Product Name: AlchemyTV
Category: Radio/TV and video capture card
Mac OS X 10.2.4 or above
Power Mac G4/400 MHz or above (G5 not supported yet)
Rating: 3 1/2 bounces – Lustworthy
When it comes to radio and TV, are you still stuck in limbo between the analog and the digital worlds? Do you have legacy audio/video technology that you’d like to be able to use for a while longer with your Power Mac computer running Mac OS X before purchasing all that fancy brand new all-digital equipment (and a more powerful computer)?
If so, you might be interested in a new product by Miglia called the AlchemyTV. It’s an reasonably-priced expansion card that features a range of audio and video input ports, as well as a TV tuner and a FM radio tuner. The package also includes a CD-ROM with the software required to use the card under Mac OS X.
Video and audio have a long history on the Mac. For many years now, Apple’s computers have been the platform of choice for both amateurs and professionals interested in working with audio and video content. These days, of course, digital video (DV) is all the rage. You can buy a digital camcorder, record hours of video on cheap tapes, and then import your high-quality movies directly into iMovie and edit them before burning them on a DVD with iDVD.
But what do you do if you have a cupboard full of old videotapes? Over the years, various manufacturers have come up with different types of solutions for turning old analog recordings into digital content that can be viewed, listened to, and edited in a computer environment.
If you are a long-time reader of Applelust, you might remember that I once reviewed an ATI Technologies product called the XClaim TV USB. It came out a few months before the first version of Mac OS X was released. As I indicated in my review at the time, the fact that it was USB-based meant that audio and video quality couldn’t match DV content. Sadly, ATI also never provided Mac OS X-compatible software for the XClaim TV USB, and it soon disappeared without a trace.
The AlchemyTV is part of the same category of products. It is not a professional-level product — but then it doesn’t carry a professional-level price either. It’s an entry-level product. However, it is a significant improvement over a product such as ATI’s XClaim TV USB. Not only is it Mac OS X-friendly — in fact, it requires Mac OS X 10.2.4 or higher — but it is also PCI-based, not USB-based. This means that it requires a computer with PCI expansion slots (in other words, a Power Mac computer), but on the other hand it doesn’t suffer from the problems posed by USB-based technology (limited bandwidth and CPU dependence).
Hardware and Software
The AlchemyTV product kit consists of a PCI card with a number of video and audio ports: stereo audio input (jack), composite video input, S-VHS video input, stereo audio output (jack), TV antenna input, and FM radio antenna input. As with most PCI cards, installation is fairly straightforward, especially with Apple’s well-designed Power Mac enclosures. (The AlchemyTV requires a Power Mac G4/400 MHz or higher.)
The kit also includes a short stereo jack cable, and an FM antenna cable. (Video cables are not provided, but if you are like me, you already have a drawer full of such cables that you have accumulated over the years.)
Once you have installed your card, and plugged in the cables from the source(s) that you want to use with the AlchemyTV, you need to install the software provided on CD-ROM.
Software installation is straightforward, but does require a hard restart once it’s been completed, because the AlchemyTV software relies on a kernel extension to run in Mac OS X. (I didn’t encounter any stability problems after installing the software, however.)
After you’ve restarted your machine, all you need to do is launch the AlchemyTV application, and take a trip to its “Preferences” dialogs, where you can identify your audio/video source and set up the software to receive the signals coming from the source.
The AlchemyTV software acts as a complete audio/video environment. If you have plugged the FM antenna (provided) into the FM antenna input port, you can use the FM radio window, which acts as a small FM radio receiver device. The window uses — fittingly, since we are talking about a piece of software that mimics a real-life device — the brushed-metal appearance:
Using the “Preferences” dialog for FM radio, you can identify your favorite radio stations, which can then be selected using a pop-up menu in the FM radio window. FM reception is not very good where I live (in a remote rural area), but I was able to get the two or three FM radio stations that I normally get with the radio tuner in my living room sound system. Sound quality was good.
The same principle is used for watching TV. If you’ve plugged your TV antenna cable into the TV input port, and switched the view to “TV Window”, you are then provided with two windows, one with the TV picture itself, and another one looking like a TV remote device:
Here again, you can identify your favorite TV stations in the “Preferences” dialogs and then select them with the pop-up menu in the TV remote window. You can also adjust the brightness, contrast, and saturation.
AlchemyTV also provides a “Channel Preview” window in which you can get the software to display thumbnail previews of all the channels found by the TV tuner built into the PCI card. And it also comes with a “Show Channel Assistant…” command actually launches a separate assistant-type application that guides you through the process of using TV Guide’s online service in the US for TV programming options. Miglia also told me that they will soon release a DVR-like variant of the AlchemyTV, which will let you program and record TV broadcasts automatically to your hard drive. (You can already record programs, as explained below, but only manually.)
Using the AlchemyTV menus, you can further customize your viewing environment, by choosing a different window size for your TV screen window. (The window can also be resized on-the-fly by grabbing its bottom-right corner.) You can also watch TV at full screen size, if you so desire.
If you have plugged another video source into the S-VHS or composite video port (such as a VCR or a camcorder), the same controls will be available to you: window size, brightness, contrast, brightness, saturation, etc.
Whether you are watching TV or using another video source, you may, at any point, choose to record what you are watching — i.e. use the AlchemyTV card and software to “digitize” the analog video source.
In that area, the important thing to understand is that the ultimate quality of your video capture will depend on your computer’s capabilities. All the necessary adjustments can be made in the “Preferences” dialog for video, where you can choose the compression settings that work best on your machine.
For video, AlchemyTV gives you access to all the codecs available in QuickTime, including “Animation”, “Cinepak”, “Component Video”, “DV/DVCPRO” (PAL or NTSC), “Motion JPEG”, “Sorenson Video”, and many more. You can then also specify the desired frame rate (number of frames per second), as well the number of key frames, or an upper limit for the data rate (in KBytes/sec).
For sound, again, AlchemyTV gives you access to the codecs available in QuickTime, including “MACE”, “QDesign”, “Qualcomm PureVoice”, etc. You can choose 8-bit or 16-bit audio, and mono or stereo sound. You can also adjust the gain. The sampling rate for the audio input on the AlchemyTV, however, is limited to 32 KHz — which falls short of the standard 44.1 KHz for CD quality, but still provides decent enough results for casual audio/video recording.
I used the AlchemyTV on a dual 1.25 GHz G4, which means that I have quite a bit of processing power. I was able to capture video clips at 640×480 pixels using the “DV/DVCPRO” video codec and optimal sound settings. The video clips were decent looking, and the capture only dropped frames when I tried to do something else on my computer at the same time I was capturing the video source.
Depending on the compression settings you choose, you may or may not be able to import the captured video clips into a program such as iMovie for video editing. So if you want to do any video editing, you need to be aware of the capabilities of your machine and determine whether you’ll be able to capture video clips with a good enough frame rate and with a codec that gives you the ability to import the clips into iMovie.
It should be noted, however, that the AlchemyTV is not intended for professional-level editing. If you really want to capture analog video recordings in high quality for video editing and DVD authoring, you need to look at more expensive solutions, such as Miglia’s own Director’s Cut Take 2. (You can also simply purchase a digital camcorder with analog “pass-through” capabilities and use the camcorder to digitize your old analog tapes.)
As indicated earlier, the AlchemyTV is an entry-level device that is intended for watching analog TV, listening to analog FM radio, and do some casual audio/video recording from analog sources.
Notes on the Software
The interface suffers from a few quirks, notably in the “Preferences” dialogs where you define your favorite TV or radio stations. Once you’ve typed in the name of the station, you need to press the Tab key to go to the next field and validate your entry. If you just click elsewhere rather than using the Tab key, the software “forgets” what you’ve just typed.
I am also not convinced that using the “Preferences” dialogs for all kinds of options (selecting the type of source, changing the compression settings, etc.) is the best approach from a UI point of view. I would have preferred a palette-like approach which requires less menu-based navigation.
This is particularly relevant in light of the fact that these “Preferences” dialogs do not behave exactly as such dialogs are expected to behave in a Mac OS application. Since the “Preferences” command appears in the application menu itself, it is expected to be accessible at all times, regardless of what application or document window is currently open in the application.
The “Preferences” in AlchemyTV don’t work that way. The “Preferences” command in the application menu is actually a submenu containing five options:
The first four (“Video…”, “Sound…”, “Tuner…”, and “FM Radio…”) are the important ones here. (See above in this review for notes regarding the “Show Channel Assistant…” command.)
However, as you can see in the snap shot above, the four preference dialog options are not always available. In fact, they are only available depending on which “mode” the application currently is. If it’s in “FM Radio” mode, then “Sound…” and “FM Radio…” are on. If it’s in “Remote Control” mode (i.e. for watching/recording video), then “Video…”, “Sound…”, and “Tuner…” are on.
I am afraid this simply isn’t right. Preferences are supposed to be available at all times. Just because I am currently listening to FM radio doesn’t mean I might not want to change my video settings before switching to TV/video mode.
Coming to the defence of Miglia is the fact that this behavior is a limitation of the hardware itself, whose settings cannot be changed unless it is currently in use. But this confirms my opinion that these settings do not really belong in “Preferences” and should appear elsewhere in the user interface.
Another illustration of the problem with the preference-based approach is the fact that the “Video…” preferences dialog also includes a “Preview” area in which you can see what the effects of the compression codec you’ve chosen on the current video feed. You can even use this “Preview” pane to display advanced diagrams that analyze your video signal, such as in the “RGB Parade” in the screen shot below:
Again, this is the type of functionality that could and should be provided through a palette-like interface instead.
I find that the current interface causes the AlchemyTV software to be slightly non-intuitive for the average Mac user, who’s used to interface consistency across applications. Granted, it’s only a matter of adjusting to the quirkiness of this particular interface, but Mac users typically don’t like to have to adjust to non-standard quirks.
The AlchemyTV product is, as its price range indicates, an entry-level product that provides a decent set of features and a quality level that is more than adequate for casual listening/viewing/recording. In spite of its occasional quirkiness, the software is stable and reasonably Mac OS X-friendly. And if your computer is powerful enough, you can actually achieve rather decent results in analog video capture.
Recordings made with the AlchemyTV cannot and will not match DV-quality video signals captured from a digital video source via FireWire, of course. But they provide a good alternative for non-professionals who are looking for an affordable, “in-between” solution to transfer some of their legacy video content to digital media — or simply for an easy and affordable way to watch conventional TV or listen to conventional FM radio on a Power Mac G4 running Mac OS X.
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