EyeTV iPhone application – a quick review

Elgato released an EyeTV application update (3.2) and an iPhone application about a week ago. I’ve been trying it out a bit, so here’s a mini-review.

The promise of the new app is that you can watch live TV (and your recordings) on your iPhone anywhere. This is pretty cool and is definitely something I’d have used, especially when I was abroad, had this been available earlier.

The way the app works is that it connects back to your home Mac and streams the video from the Mac to your iPhone over the Internet. If you watch live TV, your mac transcodes the stream to h.264 on the fly and sends it to the phone. If you have the Elgato Turbo h.264 HD USB stick, the encoding uses the stick, and is supposedly much faster. I have the stick and haven’t tried how slow it’d be without the stick, so I have no idea what the difference really is.

Now, how does it work in practice? Unfortunately, not very well. The problems and gripes I’ve encountered this far are:

  • The video quality on the phone is sometimes ok, sometimes just terrible. I can’t see myself ever watching anything that looks as bad as this. Most of the video is just pixelated jumble. I converted a nature documentary over and when viewing the clip, it took me several seconds to recognize the blob square blocks on my screen was a whale. Here’s a screenshot from the app showing a frame where you might be able to recognize something (see all the nice tropical fish? This is pretty far from the original HD production.):
  • Occasionally, but often enough to be annoying, the application complains it doesn’t support the video format of the stream from the EyeTV app. Restarting the EyeTV application on the Mac seems to fix this, but this is exactly the workaround that I can’t do when I want to watch something on the phone.
  • The problems that haunt dual-tuner EyeTV setups rise to another level with the iPhone app. The issues seem to stem from EyeTV not checking what each tuner is doing when it needs a channel for recording. Typically this means that if you’re watching something on EyeTV, instead of using the idle tuner for recording a show, it chooses to record the show on the tuner you were using to watch TV on. With the iPhone app, if you’re watching something on the TV and a family member wants to watch TV, EyeTV seems to always hijack the tuner that’s being used for watching (and not the idle tuner) and changes the channel to whatever was selected on the iPhone. And I bet scheduling recordings using the iPhone app breaks the dual-tuner scheduling in new interesting ways, as if the existing breakage isn’t bad enough.
  • If you want to watch a recording, you have to pre-convert it. No, even if you can watch live TV, you cannot transcode recordings on the fly. The rationale for this that was given on the Elgato forums is that the dev team wanted the recordings to support fast forward (which can apparently only be supported if the video is pre-converted?) but I still don’t see this as a sensible requirement. Converting my whole library of ~800 GB of recordings is not feasible due to the amount of time and storage space required so effectively I can’t watch my recordings. To make things worse, you can’t even request a recording to be converted from the app – you have to do this by clicking a checkbox in the EyeTV app on the Mac.
  • No support for video over 3G. Even if the connection is fast enough. I can’t see the sense in this, given I get much better quality video from YouTube over 3G than what the Elgato app gives me over WLAN. Further, my 3G downstream speed is most of the time guaranteed to be faster than my home ADSL’s upstream speed, so this just doesn’t make any sense. 
  • The application doesn’t work as a remote. I’d have assumed this is the very first thing they’d implemented, but, sadly, this is not the case. I’d have shelled the 3.99 just for the remote without the blink of an eye, and instead the dev team seems to have seen fit to develop something that’s taken them at least 10x the effort, and doesn’t really work.
  • DVB subtitling isn’t supported. This isn’t surprising since the only support EyeTV has for DVB subtitling is that you can watch it when viewing TV. Exporting clips that have subtitles? No go. This means I can’t watch about a thirds of the content I’d be interested in using the app, since those programs are in languages where I need the subtitles.
  • None of the views in the app that show you tons of items, such as the list of recordings or the tv guide, have search.

So… My verdict for the 1.0 release is – it just doesn’t work. There’s one thing that does (maybe) work and it’s that you can schedule recordings when you’re not at the Mac. This is very valuable if it does indeed work, but I’m assuming you can’t manage things like recording schedule conflicts or being out of recording space using iPhone, so I’m assuming this will be only 50% usable. I’m sure the first fixed version will be much improved but I’m not holding my breath on some aspects listed above, since those issues have been unaddressed for years.

Edit: added a picture. And, having to add a couple kind words: the app looks very polished and clearly a lot of work has been put into it. Most my problems with the application seem to be in the Elgato core technologies, which need fixing, and not in the iPhone app as such.

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