Once you connect the TiVo HD box to your TV and cable line, it automatically commences a 30- to 45-minute guided setup routine. For the most part, the onscreen interface is all but identical to that of its earlier TiVo models. But that's a good thing, since the "classic" TiVo interface remains a major selling point for the company as it competes against a growing number of "generic" (non-TiVo) DVR offerings. Like the TiVo interface itself, the guided setup is largely idiot-proof. The system verifies that your AV cables are correctly connected and that your TiVo is online via phone line or broadband so that it can access the electronic programming guide. Once the guided setup is complete, things stay just as simple. TiVo's designers chose real English phrases, such as "watch live TV" and "pick programs to record," for menu choices, instead of the cryptic icons common to so many other consumer electronics devices. Text explanations were clear and timely, and we'd bet that even Luddites could figure out the basics in a matter of minutes--once they get over the shock of seeing live television on pause.
The TiVo advantage: Network and broadband functions
Indeed, the onscreen interfaces of many non-TiVo DVRs are so lousy that some would be tempted to pay $300 just for the better usability experience a TiVo offers. But the box also offers another big distinguishing factor from its generic cable cousins: home networking and Internet access. Connect the TiVo HD to your home network via its built-in Ethernet port (use a powerline adapter if you don't have a network connection in the room) or, if you prefer wireless, opt for the TiVo Wireless G USB Network Adapter ($60), which plugs into one of the USB ports on the rear panel. In addition to using your broadband connection to update its 14-day electronic programming guide, the TiVo HD's network link provides a laundry list of features not available on competing DVRs:
- Amazon Unbox: Amazon's online video service offers hundreds of movies and TV shows that are compatible with the TiVo. Previously, the video programming needed to be purchased on a networked PC, where you specified for it to be downloaded to your TiVo (as determined when you setup your account online). Now, you can access the selections straight through the TiVo interface. A list of what's new and what's hot is available, or you can use the Swivel Search function to see what's available. The interface could use some improvement, but it's nice to be able to do everything on the TV screen. Since our original evaluation of the service (performed on a Series2 model), TiVo has added progressive downloading to the TiVo HD, which severely cuts the long wait time between the purchase and the beginning of the stream that was previously required. The biggest drawbacks? The videos are not optimized for wide-screen viewing. So even though Casino Royale was shown in its original wide-screen aspect ratio, we needed to zoom in for it to be displayed properly on our screen. Doing so resulted in a much softer image. (A TiVo spokesman said Amazon was looking into this issue but has not committed to any timelines as of yet.) Still, it's relatively quick and easy, and the quality and quantity of available selections is on the rise. Currently Unbox includes more than 1,100 movies for rent and more than 2,000 for purchase, plus a huge library of TV shows. It's small compared the tens of thousands of DVD titles at Netflix, but it's more than what's available on the video-on-demand services of many cable systems.
- Rhapsody: As of October 2007, TiVo can access Rhapsody's online music subscription service. Rhapsody requires its own monthly fee, but the service is also accessible through other venues, including PCs, the Logitech Squeezebox, and the Sonos Digital Music System. On TiVo, you're given full access to the service, including the very convenient ability to search Rhapsody's millions of available songs via the onscreen interface. And TiVo appears to have largely solved some of the glitches we experienced during our initial evaluation of Rhapsody on TiVo.
- TiVoCast: TiVoCasts are Web-delivered video shows that can be downloaded for free, straight to your TiVo. Essentially, these are video podcasts from a variety of content partners, including Rocketboom, The Onion, DL.TV, CrankyGeeks, the New York Times, and even CNET. Often, they're no different than what you'll see online, but the advantage is that you can watch them on your big-screen TV instead of a PC monitor. They automatically download at preset intervals and show up on the "Now Playing" list, alongside shows you've recorded.
- Home Movie Sharing: Think YouTube, but for a fee. Home Movie Sharing lets you upload and share home videos with other TiVo users you designate. Viewing is free, but in order to upload videos, you'll need to sign up for the OneTrueMedia.com service ($4 a month or $40 a year). See more details on Crave.
- Online scheduling: Using TiVo's Web site, you can remotely schedule TiVo recordings from any Web browser. It's quick and easy, and it works like a charm--perfect if you're working late or are on vacation. Verizon Wireless subscribers can also download an application that provides much of the same functionality. Of course, it's worth mentioning that the addition of a Slingbox to the TiVo HD--or any other DVR--provides the same de facto remote programming access, and adds remote viewing of live and recorded TV as well.
- Podcasts: Nearly all standard audio podcasts are available via the TiVo. The Podcaster menu has a list of several popular 'casts, but you can also use the onscreen keyboard to type in the address (RSS feed) of any of your favorites. A screensaver pops up while listening, to avoid any possibility of screen burn-in.
- Internet radio: Hundreds of online radio stations are available on the TiVo, provided by Live365. Unfortunately, you can't add stations of your own.
- Yahoo Weather and Traffic: Yahoo's online weather and traffic services are all accessible via the TiVo--just key in your ZIP code.
- Photobucket and Picasa photos: TiVo previously offered access to Yahoo Photos, but the online service shuttered that feature in 2007 (having since bought rival Flickr). TiVo will soon be replacing Yahoo Photos with Photobucket and Google's Picasa Web Albums.
- Network music streaming: The TiVo HD can double as a network audio player, streaming all of the MP3s from the hard drive of your Windows or Mac PC to your living room TV and home theater system. Just download and install the free TiVo Desktop software, then configure it to "publish" the relevant folders so the TiVo can access them. It works well, but compatibility is limited to MP3 files (no AAC, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, WMA) and M3U, PLS, and ASX playlists.
- Network photo streaming: The same TiVo Desktop program lets you access your digital photos on your TV as well. It's compatible with JPEG, GIF, BMP, DIB, and PNG file formats.
- PC-to-TiVo video transfers: If you upgrade to the TiVo Desktop Plus software (Windows only), you can send a variety of file formats to your TiVo from your PC. Compatible formats include WMV, MOV Quicktime files, H.264 and MPEG4 video (MP4, M4V, MP4V), MPEG2 video, and even DivX and Xvid files. Combined with the streaming music and photo functions above, this feature pretty much enables the TiVo to duplicate many of the abilities of a so-called digital media adapter, such as the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD, not to mention mimic the media-streaming features of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. However, there are caveats: the files need to be downloaded to the TiVo first (though, like the Unbox videos, they can be viewed while the transfer is in progress); and the TiVo cannot stream any DRM-protected video files.
- Movie ticket purchases: You can check out what's playing at your local movie theater and reserve tickets via Fandango's online service, using nothing more than the TiVo remote.
Recent TiVo HD upgrades
When we originally reviewed the TiVo HD, we chided TiVo for not including some features that had long distinguished earlier, non-HD Series2 models. But that's no longer an issue. As of fall 2007, these features have been added to the TiVo HD via the 9.2 software update (a free, automatic download). The newly added features are as follows:
- TiVo To Go: The TiVo To Go feature lets you transfer recorded programs from a TiVo DVR to a PC (Windows or Mac), where it can then be viewed (say, on a laptop when traveling), burned to DVD, or transferred to other portable video devices (iPod, PSP, and so forth.). Just be aware that the transfer processes are very slow and laborious, as are the transcoding times when moving to other devices. Also, thanks to restrictions imposed by TV networks and movie studios, not all recorded programs will be able to be transferred.
- Multi-Room Viewing: If you have multiple TiVos in the home, you can transfer recorded shows for playback on a second networked TiVo DVR--so you can watch a show recorded in the living room while you're in the bedroom, for instance. Just note that you'll need high-def TiVos (TiVo HD or TiVo Series3) to play HD video--older Series2 models can accept only non-HD video transfers.
- Expandable storage: What happens if you need more than the rather paltry 20 hours of HD video storage offered by the TiVo HD? Invest in the My DVR Expander from Western Digital. The specialized version of WD's MyBook external hard drives is the only drive that's certified to work with the TiVo HD. (The well-known hack on the Series3 that lets you use most generic hard drives doesn't work on the TiVo HD.) The 500GB drive connects via the TiVo's eSATA port, and adds any combination of 65 hours of HD video or 600 hours of standard-definition recording capacity to the TiVo HD.
Design and connectivity
The TiVo HD box itself won't win any beauty contests. It has the standard dimensions of a DVD player and will fit in any AV rack, but the silver-outlined bezel needlessly calls attention to itself. There's no fancy OLED display (as seen on the Series3), but the front readout does have bright LEDs to indicate when the tuners are recording or when the unit is downloading material from the Web. Likewise, the output resolutions (720p, 1080i, and so forth) are clearly indicated as well. Home theater purists can enter the TiVo HD's settings menu and completely darken everything but a single power LED.
The CableCard slots are behind a flip-down door on the front panel, which is far more convenient than the rear-panel arrangement of the Series3. Notably, the TiVo HD is compatible with the new multituner M-card standard (dual tuners on a single card), or it can take two single-tuner CableCards instead.
The TiVo HD's rear-panel jack pack is mostly similar to the Series3 model's. Thanks to the CableCard tuners, you need only connect the screw-type RF cable wire from the wall to the back of the box. A second RF jack accepts an antenna connection, so you can pull in analog and high-def channels over the air as well. You can use either--or both--cable and antenna sources. You'll need to connect the HDMI and component outs in order to get a high-def picture, but the box also includes a full set of composite AV outs for pairing with DVD recorders or VCRs, or even with older non-HD TVs. There's also a single S-Video output and an optical digital output (surround sound is available via the optical out or--if your receiver supports it--HDMI). On the networking front, you can opt for Ethernet or use one of the two USB jacks to connect the aforementioned Wi-Fi adapter. Rounding out the back panel is the eSATA port and a nearly silent cooling fan that keeps the TiVo HD's innards from overheating.
The TiVo HD wasn't our first experience with TiVo, so returning to the interface was as familiar as riding a bike. After the initial setup, recording our favorite TV shows--either in single episodes or weekly batches--quickly became second nature, thanks to the completely intuitive interface. The dual-tuner functionality also worked smoothly. We could easily toggle from one tuner to the other by hitting the Live TV button on the remote, but the TiVo lacks a picture-in-picture (PIP) function. Moreover, despite the fact that the program guide organizes information from all of the tuners (cable, antenna, digital, analog, standard, high-def) into a nice, single interface, hard-core couch potatoes may be chagrined to realize that the TiVo HD can toggle between only any two live sources. So while you can record two programs simultaneously, you can't switch to or record a third live program, even if it's coming in off the antenna. You can, however, view a previously recorded program while recording two others. By contrast, the Dish ViP622 can record three sources--two satellite, one over-the-air--while playing back a fourth.
Video quality was generally excellent. In other words, we noticed no differences in the TiVo's video quality vs. that of respective cable and antenna reception on other devices we tested, namely the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR and the Samsung SIR-T451 over-the-air tuner. Of course, if your cable provider overcompresses its signals in order to conserve bandwidth--and many do--you'll get the same artifacts and blockiness on the TiVo HD that you'd get with any other tuner. Audio quality was likewise solid, and the TiVo ably passed Dolby Digital surround soundtracks to our AV receiver via its HDMI output.