TiVo HD review: TiVo HD

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The Good Includes nearly all the features of previous Series3 model at a lower price; can record two HD programs simultaneously while playing back a third, previously recorded one; accepts cable TV and over-the-air signals; 30-second commercial skip; excellent user-friendly interface and remote; impressive Internet and home-networking features, including video content from Netflix, Amazon, and CinemaNow, Rhapsody subscription music service, online scheduling, photo and music streaming; recent firmware update adds cool TiVo To Go and Multi-Room Viewing features; TiVo To Go transfers recordings to PCs and portable devices; able to download and view most standard digital video file formats from networked PCs (with premium Desktop Plus PC software).

The Bad Requires monthly fee in addition to cable bill; sluggish transitions between menu screens; does not work with video-on-demand and switched digital video services; must program 30-second skip; no picture-in-picture; TiVo To Go requires long, slow transfer and transcoding times; some premium features (Amazon, Netflix, Rhapsody, Desktop Plus, Wi-Fi adapter, expandable storage) require additional one-time expenses or subscription fees.

The Bottom Line While it's not compatible with your cable company's interactive and video-on-demand services, the TiVo HD's excellent onscreen interface and long list of network and Internet features puts it in a class above the generic high-def DVRs offered by most cable providers.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 7
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 the TiVo Series3 finally arrived in September 2006, it was the first cable-compatible TiVo to record high-def programming. But that long-awaited Holy Grail of TiVos came with a prohibitive $800 price tag that, in a world where cable companies provide serviceable HD DVRs for just a few extra dollars added to the monthly bill, scared off all but the most loyal or well-heeled TiVo fans.

That's where the TiVo HD comes in. Except for a smaller hard drive and more-generic cosmetics (no OLED front panel display and a less-fancy remote control), the TiVo HD delivers, essentially, the same feature set as the Series3 model for a much more reasonable $300. We gave the TiVo HD high marks when it was released in July of 2007, but were frustrated by the lack of some classic TiVo features. As of fall 2007, however, TiVo has made good on all its promises, and then some: new enhancements have been added via a free firmware update, delivering the TiVo To Go, Multi-Room Viewing, and expandable storage features that had been lacking on the unit. Furthermore, the company has added compatibility with the Rhapsody online music service, which effectively turns your TiVo into an on-demand jukebox. Yes, the TiVo HD's CableCard compatibility still means sacrificing video-on-demand and any other interactive functionality your cable company offers. That said, thanks to the TiVo HD's networking capabilities, you're getting a variety of online features that few--if any--cable company DVRs can match, including access to downloadable video content (Amazon's Unbox and TiVoCast videos), Internet radio, podcasts, streaming of music and photos from a networked PC, the ability to copy recorded programs to portable devices and transfer them to other DVRs in the house, and online scheduling control.

Yes, TiVo usage still entails an additional fee--various plans are available, ranging in price from $8.31 to $16.95 a month (with even better deals available if you lock into TiVo's promotional plans before February 2, 2008), depending on whether you pay in yearly or monthly installments--but so do the "free" cable company DVRs. (Also of note: TiVo's lifetime subscription fee--a one-time fee for the lifetime of the product--is no longer offered, but the company sometimes offers deals to existing customers to transfer subscriptions from older models. Existing customers should call TiVo customer service to see if they're eligible for any such offers.) If you're frustrated by the uninspired design and confusing navigation of your cable company's DVR, or you're the type of user who appreciates the additional entertainment alternatives offered by online media options, the TiVo HD is worthy of your consideration--and unlike the previous Series3 model, it won't break the bank.

The big caveats: Before you consider the TiVo HD
Before we delve into the details of the TiVo HD, prospective buyers need to know the following:

  • No satellite TV compatibility: The TiVo HD 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.)
  • No SDV compatibility until 2008: Some cable providers have plans to use a technology called "switched digital video" (SDV). The technology is designed to maximize their available bandwidth, so they can offer additional channels--especially HD ones. Unfortunately, SDV technology is inherently incompatible with CableCard devices from third parties, including the TiVo Series3 and the TiVo HD. However, TiVo has confirmed that a workaround--in the form of an add-on USB accessory--will be available by the middle of 2008. Assuming that the solution stays on schedule, SDV compatibility should be just months away.
  • No on-screen access to video-on-demand or other cable interactive features: The TiVo HD's SDV incompatibility is due to the fact that the CableCard technology it utilizes is a one-way (downstream) system. That same restriction means the TiVo HD--like all current third-party CableCard devices--also can't access the other interactive features offered by cable providers, including 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, although you usually won't be able to record it.) However, the TiVo HD does allow access to Amazon Unbox and TiVoCast online video content not found on standard cable DVRs (see below for more info).
  • 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 will be 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 supposed to begin rolling out to certain Comcast and Cox markets in late 2007. Check out a video demo of the service on CNET TV.

TiVo HD's two CableCard slots are mounted on the front panel.

The basics: TiVo HD's DVR features
The TiVo HD'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 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 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 as well as 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 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. 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's 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.
  • 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 user-friendly 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 on 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 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 TiVo HD's excellent remote is basically the same as most previous TiVo clickers.

The remote
The main TiVo HD 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. Shaped like a stretched-out peanut, 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 AV receiver. Prefer the backlit, "premium" model that comes with the Series3? You can buy it at TiVo's Web site for an additional $50. Alternately, any good universal remote will handle the TiVo HD's functions as well.

Like all recent TiVo models, the TiVo HD 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 Series3 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.

The interface
Once you connect the TiVo HD box to your TV and cable line, it automatically commences a 30- to 45-minute 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.