HolidayBuyer's Guide

FAQ: Behind TiVo's play for iPod, PSP

TiVo says it's hooking up with the iPod and PlayStation Portable. But the devil is in the details.

When it comes to buzzwords, TiVo's announcement Monday was loaded: quick, easy, download, TV shows, mobile, PSP and, of course, iPod.

But as with all breathless technology declarations (particularly those that come out just before the crucial holiday season), the devil is in the details. Here are answers to some common questions regarding TiVo's announcement that it will allow customers to copy their favorite TV shows to their portable devices:

TiVo already has a service called TiVoToGo. What's new here?
TiVoToGo lets owners of TiVo boxes transfer TV shows to their computers, including laptops. The content can also be transferred to gadgets compatible with Microsoft's Portable Media Center format. TiVo is expanding that service by permitting shows to be encoded and transferred to Sony's portable game machine, the PlayStation Portable, and to iPods capable of playing video.

Isn't it already possible to transfer video to these devices?
Yes, with various bits of software. But TiVo promises to make the process simple, as well as faster. For example, the company says an "auto-sync" feature will allow users to automatically update their portable devices each morning with shows taped the night before. If done well, this could be equivalent of Apple Computer's iTunes software, which streamlined the process of transferring music files from a PC to a portable player. Ease of use played a big part in making the iPod popular.

Can TiVo pull this off?
Why not? The software used on the TiVo boxes has been hailed as extremely simple but powerful. The company's business model has been a question mark, but its product has gotten rave reviews since it was first unveiled in the late 1990s.

When can I start using the service?
TiVo said beta testing will begin in "coming weeks" for owners of newer Series2 boxes who also own a video iPod or PSP. By April of next year, all subscribers should be able to use the feature.

All TiVo users?
Not entirely. Only those who subscribe directly with TiVo. The 2 million-plus owners who subscribe through DirecTV will not be included.

So this applies to all TiVo subscribers who own a PC?
That's another asterisk. TiVo ToGo does not support the Mac operating system, so this extension of the program also will not be available. A Mac version of the service is expected sometime next year. To recap: TiVo owners with a Series2 box who subscribe directly with TiVo and have a Windows-based PC and a video-capable iPod or PSP can use the service--when it's completed next year.

I'm in that group. Where do I sign up?
TiVo will add a link to its Web site in a few weeks seeking beta testers. Candidates will need to have a broadband connection, and the company will choose testers based partly on how respondents phrase their responses to some questions. Will it be free?
Not entirely. TiVoToGo does not cost extra, but TiVo says subscribers who want to port shows to the iPod or PSP "will need to purchase certain low-cost software." This could mean the company is relying at least partially on software created outside the company.

How much memory must my iPod or PSP have to watch a 30-minute show?
The supported video will need to be encoded in the H.264 format, and that should allow for 30 minutes of video in about 200MB of space.

How long will the process take?
Some estimates have two minutes required for every minute of content--hence TiVo's plan for overnight encoding and transferring. The entire process involves recording the show, transferring to a PC, encoding it, then transferring to the mobile device.

This sounds like a piracy nightmare for content owners.
It could be, but TiVo says it will use "watermark" technologies that will allow any shows being swapped on the Internet to be traced back to the account holder who originally recorded the show.

Apple just started selling a very limited number of shows for $1.99. It can't be thrilled to be facing competition from a company providing an unlimited number of free shows.
This does represent competition for Apple and could also be troubling for companies such as Disney that partnered with Apple to provide TV shows for a price. So far there has not been an official response.

This sounds like a tremendous opportunity for TiVo. Haven't 30 million iPods been sold?
Yes, but only a fraction are capable of playing videos because they've only been on the market a few weeks. By next March, Sony expects to have sold 14 million PSPs. TiVo's shares gained 4 percent to $5.50 on Monday; less than two years ago they were selling for about $12.

Mobile TV sounds like the next big thing. Where can I learn more about it?
Try this related CNET News.com FAQ from last month.

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