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TiVo DVR Series2 review: TiVo DVR Series2

TiVo DVR Series2

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
6 min read
Note: TiVo has rereleased its Series2 DVR with a silver and white case in place of the original black. Aside from the cosmetic change, the two units are identical.

TiVo is a victim of its own success: people use the word to refer to any digital video recorder (DVR), whether or not it's actually made by the company. While this TiVo lacks the cosmetic update (silver and white instead of black) of the newer Series2, it still is the best, most versatile standalone DVR you can buy. Its superior interface and network-friendly features far surpass competing DVRs offered by cable companies. In fact, the only real competition--not including TiVo-powered DVD recorders and satellite receivers from other manufacturers--remains ReplayTV's 5500 series, which offers automatic commercial skipping, real-time program sharing between multiple units, and progressive-scan output not found on the TiVo. The catch? Like Replay, TiVo requires a monthly fee of $13 or a onetime payment of $300 above and beyond its $299 price tag. Compared to an extra $8 or so on the monthly cable bill--typical of what you'll pay your cable company for its DVR--that's still way too expensive for most people.


TiVo DVR Series2

The Good

TiVo pauses live TV; controls cable and satellite boxes; ergonomic remote; excellent user interface and searchable program guide; supports networked audio, photos, and programming options.

The Bad

TiVo requires additional monthly or lifetime charges; needs non-VoIP landline for initial setup; no HDTV support.

The Bottom Line

The best interface on the planet and cool network options make TiVo the standalone DVR of choice.

Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.

This TiVo is a big, charcoal-gray box that sports the company's smiling-television logo and two LEDs on its front; the green display indicates power, and the red one lights up while the unit is recording. The 3.38-by-15-by-12-inch box (HWD) is otherwise unremarkable, lacking even a power button.

Control options are left to the device's excellent remote. Shaped like a stretched-out barbell, it has a prominent TiVo button perched on its tip for accessing the main menu. Differentiation among button shapes makes navigating the remote by feel relatively easy. 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.

Upon connecting the box, we dove into the unit's guided setup, a supposedly 45-minute process that obviates the need to even open the user manual. Setup took a little longer than that for us, but in the end, we didn't have any problems.

In its default dial-up mode using a regular phone line, TiVo makes nightly calls to the server to fetch program information. There's no 800 number, so you must choose a local number from a long list. If you have broadband, however, there's a better option. One of the Series2's best features is that its USB ports can connect to a broadband Internet service via compatible USB-to-Ethernet and USB Wi-Fi adapters, eliminating the need for a phone-line connection. We tried this setup with a Fallaron NetLine PN796 (wired) and a Linksys WUSB11 (wireless) adapter connecting to a Netgear router, and it worked like a charm.

An important note on TiVo's connectivity options: although we were able to run the initial setup call over our Vonage Voice over IP phone line after considerable finagling, TiVo does not explicitly support VoIP services. Broadband connectivity worked flawlessly--and is required to make use of the TiVo's impressive home-networking features--but it's not enabled straight out of the box. That means those of you in VoIP-only households may find yourselves shuttling the TiVo to the home of a neighbor so that you can use a trusty old analog phone line to do the initial setup download. It's a silly catch-22 that TiVo could eliminate by shipping its products with built-in networking support.

Setup snafus notwithstanding, we really like this DVR's easy-to-use yet powerful interface. 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 Granny could figure out the basics in a matter of minutes--once she gets over the shock of seeing live television on pause.

The Series2 comes in three hard-drive sizes: 40 hours, 80 hours, and 140 hours. The numbers refer to the amount of recording time that each TiVo offers at the lowest quality. At its highest-quality setting, this 80-hour drive delivers a little more than 27 hours of recording time.

Around back of the box, you'll find an A/V input with S-Video, a pair of A/V outputs with one S-Video jack, an RF coaxial input and output, jacks for the IR and serial cable-box controllers, two USB ports, and a phone jack. A second S-Video output, built-in Ethernet port, and a digital-audio output would have been nice, but all in all, the jack pack is pretty complete. The cooling fan, meanwhile, is all but silent.

The remaining Series2 features are familiar to DVR fans. You can pause whatever you're watching for up to 30 minutes. When you return, you can fast-forward to skip commercials. While viewing live TV, you're able to rewind in order to catch something that you missed, or you can watch the action in slow motion. Pressing the Record button saves the program to the hard drive.

TiVo controls satellite and cable boxes using an IR blaster or, for newer boxes, a serial cable (both of which are included). The TiVo service delivers a complete program guide for all cable and satellite providers, as well as for local stations. You can search the guide for upcoming shows by title, subject, actor, director, time, and channel. The box will record upcoming shows that match the search criteria, and TiVo's Season Pass feature arranges to record all showings of your favorite series.

Connect the aforementioned Ethernet or wireless USB network adapter to your TiVo, and you'll be able to use the device's Home Media Option. That feature allows you to access digital photos and music stored on your PC or Mac, update your TiVo's recording schedule from any Web connection, and share recorded video programming with other TiVos within your home network.

If these features sound too great for a product that costs less than $300, that's because they are. Standalone TiVo DVRs require a $13 monthly subscription or a onetime $300 fee in addition to the purchase price of the unit. If that's too rich for your blood, check out Toshiba's TiVo-powered DVR/DVD recorder combo, the RS-TX20, which makes the Season Pass and Home Media Option features a voluntary upgrade while including basic recording features--and the option to archive your shows to DVD--right out of the box, for a street price of less than $500.

The TiVo experience is generally satisfying. 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. Hard-core channel surfers may be bothered by the brief delay when switching channels (the TiVo box has to pass the channel-changing commands on to the cable or satellite box), but after a while it was hardly noticeable.

Sharp-eyed videophiles may find the Series2's picture quality to be soft, even in the highest-quality recording mode. But given the generally lackluster picture quality of even the best standard-definition cable and satellite services (compared to DVD, for instance), this is a quibble more than a knock. If you're a satellite subscriber, however, you'll want an integrated satellite/DVR device such as the Dish Network DVR 510 or the Philips DSR708, which offer identical picture quality to standard satellite tuners. Cable-company DVRs enjoy the same picture-quality advantage. In our tests for example, Time Warner Cable's DVR, the Scientific-Atlanta Explorer 8000, did produce a slightly sharper image than TiVo's best-quality output.


TiVo DVR Series2

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7