Have you ever looked at your last-gen or older devices, wondering if you could squeeze just a bit more functionality out of it? After all, not everyone has the inclination or bank account to be an early adopter rocking the latest gadgets at all times. Or maybe money isn’t the issue. Perhaps the functionality we want just simply hasn’t arrived yet. And so some of us try to cobble something together out of our trusty old gear, crossing our fingers and hoping we can get just a little more life out of it.
Now I know some people can really turn hacking into an art form, but I’m not much for soldering or other hardcore hardware rebuilds. And I’m no dev, so coding or software tweaks are out of the question. I can follow a tutorial, which puts me ahead of perhaps most consumers, but I like my hacks simple, though creative. And if it doesn’t have to cost much, that’s even better.
The Mission: TiVo Streaming on iOS Devices
Recently, I became obsessed (again) with TiVo streaming. Having it on my laptop is great, but I also want it on my iPhone and/or iPad.
I love, love, love Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, ABC Player and other apps, but it was driving me crazy that I had content stuck in my Series 3 TiVo box that I couldn’t access, except in front of my actual TV.
As if to add insult to injury, TiVo did release an official, rather sweet-looking iPad app earlier this year. Content info, schedule management, remote control functionality — all that looked great. Sadly, there was (1) no streaming feature, and (2) no support for my product. It doesn’t work with the Series 3.
It’s possible that a streaming application could be in the works. (A couple of months ago, TiVo asked customers if they were interested in such functionality via an iPad app — which is sort of like asking a child if she’d like a pony. I mean, really… this should be tagged under “Duh,” along with the long-promised Hulu Plus access.) As for whether this will actually see the light of day anytime soon — and if it does, whether they’ll plan for the obsolescence of the Series 3 Tivo by omitting it again — well that’s anyone’s guess.
Frankly, I’m tired of waiting to find out. So I decided to take matters into my own hands.
EyeTV, We Meet Again
I know — If I owned a Slingbox, this wouldn’t be an issue. What can I say? I’m stubborn. I don’t want to pay over $200 for the device plus a mobile app (or $300+ for the Pro box plus app) for functionality that I know my Series 3 should be capable of, with the right application.
So I weighed the options. If you’re a desktop TV fan, you’ve probably heard of Elgato. I was looking into its HDHomeRun, a new dual TV tuner product for both Mac and Windows 7 that can record or send live television wirelessly to users’ computers and iPads. Now here’s one item that could solve the problem, but it might be overkill. First, it’s $179.99. And, a solution like this is typically thought of as a Tivo alternative, rather than an add-on. Still, it was tempting.
Then I remembered I had another Elgato product collecting dust in my closet: an old EyeTV Hybrid USB TV tuner stick. Back before the inventory of online programming really took off, I used it to watch live TV on my Mac. That was three years ago.
This was a cheap and easy solution after my PC died and ended my relationship with an ATI Rage Pro TV tuner card. Elgato’s current USB tuner sticks are between $100 and $150, but I got this one on Ebay for $60 years ago. It basically looks like a thumb drive on steroids, with a coaxial cable jack on one end, and it delivered OTA (over-the-air) television to my Mac Mini. I just loaded the software, attached the coax cable and plugged it in my USB port, and voilá! I had Oprah smiling at me from my laptop.
Like today’s HDHomeRun, it could act as a TiVo alternative for recording via the EyeTV software, but the huge file sizes kept me from using it much. And my computer was woefully underpowered for the Hybrid and its software encoding, so after a few months of system slowdowns, I wound up putting it back in the box.
What a difference a couple of years makes. Since then I got a TiVo box and am using it with a CableCard, so it’s both cable box and DVR, and I upgraded to a MacBook Pro. Meanwhile, EyeTV released an iPhone application, which does allow streaming to iDevices for free.
And my impatience for a way to watch Tivo recordings on my mobile devices has grown exponentially.
Getting Hooked Up
Could it be possible that my old tuner stick is still supported by the newer EyeTV software? And if it is, how good would the stream be on my mobile devices? I couldn’t wait to check it out. So I dug it up and dusted it off. Here’s what I found:
- The latest EyeTV software still works with the old Hybrid product. (Hurray!)
- The TiVo HD Series 3 does not have a coaxial cable out, but it does work with RCA cables. So I’ve got outputs from my TiVo box — one going into the TV (via HDMI) and the other using RCA cables out to my EyeTV. (This was an aesthetic choice. I got a RF Modulator, to change the mess of RCAs to a single minimal coaxial cable. The EyeTV comes with an adapter, but I didn’t want a mess of cables running around my apartment, so I picked up an RF Modulator at Radio Shack for $25.)
- Then I plugged my Hybrid stick into my Mac.
Tears almost came to my eyes when I went into my TiVo queue and saw the screen show up on my desktop. Part 1 was done — TiVo to laptop: Check. Now for part 2, getting the TiVo over to my mobile devices.
This was actually pretty simple. I went into EyeTV preferences (in my desktop program) and turned on iPhone sharing. Then I downloaded the free EyeTV app from the App Store on my phone and tablet. Then I tried the apps.
Success! The TiVo stream from my computer showed up on both my iPhone and iPad! I ran into the bedroom to show the hubby, and that’s when I discovered my first issue.
Our TiVo box uses an IR remote control. Without a direct line of site, the peanut-shaped remote was useless. I could’ve bought an IR repeater (or several) to deal with this, but I’d already blown $25 on an RF modulator, and this is supposed to be a cheapskate’s hack, remember?
There I was, able to watch TiVo in any room, but totally unable to control it. Now if it was a Premiere box, I could’ve used the TiVo iPad app, but that’s not what I have. Luckily, some third party developers created Wi-Fi-based remote control applications that support the S3. I chose the i.TV app. At least now I could watch my recordings on my iPad as I control it with my iPhone. So it does work, but it’s not exactly elegant. Especially because there’s a latency in the stream. That’s issue #2.
In my setup, the feed pushes out content at about 5 to 7 seconds behind what’s actually playing on the TiVo. This means, when I send a command via remote control, it doesn’t show up on my device right away. This time discrepancy can be maddening if you’re trying to get to a specific part in a show.
There’s also a third issue — either due to a router issue or a software bug — the EyeTV app doesn’t always find the feed. I’ve gone into my router settings, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical or consistent reason for this. Sometimes it works, sometimes it just doesn’t.
Are some things just worth the expense?
So in the end, is it worth all the hassle? Well, if I didn’t already have the tuner stick, then the answer would be no. It’s just too buggy to make the fussing worthwhile. So until there’s a decent Tivo-streaming app available, my advice is this: If you absolutely need it and you’re starting from scratch, spring for an HDHomeRun or Slingbox. I’m all for saving a buck, but some things are just worth spending a little more on.
But because I did already have the Hybrid stick in the house, it absolutely was. I love being able to watch American Idol, Food Network programming and other hard-to-find-online-but-sitting-in-my-TiVo content anywhere in my house. And for nothing. (Aside from the optional $25 RF Modulator.)
So yeah, I consider it a triumph, using some old tech to get new functionality. And it will tide me over nicely until Tivo finally gets off its butt and delivers streaming.
Have you tried a cheap and simple hack lately, or otherwise gotten more life out of an old gadget? Share your story below in the comments.