Elgato EyeTV Diversity dual-tuner digital TV dongle
When one antenna won't do, use two...
Review Elgato's made-for-Mac EyeTV Hybrid analogue and digital TV tuner is an impressive add-on for a media centre, but it runs into trouble when you take it out on the road. The UK's terrestrially transmitted Freeview digital network isn't broadcast as powerfully as it could or should be, and the Hybrid's tiny antenna has a job picking it up. Not one to ignore an opportunity, Elgato's come up with a solution: the EyeTV Diversity, a digital-only USB dongle with two aerials...
The Diversity contains two tuners and circuitry that allows it to combine the signals coming in on both antennae to improve the reception. And if you happen to find yourself in a strong signal area, the extra tuner's not wasted: you can use it as a separate receiver, allowing you to watch one digital channel while recording another.
Like the EyeTV Hybrid, the Diversity is about the size of a large USB Flash drive. In fact, the two devices are almost entirely identical. There's a USB connector on one end of the Diversity and a co-axial antenna socket on the other. One one side is a tiny connector for the second aerial - it looks like the external antenna sockets you see on many mobile phones - and round the other side is an infra-red pick-up for the remote control Elgato bundles with the tuner.
The snag here is that the Diversity has to be fitted into a USB port on the left-hand side of your computer if you want to be able to use the remote - though if the back of the Mac's close enough to a wall you may get sufficient reflection for the remote's signal to reach a rear-facing IR port, if you have to plug the Diversity into a different port. And your free USB ports are on the back of the Mac, you'll have to use a USB extension cable. Elgato bundles one, but it's hardly an elegant solution.
Fortunately, like the Hybrid, the Diversity can be controlled using Apple's Mac Remote through Elgato's EyeTV application and its Front Row-like full-screen mode. Elgato's remote, despite its looks, isn't Freeview-friendly. The red button, for example, doesn't call up digital TV interactive features, it just activates the Diversity's picture-in-picture facility, with the other coloured buttons flipping windows, popping up the on-screen controller and so on.
Picture-in-picture requires the Diversity to be set to dual-tuner mode, set in the EyeTV application's Preferences panel. PIP also requires a Mac with 64MB of video memory. Since I reviewed EyeTV in September 2006, it's been updated a little, primarily to add the picture-in-picture facility, and to fix some bugs, so it's a worthwhile update if you already have an Elgato product. That goes double if you also own one of the revised 5G iPods Apple announced in September 2005 - EyeTV's iPod-friendly video converter will not produce 640 x 480 movies as well as the original 320 x 240 setting.
Switching from two tuners to one, combined tuner certainly made an difference, even in Reg Hardware's TV-unfriendly office. Signal strength went up a little, but signal quality rose much more significantly, as the Diversity was better able to separate signal from noise. But even on the many of best channels, the signal quality madly oscillated between 60 per cent and 80 per cent, sometimes dropping to 40 per cent, so while I was able to pick up channels that were unobtainable using the Hybrid's single digital tuner, they weren't really watchable.
FilmFour, alone, yielded a signal quality of 100 per cent. Removing either of the antennae saw that number drop down to 60-80 per cent, but the signal strength was sufficient to maintain a decent picture throughout.
Away from the office, the results were much better, not only with higher signal strength and quality figures, but also - and perhaps more importantly - a higher number of stations spotted when the initial scan was performed.
But it's still not ideal. Yes, using two portable antennae was better than using one, but it's not a patch on connecting the tuner to a single, decent TV aerial, for example. And I found that, sitting at my kitchen table, I got the best reception if I held up the two bundled antennae, arms outstretched. It made for a better picture, but not one that was comfortable to watch.
And here's an interesting point. I tried the Diversity at home a few days later and actually got a worse signal in combo-tuner mode than I did switching to two tuners. To be fair, that's an exception, and centred on a single multiplex. The point is, the Diversity's improvements notwithstanding, a lot still depends on your locale.
Elgato claims the Diversity's good for picking up digital TV in a car travelling at 160kmh. I wasn't able to test that, but I'd be surprised if it would work in the UK - Elgato carried the test out in Germany, where I suspect, digital TV is broadcast on a stronger signal than it is here. That's unlikely to change until 2008 when the analog broadcast shut-down begins.
Unlike the Hybrid, the Diversity lacks a video-in capability, so you can't connect it to other devices and view them through your Mac. There's a lot to be said for a twin-tuner module as the foundation of a PVR, but since the Diversity's second antenna doesn't connect using co-ax, you're not going to be able to split the signal from your main aerial to feed both of your Diversity's tuners. That, in short, makes it less than helpful as a device to plug into the back of a Mac Mini media centre.
Elgato's EyeTV Diversity does improve terrestrial digital TV reception for Mac users on the move, but here in the UK, the improvement isn't all it could be thanks to Freeview's relatively weak signal strength. And while the twin-tuner product might make a good Mac media center component, that's spoiled by a non co-ax secondary antenna port. The Diversity is a nice product, but for Brits its appeal is limited. ®