TiVo Series2 DT review: TiVo Series2 DT

TiVo Series2 DT

John Falcone

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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16 min read

On the surface, the newly minted Series2 DT seems to correct at least one of the original TiVo's major shortcomings. This dual-tuner version is the first stand-alone TiVo that lets you record two shows simultaneously, an incredibly useful capability that's standard on most cable and satellite DVRs. But there's a loophole big enough to drive a whole season of Monster Garage through: the DT's second tuner lets you watch and record shows from analog cable only. That's fine for people who don't subscribe to digital cable, but if you have a digital cable box, the second tuner will record only those channels that your cable provider makes available via analog, which will vary according to provider (see Features). The Series2 DT also sports a different-colored case and tosses in an integrated Ethernet connection, but it's otherwise nearly identical to its Series2 predecessors. That leaves HDTV owners still looking forward to the significantly more expensive TiVo Series 3 model, apparently due by year's end, which should combine TiVo's interface and networking features with the true dual-tuner HD recording functionality found in models such as the DirecTV HD TiVo, the Dish ViP622, and many cable company DVRs. In the meantime, if you don't want to record in HD and don't mind being limited to analog channels on the second tuner or if you really enjoy the flexibility of having some useful home networking and Internet features accessible on your TV, the TiVo Series2 DT could well be your TV dream machine.


TiVo Series2 DT

The Good

The TiVo Series2 DT one-ups generic DVRs with an easy setup, a friendly user interface, its ability to work with any cable or satellite box, and impressive home network and Internet features such as photo and music streaming, downloadable video content, and remote programming. The DT model includes built-in Ethernet networking support and the ability to record a second program simultaneously.

The Bad

The TiVo DT's second tuner is useful only for viewing or recording shows on basic analog cable, which severely limits its convenience for many users. TiVo requires additional monthly charges, and most of its once-unique features are now widely available in competing DVRs. It also can't record HDTV programs.

The Bottom Line

While its slick interface and cool networking features still distinguish it from rival DVRs, the dual-tuner function of the TiVo Series2 DT is useful only for those with analog cable service.
TiVo Series2 DT: TiVo goes dual tuner--sort of
Commoditization: it's the mortal enemy of the distinctive branding that's so prized by companies the world over. And it's exactly the affliction that's befallen TiVo. Even though ReplayTV beat it to market by a few months in 1999, it was TiVo that quickly became synonymous with digital video recorder (DVR) technology. But in the intervening years, satellite and cable companies have ramped up their DVR offerings, stealing much of TiVo's potential market share by providing "free" boxes to subscribers. To be sure, there are still plenty of features offered by a real TiVo that the competition can't touch: a best-in-class interface, the ultimate ease of use, impressive home networking features, and the like. But more and more non-TiVo DVRs either meet or exceed many of TiVo's once-unique offerings. On the surface, only a different color scheme distinguishes the TiVo Series2 DT box from its predecessor. The DT TiVo sports a slick all-black look, accented by a silver front bezel; by comparison, the earlier Series2 was silver and gray with a touch of white. The minimalist front panel bears the company's smiling-television logo and two LEDs; 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 is otherwise unremarkable, lacking even a power button.

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 A/V receiver.

Upon connecting the box, we dove into the unit's guided setup, a 30- to 45-minute process that obviates the need to open the user manual. Using an idiotproof graphical interface, the system verifies that your A/V cables are correctly connected and that your TiVo is online via phone line or broadband so that it can access the electronic programming guide (EPG). We really liked 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.

TiVo's straightforward interface gives it an edge over most other DVRs.

One big improvement since the last time we've used TiVo is that it's finally broadband enabled straight out of the box. Previous TiVos needed to plug into a landline for their initial setup. That left anybody with cellular-only phone service or voice-over-IP out of luck--TiVo couldn't interface with cell phones and had iffy compatibility with VoIP services such as Vonage. Thankfully, that's all in the past with the Series2 DT--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 (though it's only compatible with WEP security, not the tougher WPA standard). While the TiVo's built-in modem gets the job done on 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.

As TiVo's features have trickled down to non-TiVo set-top-box makers such as Scientific Atlanta, Motorola, Dish Network, and DirecTV, the company has continued to broaden the Series2's appeal beyond its once-revolutionary video-recording technology. Thanks to an ongoing cavalcade of firmware and service updates, a TiVo box is now as much a Web- and network-friendly media receiver as it is a DVR.

But let's recap where it all started: TiVo is, at heart, everything you always wanted from your VCR. 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. But it's in managing the panoply of your TV viewing schedule that the TiVo really excels. The TiVo service delivers a complete program guide for all cable and satellite providers. 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 (via TiVo's Wish Lists), and the Season Pass feature arranges to record all showings of your favorite series based on variables you set. For instance, you can record The Simpsons or Law and Order whenever they air, be they old episodes in syndication, first-run prime-time episodes, or both.

With Season Pass, TiVo automatically records all your favorite shows.

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 get 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 it's worth trying for anyone who laments that there's never anything on TV. And for parents looking for an easier way to control their children's viewing options, TiVo's forthcoming KidZone function promises to create 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 Deadwood, Nip/Tuck, The L Word, 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.

The TiVo Series2 DT comes in two versions: 80 hours (model TCD649080) and 180 hours (TCD649180). The numbers refer to maximum recording capacity of each model's internal hard drive, which can be less if you choose a higher-quality setting. For example, the 80-hour model delivers a little more than 23 hours of recording time at the Best setting (see chart below).

TiVo DT model Approximate hours of recording time vs. recording quality
Basic Medium High Best
TCD649080 (80 hours) 80 48.5 37 23.5
TCD649180 (180 hours) 180 109 83 53

Around back 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 (the input doesn't work with over-the-air antennas), jacks for the IR and serial cable-box controllers, two USB ports, and the aforementioned Ethernet and telephone jacks. There's also a cooling fan that's all but silent. TiVo controls satellite and cable boxes using an IR blaster or a serial cable, both of which are included.

While the connections are basically unchanged from those of previous Series2 TiVos, except that the network jack is built in, rather than an aftermarket add-on, this latest Series2 model has been upgraded to handle two simultaneous video streams (DT stands for dual tuner), finally allowing TiVo users to watch or record one channel while simultaneously recording another. But there's a significant catch: the second tuner is limited to an analog cable RF stream that plugs directly into the box.

Effectively, it means that while the primary tuner can record just about anything from a digital cable box to a satellite box, the usefulness of the second tuner is strictly governed by your cable company's analog lineup. For some cable systems, the number of analog channels could be several dozen; for our New York City provider, popular choices on the second tuner (not counting home shopping networks, C-SPAN, local community access channels, and Spanish language channels) were limited to broadcast networks such as CBS, ABC, Fox, and the like, as well as a handful of basic cable channels, including Spike TV, MSG, TBS, HGTV, and Food Network. The bottom line is that if you want to take advantage of the TiVo Series2 DT's ability to watch one show while recording another, you should first determine if the analog cable tier in your area is robust enough to make the DT a worthwhile option.

Another shortcoming of the TiVo Series2 DT DVR is that it can't do high-def. To date, the only HD-capable TiVo is a DirecTV-only model. For later in 2006, TiVo is readying the Series 3, a next-generation stand-alone model that's said to support dual HD/digital tuners. The problem is that DVR models such as the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD, the Motorola DCT6412 (for cable), and the Dish Network ViP622 (for satellite) already support dual HD tuners and are widely available today.

Fortunately for TiVo, the Series2 boxes support an impressive and expanding roster of networking functions that--for the most part--have yet to appear on rival DVRs. Previously a software upgrade that required an additional fee to unlock, TiVo's networking functionality is now bundled with the box at no extra charge above the normal TiVo monthly or prepaid fee. Once you download and install the TiVo Desktop software on your Mac or Windows PC, then get TiVo up and running on your home network, you can access digital photos and music stored on your computers and share recorded video programming with other TiVos and computers within your home network.

Moreover, a function called TiVo To Go lets you transfer recordings from your TiVo any PC, expanding your TiVo viewing area to anywhere your desktop or notebook computer can go. Once on the PC, the shows can be burned to DVD (assuming you invest in the $50 Sonic MyDVD software) or transferred to a compatible Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Center device.

TiVo also supports a variety of Internet features that go beyond your home network. You can easily configure the box to access Yahoo's online photo, weather, and traffic services, all without needing to ever boot up your computer. You can also buy movie tickets through Fandango, listen to Live365 streaming Internet radio stations, and use the Podcaster feature to listen to virtually any podcast. If the 'cast you want is not already featured in TiVo's directory, just key in the RSS/XML address to add it to the Favorites list. Last but not least: you can program your home TiVo to record shows remotely from any Web browser. Whether you're working late or vacationing halfway around the world, you can adjust your TiVo's priorities and schedule new recordings with a few clicks of the mouse. A smattering of time-killing games--simple derivations of Scrabble, Bejeweled, and Connect Four--round out the interactive features.

TiVo has also been making inroads as an alternative to regular TV programming. What started as occasional movie trailers and downloadable TV shows has blossomed into a more formalized slate of on-demand programming called TiVoCast, which includes videos from such content providers as the New York Times, the NBA, Heavy.com, and Rocketboom. (Full disclosure: CNET Networks is among TiVo's content partners.) Despite a much-ballyhooed 2004 deal with Netflix, however, there are some significant political and technical roadblocks to transforming TiVo into an on-demand movie box.

What do all of these features cost? Not unlike a cell phone, the TiVo hardware is all but useless without the accompanying service, and it's with that service fee that TiVo makes its money. TiVo's payment options changed in early 2006, with the one-time lifetime fee of $300 over and above the hardware cost no longer an option. Instead, you choose between an up-front cost plus a monthly fee ($20 a month for one year, $19 for two, or $17 for three) or a lump-sum payment ($224 for one year, $369 for two, or $469 for three) if you buy the units through TiVo's Web site. While you can get the older, 80-hour single-tuner Series2 TiVo for "free" once you agree to any of those payment options, the 80-hour DT box costs $30, and the 180-hour model goes for $130, plus the monthly or lump-sum payments listed above. Alternately, you can buy the TiVo DT boxes at retail; it'll cost you $100 for the 80-hour or $200 for the 180-hour TiVo (those prices reflect the $150 rebate on each that you get after activating the mandatory service), as well as a monthly $13 service fee.

The Series2 DT 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 TiVo box has to pass the channel-changing commands on to the cable or satellite box, so hard-core channel surfers may be bothered by the brief delay when switching channels, but after a while, it was hardly noticeable.

For those with worthwhile channels on their analog cable feed, the dual-tuner feature works seamlessly. Those channels appear twice in the onscreen electronic programming guide: say, one CBS station from your cable box and one from the direct cable hookup. This allows you to record with impunity from the "internal" tuner while still being able to channel surf on the cable box or record a second show simultaneously from the cable box. You can easily toggle from one tuner to the other by hitting the info button on the remote, but the TiVo lacks a picture-in-picture (PIP) function.

Sharp-eyed videophiles may find the Series2's picture quality to be soft, even in the highest-quality recording mode. That's partially because the TiVo has to encode and decode the video signal from its original source. The primary tuner can utilize the composite or S-Video feed from your cable box, but the internal second tuner is a direct RF feed, which can result in a noticeably fuzzier picture--the same one you'd get from plugging the cable feed directly into your VCR or TV. The TiVo does have a video-smoothing toggle, but it reduces sharpness accordingly. We're not going to harp on the video quality for two reasons. First, anyone likely to notice these flaws probably has an HDTV and should steer clear of this non-HD DVR in the first place (see the last paragraph below for alternate suggestions). And secondly, given the generally lackluster picture quality of even the best standard-definition cable and satellite services compared to DVD, for instance, the issue is a quibble more than a knock.

If you've never had a DVR before, you'll be hooked in less than a month. And if you have a TiVo, you'll be downright spoiled. 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 until 10:05 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 instead. 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.

Turning to the home media and networking functionality, performance varied by the particular function, with some faring better than others. For pulling music and photos from a networked PC to your living room, the TiVo is a worthwhile substitute for many of the network digital media players we've auditioned. The TiVo Desktop software is as easy to install and set up as Microsoft's Windows Media Connect application, and it serves the same function: setting up key directories on your PC to be accessed from the TiVo. The Mac version currently works only on older, pre-Intel machines, and it doesn't support TiVo To Go transfers--just photos and music through iPhoto and iTunes, respectively.

Music files, playlists, and subfolders are all easily accessible.

Once configured, any compatible music and photo files on your PC should be available on your TiVo. ID3 information for songs is displayed, so you'll see song title, album title, artist, year, and genre (if available), as well as duration and filename. You can easily navigate nested folders with the remote, play individual songs, or play multiple songs sequentially or randomly. The shuffle and repeat modes can include subfolders. Even better, you can use your existing playlists, as long as you've saved them in the standard M3U, B4S, PLS, or ASX file formats. Just pick a folder of music, select a starting song or playlist and the playback mode, and turn off your TV. With TiVo's audio output hooked up to your home stereo, you can enjoy hours of uninterrupted digital music.

Digital-photo navigation works the same way. Photos can be viewed in the same shuffle and repeat modes as the music files, with eight user-configurable slide-show intervals ranging from two seconds to five minutes. Unlike the many DVD players that are billed as photo viewers, TiVo perfectly displayed almost every image we threw at it; JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and BMP files from digital cameras and the Web all came up with no trouble, though some of our PNG files didn't show up. You can rotate images 90 degrees with a click of the remote, and large image files are automatically sized to your screen.

The thumbnails in the Photo menu are easy to navigate.

TiVo To Go was a frustration. This great idea is hobbled by extremely slow transfer times, even on a wired network. On the previous Series2, many users theorized that the USB network adapters were the bottleneck, but using the integrated Ethernet jack on the DT yielded similarly glacial transfer speeds that approached one- to two-third the actual length of the video (that is, 10 to 20 minutes to transfer a 30-minute sitcom, regardless of the recording quality or file size). That means--unlike with streaming video on the Web, for instance--you need to give your show a few minutes' head start if you want to watch it straight through. This also applies to TiVo's Multi-Room Viewing function; transferring shows from unit to unit in a multi-TiVo household takes just as long.

To play a transferred show on your PC, you need only select the show on the TiVo Desktop and click play. You're immediately prompted to enter the password you set during installation. This copyright protection device occurs every time you want to play a TiVo file on your computer. We used Windows Media Player, but any DirectShow-compatible software should work.

Furthermore, TiVo has partnered with Sonic MyDVD to offer DVD-burning capabilities for TiVo To Go. Unfortunately, other DVD-burning programs are not currently supported, and many users--including us--in the TiVo Community Forum have found it difficult to configure the program. (Make sure you take advantage of Sonic's 15-day free trial before you spend the $50 to buy it.) Once you load the TiVo file into Sonic, the video is editable, so you can remove commercials before you burn. The process was a little difficult because MyDVD's preview window was slow to update for us, but it worked fine with a little patience. Before a TiVo file can be burned on a DVD, it must be transcoded, a process that can take several hours even on a fast computer. The show is then burned onto a DVD that can be played on most set-top DVD players. If the DVD archiving option sounds appealing to you, but you can live without the Series2 DT's dual-tuner feature, consider the Humax DRT400 or DRT800. Both models include a built-in DVD burner, so you can burn your recorded shows straight to DVD without waiting for the slow network transfer.

Program your TiVo from any Web browser with this simple interface.

The online features generally worked well and continue to distinguish TiVo from competing DVRs. Scheduling online was a breeze; just log in to TiVo's Web site, search the program listings, and choose the show you want to record. You can set priority (that is, you can tell your TiVo to record only if nothing else conflicts) and recording quality, as well as get a confirmation e-mail. The remote scheduling worked flawlessly, even when we submitted requests only 30 minutes before a show's start time, although TiVo recommends doing it at least an hour in advance. The Yahoo online services performed as advertised once we used the onscreen keyboard to key in Yahoo usernames for access to online photo albums, as well as zip codes for weather and traffic info. The Podcaster and Live365 online radio features also worked fine. The only hitch we encountered was that the menus for these Internet features seemed a bit more sluggish than the standard TiVo menus.

Quality Size Transfer time (wired)¹ Transfer time (wireless)²
Basic 360MB 9 minutes 12 minutes
Medium 594MB 10 minutes 12 minutes
High 734MB 10 minutes 14 minutes
Best 819MB 13 minutes 18 minutes
¹File transfer from TiVo to PC via wired Ethernet network
²File transfer from TiVo with 802.11g wireless adapter to wired PC

TiVo Series2 DT

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 6
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