If you currently use Virgin Media TV, you'll probably hate your current box, as you should -- it's slow and hard to use. That's why Virgin's deal with American company TiVo is such a big deal for you. The software TiVo makes powers millions of PVRs in the US, and TiVo has become a byword for ease of use over the past decade.
Now Virgin has turned to TiVo to help it in its fight against Sky. We've been using the first box powered by the software for nearly four months now, but is it as easy to use as the hype suggests?
The 1TB box will set you back £100, and the 500GB box will cost you £50. That's in addition to a £3-per-month TiVo subscription, and the price of your current Virgin Media package.
Should I get TiVo?
Let's cut to the chase. This is a long review and, if you don't have the time or inclination to read it all, here's what we think in a nutshell.
If you currently watch plenty of TV, and both use and like Virgin Media's services, it makes sense to upgrade to TiVo. For all its bugs and flaws, it's much better than the hideous rubbish most Virgin Media customers will be used to, and some of the problems we identify in this review will eventually be solved by software updates.
If you're on Sky, however, stay there. TiVo isn't quite good enough yet to make it worth the switch, and you'll lose some channels you're used to, such as Sky Atlantic.
If you're on Freeview or freesat, you'll need to be pretty unhappy with the service you're getting to make it worth paying extra for Virgin Media, Sky or BT Vision every month. We recommend saving up for a nice holiday instead. But, if you really must have pay TV, choose whichever provider you can get for less -- TiVo from Virgin Media or Sky+HD. Don't, whatever you do, get BT Vision. That would just be silly.
Still here? Good. Here's how we arrived at these conclusions.
TiVo as an on-demand box
For a lump of plastic that essentially records and plays back telly programmes, Tivo is a very complicated product. We're going to kick off our look at the service with the on-demand side of things.
The ability to stream TV from the past week or so from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 -- but not Sky -- without too much fuss has long been one of the best aspects of the Virgin Media service, but, on the old Virgin V+ boxes, it was always a pain to find anything. Although some effort has been made to sort things out, unfortunately, the electronic programme guide is still something of a dog's dinner on the TiVo box.
What's new on the TiVo box is the ability to go back in time in the EPG. As well as scrolling forwards to see what's going to be showing over the next seven days, you can scroll backwards to see what has been shown. If the programme has a catch-up icon, you're supposed to be able to select it and start watching it in a couple of clicks. That's a great idea, but the trouble is it often doesn't work.
Quite often, instead of watching the programme after selecting it, we were instead taken to a specific on-demand menu, where we had to search for the programme all over again. Or sometimes, you'll get to the point where you think you're going to watch, say, Newsnight, only for a message to pop up saying 'programme no longer available'. "If it's not available, why is the catch-up icon showing?" has been our response over the past few months, minus a few choice expletives.
Pay-per-view films and TV are present, as before, but, unfortunately, browsing and searching for them is as slow and frustrating as ever -- you're presented with pages and pages of lists to look through that run at the same snail's pace they always have.
On-demand picture quality is variable -- the hi-def pay-per-view and BBC stuff tends to be good, while the ITV material is slightly ropey.
Fast forwarding and rewinding on-demand stuff is difficult. The system is unresponsive in this respect, and it's quite common to overshoot where you want to end up by a minute or so. One good thing, though, is that watching on-demand video doesn't slow your normal Virgin Media Internet connection down, as the box has its own broadband modem that establishes its own Web connection.
TiVo as a PVR
Purely as a PVR, there's nothing out there to touch TiVo in terms of the number of features on offer. There are several powerful ways to get the box to record what you want to watch -- so many in fact that it can be a pretty overwhelming experience. The normal series-link feature you get with most recorders is there, of course, simply letting you record all the shows in a series on a particular channel.
More powerful is something called 'wish lists'. This lets you set up a search that automatically records all programmes with, say, 'IT Crowd' as part of the title, or everything with the actor William Shatner in it, or all comedy programmes. It's rather fiddly to use, but it ensures that you catch your favourite programmes even if they're shown on different channels or wouldn't normally be considered to be part of a series.
Next, there's the feature that TiVo is famous for in the US -- suggestions. The idea is that, over time, you go through shows and use the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons on the remote to tell the box what your favourite shows are. It then uses this information to automatically record programmes that it thinks you will like. Any shows you record automatically get one thumbs up, with each show capable of receiving up to three thumbs down or up.
The reason this feature is well-known in the States is that many people consider the predictions TiVo makes to be spookily accurate. But we weren't as impressed as we expected to be. None of the suggested programmes were massively wide of the mark, but we only wanted to watch the odd one or two. Now that so much TV is available on-demand, it's just not that big a deal any more to have a box record stuff for you.
Another way to record is via a mobile phone. Virgin Media has an easy-to-use mobile website that displays the programme guide in a similar way to the TiVo box. You just find what you want, click a couple of times and a signal is sent to the box to record the programme. You can also set up a series link with the default options, and there's a nifty app too, with an version due to arrive any day.
The TiVo box doesn't just contain information on which programmes are coming up, it also has details on the main actors in each show, together with pictures of them and the programme itself, along with other types of information.
That means you can search by almost any term you can think of to find what you need -- typing in the name of an actor, for example, will bring up a short biography and the shows that TiVo knows they have appeared in. If those programmes are about to be shown, you can choose to record them.