PUBLIC BETA TESTING is a great idea for everyone involved. Geeky early adopters get to play with new software for free, months before the general public gets their paws on it. Developers get free feedback from an army of masochistic guinea pigs happy to endure bug-ridden code. Best of all, the software-buying masses get a more complete, polished product that has been rigorously tested in real-life situations when it eventually goes to retail.
Just about every software producer in the world uses beta testing programmes to iron out kinks in applications and operating systems. Just look at Microsoft's gargantuan roll out of Windows 7 Release Candidates to anyone with an Internet connection and the patience to mess with an unfinished product long before it is ready to be released.
On the other hand, any company that ignores the tried and proven route of trial by techie in order to rush out unfinished code to an unsuspecting audience will incur the anger of anyone unfortunate enough have paid cold hard cash for a half-cocked product.
When Elgato announced that it had released EyeTV for Iphone last week it looked like the reality of watching "live" TV on a cellular phone was coming a little closer. Rather than grabbing digital television signals out of the ether, however, Elgato had elected to stream TV via Wifi from your home or office-based computer.
So in order to get the signals to your Iphone you need a pretty hefty Intel based Apple computer running the latest version of OS X and one of Elgato's TV translating widgets - and this has to be up to date as older versions of the hardware are apparently incapable of running the latest version of the software.
All of which means you will already have made a pretty hefty investment in hardware long before you head off to Apple's Itunes App Store to grab yourself a copy of the EyeTV for Iphone App. At £2.99 the software seems like a bargain, but only for anyone who has already taken the Elgato route to Mac TV.
In fact £2.99 for the ability to watch and record live TV anywhere with a WiFi connection, as well as gaining access to all of your previous recordings, not to mention the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) seems on the surface of it to be a bit of a steal. And it would be if it worked properly.
Our problems started as soon as the Iphone App was installed and we are not even close to being an isolated case. A quick Google search for 'EyeTV for Iphone not working' revealed a dizzying cornucopia of frustrated users both on Elgato's own forums and independent websites.
At first we couldn't even get the App to load. Now this is not rare with new Iphone Apps as we have discovered in the past. Many the time we have had to do a hard reset of the Iphone hardware in order to get a newly installed App to play ball. Holding down the power and front panel Home buttons for a few seconds until the Apple logo appears and reboots the device usually does the trick, but not in this case. We checked that we had the latest version of the Iphone operating system and tried again. Nope. Just a splash screen for EyeTV then back to the Iphone's home menu.
Another search of the forum's suggested that, if the EyeTV App had been installed using the handset itself rather than through a Mac running Itunes, it might be an idea to reinstall it. OK… sounds feasible. Let's give it a go. Delete the App from the phone, and resync it from Itunes. No joy. Try it again. On the third install we finally managed to get beyond the splash screen and that's when the real problems started.
EyeTV uses a free web-based service called MyTV to stream TV signals over the Internet and setting up your account seems to be pretty simple. You supply an email address and a password and the software does the rest. Well that's the theory, anyway. Having set up the Internet side of things with no apparent problems, on going back to the handset we were constantly told to verify our account. "Please verify your account"? What does that mean? Do we need to re-enter our details? No that didn't work. Perhaps there is an email verification system? Checking our inbox unearthed nothing from Elgato or EyeTV or MyTV or any combination thereof. Again, a scan of the spam filter revealed nothing. And the poxy Iphone is still asking us to verify our account!
At this stage we were starting to wonder whether we had made a mistake with the setup, so we went back to the MyTV web page and set up another account. Same result.
By this time we were in great danger of setting up a terminal forehead to monitor interface. Our last ditch effort was to start again with a Big Bang. Restart everything, reinstall everything and create a third user account. The best part of an hour later and - joy of joys - everything seems to be working. We can now see all of the Macs on our local network, and those running EyeTV software have been correctly identified!
Tapping the Live TV icon brings up a list of programmes currently being shown, and the next programme on each channel. Select a live show and a progress bar works away for about 15 seconds… and then you have it. Live TV on your Iphone. Well almost. There is that delay of 15 seconds between the live feed on your computer (or on your normal TV) and the Iphone, but it's still pretty impressive. And so is the picture quality. We couldn't tell the difference between the live feeds and rips of DVDs we had added at the highest possible rates. As long as the quality of the signal hitting your computer is sufficient, everything looks fantastic. We did notice some digital artifacts and nasty smearing in a few fast-moving sports programmes, but we imagine that is only to be expected.
The green list Icon to the right of the information brings up a full list of the programmes on that channel for the rest of the day. Navigation is carried out using the by now familiar Apple flicking or swiping actions and tapping on an individual programme brings up a brief description of the show and offers you the opportunity to record it. The software sends a signal back to your Mac which dutifully sets the EPG into record mode and saves it to your hard drive. If you have set up the main software properly, it then prepres two version of your programmes, one for viewing on your main monitor, the other for your Iphone or Ipod Touch.
Ripping these compressed recordings can take some time. Our dual 2.8GHz Quad Core Mac Pro with 6GB of RAM, which although not the latest on offer from Cupertino is no slouch when it comes to chewing through video, pretty much took the same time to prepare a recording for viewing as it did to record it in the first place. In other words, a one-hour recording took around an hour to rip to 480x360 H.264.
You can set the preferences to automatically prepare all new recordings for streaming, but we'd suggest you invest in a pretty hefty hard drive if you intend to become a heavy user.
In order to test out the App's ability to play back pre-recorded programmes we decided to grab a few snippets of whatever garbage was on the TV during the day and things all went well until we tried to change channels. We'd already grabbed a couple of bits and bobs from BBC1 but switching to BBC2 brought all of the frustrations of the preceding couple of hours flooding back.
Trying to record signals from any channel other than the first one on the list produced a cryptic message telling us that "The last job couldn't be run due to an error 23255". Again a quick search of the web confirmed that we were not alone. Dozens of frustrated users were complaining of the exact same problem. After some serious digging in these forums, we were finally lead to the conclusion that the problem was with the Mac software's EPG. Deleting and reinstalling the database, which we can only assume was still hanging around making a nuisance of itself from a previous install, seemed to do the trick.
Finally everything was working as it should. We could watch live (almost) TV, browse the EPG and set the computer to record future programmes. At least that's what we thought. Having set a bunch of random stuff up to record overnight, we were looking forward to watching all sorts of nonsense we would not usually consider. Who actually watches Live Roulette at 4am?
It was with some trepidation that we started up the various bits of hardware and software required to watch our recorded material, but everything seemed to be working fine. But somewhere along the line between re-installing, rebooting and reconfiguring in yesterday's marathon frustrationfest, something had gone wrong and the software was refusing to properly prepare the recordings for streaming. A few quick adjustments, and another couple of hours waiting for the video to do the rips over again, and all was well. Finally everything was working as advertised.
So now came the real test. After the best part of a day spent fiddling with software, computers and routers, we had everything working really well. But until now we had only tested things out sitting three feet away from our wireless router on our own local network. Time to see how things would work in the real world. After all there's no point in having a wireless streaming device if it only works when you're sitting next to the source.
We though it was probably best to ease EyeTV for Iphone into working away from home gently so off we trotted to another room no more than 30 feet way from the wireless router. Oh dear. The smooth playback with which we were so impressed yesterday suddenly turned into a stuttering mess of dropped frames and flakey, intermittent sound. And rather than attempting to play the broadcasts badly, the software would just pause the picture, meaning every time the signal was dropped, we had to continuously stab at the play button. The same went for live and pre-recorded shows.
We have a pretty decent broadband connection here at the INQ's satellite office and usually manage at least 10Mb per second on a good day. Even the Iphone's WiFi connection manages to break the 6Mb per second barrier most of the time from all over the building, and even outside. So what hope was there for the EyeTV software running on the Iphone from a public Wifi hotspot?
None as it turned out in our experience. We first tried piggybacking onto the one or two of our neighbours who haven't protected their connections (bless them). No joy there, but that's to be expected. The software works with UPnP or NAT-PMP routers out of the box, but you'll have to allow traffic on port 2170 otherwise, so without breaking into our neighbour's property, or asking them nicely to reconfigure their hardware, we were barking up the wrong tree. Lunch time was approaching so it was time for plan B.
Arriving at our local clown-themed burger joint, we hopped onto their free WiFi network and, in the spirit of fairness, checked out the BBC Iplayer which worked just fine, if a little haltingly. EyeTV, on the other hand, despite connecting to our office Mac, stubbornly refused to comply, failing to play either live or pre-recorded video. Speed Test showed that this particular network was struggling at 562kbps, but Elgato doesn't tell you that you need a super fast WiFi connection to use its software.
Quick visits to the local coffee house and even the town library failed to produce suitable results and we eventually gave up in our quest to find a publicly open connection fast and robust enough to enable watchable playback.
We can only assume that the vast majority of people who would be interested in Elgato's EyeTV set-up will be the kind of users who spend lots of time in hotels and airports, but anyone who finds themselves trying to watch TV on their Iphone using anything other than the most generous of Wifi hotspots will be sorely disappointed.
It's a real shame that the launch of what could have been one of the most exciting Apps ever to have appeared on the Iphone seems to have been rushed. The installation and set-up process is plagued with bugs and inconsistencies. The interface, which looks fantastic, has been spoiled by the fact that every one of the manifold navigation screens only works in portrait mode, and the main viewing screen is stuck permanently in landscape mode. Which means that you have to flip the device so many times that you'll soon be complaining of RSI.
Channel hoppers will be frustrated by the 15 second delay switching between broadcasts, and the inability to flip to the next channel in the list using a swipe of the screen is a glaring omission in the user interface.
The boffins at Elgato have got so many things right with this release that it is with a heavy heart that we have to admit that it just got too many little things wrong to be anything other than pointless and frustrating.
Hopefully enough punters will be willing to shell out £2.99 to be part of what is basically a paid for beta testing programme. If that is the case, the next iteration might come up to scratch, but for now we would leave EyeTV well enough alone. µ