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TiVo HD XL review: TiVo HD XL

TiVo HD XL

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John Falcone
John_Falcone.jpg

John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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19 min read

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.

8.3

TiVo HD XL

The Good

Can record two HD programs simultaneously while playing back a third, previously recorded one; huge 1TB storage capacity; expandable storage; accepts cable TV and over-the-air signals; 30-second commercial skip; excellent easy-to-use interface and remote; impressive Internet and home-networking features, including video content from Netflix, Amazon, and CinemaNow, Rhapsody subscription music service, online and cell phone scheduling, photo and music streaming; 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 subscription fee in addition to cable bill; sluggish transitions between menu screens; does not work with video-on-demand services; requires extra tuner box for cable systems with 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 (Netflix, Amazon, Rhapsody, Desktop Plus, Wi-Fi adapter, expandable storage) require additional one-time expenses or subscription fees.

The Bottom Line

The TiVo HD XL charges a hefty premium for its spacious recording capacity and THX certification, but most users will be content sticking to the all-but-identical standard TiVo HD DVR.

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).


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

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 XL includes the premium backlit TiVo remote.

The remote
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.

Setup
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.

The interface
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.

The TiVo advantage: Network and broadband functions
Indeed, the onscreen interfaces of many non-TiVo DVRs are so lousy that some would be tempted to pay a premium just for the better usability experience a TiVo offers. But the box also offers another big distinguishing factor from its generic cable cousins: home networking and Internet access. Connect the TiVo HD XL to your home network via its built-in Ethernet port (use a powerline adapter if you don't have a network connection in the room) or, if you prefer wireless, opt for the TiVo Wireless G USB Network Adapter ($60), which plugs into one of the USB ports on the rear panel. In addition to using your broadband connection to update its 14-day electronic programming guide, the TiVo HD XL's network link provides a laundry list of features not available on competing DVRs:

  • Amazon Unbox: Amazon's online video service offers thousands of movies and TV shows that are compatible with the TiVo. Previously, the video programming needed to be purchased on a networked PC, where you specified for it to be downloaded to your TiVo (as determined when you set up your account online). Now, you can access the selections straight through the TiVo interface. A list of what's new and what's hot is available, or you can use the Swivel Search function to see what's available. The interface could use some improvement, but it's nice to be able to do everything on the TV screen. Since our original evaluation of the service (performed on a Series2 model), TiVo has added progressive downloading, which severely cuts the long wait time between the purchase and the beginning of the stream that was previously required. The biggest drawbacks? The videos aren't in high-def, and many aren't even optimized for wide-screen viewing. So even though Casino Royale was shown in its original wide-screen aspect ratio, we needed to zoom in for it to be displayed properly on our screen. Doing so resulted in a much softer image. (A TiVo spokesman said Amazon was looking into this issue but has not committed to any timelines as of yet.) Still, it's relatively quick and easy, and the quality and quantity of available selections is on the rise. Currently Unbox includes more than 6,800 movies for rent and more than 9,500 for purchase, plus a huge library of TV shows. It's small compared to the tens of thousands of DVD titles at Netflix, but it's more than what's available on the video-on-demand services of many cable systems.
  • Rhapsody: As of October 2007, TiVo can access Rhapsody's online music subscription service. Rhapsody requires its own monthly fee, but the service is also accessible through other venues, including PCs, the Logitech Squeezebox, and the Sonos Digital Music System. On TiVo, you're given full access to the service, including the very convenient ability to search Rhapsody's millions of available songs via the onscreen interface. And TiVo appears to have largely solved some of the glitches we experienced during our initial evaluation of Rhapsody on TiVo.
  • TiVoCast: TiVoCasts are Web-delivered video shows that can be downloaded for free, straight to your TiVo. Essentially, these are video podcasts from a variety of content partners, including Rocketboom, The Onion, DL.TV, CrankyGeeks, the New York Times, and even CNET. Often, they're no different than what you'll see online, but the advantage is that you can watch them on your big-screen TV instead of a PC monitor. They automatically download at preset intervals and show up on the "Now Playing" list, alongside shows you've recorded.
  • Home Movie Sharing: Think YouTube, but for a fee. Home Movie Sharing lets you upload and share home videos with other TiVo users you designate. Viewing is free, but in order to upload videos, you'll need to sign up for the OneTrueMedia.com service ($4 a month or $40 a year). See more details on Crave.
  • Online scheduling: Using TiVo's Web site, you can remotely schedule TiVo recordings from any Web browser. It's quick and easy, and it works like a charm--perfect if you're working late or are on vacation. Verizon Wireless subscribers can also download an application that provides much of the same functionality. Of course, it's worth mentioning that the addition of a Slingbox to the TiVo HD XL--or any other DVR--provides the same de facto remote programming access, and adds remote viewing of live and recorded TV as well.
  • Podcasts: Nearly all standard audio podcasts are available via the TiVo. The Podcaster menu has a list of several popular 'casts, but you can also use the onscreen keyboard to type in the address (RSS feed) of any of your favorites. A screensaver pops up while listening, to avoid any possibility of screen burn-in.
  • Internet radio: Hundreds of online radio stations are available on the TiVo, provided by Live365. Unfortunately, you can't add stations of your own.
  • Yahoo Weather and Traffic: Yahoo's online weather and traffic services are all accessible via the TiVo--just key in your zip code.
  • Photobucket and Picasa photos: TiVo previously offered access to Yahoo Photos, but the online service shuttered that feature in 2007 (having since bought rival Flickr). Since then, TiVo has replaced it with Photobucket and Google's Picasa Web Albums.
  • Network music streaming: The TiVo HD XL can double as a network audio player, streaming all of the MP3s from the hard drive of your Windows or Mac PC to your living room TV and home theater system. Just download and install the free TiVo Desktop software, then configure it to "publish" the relevant folders so the TiVo can access them. It works well, but compatibility is limited to MP3 files (no AAC, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, WMA) and M3U, PLS, and ASX playlists.
  • Network photo streaming: The same TiVo Desktop program lets you access your digital photos on your TV as well. It's compatible with JPEG, GIF, BMP, DIB, and PNG file formats.
  • PC-to-TiVo video transfers: If you upgrade to the TiVo Desktop Plus software (Windows only), you can send a variety of file formats to your TiVo from your PC. Compatible formats include WMV, MOV Quicktime files, H.264 and MPEG4 video (MP4, M4V, MP4V), MPEG2 video, and even DivX and Xvid files. Combined with the streaming music and photo functions above, this feature pretty much enables the TiVo to duplicate many of the abilities of a so-called digital media adapter, such as the Apple TV, not to mention mimic the media-streaming features of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. However, there are caveats: the files need to be downloaded to the TiVo first (though, like the Unbox videos, they can be viewed while the transfer is in progress); and the TiVo cannot stream any DRM-protected video files.
  • Movie ticket purchases: You can check out what's playing at your local movie theater and reserve tickets via Fandango's online service, using nothing more than the TiVo remote.
  • TiVo To Go: The TiVo To Go feature lets you transfer recorded programs from a TiVo DVR to a PC (Windows or Mac), where it can then be viewed (say, on a laptop when traveling), burned to DVD, or transferred to other portable video devices (iPod, PSP, and so forth). Just be aware that the transfer processes are very slow and laborious, as are the transcoding times when moving to other devices. Also, thanks to restrictions imposed by TV networks and movie studios, not all recorded programs will be able to be transferred.
  • Multiroom Viewing: If you have multiple TiVos in the home, you can transfer recorded shows for playback on a second networked TiVo DVR--so you can watch a show recorded in the living room while you're in the bedroom, for instance. Just note that you'll need high-def TiVos (TiVo HD, TiVo HD XL, or TiVo Series3) to play HD video--older Series2 models can accept only non-HD video transfers.
  • Expandable storage: What happens if you're a truly hard-core couch potato, and need more than the already capacious 150 hours of HD video storage offered by the TiVo HD XL? Invest in the My DVR Expander from Western Digital. The specialized version of WD's MyBook external hard drives is the only drive that's certified to work with the TiVo HD XL. The 500GB drive connects via the TiVo's eSATA port, and adds any combination of 65 hours of HD video or 600 hours of standard-definition recording capacity to the TiVo HD XL.

Design and connectivity
The TiVo HD XL box itself won't win any beauty contests. It has the standard dimensions of a DVD player and will fit in any AV rack, but the silver-outlined bezel needlessly calls attention to itself. There's no fancy OLED display (as seen on the Series3), but the front readout does have bright LEDs to indicate when the tuners are recording or when the unit is downloading material from the Web. Likewise, the output resolutions (720p, 1080i, and so forth) are clearly indicated as well. Home theater purists can enter the TiVo HD XL's settings menu and completely darken everything but a single power LED.

The CableCard slots are behind a flip-down door on the front panel, which is far more convenient than the rear-panel arrangement of the Series3. Notably, the TiVo HD XL is compatible with the new multituner M-card standard (dual tuners on a single card), or it can take two single-tuner CableCards instead.


The TiVo HD XL's back panel includes all the connections you'll need.

The TiVo HD XL's rear-panel jack pack is mostly similar to the Series3 model's. Thanks to the CableCard tuners, you need only connect the screw-type RF cable wire from the wall to the back of the box. A second RF jack accepts an antenna connection, so you can pull in analog and high-def channels over the air as well. You can use either--or both--cable and antenna sources. You'll need to connect the HDMI and component outs in order to get a high-def picture, but the box also includes a full set of composite AV outs for pairing with DVD recorders or VCRs, or even with older non-HD TVs. There's also a single S-Video output and an optical digital output (surround sound is available via the optical out or--if your receiver supports it--HDMI). On the networking front, you can opt for Ethernet or use one of the two USB jacks to connect the aforementioned Wi-Fi adapter. Rounding out the back panel is the eSATA port and a nearly silent cooling fan that keeps the TiVo HD XL's innards from overheating.


You'll have to supply your own Ethernet cable, but the TiVo HD XL includes nearly everything else--including HDMI.

Performance
The TiVo HD XL wasn't our first experience with TiVo, so returning to the interface was as familiar as riding a bike. 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. The dual-tuner functionality also worked smoothly. We could easily toggle from one tuner to the other by hitting the Live TV button on the remote, but the TiVo lacks a picture-in-picture (PIP) function. Moreover, despite the fact that the program guide organizes information from all of the tuners (cable, antenna, digital, analog, standard, high-def) into a nice, single interface, hard-core couch potatoes may be chagrined to realize that the TiVo HD XL can toggle between only any two live sources. So, while you can record two programs simultaneously, you can't switch to or record a third live program, even if it's coming in off the antenna. You can, however, view a previously recorded program while recording two others. By contrast, the Dish ViP722 can record three sources--two satellite, one over-the-air--while playing back a fourth.

Video quality was generally excellent. In other words, we noticed no differences in the TiVo's video quality versus that of respective cable and antenna reception on other devices we tested, namely the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR. Of course, if your cable provider overcompresses its signals in order to conserve bandwidth--and many do--you'll get the same artifacts and blockiness on the TiVo HD XL that you'd get with any other tuner. Audio quality was likewise solid, and the TiVo ably passed Dolby Digital surround soundtracks to our AV receiver via its HDMI output.

The Season Pass and Wish List features work like a charm, and TiVo offers plenty of little tweaks to further fine-tune your TV viewing pleasure. For instance, Overlap Protection lets you choose to cancel or clip competing programs based on priorities you set. Thus, if Lost runs late, as it often does, you can have your 10 p.m. recording start late--that is, if you don't just assign it to the second tuner and eliminate the overlap problem that way. The TiVo Suggestions function works well, assuming you want to invest some time into voting for your viewing choices. Granted, some of the suggestions are far from revelations (Simpsons fans get Futurama recommendations, Stargate SG-1 viewers are directed toward Battlestar Galactica), and your TiVo may occasionally misread your choices, but it's a great way to discover new shows you might like. And the most famous TiVo hack still works like a charm: punching in Select > Play > Select > 3 > 0 > Select turns on the 30-second skip feature, so you can blast through recorded commercial breaks with a few easy clicks of the remote's Advance button.

TiVo's ability to properly record programs exactly as specified comes about as close to bulletproof as we've seen on a DVR. Yes, overtime sporting events and unscheduled breaking news can always throw a wrench in things, but TiVo is much be

8.3

TiVo HD XL

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 7
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