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Review of the Elgato EyeTV W mobile TV unit on an Android Tablet

This is the most in-depth review of the “Elgato EyeTV W” that provides mobile TV over Wi-Fi on iPhone, iPad and Android tablets and phones. Here we tried it out on the “Tesco Hudl”, a popular inexpensive Android tablet in the UK. This is an exhaustive review after more than 300 hours of use. (We also gave it a quick try on the Sony Xperia Z1 smartphone - see the Conclusion for comments on the Z1.)

UPDATE June 2014: Since the first part of this review was written, Elgato have released version 2 of their Android app. Not much has changed, so we have added an update section near the end of the review covering the changes in the new version 2 app.

 

Gadgets that let you watch terrestrial DTT/Freeview TV on your PC or Mac while you're on the move have been around for several years, and are available from several suppliers such as Hauppauge and Elgato.

Most of these are small “dongles” that plug into the computer's USB socket (or dock connector on a Mac) and have a built-in or external antenna/aerial to pick up terrestrial DTT/Freeview TV. Depending on the model, the external antenna might be a rotatable telescopic type that is permanently fixed to it; or it may have a socket that can be connected to a rod antenna on the end of a length of wire that allows you to move the antenna around a little to find the best signal; or for the best signal it may even have a socket that can be connected via a coaxial cable to a rooftop antenna. Some of the more recent models also work on iPads, iPhones and Android phones and tablets.

The dongle usually comes with software to install on your computer that communicates with the dongle and displays the TV programmes on screen.

We had heard from reviews that a frequent problem with many of these TV dongles is that they can struggle in areas that have a less than strong TV signal. You can move the computer (with dongle attached) around a bit in the hope of finding a slightly better signal, but even with a separate rod antenna on a bit of wire you're still pretty restricted to the area where it's convenient to position your computer.

We were recently looking for a gadget that would allow us to watch TV on our Tesco Hudl (a popular low-cost Android tablet) while we were on the move, and also at home and on a boat. Because the latter two had readily accesible coaxial connections to a rooftop antenna, we wanted to be able to plug the rooftop antenna into it so that we could get the best picture quality and avoid low signal strength problems. We also wanted to be able to position the tablet anywhere we liked without being restricted by the location of the rooftop antenna's coaxial plug.

Many tablets are charged up by connecting the charger to their USB port, but that's not always possible if a USB dongle is already connected to it. We liked the idea of keeping the tablet charging while we were watching TV on it, so this and the requirement to locate the tablet free from restrictions of the antenna location ruled out the type of TV dongle that plugged directly into the tablet's USB socket.

That really left us with one choice – the Elgato EyeTV W that was launched in October 2013. The Elgato web site lists a fairly small number of supported Android devices for it, and although our Tesco Hudl was not actually listed we found that it worked fine.

The EyeTV W is a compact unit about the size of a large matchbox that has a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot and a DTT/Freeview TV receiver that works for standard definition channels only. You install the free EyeTV W app on your tablet which connects to the EyeTV W's hot spot – the app then sends control information to the unit and receives the video data over the Wi-Fi connection.

The unit has a small MCX antenna connector that you can connect to one of three antenna options that come supplied with it. There is a small telescopic antenna which is probably the most portable if you are always in very strong signal areas. Alternatively there is an articulated rod antenna with magnetic base, on the end of a length of wire that allows you more flexibility in positioning the antenna; the magnetic base is fairly strong but it also comes with a suction cup if you need it. The third antenna connector is supplied but not actually listed in the included items - a MCX-to-coaxial adaptor so that a standard coaxial plug from your rooftop antenna can also be plugged into it to provide the best possible signal.

Because the EyeTV W and your tablet communicate via Wi-Fi, there is no wired connection between them, so the tablet's USB socket remains free to connect a charger or other things. It also means you have the freedom to position the tablet anywhere within a 30 meter radius of the EyeTV W, and if you are using the telescopic or rod antenna then you can position the EyeTV W anywhere you like without the encumbrance of being wired-up to the tablet.

So effectively the EyeTV W is connected to the tablet by Wi-Fi instead of by the USB port. However, although you free up the USB socket, you are instead tieing up the tablet's Wi-Fi connection. That means while connected to the EyeTV W your tablet's Wi-Fi interface is busy and can not be connected to the internet – so you won't be receiving email and message notifications etc until you exit from the EyeTV W's app.

The unit contains a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery that is charged via a Micro USB socket on the bottom edge (rather like a mobile phone) and has a small on/off sliding switch on the side. It also has an MCX antenna connector and two LED indicators. The blue power LED flashes rapidly for a few seconds when you switch the unit on and then remains lit while its Wi-Fi hotspot is available. The red battery LED only lights up when the unit is charging.

To watch TV you just need to switch on the EyeTV W unit, then start up the app (a free download from Google Play) on your tablet which will automatically connect to the EyeTV W.

The EyeTV W App

When you first start the EyeTV W app, it asks you to choose your country and performs a scan for the available DTT/Freeview channels. Each found channel name is displayed briefly during the scan.

The app's main menu is fairly simple. At the top of the main menu is Live TV. That displays a scrollable list of channels and now/next listings.

Tapping a channel clears the screen and displays full-screen live TV for that channel. You can exit Live TV and return to the main menu by tapping the Back button or the blue Done button in the top left.

A tap on the screen brings up an overlay showing the details for the channel and programme you are watching and a couple of indicators for the battery of the EyeTV W unit and the TV signal strength (not the Wi-Fi signal strength). After a few seconds the information overlay automatically disappears. The battery indicator shows whether the unit is charging or not, but it does not show the actual battery level apart from turning red when the level is low. It also displays a set of buttons and a slider that you can use to start/stop recording live TV, pause live TV, and drag or jump back/forward through the Timeshift Buffer in approx 30 second increments. By default the timeshift buffer is 256 megabytes in size which means you'll always have access to roughly the last 10 mins of live TV until the buffer is flushed when you exit from live TV. Changing channels does not flush the buffer so it will retain the video across any channel hopping you might do. You can change the size of the buffer in the Settings menu.

Unfortunately the pause live TV did not work properly. When you tap the Pause button the display does stop at the current frame, but after a few seconds when the information overlay disappears, the screen goes black with a "No Content" error message displayed which is obviously incorrect. So you only get to see the paused frame for a few seconds and it is obscured by the information overlay. This is obviously a bug that needs fixing.

There are also three controls at the top right of the screen. A settings button allows you to select the audio channel, a volume button displays a sider for adjusting the volume, and the third button allows you to change the display's zoom mode. The pixel dimensions of standard definition TV is a lot smaller than most tablets, so the default zoom mode is to enlarge the picture to occupy the maximum display area. If there are any vertical black bars at the sides then you can choose to zoom in further but this will crop the top and bottom of the picture. There is also a less-useful x1 zoom mode which shows you the native resolution of the TV image. It's also possible to cycle through the available zoom modes by double-tapping the screen.

Changing channels is done via the dropdown channel list at the top of the screen, or by swiping right or left to go up or down a channel.

After a few seconds the details overlay disappears. The android bottom bar controls also fade to faint grey dots, which makes them less intrusive.

Unfortunately you can not view the programme guide while you are watching live TV. You have to exit to the main menu, then select Guide and scroll to view the channel and programme information, then return to live TV by tapping Live TV on the main menu again. That automatically displays channels from the top of the list, so you'll probably have to scroll back again to find the channel you want then tap the channel name and start watching live TV again. This can be a real pain as you can't check the guide without missing some of the programme you are watching. Other models do allow you to view EPG information while you watch TV in a reduced area of the screen – more on that later.

Recordings on the main menu takes you to a list of past recordings. A Sort button at the top right lets you choose whether the list is ordered by recording date/time, by length of recording, or alphabetically by programme title – and you can choose reverse ordering if you wish.

Tapping one of the recordings displays more information about the programme, and allows you to Play Now or delete it.

Guide on the main menu is the programme guide and it looks identical to Live TV, showing you the same scrollable list of available channels with now and next programme titles.

When you tap a channel it displays a scrollable list of programmes on that channel for the remainder of Today. If you then tap the Date button at the top right, you can select any date in the next 7 days and view the programmes for that date. The flash of color below each programme title denotes its Genre (e.g. blue = News/Current Affairs).

Tapping on a particular programme displays more information about it. There are no facilities to search for a particular programme.

It's pleasing to see that the programme lists populate really quickly, but unfortunately this is all you get as a programme guide. We would really have liked to see a nice timeline type EPG similar to that provided by Elgato's EyeTV 3 (mac only) software that comes supplied with some of their other products, but this simplified EPG is better than nothing.

There is also no timer/reminder facility that would automatically switch channels when a marked programme on another channel was about to start. If you were looking through the programme guide and found an interesting programme, it would have been helpful if you could just tap the programme to start watching it on Live TV or set a reminder if it was coming up, instead of having to tap Live TV and then start hunting for the channel name again.

Settings on the main menu allows you to change a small number of EyeTV W's settings, including the size of the playback buffer. You can also do a channel re-scan from here.

We found it quite frustrating that the current time is not displayed anywhere in the EyeTV W app's menus. Most TVs and digiboxes display the current time as well as programme times so that you can tell how many minutes you have to wait for the next programme for example. The app does show a progress bar for the current program in the live TV information overlay, but this isn't really accurate enough and is no substitute for seeing the current time. With no watch or clock nearby we often had to temporarily exit from the app to check the current time in the Android status bar.

Trying Out the Aerials

First we tried connecting the telescopic antenna to the EyeTV but found that there was barely enough signal, so we tried the rod antenna instead. The length of wire allowed us to find a better signal and we could watch TV OK with occasional break ups. Also the screen occasionally went blank and displayed a No Content message – usually when this happened the EyeTV W's blue LED started flashing every 5 seconds which we presumed was an error code. We found that this error was more likely to occur as you moved the tablet to the limits of the EyeTV's Wi-Fi range, but it did also occur even with the tablet just a couple of metres away. The only solution seemed to be to switch the EyeTV W off and on again, and allow the app to reconnect to it. This was a bit of a nuisance, but with the tablet well in range it only seemed to happen every 2 to 3 hours of viewing time.

We then got out the MCX-to-coax adaptor and connected it to the rooftop antenna. Unsurprisingly this gave a much more stable picture and the No Content error happened much less frequently.

Audio Issues

Each TV programme that you record using the EyeTV W app is stored in its own programme folder in Movies. Each programme folder contains an MPEG-2 transport stream file that holds the actual video/audio recording – this may very well be just a dump of the broadcast DVB transport stream. There is also an index file and a couple of XML files containing information about the programme.

We found that when watching live TV the audio lagged behind the video by about a tenth of a second – large enough to be noticeable, but just about tolerable. The same lag existed when viewing a recorded programme. We wondered if this was something to do with the Hudl tablet itself, so we tried playing the recorded MPEG-2 file in MX Player on the Hudl and there was no noticeable lag. We therefore concluded that the lag was caused by a minor problem with the EyeTV W's app.

The Hudl's built-in speakers are a bit quiet and tinny, so we connected it by Bluetooth to an audio speaker unit which gave much better quality sound. However, the audio lagged unacceptably behind the video which was probably due to the delay/latency of the Bluetooth interface. So we had to opt instead for the stereo jack plug and wire connection instead. It would have been nice if the EyeTV W app had a variable slider to delay the video a little so that it could be adjusted to compensate for any delays in the audio connection.

Occasionally there was a rapid series of audio dropouts that made it impossible to follow spoken dialog for several seconds. The audio would then return to normal, but often this would repeat again and again after a few seconds and gradually get worse. We found that this could be cured by exiting Live TV and then going back in again – an easy solution but a bit of a nuisance nonetheless. Alternatively you could click the Back then Forward transport buttons which has the effect of reinitialising the audio stream, and means that you do not lose the contents of the timeshift buffer.

Missing Timeshare Channels

Note: this has since been fixed in version 2 of the app. See the update below for details.

At first we were confused that some of the DTT channels seemed to be missing even though their names were displayed during the scan. Then we realised that the EyeTV W was not storing Timeshare channels correctly. In the UK (and probably elsewhere) several video streams are shared by two or three different channels at different times of the day. For example one particular video stream carries "BBC Four" on channel 9 from 7:00pm until 5:30am, and "CBeebies" on channel 71 from 5:30am until 7:00pm. The LCN (logical channel number) of the video stream changes from 9 to 71 and vice versa at the changeover times. This timesharing arrangement can be helpful to broadcasters that can not afford to pay for a full-time channel allocation.

The correct behaviour of digital TV equipment is to store all two/three of the timeshare channels in its channel list and display the forthcoming programmes for all of these channels, irrespective of which of the timeshare channels is currently active. So the channel names and programme details for BBC Four and CBeebies should always be displayed no matter what time of day it is.

Unfortunately the EyeTV W seems to discard any channels that it finds during the scan that are not currently active. So if you did a scan at (say) 6:50pm the channel list will include "CBeebies" but "BBC Four" will be missing; but if you did the scan at 7:10pm the channel list will include "BBC Four" but not "CBeebies". The missing timeshare channels remain missing (whatever the time of the day) until you do another scan. This can be a nuisance if you are a frequent viewer of more than one channel in a particular timeshare - you would have to do regular rescans to get access to the other channels!

The same problem exists in the EyeTV W's programme Guide. So if you are watching CBeebies during the day, you can't check what programmes are coming up on BBC Four that evening because the BBC Four channel is missing from the guide.

At the time of writing, there are roughly 25 timeshare TV channels in the UK, so whatever time of day you perform a scan, some of these will always be missing from EyeTV W's channel listing and programme guide.

What About the Tivizen?

Another product we almost chose instead of the EyeTV W was the Tivizen Nano. This is manufactured by Valups (a spin-off of the South Korean iCube Corp) and rebadged by many of its “partners” across the world – so you may see it branded as the Humax Tivizen or Elgato Tivizen etc. Confusingly, each partner often seems to choose subtly different brand names for the same device (e.g. Hauppauge myTV 2GO).

The Tivizen range has been available for longer than Elgato's own EyeTV W, and the Tivizen Nano works in pretty much the same way, but it appears to have support for more platforms such as Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad and Android although the functionality of the app software that runs on the computer varies for each platform. On the Tivizen and the EyeTV W, the Apple platforms seem to have the best functionality.

In fact we would probably have chosen the Tivizen instead if it wasn't for the fact that it does not have an MCX antenna connector, so you are effectively stuck with its permanently attached small telescopic antenna. We had seen reviews that criticized its performance if the TV signal was not strong, so being unable to connect a rooftop antenna was a deal breaker for us. This was really the only reason we decided on the EyeTV W instead.

We mentioned earlier that you had to exit from Live TV before you could view the programme guide on the EyeTV W. This seems to be a limitation of the Android version of the app, because other Elgato models come supplied with much more fully featured software for iPhone and iPad (EyeTV 3 software that runs only on Mac hardware) and for Windows (Terratec Home Cinema) platforms. Similarly, Tivzen's software for Android is simpler than for other platforms. So on the Android platform it looks like we are stuck with the relatively limited features of the Android app.

Conclusion

Note: This applies to version 1 of the app software. Please also read the update section below for comments on the newer version 2 app.

For simply watching TV on the move, we were generally pleased with the performance and picture quality of the EyeTV W. Although it does not support high definition channels we thought it looked fine on a tablet. (Actually its specs say that it supports high definition channels that are broadcast in MPEG-2, but we think that only Australia does this so we couldn't try it.)

As mentioned earlier, there are still a few problems that could do with ironing out, such as the audio dropout, audio sync, pause live tv not working correctly, current time not being displayed, and the No Content error. Also, less frequently, the unit apparently crashes or refuses to connect via Wi-Fi - this can be fixed by powering the unit off and on again and allowing the app to reconnect, but it's a bit irritating when you miss an important part of your favourite show.

The programme guide should also show all timeshare channels and programmes regardless of the time of day. We would also like to see improvements in the program guide for Android in line with other platforms: e.g. a timeline program guide, and not having to exit from Live TV to check the programme guide.

Incidentally, just after we finished this review using the Tesco Hudl, we gave the EyeTV W a quick try out with the Sony Xperia Z1 Android smartphone. Like the Hudl, the Z1 is not mentioned in Elgato's list of supported tablets/phones, but we found the Z1 worked fine too. We noticed that it still exhibited the slight audio delay, but we didn't try it for long enough to check for the other issues mentioned earlier. Later: More recently we also tried it with a Moto G third generation (2015 model) and that worked OK too.

UPDATE: Version 2 of Elgato's Android app

On 14th May 2014 Elgato released version 2 of their Android app. There are very few significant changes compared with the earlier version, so we have added this extra section to the review to describe the changes.

It seems they have been listening to our earlier comments because some of them have been addressed.

The most noticeable change is that the interface has a new "flatter" look and different fonts. However all of the existing functionality is pretty much unchanged. The only new feature we could find is that the Live TV and Guide screens have a search bar at the top - you type in a few characters and the channel listing changes to show only those channels whose names contain that string of characters. Unfortunately it does not search for programme names.

Other improvements are:

The pause live TV now works correctly - you no longer get the black "No Content" screen after a few seconds.

Timeshare channels are now treated correctly. All channels are listed regardless of whether they are broadcasting at the time the channel scan was performed, and you can browse them in the programme guide at any time of day.

The audio delay has been reduced. Audio still lags very slightly behind video but it is an improvement.

Audio drop out does still happen occasionally but it's now better at recovering itself, so it's less likely you'll have to exit then return to Live TV to clear the problem.

The "No Content" error now seems to happen less often, though we did on one occasion manage to crash the EyeTV W unit (the 5 second blinking blue LED) just by exiting from the app.

Apart from that, everything is pretty much the same. Some controls have moved. For example the playback slider is now at the top of the screen and now shows the current buffer size and slider position in mins/secs; the record and transport buttons are now at the bottom of the screen; and the channel dropdown selector is now at the bottom-left.

You still can not view the programme guide while watching live tv, and the guide still works in the same way, so there's no nice timeline view. Also there is still no reminder or timed recording facility.

We can't understand why the current time is still missing, considering that just about all TVs and DTT devices display it. The Android status bar is now visible at the top of the main menu so you can see the time there, but it can't be seen when watching TV and in any case it is the tablet's clock time, not the broadcast DTT time.

Below are a few screenshots of the new version 2 Android app.

The LiveTV list of channels:

Watching a TV channel:

The Programme Guide:

Specs

The hardware and firmware versions for this review were:

EyeTV W Firmware version: Meron 1.83 DVB07.04.22 FL04.06
Android App version: 1.0.1 (915) and 2.0.0 (1216)
Android Tablet: Tesco Hudl (HT7S3)
Android Phone: Sony Xperia Z1 Android Phone: Moto G third generation (2015 model)

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