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TiVo Series3 (32-HD hours) review: TiVo Series3 (32-HD hours)

TiVo Series3 (32-HD hours)

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
19 min read

Editors' note: As of September 2008, the TiVo Series3 has been discontinued. While existing owners will continue to receive service and software updates on their units, new customers interested in this product should check out its replacement, the TiVo HD XL. That model offers all of the same features of the Series3, along with a larger recording capacity.


TiVo Series3 (32-HD hours)

The Good

Can record two HD programs simultaneously while playing back a third previously recorded one; accepts cable TV and over-the-air signals; replaces your existing cable box; 30-second commercial skip; excellent user-friendly interface and remote; impressive Internet and home-networking features, including online scheduling, photo, and music streaming; built-in Ethernet and optional Wi-Fi networking.

The Bad

Extremely expensive, especially compared to "free" DVRs available from cable providers; does not work with pay-per-view and video-on-demand services; requires monthly fee in addition to cable bill; CableCard installation can be problematic; no TiVo To Go or Multi-Room Viewing functionality; some distinguishing network features not yet available; must program 30-second skip; does not offer picture-in-picture.

The Bottom Line

The Series3 delivers dual-tuner HD recording and some worthwhile networking features to cable customers, but the exorbitant price tag will be too much for all but the most devoted TiVo fans.

If you asked dedicated TiVo fans to design the ultimate version of their favorite DVR, they'd probably say, "Give me all the great features and excellent interface from past TiVo models, but add dual tuners and the ability to record high-definition video." And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much what TiVo has delivered with the Series3 Digital Media Recorder. Equipped with dual CableCard tuners (provided by your local cable company), the Series3 replaces your existing cable box and gives you the ability to record two channels simultaneously--any combination of high-def or standard-definition--from the full range of your digital cable lineup. Additionally, the Series3 offers all of the key DVR features that TiVo pioneered: Wish List searches, Season Pass recordings, and TiVo Suggestions based on the thumbs-up and thumbs-down viewing interests. And unlike almost all other DVRs on the market, the latest TiVo delivers home-network and Internet connectivity, which opens the door for downloadable video, podcasts, and online programming functions.

What's the catch? Those CableCard slots come with some heavy-duty encryption and rights management restrictions, so TiVo had to disable its network-friendly TiVo To Go and Multi-Room Viewing functions. That means you can't stream your recorded programs to another TiVo box, or transfer them to a PC or portable device. But the bigger gotcha for most consumers will be the Series3's princely $800 price tag. And that doesn't include the $13 monthly fee you'll need to pay--above and beyond your cable bill--in order to keep it working. Moreover, the Series3 isn't compatible with the video-on-demand and pay-per-view features to which many digital cable viewers have been accustomed. Those caveats and the high price probably won't deter the dedicated army of TiVo-tees who've been waiting for the Series3 for years. But when you consider that non-TiVo DVRs are readily available from most cable providers for "free"--or without an up-front cost, at least--it all comes down to whether or not you're willing to pay an enormous premium for TiVo's superior interface and value-added features.

On the outside, the TiVo Series3 box has been completely overhauled. Unlike the plastic look of its Series2 predecessors, the new TiVo boasts a sturdy, metallic frame (3.38 inches high by 16.5 wide by 12.6 deep) coated in a glossy black. The front panel boasts a centered OLED display and a small cluster of control buttons on the extreme right, all of which are enclosed by a silver frame. It's about as stately looking a home-theater product as we've seen, and it'll look great in your entertainment center next to any silver or black components.

The front-panel display will show the title of the show--or shows--you're recording at any given time; otherwise, it defaults to showing the time. Home-theater purists will appreciate the fact that the info display and clock can be turned off, leaving the front panel completely dark, save for a single dot that acknowledges button presses from the front panel or the remote. The front-panel controls are basic: TiVo, Live TV, Info, Guide, and pause buttons are arranged in a semicircle around a cross-shaped cluster of five-way directional buttons, but they'll let you navigate the TiVo's onscreen interface in a pinch if you've misplaced the remote. There's also a resolution button tucked away below the display so you can manually toggle the high-def output (from component or HDMI), which is helpful if you happen to lock into a resolution that your display can't support.

TiVo has tweaked the button layout on its trademark peanut-shape remote control, and the result is even more comfortable to use than before. That's high praise indeed, because TiVo's earlier remotes have been singled out as some of the best around. Video transport controls (play, pause, forward, rewind) are still centered, with a numeric keypad below and a five-way directional pad toward the top. Among the improvements and changes from earlier models: 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.

Once you connect the Series3 box to your TV and cable line, it automatically commences a 30- to 45-minute guided setup routine. For the most part, the onscreen Series3 interface is all but identical to that of its Series2 predecessor. 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 intuitive and idiot-proof: the onscreen graphical interface takes you through the process step by step. 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). 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 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.

Like the last TiVo we tested, the Series2 DT model, the Series3 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--TiVo couldn't interface with cell phones and had iffy compatibility with VoIP services such as Vonage.) With the Series3, 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 currently compatible only with WEP security, but TiVo is planning to support the more-rigorous WPA standard through a future firmware upgrade). 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. For experienced TiVo watchers, we can cut right to the chase: the TiVo Series3 box finally includes dual-tuner CableCard and HDTV support. As such, it's the first TiVo model that can record HD cable programming. Yes, there was a previous "HD TiVo" model, the HR10-250, but that model worked only for customers of DirecTV's satellite service. By comparison, the Series3 HD TiVo should work for anyone who gets TV service via cable or an over-the-air antenna, or any combination thereof. Moreover, the Series3 model includes a variety of network-friendly home media features (described below), none of which are available on the DirecTV model.

But for those who aren't conversant in all things TiVo, let's recap: TiVo is, at heart, everything you've always wanted from your VCR. You can pause whatever you're watching for as long as 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 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 for anyone who laments that there's never anything on TV, it's worth trying.

And 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 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 KidZone feature isn't yet available on the Series3 model, but--according to TiVo--it will be added in a software upgrade "in the coming months.")

Unlike Series2 TiVos, which were available at a variety of price points and storage capacities, the Series3 model is--at launch, anyway--available in just one configuration for a whopping $799. Its internal 250GB hard drive can record any combination of 25 to 35 hours of HD video or around 300 hours of standard-definition video. (Those capacities are mutually exclusive, so a drive half-full of HD video will be able to record only an additional 150 hours of SD video, for instance.) SD video can be recorded at four settings: basic, medium, high, and best. (You'll want to stick to the last two.) HD video is recorded is locked into its native digital format, so it'll look identical to live transmissions.

Older TiVos sat between your cable or satellite box and your TV, and needed to change the channels on those set-top boxes through a tangle of attached infrared (IR) or serial cables. By contrast, the Series3 TiVo replaces your cable box. (It's not compatible with DirecTV or Dish Network satellite services; those customers will need to get non-TiVo DVRs from their respective provider.) Ditching your old box is made possible by the Series3 support for CableCard technology, also known as DCR, or Digital Cable Ready. The Series3 has slots for two CableCards, and you'll need both of them if you want to record two cable channels simultaneously. There are a few caveats, however: you'll need to have your cable company schedule a visit to install and configure the cards--just like getting a new box--and the cable provider may charge just as much for the cards as they do for a full-on cable box. Moreover, while it should provide access to all the digital channels that your provider offers (both standard- and high-def), the CableCard's inability to support two-way communication means that you won't have access to pay-per-view, video-on-demand, or any other interactive services from your cable provider through your Series3 TiVo. (If you keep other cable boxes elsewhere in your home, they'll still work with such services.)

In addition to the CableCard slots, the back panel of the Series3 TiVo reveals some other dramatic changes from past Series2 models. Gone are the Series2's A/V inputs; thanks to the CableCard tuners, you need only connect the screw-type RF wire from the wall to the back of the Series3 box. The Series3 TiVo also includes an antenna input, so you can pull in analog and high-def channels over the air as well. But this TiVo does boast a full range of A/V outputs. You'll need to connect the HDMI and component outs in order to get a high-def picture, but the box also includes two full sets of composite A/V outs for pairing with DVD recorders or VCRs, or even 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. There's also an external SATA port which should eventually give the Series3 the option for add-on hard drives to expand its recording capacity; until that capability arrives via a software update, however, the port remains inactive. Rounding out the back panel is a nearly silent cooling fan that keeps the Series3's innards from overheating.

Together, the CableCards, the antenna connection, and the high-def outputs combine to offer the TiVo faithful what they've wanted for years: the ability for cable customers to record and play back HD programming. Finally, your TiVo can record HBO-HD and Discovery HD--and do so simultaneously--without having to settle for the downconverted S-Video output from an external HD cable box. And the Series3 offers flexible high-def options that maximize its compatibility with HD sets: you can choose to output everything via component and HDMI at a set resolution (1080i, 720p, 480p, or 480i), so-called "hybrid" resolutions (all HD content at 720p or 1080i, all standard-def content at 480p), or "native" (everything is displayed at the resolution in which it was broadcast). The Series3 can be set for wide-screen (16:9) or standard (4:3) displays. Aspect ratio control--full, "panel" (pillar boxed), or zoom--is limited to content that was originally recorded in standard-definition, but it works no matter what resolution you're outputting. That means that even if you've set the output to 1080i fixed, you can still stretch or zoom a show, so long as it was originally broadcast in 480i. And control freaks will be delighted with the fact that you can set the sidebar colors to your choice of black or grey.

In addition to TiVo's TV-recording functionality, the Series3 supports the same impressive and expanding roster of networking functions found on the Series2 boxes. Notably, most of these features have yet to appear on DVRs from rival manufacturers; they're among the reasons that TiVo is touting the Series3 box as a Digital Media Recorder (DMR) instead of just a DVR. 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--and 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.

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 your 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. (The ability to program the TiVo from compatible Get It Now Verizon cellphones is scheduled to be added "in fall 2006.") 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. Nevertheless, TiVoCast programming--already available on Series2 boxes--should be viewable on Series3 models before the end of 2006. No word on whether or not any of the content will be available in high-definition.

Notably, the TiVo To Go feature--which allowed you to transfer recorded programs to your networked PC, and then to a portable device--is not present on the Series3 box. The same goes for Multi-Room Viewing, which lets you transfer programming from one networked TiVo to another within a household. (Both features remain alive and well on earlier Series2 TiVos). As always, the culprit here is not technology, but copyright concerns. TiVo would like to add the features to Series3 boxes at some point, but given Hollywood's fear of digital media, we're not holding our breath.

What do all of these features cost? Not unlike a cell phone, the TiVo hardware is all but useless without the accompanying service. That means--in addition to the nearly $800 cost of the hardware itself--you'll need to pay a monthly fee to TiVo of $13. Customers with multiple TiVo boxes may be eligible for a Multi-Service Discount. Furthermore, it's been rumored that anyone who locked into the lifetime membership fee on an older TiVo--the option is no longer available--can transfer that option to a new Series 3 box, at least for the next few months. Getting the CableCard tuners properly installed and configured on our TiVo Series3 took two visits and three phone calls to our local Time Warner Cable franchise. The problem is that most of the technicians just aren't that familiar with the CableCard technology--it was a knowledgeable employee on the phone who was finally able to remotely activate our cards (thanks again, Shah). Once they were up and running, though, things seemed to work just fine.

The Series3 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. You can choose between two versions of the onscreen programming guide: the TiVo Live Guide (channels on the left, detailed breakdown of shows on the right) or the more-familiar Grid Guide. Gone are the Series2 delays when switching channels--the Series3 box doesn't have to pass the channel-changing commands on to an external cable box, so channel-surfing is nearly as fast as when using a cable company-issued DVR, such as the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD.

The dual-tuner functionality also worked smoothly. You can 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 Series3 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 ViP622 can record three sources--two satellite, one over-the-air--while playing back a fourth.)

Video quality was generally excellent--which is to say, we noticed no differences in the TiVo's video quality vs. that of respective cable and antenna reception on other devices (the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR and Samsung SIR-T451 over-the-air tuner). 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 Series3 TiVo that you'd get with any other tuner. That's no fault of the TiVo, of course; we're just managing expectations. Audio quality was likewise solid, and the TiVo ably passed Dolby Digital surround soundtracks to our A/V receiver via its HDMI output.

There was one video issue which was a major cause for concern: copy protection. Many of the programs we recorded included a warning that the content provider had encoded them for "restricted viewing," meaning we were precluded from the possibility of saving them to a VCR or DVD recorder. In other words, the only way to watch these shows seemed to be via the HDCP-encoded HDMI output. The composite and S-Video outs were completely disabled, and component video seemed to work intermittently (we even lost HDMI output briefly, on several occasions). TiVo said the the problem is completely unintentional--all video should output over all outputs--and that some overzealous copy-protection from our local cable company may be the culprit. According to TiVo, the flagging of programming for restricted viewing should only apply to video-on-demand and pay-per-view content--none of which should be accessible on the Series3 anyway. Upon further investigation, we isolated the problem to our A/V receiver--it seems that certain JVC receivers have an HDMI incompatibility that over-aggressively interprets the content flags. Switching to a different A/V receiver (or going component rather than HDMI) alleviated the problem (full details are available here). That said, the incident does raise the spectre that content providers could flag future (and current) broadcasts with various restrictions.

The Season Pass and Wish List features work like a charm, and TiVo offers plenty of little tweaks to further finetune 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. 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.

It's also worth noting that TiVo's accuracy in recording programs as you specify is 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 the TiVo is much better than the competition in the accuracy of its listings, and its ability to distinguish between new episodes and reruns, even on more-obscure off-network shows. It also does a great job with informing you of potential conflicts and problems. For instance, we received messages letting us know that title changes ("The CBS Evening News is now The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric") and lineup changes ("The UPN and WB networks have merged into the CW, so many of your favorite shows may now be on a different channel") could affect our viewing choices, so we could adjust our Season Passes accordingly, if need be. You won't get those types of warnings from competing DVRs, and you could quickly start missing shows as a result.

As great as the TiVo experience is, however, there were a couple of features--again, found on the Dish ViP622--that we'd like to see. While you can set favorite channels, there's no ability for customized favorites list for the recordings--a great feature that allows family members to compartmentalize their TV viewing. Also, the ViP622 has a great bulk-erase feature that TiVo lacks--just go down the list of everything recorded on one screen, and check off all the shows that you'd like to delete.

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.

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 as well as 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. (TiVo says that an HD version of the photo viewer--presumably, with the ability to show photos in greater detail--will be available "in the November timeframe of this year.")

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.


TiVo Series3 (32-HD hours)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 6