TiVo has also been making inroads as an alternative to regular TV programming. What started as occasional movie trailers and downloadable TV shows has blossomed into a more formalized slate of on-demand programming called TiVoCast, which includes videos from such content providers as the New York Times, the NBA, Heavy.com, and Rocketboom. (Full disclosure: CNET Networks is among TiVo's content partners.) Despite a much-ballyhooed 2004 deal with Netflix, however, there are some significant political and technical roadblocks to transforming TiVo into an on-demand movie box.
What do all of these features cost? Not unlike a cell phone, the TiVo hardware is all but useless without the accompanying service, and it's with that service fee that TiVo makes its money. TiVo's payment options changed in early 2006, with the one-time lifetime fee of $300 over and above the hardware cost no longer an option. Instead, you choose between an up-front cost plus a monthly fee ($20 a month for one year, $19 for two, or $17 for three) or a lump-sum payment ($224 for one year, $369 for two, or $469 for three) if you buy the units through TiVo's Web site. While you can get the older, 80-hour single-tuner Series2 TiVo for "free" once you agree to any of those payment options, the 80-hour DT box costs $30, and the 180-hour model goes for $130, plus the monthly or lump-sum payments listed above. Alternately, you can buy the TiVo DT boxes at retail; it'll cost you $100 for the 80-hour or $200 for the 180-hour TiVo (those prices reflect the $150 rebate on each that you get after activating the mandatory service), as well as a monthly $13 service fee.The Series2 DT 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 TiVo box has to pass the channel-changing commands on to the cable or satellite box, so hard-core channel surfers may be bothered by the brief delay when switching channels, but after a while, it was hardly noticeable.
For those with worthwhile channels on their analog cable feed, the dual-tuner feature works seamlessly. Those channels appear twice in the onscreen electronic programming guide: say, one CBS station from your cable box and one from the direct cable hookup. This allows you to record with impunity from the "internal" tuner while still being able to channel surf on the cable box or record a second show simultaneously from the cable box. You can easily toggle from one tuner to the other by hitting the info button on the remote, but the TiVo lacks a picture-in-picture (PIP) function.
Sharp-eyed videophiles may find the Series2's picture quality to be soft, even in the highest-quality recording mode. That's partially because the TiVo has to encode and decode the video signal from its original source. The primary tuner can utilize the composite or S-Video feed from your cable box, but the internal second tuner is a direct RF feed, which can result in a noticeably fuzzier picture--the same one you'd get from plugging the cable feed directly into your VCR or TV. The TiVo does have a video-smoothing toggle, but it reduces sharpness accordingly. We're not going to harp on the video quality for two reasons. First, anyone likely to notice these flaws probably has an HDTV and should steer clear of this non-HD DVR in the first place (see the last paragraph below for alternate suggestions). And secondly, given the generally lackluster picture quality of even the best standard-definition cable and satellite services compared to DVD, for instance, the issue is a quibble more than a knock.
If you've never had a DVR before, you'll be hooked in less than a month. And if you have a TiVo, you'll be downright spoiled. The Season Pass and Wish List features work like a charm, and TiVo offers plenty of little tweaks to further fine-tune your TV viewing pleasure. For instance, Overlap Protection lets you choose to cancel or clip competing programs based on priorities you set. Thus, if Lost runs until 10:05 as it often does, you can have your 10 p.m. recording start late--that is, if you don't just assign it to the second tuner and eliminate the overlap problem that way instead. The TiVo Suggestions function works well, assuming you want to invest some time into voting for your viewing choices. Granted, some of the suggestions are far from revelations (Simpsons fans get Futurama recommendations, Stargate SG-1 viewers are directed toward Battlestar Galactica), and your TiVo may occasionally misread your choices, but it's a great way to discover new shows you might like. And the most famous TiVo hack still works like a charm: punching in Select > Play > Select > 3 > 0 > Select turns on the 30-second skip feature, so you can blast through recorded commercial breaks with a few easy clicks of the remote's Advance button.
Turning to the home media and networking functionality, performance varied by the particular function, with some faring better than others. For pulling music and photos from a networked PC to your living room, the TiVo is a worthwhile substitute for many of the network digital media players we've auditioned. The TiVo Desktop software is as easy to install and set up as Microsoft's Windows Media Connect application, and it serves the same function: setting up key directories on your PC to be accessed from the TiVo. The Mac version currently works only on older, pre-Intel machines, and it doesn't support TiVo To Go transfers--just photos and music through iPhoto and iTunes, respectively.
Once configured, any compatible music and photo files on your PC should be available on your TiVo. ID3 information for songs is displayed, so you'll see song title, album title, artist, year, and genre (if available), as well as duration and filename. You can easily navigate nested folders with the remote, play individual songs, or play multiple songs sequentially or randomly. The shuffle and repeat modes can include subfolders. Even better, you can use your existing playlists, as long as you've saved them in the standard M3U, B4S, PLS, or ASX file formats. Just pick a folder of music, select a starting song or playlist and the playback mode, and turn off your TV. With TiVo's audio output hooked up to your home stereo, you can enjoy hours of uninterrupted digital music.
Digital-photo navigation works the same way. Photos can be viewed in the same shuffle and repeat modes as the music files, with eight user-configurable slide-show intervals ranging from two seconds to five minutes. Unlike the many DVD players that are billed as photo viewers, TiVo perfectly displayed almost every image we threw at it; JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and BMP files from digital cameras and the Web all came up with no trouble, though some of our PNG files didn't show up. You can rotate images 90 degrees with a click of the remote, and large image files are automatically sized to your screen.
TiVo To Go was a frustration. This great idea is hobbled by extremely slow transfer times, even on a wired network. On the previous Series2, many users theorized that the USB network adapters were the bottleneck, but using the integrated Ethernet jack on the DT yielded similarly glacial transfer speeds that approached one- to two-third the actual length of the video (that is, 10 to 20 minutes to transfer a 30-minute sitcom, regardless of the recording quality or file size). That means--unlike with streaming video on the Web, for instance--you need to give your show a few minutes' head start if you want to watch it straight through. This also applies to TiVo's Multi-Room Viewing function; transferring shows from unit to unit in a multi-TiVo household takes just as long.
To play a transferred show on your PC, you need only select the show on the TiVo Desktop and click play. You're immediately prompted to enter the password you set during installation. This copyright protection device occurs every time you want to play a TiVo file on your computer. We used Windows Media Player, but any DirectShow-compatible software should work.
Furthermore, TiVo has partnered with Sonic MyDVD to offer DVD-burning capabilities for TiVo To Go. Unfortunately, other DVD-burning programs are not currently supported, and many users--including us--in the TiVo Community Forum have found it difficult to configure the program. (Make sure you take advantage of Sonic's 15-day free trial before you spend the $50 to buy it.) Once you load the TiVo file into Sonic, the video is editable, so you can remove commercials before you burn. The process was a little difficult because MyDVD's preview window was slow to update for us, but it worked fine with a little patience. Before a TiVo file can be burned on a DVD, it must be transcoded, a process that can take several hours even on a fast computer. The show is then burned onto a DVD that can be played on most set-top DVD players. If the DVD archiving option sounds appealing to you, but you can live without the Series2 DT's dual-tuner feature, consider the Humax DRT400 or DRT800. Both models include a built-in DVD burner, so you can burn your recorded shows straight to DVD without waiting for the slow network transfer.
The online features generally worked well and continue to distinguish TiVo from competing DVRs. Scheduling online was a breeze; just log in to TiVo's Web site, search the program listings, and choose the show you want to record. You can set priority (that is, you can tell your TiVo to record only if nothing else conflicts) and recording quality, as well as get a confirmation e-mail. The remote scheduling worked flawlessly, even when we submitted requests only 30 minutes before a show's start time, although TiVo recommends doing it at least an hour in advance. The Yahoo online services performed as advertised once we used the onscreen keyboard to key in Yahoo usernames for access to online photo albums, as well as zip codes for weather and traffic info. The Podcaster and Live365 online radio features also worked fine. The only hitch we encountered was that the menus for these Internet features seemed a bit more sluggish than the standard TiVo menus.
|Quality||Size||Transfer time (wired)¹||Transfer time (wireless)²|
|Basic||360MB||9 minutes||12 minutes|
|Medium||594MB||10 minutes||12 minutes|
|High||734MB||10 minutes||14 minutes|
|Best||819MB||13 minutes||18 minutes|
²File transfer from TiVo with 802.11g wireless adapter to wired PC