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Off the Grid: Out of country (part two)


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column normally about gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

I got a lot of interesting comments in response to last week's piece on gaming while abroad. More people empathized with my situation than I had originally expected, and had their own unique solutions to the problem.

Overwhelmingly, most expat gamers seem to rely on portables to keep playing games internationally. Some gamers took the full dive and purchased new consoles for their new region. Still others suggested using VGA cables and computer monitors, or reminded me that most modern televisions sold in Europe support NTSC signals, nullifying the problem entirely.

But I'm not going to buy a television, because they're bulky and I don't feel like it. Instead, I invested in a tiny, tiny piece of hardware that lets me play my console games on my laptop. It's called the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid and, irony of ironies, it's for Macs only.

Elgato is a German company specializing in television viewing and recording software and hardware for Macintosh computers. Their brainchild is the EyeTV line, the cutest of which is the EyeTV Hybrid, a device slightly larger than a flash drive that plugs directly into a computer's USB port, accepting coaxial television signals, as well as composite video, S-Video and stereo audio through the use of a breakout cable.

In short, it turns a Mac into a television screen, which is exactly what I needed. With a 15" Powerbook, I already had a nice screen for playing games. All I really needed was the device to let me do it.

Granted, the EyeTV Hybrid wasn't designed for this purpose. For $150 USD, the device comes with software designed to turn a Mac into a DVR unit, offering real-time encoding of video signals for either storage, playback, or transfer to a number of different media. As the younger brother to the more robust EyeTV 250 -- which handles encoding in the hardware itself -- the Hybrid relies on the computer it's plugged into to do the encoding.

But if you don't press record, the encoder never turns on, and the video and audio travel directly from source to screen with virtually no lag.

I had my doubts about the efficacy of the Hybrid. I was warned that lag could be inevitable when relying on the computer's processor to display the image. But surprise surprise, the device has worked flawlessly, and I've played games for hours at a time without ever experiencing any lag between the controls and the display.

For the sake of technical stats, I've been testing the device using its latest software updates, on my 15" Apple Powerbook, with a 1.33 GHz PowerPC G4 processor, and 1.5 GB of internal RAM. My machine is running Mac OS X Tiger, version 10.4.10. I've played PlayStation 2 and the Wii using EyeTV, and have tested a variety of games, including Katamari Damacy, Odin Sphere, Okami, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Paper Mario, Wii Sports, and a number of Virtual Console titles. Even with a game as fast-paced and twitchy as Prime 3, the device performs perfectly, and keep in mind that my laptop is over three years old. Performance on any newer machines should be no problem.

The sound quality is perfect, with no noticeable degradation. The image quality, however, takes a somewhat noticeable hit. As shown in the gallery, the EyeTV Hybrid does not output the video at its highest resolution. The image is blurry, and not as sharp as it would be on a high-def, or even standard-definition television screen. Different interlacing options can be turned on to improve the image, but these require a processor fast enough to keep up. The slight degradation in video quality, however, does not affect the playability of the titles. Text in games like Metroid Prime 3 and Odin Sphere is still very much readable, and a good game is a good game regardless of how "crisp" it looks. This might also strictly be a composite video problem, as I'm unable to test whether the S-Video option is in any way superior.

At this time I'm also unable to test the Eye TV Hybrid on the Xbox 360 or the PS3, because, well, I don't own them. I've also placed several inquiries into Elgato requesting more details about the technology and its few problems, but I've received no response as of writing this.

Ultimately, the Eye TV Hybrid won't be the ideal solution for everyone. But for those with a fast Mac, and who want -- nay, need -- to be gamers while out of country, it's a portable, practical solution to a puzzling problem.

Happy gaming, fellow expats.

Gallery: Elgato EyeTV Hybrid | 8 Photos

Scott Jon Siegel is an fledgling game designer, a professional blogger, and a mediocre cook. His words and games can be found at numberless, and he promises to get back to reviewing non-digital games real soon.

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