Watch TV on your Mac: the definitive guide
28th Jul 2013 | 09:00
The proper Apple TV isn't quite here yet, so why not watch TV on your existing Apple kit?
There may not yet be an Apple-branded television set, but there are lots of ways in which you can watch TV today.
On your Mac, you can fire up Safari and head to the website of one of the main TV channels. Each has a catch-up service that allows you to watch programmes broadcast in the last few weeks. And if you subscribe to Virgin Media or Sky, you can watch some of the channels from your subscription package on their websites.
You can, of course, also plug a USB TV tuner into your Mac. These little gizmos allow you to receive Freeview TV channels over-the-air and watch them or record them on your Mac. You can even hook a TV tuner up to your network and watch it from different Macs in the house.
If you have an iOS device, there are numerous apps that allow you to watch live or on-demand TV. Each of the TV networks has one, as does Sky and Virgin Media. The BBC iPlayer app allows you to download programmes to your device to watch later. There are also TV tuners available for iOS devices.
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Finally, you can buy or rent TV programmes and movies from the iTunes Store. And if you sign up to LoveFilm or Netflix, you can watch their content on your Mac, on an iOS device, and in the case of Netflix, on an Apple TV. We'll look at all these options in detail over the next few pages, so get you watching whatever you want, wherever you want to!
Online TV catch-up
Missed that talent show you love? Don't panic!
There isn't yet a single source of on-demand content, but accessing the services out there couldn't be easier. The BBC's iPlayer has dedicated apps for iOS and OS X, both of which allow you to download programmes and watch them later, albeit within a limited time period.
The BBC, Channel 4, and ITV all allow you to watch live TV in a browser, though you'll need to register with Channel 4. Channel 5 has an on-demand service, but doesn't let you watch live TV output. All four terrestrial networks allow you to watch shows you may have missed when they were originally transmitted, but each handles them in a different way.
BBC iPlayer's catch-up service only allows you to watch recent programmes. Channel 4 and 5 offer older content, in Channel 4's case, some of it several years old. And ITV Player, while mainly a catch-up service also offers on-demand programmes which it calls rentals. Many of these are free, but often at least one episode in a series will require you to pay for it.
The BBC's iPlayer allows you to watch recently-broadcast TV, as well as the current output of any BBC channel. Both the Mac and iOS apps allow you to download selected programmes and these are available to watch for a month before they expire. You can also mirror the iPlayer from an iOS device to an Apple TV.
Both the BBC and Channel 4 have YouTube channels on which they show full-length programmes. On the BBC channel, for example, you can watch every episode in the current series of The Apprentice. And YouTube, of course, is available in a browser on your Mac or as an Apple TV, iPad, iPhone or iPod touch app.
ITV Player can be accessed in a browser, or from an iOS app. There's no Mac app, and you can't download programmes. In addition to allowing you to watch recently-broadcast TV, ITV Player has a library of on-demand content. Much of it is free to watch, albeit supported by adverts.
Freeview recently added a TV guide which allows you to scroll back and see what you've missed. Click on a show, and if it's available on catch-up, there will be a link. Press it and you're taken directly to the show. It's a neat way of pulling all the services together, but is only available in a browser.
4oD is an on-demand library of content from Channel 4's archive. Programmes are split into Collections so, for example, the Olivia Colman Collection has episodes of Peep Show, Bad Sugar and Comedy Lab. You'll need to register, but doing so allows you to create playlists, track shows, and keep a scrapbook of information.
TV.com is only available in the US, but it offers full episodes of CBS shows such as How I Met Your Mother. It also allows you to review shows and share them with friends. You can also discuss programmes on its forums. The iOS app only shows highlights and clips from shows, but, if you're in the US, you can view full shows in the CBS app.
Demand 5 has a library full of crime dramas, made for TV movies and kids' programmes. And, of course, Channel 5's own inimitable style of documentary. It's a mix of recently broadcast stuff and on-demand content, though it's difficult to tell which is which. You can watch it in a browser on your Mac or using the iOS app.
The NBC website has full episodes of recently broadcast and archive material as long as you're in the US. It doesn't have the social features of TV.com, but you won't miss them if all you want to do is catch-up on shows you've missed. There's an iOS app too, which has full episodes of selected shows.
Watch live TV
Apps, add-ons and online services for a computer-based gogglebox
There is an abundance of ways to watch live television on either your Mac or iOS device. In addition, if you have an Apple TV, some iOS apps will allow you to mirror their output over AirPlay.
The 'traditional' way to watch live TV on a Mac is to use a TV tuner. These addons connect to your Mac by USB (early boxes used FireWire, but USB2 is fast enough) or to your iOS device using its Dock connector (Lightning devices are due soon). Most are no bigger than a USB stick, and in the case of iOS versions, smaller.
They come either with a built-in antenna or with a socket into which you plug an included aerial or your own set-top or roof antenna. Some even have two tuners so you can watch one channel while recording another, or combine them to optimise signal strength.
In the UK, only digital terrestrial and free-to-air satellite television are supported. In other countries, versions for paid-for satellite TV are also available. As with a TV tuner, the quality of the picture is dependent on the TV signal in your area; you may need a roof aerial to get the best from it.
If you're in a strong signal area, you can use a TV tuner with a laptop or mobile device and have the antenna magnetically fixed to the laptop, or as part of the tuner in the case of a mobile device, and watch TV live without any wires at all.
There are two vendors of TV tuners for the Mac and iOS devices, Elgato and Equinux, which uses the Tizi brand. Elgato has a USB-stick style tuner called EyeTV DTT and a significantly smaller model, barely bigger than the USB connector, called EyeTV DTT Micro. There's also a USB stick with two tuners, called EyeTV Diversity.
And Elgato has a box for Freesat called EyeTV Sat Free. Elgato also has a device called Netstream which connects to a wireless network and allows you to watch and record TV on up to two Macs. The Tivizen, also from Elgato does a similar job, but creates its own Wi-Fi hotspot, so you don't need to be within range of a Wi-Fi network to use it.
There is one Equinux Tizi for the Mac, a USB connected model which is roughly the same size as the EyeTV DTT Micro. There are two Tizi models which are similar to the Tivizen, the Tizi and Tizi+. Both create their own Wi-Fi hotspot and allow you to watch TV on a Mac or iOS device, but the Tizi+ also allows you to record to its in-built flash memory.
The Tizi Go connects to the 30-pin dock connector on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. You use it with the Tizi app to watch live TV. Elgato has the EyeTV mobile, which does the same thing using Elgato's EyeTV iOS app. Both can be used with Apple's Lightning to 30-pin adaptor.
The software for Elgato's tuners and Tizi is similar but, to our mind, Elgato has the edge. It allows you to create favourite channels and to watch programmes you've recorded on a Mac on your iOS device, provided you're on the same network and have installed the latest version of EyeConnect on your Mac. That said, the ability of the Tizi+ to record to its own flash storage could be useful.
Attaching a TV tuner isn't the only way to watch live TV on a Mac or iOS device, of course. Each of the major terrestrial networks now allows you to watch live TV on its website. On the BBC, this is done through the iPlayer, so you can watch live TV in the iPlayer app for OS X and iOS. Channel 4 and ITV also provide access to all their channels on their websites.
Finding the live TV streams isn't always easy. The BBC does a good job of highlighting where to click to watch live, particularly in the iPlayer apps, but on both Channel 4 and ITV it takes a bit of working out.
For Channel 4, the simplest way to find it is to go directly to watchlive.channel4.com. Channel 5 doesn't have live streaming of its output, but some programmes which are currently being broadcast are available through Demand 5.
Away from the websites of the main networks, choice is limited. The Freeview TV guide allows you to find recently broadcast programmes and click on a link to go directly to them in the relevant catch-up service. But clicking on a programme currently being broadcast won't provide you with a link directly to the channel's live output.
Virgin Media's TV Anywhere app also has a very limited ability to play live TV on your iPad. While there's a Watch Now button for every channel, most channels will only let you 'Watch on TV' - use your iPad or iPhone to change the channel on your Tivo box. For BBC output, there's a 'Watch on iPlayer' option.
Catchup of the day
TVCatchup is a third-party provider whose website allows you to watch any Freeview channel, plus a couple of channels exclusive to TVC, from a web browser or app, as long as you're in the UK. You'll need to sign up for an account, but it's free.
There's been a great deal of legal wrangling over TVCatchup. Its owners claim that it simply provides an alternative means for people who are already entitled - that is, UK TV licence holders - to watch free-to-air TV channels. Others argue that it is distributing content illegally.
Currently, there are a couple of outstanding legal proceedings due to be resolved, one in the European Court of Justice, and one in the High Court. TVCatchup says it's confident of winning those and that it's here to stay. We won't really know, however, until the cases have been resolved. In the meantime, TVCatchup continues to operate and is, to our mind, the best way to watch live Freeview TV on your Mac or iOS device. Channels are displayed clearly and clicking on one takes you directly to it.
The iOS app is equally impressive. There's only one way to find channels - a scrolling list on the left of the screen, but it works very well. There's even an AirPlay button in the Play controls so you can mirror the programme you're watching to an Apple TV: useful if the TV you've hooked it up to isn't your main telly, and either doesn't have its own tuner or has a poor signal.
On-demand video services have grown steadily in number in recent years, but they vary in both the quantity and quality of their content and in the way you pay for them. We've already seen that Channel 4 through 4oD, and Channel 5 via Demand 5, offer on-demand access to their programmes, and in the case of 4oD, the library is very impressive and the cost is no more than a few adverts.
But there are lots of other services that work on both your Mac and iOS device. Some, such as Netflix and LoveFilm, charge a flat monthly rate to watch as much as you want. Others, like Blinkbox (and of course iTunes) charge you a fee for every video.
And a third group, those provided by Sky and Virgin, require you to be a subscriber to access them. The flat rate services seem like a good deal, and they are - if you like their content and are likely to watch more than two or three hours a month. The pay-as-you-go services tend to have the most recent releases: studios are more comfortable applying traditional business models to their crown jewels.
Once they've squeezed as much revenue as they can from sales and rentals, they're added to the subscription services. Both Sky and Virgin also have pay-as-you-go on-demand services for the latest releases, but these are separate from their app or browser-based offerings.
If you're unsure whether a subscription service would suit you, both LoveFilm and Netflix offer the first month free, so you can try them out. Blinkbox is currently offering £5 credit to new customers, so you can give that a go for nothing, too.
Video on demand
What you want, when you want it. Or at least that's the promise…
Tesco's Blinkbox allows you to watch movies and TV on a pay as you go basis. It prides itself on having the latest movies before LoveFilm and Netflix, and has some recent TV content too. You can watch in a browser or via the iPad app, though you can't buy or rent from within the app. And if you have a Tesco Clubcard, you can earn points. It's one of the few places non Sky subscribers can watch the likes of Game of Thrones and Veep.
Blockbuster movies to buy or rent .
Lots of good US TV series which many won't have seen
Good iPad app
Expensive compared to a subscription fee
No AirPlay mirroring
Doesn't offer much more than iTunes
Netflix has gained a lot of attention recently because it has started creating its own content. The US version of House of Cards is exclusive to Netflix and you can watch it in a browser or an iOS app, as well as on Apple TV.
Like LoveFilm, you pay a monthly fee, and there are no recent blockbusters. But there's some good content, including Breaking Bad and Arrested Development. The first month is free, so you can cancel before paying anything.
Original content is promising
Available on Apple TV without AirPlay
Decent TV catalogue
No recent movies
If you don't watch, you still pay
Web-browser interface makes searching for what you want tricky
LoveFilm is best known as a mail-order DVD rental service, but also offers movies and TV via LoveFilm Instant. You pay a monthly fee, then watch whatever you like, either in a browser or via the iPad app.
Content is limited: you won't find the kind of blockbusters that are on iTunes or Blinkbox, and new releases are only available on disc. If the content suits you, however, the subscription is good value. And the first month is free.
First month free
Good iPad app
Can use app to rent discs by post
Content is very limited compared to others
Can feel like a second-rate service compared to its disc rental sibling
No AirPlay mirroring to Apple TV
If you're a subscriber to Sky, SkyGo allows you to watch live TV from your subscription package or choose from a large on-demand library. If you subscribe to the movie and sports channels, you'll be able to watch those too.
SkyGo is available on a Mac in a browser or in the SkyGo app. For £5 a month you can download programmes and increase the number of mobile devices registered to use your account to four.
Can watch Sky TV channels on your iPad
Extra fee option to enable downloading
Big library of content
Only available with a Sky TV package
Only two registered devices at any time without extra payment
No AirPlay mirroring
Virgin Media TV Anywhere
TV Anywhere is a bit of a mish-mash. If you're a Virgin subscriber, you can watch live or on-demand TV on its website, as well as manage your TiVo box. You're limited to channels you subscribe to, so if you're on one of the larger packages, there's more content.
The iPad app allows you to watch a very limited selection of live TV and manage your TiVo box, but you can only watch on-demand content if your Tivo box is connected to your network by Ethernet.
Virgin on-demand content on your Mac
Control your Tivo box from Mac or iPad
Watch some live TV channels on iPad
Only two devices registered at one time
Need to be a TiVo customer
No AirPlay mirroring
The iTunes Store
Apple provides a bulging library of content to buy or rent
The gateway to watching and listening to music and video on your Mac, and to transferring it to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, iTunes is also an excellent way of buying and renting movies and TV. The app on your Mac will play any music file encoded as MP3, AAC or Apple Lossless, and any QuickTime compatible or MPEG-4 video file with the suffix .mov, . mp4, or .m4v. Files in those formats can be imported to iTunes using File > Add to Library or by dropping them on to iTunes' main window.
If you've checked 'Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to LIbrary' in iTunes' preferences, the files will be copied. If not, they'll stay where they are on your hard disk.
The iTunes Store has a huge catalogue of movies, including recent blockbusters and TV series. Most movies, though not all, can be both bought and rented. TV series can be bought as individual episodes or a 'box set.' And both movies and TV series come in standard and high definition.
If you're buying from a Mac, iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, the movie or TV programme will download to your device. If you purchase from an Apple TV it will stream, but you can download it to another device later by clicking on the Purchased link in the iTunes Store.
Once your videos are in iTunes on your Mac they, along with stuff you've bought on the iTunes Store can be shared with any Mac, Apple TV, or iOS device on your network by clicking File > Home Sharing > Turn on Home Sharing in iTunes on the host Mac. This is the only way to share content bought on iTunes with other devices, as it is protected with Apple's FairPlay DRM.
If you've bought movies or TV programmes on iTunes on your Mac or Apple TV, you can download them directly to your iPad without having to re-purchase them. In the Videos app, tap Store, then at the bottom of the screen, Purchased. Tap Films or TV Series at the top of the screen, and then the cloud icon next to the programme or movie you want to download. Doing the same on the iPhone or iPod touch will only allow you to download music.
iTunes is also the conduit for transferring videos between your Mac and iOS device.
Reflect everything from one screen to another, as if by magic
AirPlay mirroring is a terrific innovation and one which games developers in particular have used to great effect. But what about video content on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac? The short answer is that it depends on a couple of things.
The first is your device. To mirror from an iPhone, you'll need either a 4S or 5. If you have an iPad, it will need to be an iPad 2 or later. The Mac can also mirror its display to Apple TV, but you'll need either a MacBook Air, iMac, or Mac mini that was released in mid-2011 or later, or a MacBook Pro launched in early 2011 or later, plus Mountain Lion. These hardware restrictions may seem harsh, but AirPlay mirroring needs on-GPU H.264 encoding and the older Macs just aren't up to the job.
Encoding the video on the CPU, particularly on older Macs, would put a strain on the processor, but one Mac app, AirParrot, manages to do it for multiprocessor Macs. Its developer says it has worked hard to optimise the encoding so that it doesn't hog too many processor cycles, but the older your Mac, the greater the strain it will put on it.
The other factor which dictates whether you can mirror video is the app from which you want to mirror. For example, BBC iPlayer and TED allow you to mirror content without a problem. But 4oD, ITV Player, and Demand 5 don't. 4oD supported mirroring until last year, but Channel 4 now explains that enabling AirPlay would require 'specific content rights, which we don't currently own.'
You can't hook up your iPad to your TV by HDMI cable and use 4oD either, for the same reason. Conversely, HBO's Go app, available only in the US, originally didn't support AirPlay mirroring, but it was enabled in its second version, which was launched in February.
Currently, AirPlay is one-way mirror. You can mirror the content of a display on a Mac or an iOS device on an Apple TV, but you can't, for example, mirror an iPad's display on a Mac, or vice versa. At least, not officially.
There are a couple of Mac apps which allow you to mirror an iOS device on a Mac. AirServer, despite its name, is one of those and acts as a receiver for mirrored content from an iPhone or iPad. It effectively fools the iOS device into thinking it's an Apple TV.
Another app, Reflector does a similar job. AirPlay isn't the only option for sending video wirelessly from an iOS device or Mac to your TV, however. YouTube and Netflix are reported to be working on an open-standard to do just that. Until them, there's Plair.
Plair promises to be 'AirPlay for everyone.' The hardware is a device which plugs into your TV's HDMI socket and connects to your Wi-Fi network. Once you've downloaded the app (available for OS X and iOS) you can send video streams from some websites to your television.
It doesn't support rights-protected content, so won't work with iTunes videos or 4oD, but streams from most TV networks and video sites should work.