Ask the Editors: Analog TiVo for digital cable

Can you use an old, analog-only Series2 TiVo to access digital cable service?

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
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John Falcone
3 min read

TiVo Series2 DT
Can an analog TiVo be used to access digital cable? TiVo

Hi--I've read your articles on Comcast/TiVo, but I'm still puzzled by the Comcast/TiVo connection. I have basic Comcast cable (haven't upgraded to digital cable yet) and I'm running two TiVo Series 2 DVRs (no cable boxes at all). Can I upgrade to Comcast digital cable service and keep my current TiVos or will I be forced to use Comcast's DVRs or Comcast's TiVo software? I asked Comcast numerous times and 50 percent of the time they say I can use my current setup and 50 percent of the time they say "no, you need to upgrade the DVR equipment." Can you shed any light on this? (In my zip code in Chicago, Comcast doesn't yet offer Comcast DVR with TiVo service).
--Nathan in Chicago, via e-mail.

Good question, Nathan. Keep in mind that you're not likely to be able to keep using your existing all-analog solution for much longer. That's because many cable systems throughout the U.S. are in the process of upgrading their system to accommodate a larger line-up of digital channels. (For each bandwidth-hogging analog channel dropped, a cable system can add at several digital channels, which use bandwidth more efficiently.)

While these changes aren't directly related to the February 2009 analog shut off (that only affects over-the-air broadcast viewers), a lot of cable systems will be using the resulting "end of analog TV" publicity and confusion to woo their customers to digital service. Once a cable system goes all-digital, devices with analog tuners--Series 2 TiVos, analog TVs, VCRs, and DVD recorders--will no longer get a signal when you plug the RF cable from the wall directly into them. Instead, you'll need a digital cable box in the mix, which will convert the digital signals back to analog (via the RF/coaxial, composite, or S-Video output).

So, the bottom line is: yes, you should be able to keep your Series 2 (analog, non-HD) TiVos while upgrading to digital cable. Just ask Comcast for their basic digital box. They'll undoubtedly try to upsell you to a DVR or an HD box, but insist on just the cheapest digital box available. Once they install it, run the outputs through your TiVo, and set the TiVo up to control the box (with the IR blaster or serial cable). That will provide you complete access to the digital programming, with the capability to control and record what you're watching with the TiVo.

While that setup will work fine, be aware that there are several caveats: no HD recording, no multituner HD support (you can't record one HD show while watching another live HD show on the same TiVo), more wires and cables, and slower channel changing (because the TiVo will be controlling an outboard cable box).

If you don't want to wait for the (presumed) eventual appearance of Comcast DVR with TiVo Service in your area, another option would be to get a TiVo HD. That will eliminate the need for a separate cable box, offering support for full digital and HD channels, and the capability to record two programs simultaneously on one DVR. (The downside: no access to pay-per-view and video-on-demand channels, and--if you've already paid for a lifetime subscription on your existing Series 2 boxes--you're going to have to re-up for a TiVo service fee.)

The other choice, of course, is to go with Comcast's existing non-TiVo DVR. But it sounds like you're a TiVo fan, so we're assuming that option isn't on the table.

Update (October 29, 2008): According to Silicon Alley Insider, Comcast's DVR with TiVo service will expand next year, possibly to the Chicago area.