Programming is a wonderful mix of art and science; source code is both a poem and a math problem. It should be as simple and elegant as it is functional and fast. This blog is about that (along with whatever else I feel like writing about).

Saturday, January 13, 2007


A while back I bought the Miglia TVMini HD, which allows you to view HDTV streams on your computer. It's essentially an HDTV tuner. There are many other such products, many of which have more impressive features than the TVMini; but this one gets to brag about its size (for what that's worth).

I have a cheap 37" HDTV (doesn't have an ATSC tuner, supports 1080i/720p only), but I don't have cable TV. I use the television as a computer monitor for my G5 tower. It works pretty well in that function -- all I use it for is watching movies and television shows that I have saved to the computer. But now it's time for playoff football, so I need to be able to watch television. So I had to get the TVMini working again.

My G5 doesn't have wireless (I bought an AirPort card, but there must be something wrong with either the card or the computer, as it won't work ... I bought them both refurbished, so it doesn't bother me much), so I hadn't had it connected to the internet. But apparently the EyeTV software that comes with the TVMini requires an internet connection. I bought a 25' ethernet cable and ran it from my Mac Mini to the G5 and turned on internet connection sharing. Instantly, the G5 was online, and the EyeTV software came alive.

It scanned the airwaves for what channels were available, then downloaded the program information and displayed it. The interface is pretty, but not quite *that* intuitive. You have to right click the channel name on the left of the screen to get the options you want, and there are 2 options that always stand out in my mind. "Go To Now" and "Tune To" ... it turns out that "Go To Now" does not mean "go to this channel now," but rather "change the program display such that what's currently on television is displayed." I don't know what would be a better name, but I found that confusing. "Tune To" did what I wanted: go to the channel and view it. It seems to me that if you double click the channel name, it should tune to it.

I must say, ATSC over-the-air broadcasts look really, really good. Of course, not all stations are broadcasting in HD, so I'm getting some SD content too (broadcast over HD frequencies), but those programs that actually are HD are stunning. I'm watching the Eagles-Saints game right now, and the picture quality is fantastic.

But, there's a problem with the move to digital television, and that seems to be the very nature of "digital" itself. Unlike your father's TV sets, if the signal isn't quite good enough, you never get static and the picture quality is never compromised. It just stops and waits for the signal strength to get back up to a sufficient level again.

According to a cursory study of the signal strength graph, the TVMini cuts out if the signal strength drops below 50%. Unfortunately, the antenna they give you really bites, and I have yet to see a signal higher than 66%. Worse, every 5-10 seconds it drops down to 30-40% for a few seconds, meaning that the television viewing experience is pretty jarring.

The EyeTV software includes some really cool features, like scheduling/recording shows, pause/resume live television, encode for iPod, etc. (I tried encoding down to H.264 several months ago, and it's _slooow_ ... much slower than the x264 codec used by Handbrake.) But I can't use any of these features because the feed I'm getting through this antenna is too miserable.

I don't want to sign up for cable (because I hate Comcast), so I may have to buy a higher quality ATSC antenna. And I'll have to get a good one that does both VHF and UHF, because I'm in Chicago and CBS, for some reason, is the only UHF station and is also broadcasting at extremely low power. There are technical reasons for this, but I don't understand the political reasons for them being put into place.

It's too bad, too. The TVMini HD is a pretty cool little product, hampered by its generic remote control which relies on the functionality of mostly unlabelled buttons and a bargain basement antenna that destroys the quality of your signal. I can't recommend this product by itself unless you have cable (but you can't use it with a cable box, you need to plug it directly into the cable and hope you're getting an unencrypted digital Clear QAM signal) or are planning to buy a high quality ATSC antenna along with it.

But I did get to watch football on my HDTV today, even if the CBS nonsense prevented me from watching the early game (it was AFC so it was on CBS) and the bad antenna made the late game (NFC, so it's on Fox) nearly unwatchable. It's still football, and it's still the playoffs. And it was a really good game, to top it all off!

Until next time, take it easy.

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