My new EyeTV set-up, and why Comcast's digital transition is a pain

On Monday, Colorado cable customers transitioned into a new digital world. Comcast switched off analog access to all but its most basic channels, i.e. the ones that they are still required to carry by law, and killed the clear-QAM signal that has made it possible for my EyeTV tuner to schedule and record TV for the last few years. Instead, Comcast has introduced digital transport adapters, and this small box has wrecked my TV-watching, time-shifting, Mac-recording happiness.

The problem is this. The new Comcast box will transmit video over a coax cable on channel 3 or 4. You set this via a toggle switch on the back of the box. All channel switching must be done via the box. That means if you bought a fancy new TV with a built-in clear-QAM tuner (without CableCARD) or are using a computer-based tuner like the EyeTV that doesn't have an IR blaster to change cable channels, you're in a bind.

You need to send channel requests somehow to the box rather than allowing your equipment to function the way it always has. Unfortunately, EyeTV can't work that way. Elgato suggested that it isn't possible to use the channel 3-4 type connection when controlling a set top box. Argh! For EyeTV users, you can either pay to upgrade both to a new Comcast HD tuner and an Elgato EyeTV HD system, which TUAW is going to review soon, or you can try to cobble together your own solution, a la the discussion at this online Elgato forum thread.

I did the latter. In the end, it cost about a hundred dollars in parts and degraded my video quality to "barely watchable", plus it took up several ports (both on my computer and on the EyeTV unit) that I normal use for work. But I can now automatically record TV shows, so it's going to keep me going for the moment, however badly. Read on to learn how I put my solution together, and why you'll probably want to consider opting for a net-enabled TiVo instead.

Update: Working with Elgato over e-mail this afternoon to try to bypass the "need a VCR to transform coax signal into composite signal", will update when I have made some progress. The rest of the exercise, from the IR blaster, to the missed channel signals, and so forth stands. Do consider going for Elgato's premium EyeTV HD product rather than trying to back-engineer with older equipment and a DTA.

Update 2: Managed to get the solution sans VCR to work. Via Elgato:
1) Make sure you have Analog - Antenna channel 3
2) Make sure you can see the video from the cable box on channel 3
3) Configure ZephIR - give your downloaded IR set a name like "ComcastDCX50"
4) Make sure ZephIR can control EyeTV
5) Use Configure Set Top Box in EyeTV. Name you setup "ComcastDCX50" (or whatever, at long as it matches your ZephIR setup name)
6) Choose Built-In Tuner, and Channel 3. Do not select "use built-in tuner for analog channels".
7) Make sure to delete any previous channels (a la Step 7 in the the main part of this write-up) or you will experience the errors, I first encountered.
After, the image quality is pretty poor, but it works and does not require the VCR step. This improved audio but experienced similar channel switching problems with one fewer device needed. Still a hack -- and I still recommend avoiding this approach.

Getting your EyeTV to work with the new Comcast digital adapter box involves several stages. You need to be able to change channels from EyeTV and you need to be able to access a video signal. Here are the parts I need to put together for my solution:

  • EyeTV hardware (I have an EyeTV 250 model)

  • Comcast digital transport adapter (you get 2 per account and then pay for each unit thereafter)

  • ZephIR USB-based IR blaster system that works with OS X notifications (and there goes another one of my precious USB ports!, $62 with tax and shipping)

  • An old VCR,;mine is an ancient (15-20 year old) Goldstar unit that no longer tracks VHS tapes reliably (You can pick up a similar system for about $10-$20 at most Goodwill or ARC thrift shops, but they are becoming rarer)

  • New Universal remote control because you long ago lost the Goldstar remote (sometimes available at dollar stores, but about $5-$10 at most normal retailers)

  • Velcro patches (both hook and eye, Family Dollar has sets for a couple of bucks)

  • RCA cables for audio and video (and bear in mind that the Goldstar system doesn't even offer stereo audio -- white plug only), you can find these at Radio Shack or Walmart for about $5-$10.

  • Power outlets to accommodate the EyeTV, the Comcast adapter, and the VCR, not to mention your existing monitor(s) and computer. You may want to buy an extra power strip for about $10.

So, why all this stuff? It comes down to a basic problem with EyeTV. It cannot use the channel 3-4 type connection when controlling a set top box, so you need to pipe your video through some sort of converter to transform it into either RCA composite video or S-Video -- which of course are normally the connectors I use when doing video reviews for TUAW.

That means I'll now be having to unplug and replug my EyeTV system every time I need access that work video, instead of keeping all my cables in place and ready to go the way they have been. It's not a huge deal but it's enough of a pain that I'll have to remember to re-set my system and do a complete video check after each time. That's because the video connections are wonky enough that they have to be carefully adjusted after each cable switch-out. An S-video switchbox won't work. You have to make software changes to go between these systems as well as hardware switch-outs.

Here's how I set up my system.

  1. Installed the Comcast Digital Transport Adapter. Took it out of the box, plugged it in, disconnected the cable from EyeTV and re-connected it to the "In" port of the adapter. Connected the "Out" to the EyeTV box and tuned the EyeTV software to Channel 3.

  2. Activated Service. I had to call Comcast and have them send over a signal to switch it on. This took a couple of calls because the signal started freezing. Use the remote control (non-universal) that ships with the adapter to confirm that your channels are all active.

  3. Install ZephIR. The ZephIR system consists of a USB-based blaster and an install CD with software plus a how-to video. Make sure to copy the software into /Applications -- don't run it from the CD. Use the built-in database to create a DC50X Comcast component. Plug the unit into a USB port, velcro it into place on your Comcast adapter box and confirm that you can switch channels up and down using the software. Make sure the blaster is sitting at an angle, so the lights go as directly as possible into the sensors.

  4. Re-route the video. Disconnect the coax cable from the EyeTV unit and attach it to your VCR's "Antenna In". Then connect RCA cables from both audio- and video-out on your VCR back to your EyeTV, this time using the composite RCA connectors.

  5. Get the video throughput to work. Methods of doing this will vary by VCR, but basically you're looking to activate some sort of TV/VCR or CableTV/VCR functionality. Unfortunately, my old Goldstar didn't ship with onboard buttons to do this, so I had to laboriously program a universal remote (and no, Goldstar wasn't listed as one of the presets) until I finally got it working. Also keep in mind that your VCR needs to remain powered throughout this, so if you have rolling Summer brownouts or blackouts in your area, you'll need to check and fix your connection whenever the VCR is interrupted. It's the flashing 12:00 all over again.

  6. Set-up EyeTV to work with an external tuner. Resist your instinct to run over to the application preferences pane. Setting up your tuner happens in the Channels pane instead. Select External from the Service pop-up and click the Configure button. Use the same name (Comcast) here of the ZephIR component. Set Composite Video as your connection, set your zip code, and select your service. Leave "user built-in tuner for analog channels" unchecked.

  7. Remove any previous EyeTV channels. Once you've set up your external system, return to the Channels pane, select any previous service (namely, Cable), and delete all the channels. You'll want to do this because selecting those channels either by accident or adding a schedule to EyeTV will change your tuning back to the Coax Tuner and will completely mess up your recording system. Get rid of them now, so the only available channel choices remain the ones over your external system. I lost several hours until I realized I needed to do this.

  8. Test your video. Use the program guide to pick various channels and watch them live. Get a sense for the delay between switching channels, which is going to be part of your life. Also adjust the IR blaster-head as needed for the best reception. It's never going to be perfect but you can reduce the channel switch errors down from 25% to about 5-10% with a bit of careful aiming.

  9. Remove any previous EyeTV schedules. Delete your existing schedules and re-schedule them on your new channels.

So after all this, what do you get? You get a "working" system that allows you to schedule and record video. Accept that video quality is going to be pretty low and that the audio quality may be mono if your VCR is as old as mine. Also learn to accept that even with the best adjustments, the IR blaster system is going to drop a channel number here or there, so some number of your recordings will be of the wrong show. Also be prepared to fix your system back up all the time after power fluctuations, brown-outs, or just needing to use your EyeTV for direct video capture.

In the end, you might want to just save your $100 and opt for the better (and HD) solution of buying Elgato's $200 EyeTV HD and renting the Comcast HD box (it's a step-up from the basic digital adapter). Because I can confidently say that that extra 100 bucks will get you much more than the utterly Rube Goldberg pile of inadequate and fuzzy and occasionally mis-tuned video that I'm currently watching on my system.

For our video-savvy readers, if you have come up with more effective/capable solutions than this admittedly hacky workaround, please do let us know in the comments.