From Mac OSX hints:
Want to enjoy HDTV, but haven't forked over the $21,999 for that 82'' LCOS Rear Projection HDTV yet? (Or even know what the heck that is!). Fear not, because with just about any Panther-capable Macintosh, you can enter the world of high definition recording and playback without breaking the bank... or buying a single new piece of hardware!
This 21st Century Holy Grail comes in the form of a recent FCC regulation requiring all cable companies to provide a Firewire-enabled Cable box to any customer who asks. (Yes, some government agencies are still on our side after all!) This law went into effect April 1st, and by now most Cable companies have complied.
Unlike regular TV, you cannot record HD with an analog VCR -- or even a standard issue Tivo. You must have a Firewire connection ... the very same Firewire that ships on every modern Mac. (bet you see where this is headed). You have the Mac, now all you need is the cable box and a pair of free programs: VirtualDVHS for recording, and VLC for playback!
Step 1 - Get the Cable Box!
If you have cable, your first step involves calling your provider and requesting a new "Firewire capable" or "IEEE 1394 enabled" HDTV cable box. Even if you don't own an HDTV, all these boxes have S-video out and work perfectly with regular TVs. Most cable companies charge a nominal monthly fee for the box, and provide local stations in high defenition for free (this is the only cost involved). For example, I am on Time Warner Cable, and I pay about $8.00 extra per month, which includes PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS and Discovery HD Theater. Plus, if you subscribe to any premium station, like HBO or Showtime, that price includes the high definition version!
Once your provider delivers the box, you just need a Firewire cable long enough to reach your Mac. Any Firewire cable (with the right connectors) will do. I actually used one of Apple's dainty-thin white iPod Firewire cables, and it worked like a charm when run to my Aluminum 15" PowerBook.
Step 2 - Get the Recording Software
VirtualDVHS. Remember that name! A free little piece of software that you can find in two different places. If you have the Developer Tools, VirtualDVHS comes in the Firewire SDK, available at Apple Developer Connection.
Far more conveniently, ninjamonkey provides a (very slightly) modified stand-alone version of VirtualDVHS [305KB download]. You probably won't notice any changes to the program, but not having to dig through a bunch of developer tools make this my favorite option for download.
Step 3 - Run the Recorder
You can follow the instructions on ninjamonkey's site, but since the software is really a developer example (not even beta quality), pay attention to these few pointers. First, create a new folder to store the recorded files into. Drag and drop this folder onto the D-VHS icon. You MUST do that drag and drop step, or your recordings will inexplicably fail. While presenting a somewhat daunting interface, just pay attention to the transport controls on the top right. The biggest trick is selecting the correct Firewire Channel for input. Most cable boxes will transmit on channel 63 (that's the "broadcast channel"). Also try channels 0 and 1 if 63 fails. To see if your channel works, just press the record button, and the "Bitrate" field takes off ... along with the recorded file size!
Step 4 - Playback
One word: VLC. Even if you don't plan to watch HD content, get the VideoLan Client. It rocks (beside the fact that it's free and open source)! AFAIK, VLC is the only client that can replay full-resolution high definition content in transport stream format -- what you get from VirtualDVHS.
If you're one of the lucky few and have an HDTV with a Firewire port, you can also use VirtualDVHS to play back directly to the TV. Just select the file, and use the transport controls on the left side of the interface. It's that easy!
A Few Caveats
Some cable companies encrypt HD content for copy protection. I put this caveat first because it's the biggest. Basically, if the content is encrypted, you cannot play it back. However, it's illegal for Cable companies to encrypt broadcast stations. So at the very least, you can record NBC, CBS, ABC, WB, UPN and PBS. If those are encrypted, a quick call (or two) to your cable provider should take care of it. If you're lucky, you will get subscription content like HBO in the clear ... but enjoy it while it lasts, because all Cable companies WILL implement copy protection sooner or later!
Now just a few notes on a bit more mundane issues...
- HDTV basically comes in two resolutions: 1920x1080 and 1280x720. PBS, and most sporting events show at in 1280x720 (known as 720p). HBO, Shotime and broadcast stations like NBC and ABC use 1920x1080 (1080i). The Tonight Show was one of the first programs broadcast in HD, and if you're looking for a good test, that's your best bet.
- VirtualDVHS stores files in MPEG2 Tranport Stream format. In the Windows world, this has an extension of ".ts" rather than the ".m2t" that VirtualDVHS uses. Transport Stream differs from standard MPEG2 files, like decrypted DVD (known as Program Stream), because it's packetized for transmission over a network.
- HDTV recordings get huge. HUGE! Suffice it to say these constitute the largest single files I've ever worked with -- or seen!
- Last but not least ... You MUST store your recordings on an HFS+ formatted volume. UFS has a 4GB limit to file size, while standard HFS is similar (2GB I believe). Plain and simply, anything over 15 minutes will overflow this limit. For example, my copy of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones clocks in at 12GB. And that's not even my biggest file!
Recording HD content has been one of the coolest things I've ever done on my Mac! It's awesome, and if you're friends don't have Mac envy yet, wait till they see a movie playing back on your G5 at 1920x1080 resolution!
Last update: 02:33 PM Monday, May 1, 2006