, so you can watch a series in one go; set the EyeTV software to create a video iPod-friendly version of each programme to watch while you’re on the move; and archive your programmes to DVD or CD using Toast.
All of which is very nice. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s allowing me to catch up with programmes I always forget to record or that clash with other shows. It’s also allowing me to fill up my hard drive with things I’m probably never going to watch.
On the other hand, my PalmPilot’s Radio Times listing software has some nice features that the EyeTV software could do well to emulate. For example, you can view an entire channel’s output at one glance.
Most of the time, I know that a particular channel is going to have programmes I might want to watch and it’s nice to be able to view the entire evening in one shot. The EyeTV listing, however, means that it’s very hard to see all the programmes for that evening in one go and there’s plenty of scrolling around to be done. The “Favourite Channels” feature does at least let you narrow down the search a little, but it’s no substitute.
Also, the Palm software has a favourites view. You select a programme as a favourite and you can then see which of your favourite programmes are on that evening.
You probably won’t want to watch that particular episode or even record it, but it’s good to know it’s there. An equivalent feature in the EyeTV software would be very handy, since it prevents you from constantly having to scan through all the listings for everything you might be interested in.
So it’s good, does what it says, is a lot more useful than a video and FreeView box but could do with a couple of improvements. I’d recommend it if you really love your TV or you plan to be travelling around about it and really love your TV. I’m not sure I’d get it if as an alternative to a FreeView or Sky box, but it works nicely as a complement to one of those two gadgets.