AlchemyTV DVR 2.2.3, by Miglia
Posted: 27-Nov-2004

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Miglia Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: HARDWARE

Overview
One of my favorite and most frequently used devices on my old Beige G3 is an ATI XClaimVR 128 card, a PCI card that gave my G3 the power to record and playback video to and from external video devices. The XClaimVR card came with an external tuner and software, and included a port for an additional higher resolution monitor. On my G3, I use that port to hook up an Apple 17" flat screen CRT for superb resolution. The main feature for me, however, is the video input and output. I hook my coaxial cable into the external tuner, and I also connect my DVD/VHS player via RCA cables into the tuner. The tuner connects to the XClaim VR card via a supplied video cable, and the tuner's audio in and out connect to the G3's audio in and out. With this setup, I'm able to watch and record video directly from my cable TV, as well as record video from my DVD/VHS player. I've used this setup to record clips from TV, from old VHS tapes, and from DVDs. The problem, however, is that my main Mac is now a Quicksilver G4 running OS X, and neither the hardware nor the software is compatible with this system. My task was to find a replacement for my XClaimVR 128 card. I didn't need the additional monitor port since my G4's port provides ample enough video power for my needs. It was the TV tuner, video input and video reporting functions that I set out to investigate.

After looking high and low for a good solution, I came across a number of products that had some of the functionality, but none of them offered all of the features I was looking for. Then I came across the Miglia AlchemyTV card, and from the information on the Miglia web site, this product sounded promising.

The AlchemyTV card is listed with the following features:

  • TV Viewing and Recording
Watch TV in window mode or full screen on your PowerMac. Fast PowerMacs can even capture to your hard drive in full size, full motion. Store them on your hard drive or burn them to VCD or DVD. Thanks to its tight integration with QuickTime, AlchemyTV DVR gives you a full range of capture options, including real-time MPEG-4 recording.
  • Scheduled Recording Functionality and iCal Integration
AlchemyTV DVR's software allows you to schedule recordings days or weeks in advance. These recordings can also be programmed with Apple's iCal. AlchemyTV DVR integrates Decisionmark's TitanTV EPG (Electronic Program Guide) directly into the software. TitanTV EPG makes it easy to find your favorite shows and schedule them for recording or viewing with a single click.
  • Infrared Remote Control
AlchemyTV DVR includes an infrared remote control that allows you to watch TV and change stations without sitting at your keyboard. Launching the TV application, adjusting the volume, switching a channel can all be done with the remote control. The remote control software works with most of your other Mac applications, such as iTunes, DVD player, PowerPoint and many others.
  • Open Plug-in Architecture
Thanks to its open plug-in architecture, you can expand DVR via third party software. Master and burn DVDs, schedule recordings via e-mail and more.
  • Composite and S-Video Inputs
You can capture from any analog device using the composite or S-Video connectors. Movies can be captured in a variety of formats for editing or burning to VCD or DVD.

Requirements

  • PowerMac G4 or G5
  • Free PCI or PCI-X slot
  • PowerPC G4/400 processor and higher
  • 256 MB of RAM
  • Mac OS X 10.3 and higher

Price

The AlchemyTV DVR package retails for $159.


Installation
There are two steps required to get the AlchemyTV (ATV) card up and running. First, you need to install the PCI card into a free PCI slot. On my Quicksilver G4, this was very simple, as the Quicksilver opens up easily, providing fast and easy access to the PCI slots. I pushed the card into the slot securely, fastened the single screw, and closed the case. For those with an iMac, Powerbook, or any Mac that doesn't support a PCI card, this card will obviously not work for you.

The second step was installing the software and drivers. I ran the CD installer that came with the ATV card, but I had nothing but troubles with the original software. A lot of things didn't seem to work right. A quick visit to the
Miglia web site resolved the issue. After downloading and installing their latest software, everything worked great.


AlchemyTV PCI Card (Click picture for enlarged view)


In Use
There are a number of tests I performed with the ATV card, and I'll try to break each down into detail. The basic tests I ran were watching TV, scheduling a recording on TV, and recording clips from external devices (such as VHS tapes and DVDs).

Watching TV
With my coaxial TV cable plugged into the ATV card, I was able to use the AlchemyTV DVR software to watch TV on my Mac. By default, the TV view window is displayed along with the Controller, a small window with channel selector, volume controls, etc. (if they aren't displayed, you can go under the View menu to display them). The first thing I had to do was setup the channels. Under preferences -> "Channel Templates", there are various templates you can use to setup your TV viewing. In the Templates pane, I went into "AlchemyTV: TV Tuner: NTSC" and highlighted the only option there, USA (Cable). A list of channels shows up in the Channels pane, ranging from 002 up to 082. I'm not sure how this would work for those with boxes and/or channels higher than 082, but this was fine for my needs. The list includes a checkbox for whether you want the channel to display or not, and it includes the channel Frequency. Two other columns are Name (defaults to blank) and Offset (defaults to 0.00). You can highlight a channel and click on edit to change both fields, or you can just double-click on the field you want to change, such as the name, to change the value on the spot. The offset value is used for fine tuning, which I did not have a need to use. You don't see a preview of the station under this preference, so fine tuning is really best done under the "Video Input" tab (where you can view the station as you make adjustments). I clicked the checkboxes for the channels that I wanted, and gave names to the ones that I knew the names of. Once you leave the preferences, the view window and controller are displayed again, and the controller's "list" menu now contains all the channels I've selected.

The standard TV viewing window is 640 x 480 pixels (1:1 ratio), a decent viewing size for watching TV. There are other options for different viewing needs. You can display the window at 1:2 ratio which is 320 x 240 pixels, or even as small as 1:4 (but I found that far too small for any practical value). You can increase the size as well, either as 2:1 (double the standard size), or full screen. Full screen basically turns your computer into a TV set, and clicking in the window returns the size back to the previous setting.

The greatest use I get from the tuner is for "incidental" TV viewing. If I am going to do any serious TV viewing, I'll go downstairs and view it on my 36" TV screen. However, there are many times when I have work to do (such as writing this review), and there may a program on that I want to see, such as the latest happenings in Survivor, catching the latest news, or the David Letterman show. For this purpose, the 320 x 240 sized window is the best, as it provides a clear enough picture, but can be placed in the corner of my screen without interfering with the work I am doing.

Scheduling a Recording
AlchemyTV says it uses TitanTV for it's scheduling of recordings, but it is unclear to me how. When I show settings for the Titan plug-in, the TitanTV plug-in checkbox is unchecked and grayed out (i.e., I am unable to check it). However, the scheduling appears to work, because under View -> Scheduled Recordings, I'm able to setup a scheduled recording and the program gets recorded.

When you setup the recording, you set the source input, the channel, and the filename of the recorded file. You also specify the start time and the duration of the recording. There's an input field for end time as well, but once you set the duration, the end time is automatically adjusted. Likewise, if you edit the end time, the duration is automatically adjusted. You can also set the recording as one-time, repeat weekly, repeat daily, or repeat on specific days.

The compression of the recorded video is set under Preferences -> Video Input. It's easy to get confused on this screen, because in the same window where you set compression settings are options for setting the video device and channel. These settings are separate from the settings used under Scheduled Recordings. The preference device selection is used to distinguish which preferences you are editing (i.e., you can have different saved options for TV Tuner versus Composite).

Real-time Recordings
A real-time recording is made from the station currently being viewed in the viewing window. On the controller, there is a "record" button, and as soon as you press it, whatever is being viewed is instantly recorded in real-time. Alternately, to start a recording you can use the menu option Edit -> Record, or the F1 key. Pressing the record button again (or using the menu or F1 options) will end the recording, and the recorded file is saved.

The name of the recorded files are predetermined prior to the recording process. The naming convention and the location of the saved files is determined under Preferences -> Storage. The naming convention uses templates. For instance, I used <input><name>.<channel>, so when recording on Channel 7 (ABC), the resulting file name is
AlchemyTV.TV Tuner.NTSCABC.007.mov (where <input> becomes "AlchemyTV.TV Tuner", <name> becomes "NTSCABC" and <channel> becomes "007"). I'm not sure what the point of the "period" is in the template, because it looks like the software adds periods where it wants anyway.

As mentioned earlier, compression of the recorded video is determined under Preferences -> Video Input. There are a lot of compression options to choose from, similar to options you would see exporting from Quicktime. For the best video, you can go with no compression at all (30 seconds is about 65 MB). For some compression, but still great quality, you can go with Motion JPEG A (30 seconds is about 27 MB). For better compression, and if you happen to own Sorenson 3, you can get good quality using Sorenson 3 (30 seconds is about 13 MB).

External Devices
In addition to viewing and recording from the TV tuner, by hooking up an external device to the ATV S-video or Composite ports, you can also view and record from a VHS tape, a DVD, etc.. In my case, I used the composite route to connect a combo VHS/DVD player. I connected an RCA cable directly from my player into the video RCA jack in the ATV card. The ATV's composite audio port, however, is a single stereo audio jack rather than left and right RCA ports, so I had to purchase an RCA to stereo jack adapter to connect the two RCA cables from the VHS/DVD player. I would have preferred to have had the adapter included with the ATV package. It would have been more useful to me than the included remote control.

With the player connected, you then change the input selector from tuner to composite, and voila! You can now watch and record DVDs or VHS tapes using AlchemyTV. This is a great way to record clips to extract sound bites or for reference material.

There was a difference with recording TV versus composite. I noticed that every time I started a recording using the composite input, the video lightened (both in the view window and in the recorded video). I'm not sure why that happened, but to adjust for that, you can go into the Preferences->Video Input and choose the Image tab to lower the contrast and brightness. Getting it just right is trial and error since you don't see the actual results until you are actually recording.

Alternate Connection
If you don't have composite or S-video connectors on your player, you could use a coax cable from your player box to the ATV card. In this case you could view and record anything coming through the player. The caveat is that changing the station is controlled through the player, not the AlchemyTV tuner. Also, video quality is not as good through coaxial cable as it is through S-video or composite.

Plug-ins
Under Preferences -> Plug-Ins, you can see all of the installed plug-ins that come with AlchemyTV. With version 2.2.3 of the software, the following plug-ins are included:

  • AlchemyTV Setup Assistant
  • AlchemyTV Reveal in Finder
  • Remote Control Plug-In
  • AlchemyTV movie player
  • AlchemyTV Movie Opener
  • AlchemyTV Tuner
  • Schedule with TitanTV
  • Sync With iCal
  • AlchemyTV Devices

Most of these plug-ins don't have any options, and for all practical purposes, you don't really even need to know that they are there. They provide integrated functionality in AlchemyTV. I did play with the iCal plug-in to see how that worked. You can configure ATV such that whenever you program a scheduled recording, that shows up in your iCal calendar. I'm not sure what benefit that provides, but the option is there if you like.

The other nice thing about plug-in support is that you can get third-party plug-ins to add functionality to AlchemyTV. Miglia provides a few to download from their web site. Two that I tried out is MovieGate and DVR Edit. Some of the plug-ins have their own installers (such as MovieGate), while others you must manually add to AlchemyTV (by "Showing Contents" on the application, finding the Plug-ins folder, and dropping the plug-in into that folder). The plug-in instructions don't indicate it, but you must restart AlchemyTV after installing a plug-in.

The DVR Edit features allows you to edit scheduled recordings that have completed. It pulls up a view window where you can highlight portions of the video and delete them (great for editing out commercials).

The MovieGate plug-in also works off of scheduled recordings. After a recording is completed, you can choose the MovieGate option to open a MovieGate. From there you can add chapter markers, and then convert the video to be used for DVD content. However, on all my attempts to use this plug-in, after I clicked on start, the processed failed with an error "result.m2v file not found."

Neither of these plug-ins provided a way to work on real-time recordings.

Remote Control
The AlchemyTV DVR package comes with a small lightweight remote control unit that allows you to control some of the ATV functions without having to be at the computer. Programming the remote is done from the "Remote Control" system preference that is installed with AlchemyTV. You can also program the remote to perform functions in other applications (such as iTunes). Using a remote to change volume, channels, and other features, is an interesting idea, and worked fine in my tests. However, this isn't something that I'll probably ever use. The only time I'm going to watch video on my computer is when I'm sitting at the computer either working on that video or working on something else.

Software Issues
The AlchemyTV software is a work-in-progress. I stumbled across a few bugs and a number of interface annoyances during the review process. The good news is that it currently provides the tools you need to use the ATV card for viewing and recording effectively. During my review, there were a number of updates released, which is a good sign that Miglia is dedicated to improving the user's experience. On the other hand, many of the problems I experienced continue to exist from update to update. Hopefully the issues I present in this review will help Miglia further refine the software.

One problem I had was the viewing size versus the recording size. When viewing video (such as TV), you can change the view window size using the View -> TV Window Size option. For recording video, you set the size using Preferences -> Video Input -> Size. The sizes are set by changing the ratio (with a 1:1 ratio equal to 640 x 480). In all my tests, however, the size of the recordings always matched the view size, not the recording size. In one case, the viewing size was set at 1:1, and the recording size set to 1:2. The video was not recorded at 1:2, it was recorded at 1:1. Likewise, if the view size is 1:2, and the recording size is 1:1, the recorded file is at the 1:2 size.

One of my biggest complaints is the popup menu for channels. On the onscreen remote control window, there is a button called "list" which is a channel popup menu. The problem is that it does not adhere to Apple interface guidelines in the way the menu behaves. For example, in a long list of channels, I had the tuner set to channel 3. I then clicked on the list menu to change it to channel 4. I expected, as any Mac user would, that once I clicked on the menu that channel 3 would be highlighted, and then I'd just move down one line to select channel 4. Instead, when I clicked on the list menu, there was a checkmark next to channel 3, but the menu highlighted channel 30 (several lines down from channel 3). In order to move from channel 3 to channel 4, I had to go up 19 lines instead of down one. It appears that the highlighted menu item is different depending upon where the control window is located on the screen.

One feature to the software which "begs" to be implemented is the ability to have ATV turn on your Mac. Right now, when performing a scheduled recording, both your Mac and the ATV software must already be running. This means you could miss an important recording if you forget to turn your Mac on and start up the ATV software. If the shareware product,
iRooster, can turn your Mac on to signal an alarm, I'm sure this can be built into AlchemyTV. Currently, it is not.

There are other minor interface issues as well. When going into preferences, the category that you are currently editing (aka, Storage, Video Input, etc.) is not highlighted as you would expect. For saving real-time recordings, there should be an option to name the recording on the fly versus using the filename template. The Video Input preference can be confusing, as it is not obvious that the settings on the right (Image, Compression, etc.) are saved separately for each device type. When viewing at the 1:2 size, if you have the window butted up to the right of your screen, and then switch to 1:1 size, ATV should re-adjust the position of the window automatically. As it is, it displays the 1:1 size window with half the window off the screen. Under Scheduled Recordings, I would prefer the date and time inputs to be the Apple standard where each component of the date and time is a different field (see Date & Time system preferences). As it is, you have to carefully place your cursor on the component you want to edit and then type in the change. You cannot view the TV window while a scheduled recording is taking place (even though you can view the TV window during a real-time recording). That might have something to do with the TitanTV plug-in, but whatever the reason, I would have liked to have the option to preview the video while it's being recorded. Likewise, when you switch to edit the preferences, the TV view window is closed. In many cases, I was missing parts of a show I wanted to watch while I was making some preference adjustments.

To Miglia's credit, there were a number of bugs that were fixed in the last few updates, so there is definitely work being done to improve the software. There was an issue where switching the window size caused the view window to go black (aka, no video), and switching from Composite to Tuner also resulted with a black screen. Both of these were fixed as of version 2.2.3 of the software.

Documentation
The AlchemyTV card does not come with a printed manual. Under the Help manual is an indication that the software comes with an electronic version of the manual, but after choosing this option, the only thing that came up is a one-page PDF that said that the electronic version is no longer included with the software installer. It instructed me to go to the web and download the manual and then run a script to integrate it into the software. Downloading the manual from the web was pretty easy, but getting it integrated into the software was another story. I was instructed to run a script called "Install AlchemyTV DVR Manual" (located in the AlchemyTV DVR folder), but there were a couple of issues with that. First of all, the script had a bug in it. One of the variables had a spelling error in the name which resulted in an error. I had to edit the script and add a "t" to "theFileChooserPrompt" to get it to run. The next issue was that it would not recognize the PDF file that I downloaded. I had to first rename it to "PDFHelp_en.pdf". However, even after renaming it, the script refused to recognize it. I debugged the script and determined that it was looking for a name that ended with "_en.pdf", but the actual pathname variable ended with "_en.pdf'" (note the single quote right that follows "pdf"). After I made that change, the PDF manual was finally integrated into the software. Needless to say, there *has* to be a better way. I know few people that will go through that much trouble.

The PDF manual itself, however, was informative, and provided good information on how to use the software. You may be better off just accessing the PDF outside the software (i.e., opening it from the Finder). For additional help, Miglia was very helpful with some of the issues and confusions that I went through during my testing.

Summary
The AlchemyTV DVR package by Miglia is a full-featured solution for viewing and recording TV and external video devices on your Mac. The package includes a PCI card that installs easily, a remote control, and the AlchemyTV software. The software supports a wide range of viewing and recording options, including some excellent and very fast compression settings. The features to schedule recordings or record real-time work great, and I especially like that I can switch from TV tuner to external device easily and on-the-fly. There are a number of interface issues with the software, but Miglia has demonstrated a good history of updates in the past, so I'm hopeful that these issues will continue to be worked out. In terms of working with TV and external players, I was able to perform everything that my old G3 XClaimVR 128 card performed, and more. The XClaimVR card came with an external TV tuner, but on the AlchemyTV card, the tuner is built-in. I did not find much need for the remote control unit, and would have preferred an RCA adapter and a manual instead.

If you have an interest in watching David Letterman while you're up at night catching up on email, or would like to record some clips from a VHS tape or DVD for a project, the Miglia AlchemyTV card is the perfect OS X solution for those needs, and at a very decent price. I think this card is great, and highly recommend it to other Mac users.

Pros

  • Built-in TV Tuner
  • Composite and S-video connections for external players
  • View and record with a sleu of options
  • Fast and efficient compression during recordings
  • Schedule your recordings or record on-the-fly

Cons

  • Some interface annoyances
  • Scheduled recordings will not turn on your Mac
  • No manual included, and integrating manual from download is difficult
  • Adapter for hooking up external devices not included


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice