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If you currently use Virgin Media TV, you'll probably hate your current box, as you should -- it's slow and hard to use. That's why Virgin's deal with American company TiVo is such a big deal for you. The software TiVo makes powers millions of PVRs in the US, and TiVo has become a byword for ease of use over the past decade.
Now Virgin has turned to TiVo to help it in its fight against Sky. We've been using the first box powered by the software for nearly four months now, but is it as easy to use as the hype suggests?
The 1TB box will set you back £100, and the 500GB box will cost you £50. That's in addition to a £3-per-month TiVo subscription, and the price of your current Virgin Media package.
Let's cut to the chase. This is a long review and, if you don't have the time or inclination to read it all, here's what we think in a nutshell.
If you currently watch plenty of TV, and both use and like Virgin Media's services, it makes sense to upgrade to TiVo. For all its bugs and flaws, it's much better than the hideous rubbish most Virgin Media customers will be used to, and some of the problems we identify in this review will eventually be solved by software updates.
If you're on Sky, however, stay there. TiVo isn't quite good enough yet to make it worth the switch, and you'll lose some channels you're used to, such as Sky Atlantic.
If you're on Freeview or freesat, you'll need to be pretty unhappy with the service you're getting to make it worth paying extra for Virgin Media, Sky or BT Vision every month. We recommend saving up for a nice holiday instead. But, if you really must have pay TV, choose whichever provider you can get for less -- TiVo from Virgin Media or Sky+HD. Don't, whatever you do, get BT Vision. That would just be silly.
Still here? Good. Here's how we arrived at these conclusions.
For a lump of plastic that essentially records and plays back telly programmes, Tivo is a very complicated product. We're going to kick off our look at the service with the on-demand side of things.
The ability to stream TV from the past week or so from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 -- but not Sky -- without too much fuss has long been one of the best aspects of the Virgin Media service, but, on the old Virgin V+ boxes, it was always a pain to find anything. Although some effort has been made to sort things out, unfortunately, the electronic programme guide is still something of a dog's dinner on the TiVo box.
What's new on the TiVo box is the ability to go back in time in the EPG. As well as scrolling forwards to see what's going to be showing over the next seven days, you can scroll backwards to see what has been shown. If the programme has a catch-up icon, you're supposed to be able to select it and start watching it in a couple of clicks. That's a great idea, but the trouble is it often doesn't work.
Quite often, instead of watching the programme after selecting it, we were instead taken to a specific on-demand menu, where we had to search for the programme all over again. Or sometimes, you'll get to the point where you think you're going to watch, say, Newsnight, only for a message to pop up saying 'programme no longer available'. "If it's not available, why is the catch-up icon showing?" has been our response over the past few months, minus a few choice expletives.
Pay-per-view films and TV are present, as before, but, unfortunately, browsing and searching for them is as slow and frustrating as ever -- you're presented with pages and pages of lists to look through that run at the same snail's pace they always have.
On-demand picture quality is variable -- the hi-def pay-per-view and BBC stuff tends to be good, while the ITV material is slightly ropey.
Fast forwarding and rewinding on-demand stuff is difficult. The system is unresponsive in this respect, and it's quite common to overshoot where you want to end up by a minute or so. One good thing, though, is that watching on-demand video doesn't slow your normal Virgin Media Internet connection down, as the box has its own broadband modem that establishes its own Web connection.
Purely as a PVR, there's nothing out there to touch TiVo in terms of the number of features on offer. There are several powerful ways to get the box to record what you want to watch -- so many in fact that it can be a pretty overwhelming experience. The normal series-link feature you get with most recorders is there, of course, simply letting you record all the shows in a series on a particular channel.
More powerful is something called 'wish lists'. This lets you set up a search that automatically records all programmes with, say, 'IT Crowd' as part of the title, or everything with the actor William Shatner in it, or all comedy programmes. It's rather fiddly to use, but it ensures that you catch your favourite programmes even if they're shown on different channels or wouldn't normally be considered to be part of a series.
Next, there's the feature that TiVo is famous for in the US -- suggestions. The idea is that, over time, you go through shows and use the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons on the remote to tell the box what your favourite shows are. It then uses this information to automatically record programmes that it thinks you will like. Any shows you record automatically get one thumbs up, with each show capable of receiving up to three thumbs down or up.
The reason this feature is well-known in the States is that many people consider the predictions TiVo makes to be spookily accurate. But we weren't as impressed as we expected to be. None of the suggested programmes were massively wide of the mark, but we only wanted to watch the odd one or two. Now that so much TV is available on-demand, it's just not that big a deal any more to have a box record stuff for you.
Another way to record is via a mobile phone. Virgin Media has an easy-to-use mobile website that displays the programme guide in a similar way to the TiVo box. You just find what you want, click a couple of times and a signal is sent to the box to record the programme. You can also set up a series link with the default options, and there's a nifty Android app too, with an iPhone version due to arrive any day.
The TiVo box doesn't just contain information on which programmes are coming up, it also has details on the main actors in each show, together with pictures of them and the programme itself, along with other types of information.
That means you can search by almost any term you can think of to find what you need -- typing in the name of an actor, for example, will bring up a short biography and the shows that TiVo knows they have appeared in. If those programmes are about to be shown, you can choose to record them.
Unfortunately, it's quite a faff to type using the remote, and the information isn't laid out in the best way, so we didn't find ourselves using this feature very often.
However you choose to record TV, if you want to be sure you don't cut the end off a programme, you need to manually tell the box to extend the recording duration by 5 to 10 minutes every time you set a series link up. We couldn't find a way to set this up automatically for all recordings, which is an annoying niggle. It's important to do this, because one of the limitations of the TiVo system is that the programme guide doesn't actually comprise live data.
The box downloads a list of upcoming shows once per day and combines any changes into its list. This means that, if a programme changes at the last minute or overruns, TiVo doesn't know about it and carries on as if nothing had changed. If you forget to extend the recording time of a programme, don't be surprised if the end gets cut off -- it's happened to us often over the course of our testing, and was the cause of many a family row.
One of the upsides to the way TiVo uses programme guide data is that flicking through the guide itself is lightning-fast, as all the data is stored on the box itself. Anyone currently using one of Virgin Media's older boxes will appreciate its faster pace.
Less speedy are the menus that show the programmes you've recorded. These scroll at a glacial pace, which is a shame, as you'll probably find yourself doing plenty of scrolling. To reduce clutter, shows from the same series can be grouped together, which we love, but you can turn this feature off to simply present a list of everything if you prefer. One thing we couldn't find a way to do, however, was organise our list of shows alphabetically (they're presented with the most recent recording first). If you record a lot, that causes plenty of extra hunting.
One genius feature on the recordings menu is the ability to recover something you've deleted, providing the hard disk hasn't already overwritten it with something else.
The red and white menus look much prettier than the black and yellow of the previous-generation V+ boxes. Many of the menus also take advantage of the higher resolution offered by hi-def TVs to fit more information on the screen. One good thing about this is that live TV, or the currently playing recording, displays in a window at the top right of the screen.
Generally, the TiVo interface will suit the sort of person that basks in front of two 26-inch monitors at work, marvelling at the fact they can see an email programme, Twitter client, Web browser and PC monitoring software all at the same time. For those who like to keep things simple, some parts of the interface aren't such a blessing.
For example, a bar at the top of the display shows programmes that are relevant to the screen you're on. It's supposed to be a handy way of discovering new shows, but we just found it a confusing distraction. The interface also -- horror of horrors -- displays ads that you can't turn off. To add to the confusion, not all the menus are HD, which means that you'll select a menu item and suddenly be presented with a menu with a different structure. It's not the end of the world, but it's a real clanger for a product that's billed as the ultimate PVR.
There are also too many inconsistencies in the interface. Buttons that perform one action in a particular menu do something else in another, which grates after a while. To get the best out of the box, you'll need to learn which buttons on the remote perform which shortcuts, such as the clear button deleting a show, or the left button taking you back one screen.
The TiVo box we tested, made by Cisco, is an ugly piece of kit, but there's no faulting the hardware inside. A 1TB hard disk is enough to hold 500 hours or so of normal TV, and 100 hours of hi-def TV. A cheaper 500GB version is also available, holding half the amount of video.
Three TV tuners means you can, should you wish, record This Morning, Homes Under the Hammer and America's Next Top Model all at the same time, while you watch that episode of Most Haunted you recorded earlier. Pausing live TV is possible, naturally, and you can skip through a programme in 30 second chunks with a press of a button, making it easy to race through the ads in Harry Hill's TV Burp. If you're watching a programme and suddenly decide you want to record it, TiVo will use the buffered TV you have already seen as part of the recording, rather than starting it from the point at which you press record.
Around the back, there's one HDMI port, an optical audio out, and a Scart socket. There's also an Ethernet port that isn't currently used, but we think one day it will be used to hook a TiVo box in another room up to the one in your lounge so you can stream video off it. The box also offers two USB ports that don't currently do anything. Unfortunately, the box requires an external power brick.
The box is relatively quiet, with very little fan noise and the faintest of hard-disk grinding to be heard. Certainly anyone upgrading from the old V+ HD boxes made by Scientific Atlanta will notice a huge reduction in the level of fan noise.
Picture and sound quality over HDMI is great, as you'd expect. We have our TiVo box hooked up to an older Yamaha speaker using an optical digital cable, and receive Dolby Digital soundtracks without problems when they're available on HD channels.
One oddity about Virgin Media's offering is that, despite the fact you pay £100 for the 1TB box or £50 for the 500GB model up-front , you can only rent them, rather than own them outright. The upside to this, though, is that Virgin Media has to replace your box if it goes wrong, no matter how old it is.
The remote feels good in the hand. It's light, and the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons provide a dash of fun missing from most AV equipment. There are slightly too many buttons for our taste, though -- Apple TV this is not.
Virgin Media makes a big deal about the apps that are loaded on the TiVo box, such as Twitter, eBay and Facebook photo viewing. We're not sure why, as most of them are rubbish -- there are many better ways to update your Twitter stream than using the TiVo app, for example, and the number keys on your remote. You can also only fit a few tweets on the screen at a time.
The best app is YouTube, not only because watching videos from the site on your TV is pretty cool if you've never done it before, but also because you can sign in and view any favourite videos you've flagged up on the site previously. The app is also integrated into some of the menus elsewhere, so you can choose to search YouTube for the word 'MacGyver' with one click if you're looking at a page all about the show, for example.
There's also an iPlayer app, which we found slow and difficult to use. It's also prone to crashing in the middle of a programme. We didn't like it very much.
There's much to like about Virgin Media TiVo. For existing Virgin Media customers, it's miles better than the old, slow box underneath your TV and definitely a worthwhile upgrade.
For everyone else, it's not such a must-have. TiVo has the potential to be the perfect PVR, but we can't help feeling that what's needed is the perfect on-demand box. There are too many niggles, inconsistencies and annoyances at the moment, although things may get better in time as the software is improved.
Edited by Charles Kloet