If you want to turn your Mac into a TV set or PVR (personal video recorder) you have a few good options — unless you want to record in High Definition (HD). HD recording takes advantage of that large TV or LCD you’ve plugged into your Mac, and is the only option for recording shows with the same picture quality you get by watching HD shows on iTunes, Hulu or downloaded via Bittorrent.

But Canadians like me will tell you that HD is hard to come by. Hulu isn’t available in Canada (more on that soon!), the Canadian iTunes store has a smaller TV selection than its American counterpart, and Bittorrent is (depending on who you talk to) morally reprehensible or criminally slow. You can create your own HD TV recordings by buying an HD PVR from your service provider — be it Telus, Shaw, Rogers, or Bell — but unless you can get your cable company to cough up a free PVR in order to keep your business, you may be paying $600 for your HD recording option. And you’re stuck with watching your recordings on your TV, unless you delve into various workarounds for transferring shows to your laptop or iphone.

The most direct route to anywhere, anytime HD TV recordings is a solution that lets you record directly on your computer. The easiest solution for recording HD to a Mac is EyeTV, which offers a variety of hardware-plus-software solutions, including (for North Americans) the EyeTV 250 Plus and the EyeTV Hybrid.

We recently bought the EyeTV 250 Plus, which was easy to get up and running on our Mac Mini. Plug your coax cable directly into the EyeTV tuner box, connect that box to your computer, and voila! TV on your Mac.

Sort of. It turns out that your Mac’s TV reception is limited to the channels that your cable provider delivers in unencrypted (“clear QAM“) form. That means no super stations, no time shift stations, and (gasp!) no HD. While the EyeTV does support HD, it only supports over-the-air signals (OTA), which are now relatively easy to come by in US cities. But when I looked up our Vancouver address online, and even tried connecting an antenna to my EyeTV box, we had no success getting over-the-air HD.

In other words, the only way to get HD is by getting that encrypted HD cable signal out of your cable provider’s HD cable box, and into your computer. But how?

The answer is the Hauppauge HD PVR. It’s the one HD PVR on the market that connects directly to a cable box, and then to your computer. And while it comes with Windows software, it is also supported by EyeTV, so you can use the same great EyeTV software to get an HD signal. It’s even a bit cheaper than the EyeTV option: about $250, depending on where you buy it. (But you’ll have to pay extra to buy the EyeTV software separately).

But there is one BIG problem with connecting the Hauupauge HD PVR to a Mac: you can get that HD signal to your computer, but you have to manually switch the channels on your cable box whenever you want to watch or record a new channel. That’s because the Hauppauge’s infrared (IR) blaster doesn’t work on a Mac. For another $50 you can buy a third party IR blaster, the Zephir, and some folks report success using it with EyeTV.

Or you can use your Mac to change the channels for you. If you have a functioning Firewire port on your cable box (here’s how to tell), you can use Alex Fajkowski’s Firewire Channel Changer for EyeTV. Channel Changer takes advantage of Apple’s Firewire Software Development Kit (SDK) to control your cable box via Firewire. It monitors EyeTV for any channel changes, and instantly passes them through to your cable box. There’s no lag, so you get complete control of your cable box through EyeTV.

Yes, you could use that same Firewire connection to pipe your cable box signal into your Mac without the Hauppauge hardware. But you’ll be stuck with one of two not-good options:

  1. Use Apple’s free Firewire SDK, which includes two applications for watching and recording cable signals, including HD. Just download the SDK (you’ll need to create a developer account, but it’s free and available to anyone) and follow these instructions from Rob at TigerShark on how to get TV recording set up on a mac using the SDK or these instructions from Verbophobia on how to set up recording schedules in iCal that will work with the Firewire method. But you are dealing with an extremely minimal, unfriendly interface, and even if you download Ammesset software’s free Firerecord software — which gives you a slightly more user-friendly setup — you won’t get any kind of on-screen program guide. On the other hand, this option is free, and lots of people really like free.
  2. Use SageTV instead of EyeTV, plus the Firewire Network Encoder. SageTV is a more Tivo-like interface, but it’s still glitchy under Snow Leopard. And it’s not easy to get the Firewire Network Encoder to work so that SageTV gets its signal from your cable box’s Firewire port, and (at least for me) involved some scary permissions settings. And when I finally did get it working, the lack of external hardware proved fatal: SageTV couldn’t do a decent job of processing an HD signal on my Mac Mini (a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 1 GM of RAM), even though the same signal played just fine in AVCBrowser using the Firewire SDK method.

And before my open-source buddies suggest MythTV, the much-beloved open source alternative to EyeTV et al., let me point out that there’s no readily available version of MythTV for the latest Mac OS (Snow Leopard), or for that matter, for the Hauppauge HD PVR. If you are a Linuxy superstud and want to compile your own mac-friendly, Snow Leopard-friendly, hauppauge hd pvr-friendly MythTV install, by all means, count me in as a guinea pig!

You could also use the EyeTV tuner (as opposed to the Hauppauge) plus Channel Changer, but it will downgrade your HD signal to a regular signal. So if you’re going to spend $250-300 on a Mac tuner, you might as well get one that can actually deliver HD from your cable box or satellite.

Over the next few days, I’ll break this solution down into a step-by-step guide that maps out how you can set up a terrific, HD-recording Mac media center in a single weekend.

UPDATE: Now that I’ve actually been watching TV — as opposed to playing with the setup! — I’ve discovered a major hitch. This all works brilliantly for recording regular or HD shows, and watching them later. It does not work at all well for watching live TV: I get major stuttering. This is a non-unknown problem with the Hauppauge, EyeTV and various combinations thereof, for reasons that might have to do with firmware version on the Hauupauge, EyeTV software versioning/configuration, and/or installed RAM on my Mini. Trying to track down the answer/solution and will post when I’m there.