Review: Miglia AlchemyTV DVR

by on June 28, 2005

I’m a TV junkie. I’ll admit it. Adding television to the Mac has always been considered a cool, but under-utilized option for many Macs, since the Mac TV and early Performas. These days, USB and FireWire devices allow people to watch TV on their Macs and record their favorite programs onto the hard drive, but the option of a PCI card, which has long been available for PCs, is now available for the Power Mac G4 and G5, thanks to Miglia Technology.

I was eager to take the AlchemyTV DVR for a spin, as I always wondered what it would be like to be able to watch TV in a small window on the computer screen, instead of having to look behind me at the TV. The AlchemyTV DVR, much like the “regular” AlchemyTV, not only allows the user to watch TV, but also to record shows, much like a TV. There are two versions, as well – one model has a standard TV tuner and an FM radio tuner (NTSC or PAL, depending on the card, for the G4 only), much like any cheap TV you would buy at a store, and the other includes a silicon digital tuner (NTSC/PAL/SECAM in one card for the G4 and G5 and what we reviewed), but lacks the radio capabilities.

Remote
AlchemyTV DVR PCI Card

Remote
The Remote

Cubs on WGN
Cubs vs. Red Sox on WGN

WLS
ABC 7 News

Schedule
Scheduling Window

Both models include a nice array of inputs, including the standard coax cable line (for connecting an antenna, cable box, or similar device), a S-Video input, an RCA video input, as well as audio in and out miniplug jacks. Installation in the computer is a relatively painless task, with a plug-in receiver for the included remote (finding the best place for the receiver was the hardest part in setting up the program&mdashl;it ended up being wrapped around the G4’s handle).

The software installation was easy, although an Application Enhancer must be installed if you use an iSight or other FireWire camera with iChat AV (the AlchemyTV becomes the video device for iChat AV, so this APE allows the user to change it).

Setting up the software was also painless. There is an assistant that will get the data for TV stations in your area (call letters and available channels), and then compare what it finds to what channels you are currently able to receive (since we have an older satellite dish, it picked up our Chicago channels, as well as the dish’s channel 15). With the new version channels work like a regular TV set (the previous version treated them like presets on a car stereo). The program also allows fine-tuning of channels, helping to get rid of annoying interference. We also like the fact that the viewing window for normal purposes actually shows the full signal (most TVs cut off a little bit around the edges). This can be changed if you’d rather have the experience of a normal TV.

Fortunately, the AlchemyTV DVR plays nicely with QuickTime, allowing you to capture your favorite TV shows to your hard drive for later playback or burning to DVD or VCD, using Toast or the newly released plug-in architecture that was introduced last week. This technology is still new, although we expect it to flourish into a relatively painless task, just like capturing the video to a file. Screenshots can also be captured, as seen to the right. What is interesting is that the AlchemyTV DVR displays the entire TV signal, rather than just the “safe area” that is seen on most TVs. This gives more of a “margin” around the content (the scoreboard on WGN is at the very top of a normal TV). A preference allows you to cut the picture down to compensate, if you choose.

The video inputs allow the use of a device such as an older camcorder, DVD player, VCR, or your favorite video game console, without forcing the user to buy a DV camcorder or bridge. The inputs are easily selected in the software, and appear almost like another channel (like the Panasonic VCR I have).

Speaking of VCRs, the AlchemyTV DVR is designed to help replace them, although it does have some setbacks. We found the DVR software to be easy, and programming it was just like a standard VCR (you set the start time, end time or length of the program, channels, and the other usual settings and go about your business). The AlchemyTV DVR also integrates with TitanTV to allow you to pick your programs from a lineup, instead of messing with scheduling settings. We recorded an episode of Jeopardy and came back shortly after the show ended and found a nice file waiting on our desktop. The card can start up a Mac, wake it from sleep, or just start recording. After the program is over, you have the option of shutting down your Mac or putting it to sleep. Also, video footage eats up lots of hard drive space, so make sure you choose some sort of compression option.

One drawback is that you don’t get all of the DVR functions, such as instant-replay, pausing live TV, and being able to watch TV while a scheduled recording is taking place (due to the device’s single tuner)—with a standalone DVR, you can use your TV’s tuner.

Overall, we found the AlchemyTV DVR to be a nice addition to our Power Mac, and were quite happy with its performance for watching TV. We also found the DVR capabilities of it to work well, although our Mac won’t be taking over primary recording responsibilities fully. The ability to put your favorite shows on DVD or VCD, even though the network bug in the corner is present, is something that is quite useful. Compared to the external TV tuner/video recorder products, the AlchemyTV DVR provides high quality video and a good value for the price, especially if you just want basic DVR functions, but can’t see spending the money on a TiVo and a lifetime subscription.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

If you’re a TV junkie, want to digitize old tapes, or just love maximizing the use of your digital hub, the AlchemyTV DVR is a nice addition to any Apple Power Mac.

Pros: Digital tuner allows more flexibility, handy remote included, doubles as an analog-to-digital bridge, two-year warranty

Cons: Software a bit finicky

The Facts

5/5Product: AlchemyTV DVR
Company: Miglia Technology
Platform: Mac (Power Mac G4 and G5 only)
Price: $159 (list)

This post has been filed in Reviews and Television / PVR