Editor's Note: Since this review was written, TiVo has added support for enhanced TiVo Mobile features, downloadable/streaming video from Netflix (with subscription) and Jaman and CinemaNow (pay-per-view), and the ability to order pizza from Domino's.
When TiVo discontinued its high-end cable-ready high-def DVR, the TiVo Series3, it was really just making room for a new product in the line: the TiVo HD XL. The new TiVo is a near twin to the existing TiVo HD, but for three changes: it's got a much larger 1TB hard drive (enough capacity for 150 hours of HD programming); it's THX-certified; and it includes the premium TiVo backlit remote. The package costs $600--about the price that the TiVo Series3 was going for, and twice that of the "standard" TiVo HD. As with any TiVo, of course, you'll also need to budget money for a subscription fee: $13 a month, $129 a year, or $399 for the lifetime of the box. True, you can do a DIY upgrade on the standard TiVo HD by adding the improved remote ($50) and a 500GB expansion hard drive ($150), but that will cost nearly as much and still leave you with less recording capacity--and a lot of extra wires. That said, the original TiVo HD is still going to be the better buy for most viewers, while the XL model is more appropriate for die-hard TiVo fans or those who like to load up their box with lots of HD TV shows, movies, and digital downloads.
The bigger question is whether you want a TiVo at all, when you can get a "free" high-def DVR from your cable company. And the answer comes down to whether you find TiVo's superior design and laundry list of extras worth the additional cash--and whether you can live with some of the compromises. Among the TiVo features that go beyond recording TV shows: YouTube videos, renting and buying Amazon Unbox videos, Rhapsody music, online scheduling, copying recorded programs to PCs or portable devices (TiVo To Go), access to video and audio podcasts...the list goes on and on (see the features section below for details). Whether or not those features--and the TiVo's corresponding dearth of access to your cable system's video-on-demand functions--are worth the price of TiVo's hardware and subscription is a question that only you can answer. If you're reasonably happy with your existing HD DVR and don't have a burning desire for more Internet-delivered content on your TV, you can safely skip either TiVo HD model. But, if you're frustrated by the uninspired design and confusing navigation of your cable company's DVR and you appreciate the additional entertainment alternatives offered by online media options, the TiVo HD XL is worth your consideration.
The big caveats: Before you consider the TiVo HD XL
Before we delve into the details of the TiVo HD XL, prospective buyers need to know the following:
- No satellite TV compatibility: The TiVo HD XL is designed to receive only cable and over-the-air antenna broadcasts. It will not work with DirecTV and Dish Network satellite receivers. (Both of those services offer their own competing HD DVRs instead.)
- SDV compatibility requires external adapter: Some cable providers currently use--or have plans to use--a technology called "switched digital video" (SDV). The technology is designed to maximize available bandwidth, so cable providers can offer additional channels--especially HD ones. Unfortunately, SDV technology is inherently incompatible with CableCard devices from third parties, including many TVs and the TiVo HD models. However, cable companies can now deploy a workaround in the form of an add-on accessory known as an SDV tuning resolver. The resolver is about the size of a cable modem, requires its own power source, and connects to the TiVo via USB and an RF coaxial cable. If your cable company uses SDV technology, be sure to contact them for more details.
- No onscreen access to video-on-demand or other cable interactive features: Like all current third-party CableCard devices, the TiVo HD XL can't access interactive features offered by cable providers, such as video-on-demand. (Note that this restriction is only for ordering PPV events using the onscreen menu. With most cable providers, you can call on the phone and order PPV to watch live on your TiVo HD XL, although you usually won't be able to record it.) The TiVo HD XL does allow access to Amazon Unbox and TiVoCast online video content not found on standard cable DVRs (see below for more info), but if access to your cable system's on-demand channels is important to you, cross the TiVo HD XL off your list.
- Cox and Comcast customers may want to wait: Both Cox and Comcast have partnered with TiVo for the company to deliver a TiVo-like interface to the cable providers' existing DVRs. While the so-called TiVo Service for Cable is somewhat stripped down--it won't have any of the online features mentioned below--it will access SDV channels, video-on-demand, and pay-per-view content with no problems. That's because it will be a software upgrade from the cable company itself, and won't be reliant on CableCard technology. The oft-delayed TiVo Service for Cable is finally available is select markets. Check out a video demo of the service on CNET TV, and in-depth reports of one CNET editor's experience with it on Crave (part 1, part 2).
The basics: TiVo HD XL's DVR features
The TiVo HD XL's main mission is to record and play back TV shows. Along with its one-time rival, ReplayTV, TiVo pretty much invented the once-revolutionary hard-disk DVR (digital video recorder) concept in the late-1990s, but it's since been commoditized by every cable and satellite TV provider under the sun. Basic features are as follows:
- Dual-tuner HD recording: The TiVo HD XL has two CableCard slots on its front side. Once the cards are installed (it accepts either two standard CableCards or a single multistream "M-Card"), the TiVo HD XL can record any of the channels (analog or digital, standard or high-definition) offered by your cable company. The important exceptions, as mentioned above, are video-on-demand programs and (if you don't have a tuning resolver attached) any channels using SDV technology. You can toggle back and forth between the two tuners by hitting the Live TV button on the remote.
- Over-the-air antenna recording: In addition to, or instead of, cable TV, the TiVo HD XL can receive and record standard-definition and high-definition TV signals via an antenna hookup (both analog NTSC and digital ATSC broadcasts are supported).
- Pause and rewind live TV: Like all previous TiVos--and all other DVRs--TiVo is always buffering live TV, so you can pause and rewind anything you're watching.
- 30-second skip: A quick and easy hack enables a 30-second skip feature on the TiVo HD XL. Once enabled, it makes skipping through commercial breaks on recordings as easy as tapping a button on the remote a few times. This feature won't be found on many--if any--cable company DVRs.
- EPG: All digital cable and satellite boxes and DVRs offer an onscreen EPG (electronic programming guide), but TiVo steps it up a notch, with a degree of customization and configuration that most cable company DVRs don't offer. The guide extends 14 days into the future, and it can be displayed as a standard grid or as a split-screen "Live Guide," which breaks out several hours of program info from each channel on the right half of the screen.
- Season Pass: The TiVo Season Pass function lets you record every episode of a favorite show within the parameters you set. For instance, you can record every Law and Order episode on any channel and keep only the five most recent episodes, or you can record only the new (nonrerun) episodes in prime time, or both. This function has mostly been co-opted by other DVRs, but TiVo's Season Pass is generally more accurate and reliable than other cable DVR models, especially at delineating between new episodes and reruns. The TiVo will also avoid rerecording identical episodes already recorded in recent days (assuming the guide lists accurate episode data).
- Wish List: The Wish List is just what it sounds like: you choose an actor, director, genre, or keyword, and TiVo will record any program that meets that criteria. Again, this feature is also starting to show up on other DVRs, but TiVo's implementation still tends to be more intuitive than other versions we've seen.
- Universal Swivel Search: Earlier TiVos had a perfectly fine search function, but the company has upgraded the feature with something called Universal Swivel Search. In addition to being able to search titles, actors, directors, and genres, Swivel Search adds cross-referenced lists, keywords, and related programs ("You may also enjoy..."). Moreover, Swivel Search goes beyond what's on TV, also searching programs available on TiVo via download on Amazon Unbox and TiVoCast.
- TiVo Suggestions: By default, TiVo also uses your TV downtime--overnight, when you're at work, and so forth--to record programs based on interests you express by using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down button on your remote. The more you vote on your viewing choices, the better your TiVo will become at finding similar, related programming, which it duly labels TiVo Suggestions. Some may object to this functionality as invasive or overkill--which is why it can be easily turned off--but for anyone who laments that there's never anything on TV, it's worth trying.
- KidZone: For parents looking for an easier way to control their children's viewing options, TiVo's KidZone function creates a walled garden of family-friendly viewing choices. Once engaged, the safe zone will let children watch only the shows and recordings you deem appropriate. Meanwhile, your episodes of Nip/Tuck, Family Guy, Dexter, and any other potentially offensive programs remain safely hidden from view until you disable the password-protected filter--presumably after the kids have been sent to bed. As such, KidZone goes above and beyond the simple ratings and channel lockouts available on other set-top boxes and TVs.
- Full resolution and aspect-ratio control: The TiVo HD XL offers a full range of resolution controls, so even the most demanding, tweak-happy high-def aficionado will find little to complain about. Component and HDMI output resolutions can be fixed to any standard resolution (480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i) or--if your HDTV has the scaling wherewithal--you can send the unmodified, native resolution of the channel as well (e.g. 720p for ABC, ESPN, and Fox; 1080i for CBS, NBC, and HDnet; 480i for standard-def programming). Likewise, flexible aspect-ratio control lets you stretch, zoom, or pillarbox non-wide-screen programming, and you can set the pillarbox colors to gray or black, according to your preferences.
The main TiVo HD XL unit itself has only a single button on its face, used for toggling the video output resolutions described above. Control options are left to the device's excellent remote. The XL includes the premium backlit TiVo remote that would otherwise cost you $50--it's similar to the base model, but has a more luxurious look and feel. Among the improvements and changes from the standard remote: the Select button is now intuitively in the middle of the d-pad instead of just below it, and an all-important aspect-ratio button is present. A smart-setup system lets the remote command your TV's power and input selection, while the volume control can affect either the television or an A/V receiver. Video transport controls (play, pause, forward, rewind) are still centered, with a numeric keypad below and a five-way directional pad toward the top.
Like all recent TiVo models, the TiVo HD XL is completely network-ready and broadband enabled, straight out of the box. (Earlier TiVos needed to plug into a landline for their initial setup, which left anybody with cellular-only phone service or voice-over-IP out of luck, as they couldn't interface with cell phones and had iffy compatibility with VoIP services such as Vonage.) As with the TiVo HD and the Series2 DT, you just plug an Ethernet cable into its network port and you're good to go. If you prefer the wireless route, you can purchase the TiVo Wireless G USB Network Adapter, which interfaces with your home's Wi-Fi network. It's also compatible with WEP and WPA encryption. While the TiVo's built-in modem gets the job done via a phone line (it silently dials out in the middle of the night to keep the EPG up to date), the broadband connection is the way to go for anyone who wants to take advantage of TiVo's advanced networking and multimedia features, which distinguish TiVo from the rest of the DVR pack.
Unfortunately, you'll also have to schedule an installation with your cable company for the CableCard(s). We're still not sure why this can't be a do-it-yourself process too, because the only thing the tech has to do is slide the cards in and make sure they're up and running. Our local Time Warner tech had things set up in less than an hour.
Once you connect the TiVo HD XL box to your TV and cable line, it automatically commences a 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.