Review: Miglia EvolutionTV
A little over a year ago, we took a look at the Miglia AlchemyTV DVR, a TV solution for Power Mac G4 and G5 owners. After a few software updates, we found it to be an excellent product, both in price, features, and usability. For a little more than some DVD/VCR combos, you could have your very own DVR right on your Mac, without a the subscription price of a TiVo.
Unfortunately, iBook, PowerBook, eMac, iMac, and Mac mini users were left out in the cold, unless the bought one of the more expensive EyeTV models from El Gato, and had lots of hard drive space to spare. This changed earlier this year with the EvolutionTV, an external gadget that utilizes any free USB 2.0 port and allows you to turn your Mac into a DVR.
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The EvolutionTV is about the size of an external hard drive, but wide, instead of deep. A brushed aluminum outside makes this thing look classy, and does a good job of dissipating heat. The only things on the front of the case are a remote sensor and a green power LED. The side features a security lock slot, like many laptops.
This product is almost double the price of the AlchemyTV DVR, but takes something as bandwidth-hogging as TV video and effortlessly pumps it into any G4 Mac that fits the requirements (Panther, 800MHz or faster, 256MB RAM, USB 2.0), as well as letting you do other work.
Just like the AlchemyTV DVR, the EvolutionTV features similar inputs, including a coax connector, RCA inputs, and an S-Video input. To use the EvolutionTV in the US or Canada (or any other place that uses a similar coax connection), you must use an adapter, which is included. Unlike the AlchemyTV DVR, this device features RCA inputs for audio and video, not a miniplug for audio. Setting up the device is as simple as connecting the included USB cable from the computer to the back of it, connecting a coax line from an antenna, cable box, VCR, or satellite receiver, and connecting the DC adapter.
The DC adapter works worldwide, and features different adapters for different countries (the American one is in place when you open the box). We found that the ability to use this product worldwide out-of-the-box to be an excellent feature.
Also, Miglia recommends connecting satellite dish receivers, VCRs, and certain cable boxes through the RCA or S-Video inputs, as the picture quality will be much better. We tried our Dish Network receiver with the coax line, since it was 2 rooms away from the Mac setup. Using a VCR with the composite inputs yielded a slightly crisper picture quality.
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 EvolutionTV 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 18 and 59). 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.
After installing and setting up the software, we started using the EvolutionTV. The software looked and felt just like the AlchemyTV DVR version, but there was one noticable difference—it didn’t work. Our Mac clearly fit the requirements (it’s a 1.42GHz Mac mini, 512MB RAM, and Tiger), but the picture was very sluggish, the audio and video got out of sync, and the picture quality was very poor. Even the included remote didn’t work, despite a brand new pair of AAA batteries. A reinstall resulted in the same effects, as well as trying it with other USB 2.0-equipped Macs. Frustrated, there was only one other thing to do before wondering if this thing was defective—check for a different version of the software.
As it turns out, Miglia has updated the software a few times since the EvolutionTV originally shipped, and the unit we got still had the original version. After a download of about 12MB, it was ready to reinstall again. This time, everything seemed more responsive, and actually worked. The moral of the story? Check for software updates (as the instructions say) with any piece of hardware.
In normal use, the EvolutionTV can be left open when you’re doing almost anything on your computer. The only time we saw problems was when there were some processor-intensive tasks. In these cases, the video might lag for a second, or skip. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it can get annoying when you’re working on quite a few things at a time and your video stutters. Owners of fast G4- or G5-based Macs won’t notice this as much as those whose Macs are on the lower end of the requirements.
Fortunately, the EvolutionTV 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 plug-in architecture. This technology is still new, although we expect it to flourish into a relatively painless task, just like capturing the video to a file. What is interesting is that the EvolutionTV 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. 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.
Miglia encourages you that it’s “Time to say goodbye to your VCR” on their web site. To fully force the use of the EvolutionTV, the VCR and TV were packed up from the office, and the EvolutionTV was solely used. Besides the included remote working well and having controls for everything most people would need from across the room, there are some other unused buttons that might find a purpose in later versions of the software. 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 software also integrates with TitanTV, so you can pick your program right off of the list, and the recorded file gets named accordingly. All scheduled recordings are listen in a calendar on iCal, allowing you to see what upcoming programs you’ll be recording.
The software now has the ability to start up a Mac if it’s powered off, or wake a sleeping one. It will be prepared for recording 5 minutes before the scheduled recording and launch the software. After the recording is over, you can choose to have your Mac shut down or go to sleep.
Both methods worked well, and we were impressed with the amount of video compression options provided by the software. Since the device takes care of the encoding, rather than your Mac, compression is instaneous. With DVD-class MPEG-2, you can record your favorite shows in a format that’s ready for DVD. DiVX is included for the space-conscious, and MPEG-4 is included for using the recordings in your own projects (there’s even an iMovie option). DiVX can also be used to burn recordings to a CD or DVD for playback in a DiVX-compatible DVD player, eliminating the need to go through Toast, iMovie, or iDVD. A slider adjusts the quality of the video so you can fit more on small hard drives.
One drawback is that you cannot watch something while you’re recording a timed event. Anyone with a VCR is familiar with this, as the EvolutionTV only has one tuner, and only so much bandwidth can be carried by USB 2.0. You can record something that you are watching by pressing the Record button on either the on-screen or physical remote.
One other positive we’d like to mention is that the EvolutionTV has a 2-year warranty, which is very good for just about any technology-related device. We also expect the software to be improved in the future, just as it was with the AlchemyTV DVR.
In all, with the newest software, the EvolutionTV works as advertised, provides an easy way to record your favorite shows to your computer for later playback or burning to a DVD, and lets you watch TV on your Mac. Once the sticker shock wears off, the EvolutionTV is still cheaper than many standalone DVRs, and when combined with a DVD burner-equipped Mac, it’s cheaper than some DVRs with DVD burners. It’s also cheaper than a TiVo with a lifetime subscription. Although features such as pausing live TV and instant-replay are not included (yet?), the EvolutionTV still is great for anyone who wants to get into the world of DVRs.
The One-Sentence Verdict™
Just as the AlchemyTV DVR is great for any TV junkie who wants video on their Mac, the EvolutionTV brings the party to other Mac users, just as long as they have the power.
Pros: Standalone USB 2.0 box, comfortable remote, compresses video on-the-fly, doubles as an analog-to-digital bridge, two-year warranty
Cons: Does not have all DVR features, make sure you have the latest software, sluggish at times