TubeStick Delivers HD Television on Mac Desktop

| In-Depth Review

The Equinux TubeStick is a combination NTSC and ATSC tuner the size of a large pack of chewing gum. It can be connected via an antenna or home cable (coax) connection and comes with TiVo-like software to tune, watch, pause, do instant replay, record, and export directly to iTunes.

The TubeStick has two components. The tuner itself is a small, white and graceful block of plastic with a U.S. standard NTSC (standard definition) tuner and an ATSC (high definition) tuner. There a compatible coaxial input one one side and a USB connector on the other. It could be mistaken for a USB Flash Drive, it is that small. (Equinux recommends a direct USB connection to the Mac, not via a hub.)

TubeStick and iPhone

TubeStick Next to iPhone

The second component is Mac specific software called The Tube. This software provides the control panel for selecting channels, viewing the TV input, and other various functions. Here are the important features:

  • User definable buffer, like a TiVo, for pausing live TV.
  • Instant Replay.
  • Record any TV show.
  • Automatically change between 16:9 and 4:3 format.
  • Export recorded show directly into iTunes.
  • Operate with the Apple remote. (The Apple remote was provided with some Mac models, but can be purchased as an accessory.)
  • Variable screen size, including full screen mode.

Setup

Included in the box is a small antenna that attaches to the TubeStick. That's useful when one is on the go with a MacBook or at home, without cable TV, in an area of strong TV reception. The antenna has a magnetic base, for attaching to, say, a car, so one should be careful to keep it isolated.

TubeStick and Antenna

TubeStick and Supplied Antenna

Also included is a small adapter that plugs into the TubeStick. With that, one can plug in a 75 ohm coaxial cable from either a rooftop antenna or a standard cable TV system. After plugging in the hardware, one installs the Mac software, scans for available channels, and then one can start watching TV on the Mac desktop. An important and thoughtful addition is a short USB extension cable in case there isn't room on the side of a MacBook to insert the TubeStick.

Observations

Using the software requires registration with the vendor's site. I did that before with the Equinux Stationery product, so it wasn't a problem. I just added The Tube to my profile with the license code printed on the manual. It is an unusual process for most software vendors, and seems a little onerous, but, in hindsight, it isn't a problem.

The user's account name and password is stored in the Mac OS X Keychain, so if the installation asks for access to the Keychain, let it do that. If you don't, the app will hang and need to be forced to quit.

The first thing I did after installation was to to scan for digital channels. I should back up here and mention how I did that. I have Comcast high speed Internet with a cable modem in my office. I also have basic cable service, that is, no set-top box -- just a 75 ohm coax coming out of the wall. So I scrounged in the basement and found a splitter. One output went back into the cable modem and the other went to the TubeStick. See the (iPhone) photo above.

The first thing I actually did was conduct an Internet speed test with http://www.speedtest.net to be sure my Internet service was back to normal. Then I scanned for digital channels. I knew that would work because the TubeStick has a QAM digital tuner. Not only did I pick up several digital channels but also the local ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC stations that Comcast broadcasts in high definition.

File Menu and source

File -> Source Select

However, the first time through, I didn't see any digital stations and switched over to analog where I saw a whole bunch of stations. Disconnecting the TubeStick from the Mac forced a reinitialization, and after that, I have had no problems. The screen shot below shows last night's episode of 24 in high definition on Denver's FOX station.

Not all the meta data associated with each channel came through by default. I suspect that's because Comcast doesn't worry about digital QAM tuners connected to basic cable. However, with a right mouse click, one can fill in the details of each channel, and that's what I did. You can see that in the screen shot: "KDVR-HD (Ch 31) Fox." In the case of several other channels picked up, shopping and Spanish language, I didn't bother to edit the channel description.

TV Episode-1

"24" in HD

One of the things I really liked was the software's detection of the change of aspect ratio when switching to an HD channel. I also noted that the NVIDIA 9400M graphics chip in my MacBook Pro did just fine with full screen high definition on the 23-inch Cinema display attached.

While there is no six second "instant replay" button on the display, like the one found on TiVos or satellite/cable DVRs, there is a control that allows the user to specify how far back to go in the buffer. With a little practice, one can use the mouse to go back in time a few seconds. However, I did find to my dismay that, often, lip sync was lost in this process.

Channel Selection

Channel Selection

The size of that buffer can be a problem, however. The preference panel slider in "Timeshift" isn't labeled. The manual states that the minimum is 300 MB and the maximum is available disk space (minus 1 GB). I left Timeshift on too long and left the Mac alone. That chewed up 38 GB and messed with my next Time Machine update badly. So I recommend that the Timeshift slider be set to a minimum for initial testing, and Equinux should consider labeling the slider and add a warning.

One can select a show in the Electronic Program Guide, if the carrier provides it, to record. Or one can just record manually. Shows are placed in the user's Movies folder but also displayed in the Library Tab. One can select any show for export to Apple TV, iPod or iPhone and it will automatically show up in iTunes. I tested that with about 11 seconds of video, and the encoder took quite a long time to encode and export.

I asked Equinux if there would be support for the El Gato Turbo.264 h.264 encoder product, but they said there hasn't been much demand. (I also note that El Gato is a competitor.) My advice is that if you try to export a two hour movie to iTunes, start the process just before you retire for the night.

Documentation

The box comes with a small pamphlet, five pages, that has a recap of the install instructions. However, on the CD, is a terrific 49 page manual in PDF format. Equinux is a German company, but they didn't make the common mistake of translating the German into English by an German speaking technical writer. Instead, the manual is written in colloquial, proper English by an English speaking person and is nicely laid out. The manual gets an A+. (As an aside, the manual was written with Apple's Pages. These guys are into Macs!)

TubeStick and Ruler

TubeStick is About 75 mm Long

Nitpicks

I noted several small issues that detract only a little from an excellent product.

  1. Needed to reboot TubeStick device once to pick up digital channels.
  2. Application hang if Keychain access not allowed.
  3. Loss of lip synch when backing up in the buffer.
  4. Timeshift slider not labelled.
  5. Slow MPEG export

Dénouement

It's very popular these days to watch TV on the Internet in, say, Hulu. However, there are occasions when having direct access to broadcast TV and the ability to record it, especially in high definition, is desirable. In my case, when I'm working late in the office, it's especially nice to be able to watch my favorite shows on unencrypted HD network channels via Cable TV. (Not every city does this, I am told.)

However, more importantly, a product like this can go wrong in numerous ways. Excellence requires a fiendish obsession with detail, user interface, hardware-software integration, and documentation. I judge that Equinux has achieved those goals with this product, and after a few fix-ups, it will be one of the classiest, most useful accessories a TV addict can have. Toys and software come and go, but I think I'll be using this product for a long time.

TubeStick Box

 

Product: TubeStick (Hybrid, U.S. Version)

Company: Equinux

List Price: US$129.95

Pros:

Very portable hardware, beautiful, well designed software, easy setup, excellent documentation, great price.

Cons:

Some minor blemishes described in text, easily fixed.

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Comments

BeachMac

In order to be able to compete with the established defacto standard in Macintosh TV Tuners, the Elgato line, Equinux needs to present a product with significantly better features and a significantly lower price with much better quality. 

It does not appear that they accomplished any of these things.  Just another spendy tuner that does nothing any of the other available USB tuners from Elgato, Hauppage, Pinnacle, or the No-Name brands can’t do.

Purchasing a $129-$80 Equinux TubeStick would be a gamble at this point.

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