TiVo review

TiVo is a new way to record TV. Find out how it performs.
 
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01 .TiVo

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See our December 2010 video of Tivo versus Tbox.

Price: $699, for the 320GB model. However, there are some packages which include the optional wireless connector and home network software. For an extra $249 you can add a one terabyte external drive.
Contact: tivo.com.au

TiVo offers a means of recording free-to-air digital TV without having to learn too much about the inner workings of the machine. There is a remote control and an onscreen menu system, which are both easy to use. However, TiVo's real value lies in its ability to free you from having to think too far ahead when planning your TV viewing. It does a good deal of the thinking for you, but it's not perfect - even its terms of use acknowledge that mistakes can happen. If there's an error in the electronic program guide (EPG) data, TiVo won't know and you could still miss a program.

Please note: this information was current as of November 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

Video: Tivo vs Tbox

Chris and Denis discuss whether the new Telstra T-Box is a serious alternative to the TiVo.

What TiVo will do

  • Record from free-to-air digital broadcasts. Menu
  • Record two HD channels at the same time.
  • Play a recorded program while recording on two channels.
  • Allow you to pause a live TV broadcast and continue watching it when you're ready, but this is limited by the amount of space available on your hard drive.
  • Rewind up to half an hour of live TV.
  • Download and display a seven-day electronic program guide (EPG) which is updated daily.
  • Allow you to select programs to record from the EPG using the remote control.
  • Allow you to indicate your preferences using the "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" buttons on the remote control.
  • The system remembers preferences and will make suggestions.
  • Select a "Season pass" which tells the system to record every instance of a particular program. You don't have to know when the program is to be broadcast.
  • Automatically record programs by genre, actor, director or that relate to a particular sport.


What TiVo will not do … yet

  • Remain fully functional if its connection to the internet drops out. We found it refused to change channel after about seven days offline.
  • Show advertising while searching or viewing the EPG. TiVo says this may come in the future.

In control

TiVo claims it will put you in control of free-to-air TV. At first look we'd agree that it's relatively simple to set up, easy to use and its EPG is reasonably well designed.

The main difference between TiVo and most other digital video recorders (DVR) is that it's designed to do most of the thinking for you. Its menu system is simple to use and reasonably intuitive, but its tendency to change settings based on your previous preferences could be annoying for some users.

There was consternation in our test home when a scheduled recording was set to delete automatically only a couple of days after the recording date. We then realised it would keep the recording after that date if space on the hard drive was available for other recordings.

TiVo is currently available from:

  • Harvey Norman
  • Domayne
  • JB HiFi
  • Myer
  • Dick Smiths
  • The Good Guys

CHOICE verdict

At first look, we like it. It's not cheap and having to be constantly connected to the internet is inconvenient, but neither are major drawbacks. However, we're not letting TiVo off the hook so easily. We're going to keep watching and you can read our updated comments online over the next few months on the pages that follow. See our review of digital video recorders.

 
 

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Getting started with our TiVo proved to be a little more complicated than with most digital video recorders (DVRs). We connected the video and sound outputs to our TV and sound system and the TV aerial to the back of the TiVo box — no difference so far, but then came the connection to the internet service. Menu

The box has very little function without an internet connection so you don’t really have a choice in this department. You can connect using a wireless attachment for $69.99, or directly using a cable from the modem. We chose the direct connection.

Having connected all the inputs and outputs and turned it on, the onscreen instruction told us to go to our computer and register the box on the TiVo website. The process took about 15 minutes and required:

  • Entering a number found on the back of the TiVo.
  • Agreeing to an onscreen contract.
  • Entering some personal details such as name, address and an email address that must be confirmed before you can continue.

Then we had to go back to the TiVo itself and confirm we'd completed the registration.

It took about 15 minutes for the box to download data and set itself up. The entire process took around 50 minutes all up — it wasn’t difficult but it was a bit fiddly.

Aerial worries

We set up our TiVo box in a house in Sydney's inner west that already had three fully functional digital tuners of different brands. None were having any problems picking up any channels.

Once set up, however, the TiVo couldn't display Channel 7 without serious picture and sound break up. We tested the tuner's ability to deal with difficult signals and found it performed quite well, so we deduced something was wrong in the house.

It turned out the aerial was old and analogue. It was doing an OK job for most digital channels but for some reason was only picking up some of the signal from Channel 7. We replaced the aerial — albeit at substantial cost — and the Channel 7 problem went away.

This kind of problem could happen to anybody setting up a digital DVR, but it’s ironic that the problem should be so specific to Channel 7, given the network’s close ties with TiVo.

The new digital world, which is to be forced on us from 2010, is likely to be fraught with old aerials doing an OK job most of the time, but failing often enough to introduce a cost many can't afford.

CHOICE will ask ACMA for an indication of how the Government plans to deal with this issue. We'll keep you posted. You can also provide feedback about your TV aerial in an online poll.

Most DVRs have three basic settings; on, off and on standby. Watching TiVo

When off they should use no power and the best way to ensure this is to turn them off at the wall.

According to the new standard for TVs' energy use, standby should mean the product uses less than one Watt per hour. Most new TVs can manage this and some even get to less than half a Watt per hour.

Unfortunately only a few DVRs we've tested have managed this and many use three Watts per hour or more. In this context the TiVo looks pretty bad because, when put into Standby mode using the menu system, it uses around 23 Watts per hour. This is pretty much what we would expect from a DVR when it's playing back a recording.

Never really in standby

It appears the TiVo never really goes into a standby mode. If you select this option from the menu it turns off the lights on the display and stops sending signal to the TV, but remains active. This isn't all that surprising when you consider that it's primary function is to be constantly monitoring programming and regularly downloading EPG and other information, as well as system upgrades etc..

In fact there isn't a standby button on the remote control. This is a bit annoying because it forces you to go through two menu levels to find it in the onscreen menu system, but since it makes no obvious difference you'd might as well just turn the TV off and leave TiVo to do its thing.

If you're very concerned about the amount of power you use in your home a TiVo may not be for you. If you want one and wish to limit the amount of power it uses, you could turn it off at the wall at night, but this will probably mean a disruption to its normal function.

We've had TiVo in our test home for several months now and there are some things that we find really helpful – others are just annoying.

Things we like

  • Skip back when fast forwarding. When you press the play button to stop fast forward, TiVo jumps back a few seconds more to ensure you don't miss the beginning of the scene. It means you sometimes get a few seconds of the part you're forwarding through, but that's much better than having to backtrack manually.
  • When we've indicated that we don't want a program, TiVo has been smart enough to stop recording it in the future.
  • It's reasonably quick to change the channel.
  • Setting a recording using the EPG is simple.
  • You can change the format of the EPG's display – see Things we don't like.
  • Managing the programs that TiVo has recorded is easy. The file structures are logical, but can be repetitive if a program fits in more than one category.
  • TiVo gives plenty of warning if it's going to delete a program for space and you can stop it from doing so.
  • TiVo records programs based on what it 'thinks' will fit your preferences. These have their own folder so they're easy to identify and manage.

Things we don't like

  • TiVo does seem to be learning our preferences, but it has been a bit tedious at times. We had to give the thumbs down to almost a week of news programs at one stage to make it clear we didn't want the news from all channels every day.
  • We're no longer having intermittent problems with SBS reception. None of the other set-top-boxes in the house ever had a problem, but TiVo was occasionally pixelating so badly that SBS was unwatchable. Previous testing suggests this problem is a combination of some interference in the region of the house and TiVo being a bit sensitive to impulse noise. This isn't something we expect TiVo can fix easily, but if you normally have intermittent reception problems you should make it clear to the retailer that TiVo may not be suitable in your home. Get the store's assurance that they'll let you return it if you can't get it to work.
  • The EPG grid layout tends to truncate program names so that you can't easily see them without hovering the curser over them. The default TiVo layout has less of a problem with truncation.
  • You can't see which programs TiVo is planning record in the EPG. It'll put a red dot against programs while it's recording, but you have to go through a couple of menus to the "To Do List" to find what it plans to record. Also, the To Do List doesn't appear to include programs you've selected a season pass for.
  • The channel selection button on the TiVo remote control is very sensitive – making it very easy to skip the channel you want. It's a niggle, but annoying.
  • Occasionally, TiVo has not recorded programs with three thumbs up or that we've entered as a season pass. The latter is very annoying.

Things we'd like to see in future upgrades

  • A change to the EPG that indicates which programs the TiVo is planning to record would be very helpful. Perhaps a green or yellow dot.
  • Also, it would be useful to be able to stop a proposed recording via the EPG rather than having to go through the menu system.
  • The design of the EPG would be greatly improved if program names weren't as truncated.
  • More detailed descriptions in the EPG information. This could make browsing the EPG a similarly engaging experience to browsing a paper guide.
  • Currently there's no way of knowing how much space is left on the hard drive. Very annoying if you're planning to make a long recording, but aren't sure if it'll fit without jeapodising current recordings.

Other EPG issues

One thing TiVo has highlighted over the past few weeks is a problem that befalls all EPGs - they're only as good as the information put into them.

Unfortunately, during the Paralympics the EPG information for ABC HD was just wrong. Instead of our ABC HD season pass programs or shows we liked, TiVo recorded the Paralympics. TiVo or any other DVR can only read the information put into the EPG and the ABC didn't change its HD program data during the Paralympics.

Errors in programming happen often with all channels, but they're usually in single instances and mainly limited to start or end times. This problem persisted for weeks and we think the channels should watch out for major changes such as these.

Expander drive

TiVoTiVo have announced a 1 terabyte (TB) external hard drive that expands the TiVo's capacity to about 230 hours of HD recording.

The extra recording space is very handy. Unfortunately, the price is $249, which is $100 more than a similar 1TB drive from the same manufacturer.

CHOICE can see no reason why TiVo owners should have to pay a premium for a drive that can only be used by the TiVo.

Movies on download

Online movie downloads isn't really new to the TiVo, but the selection has increased thanks to an agreement with Blockbuster. The cost per movie ($3.95 to $5.95) is reasonably competitive with hiring a DVD. If your internet service provider isn't Internode, however, you're going to use a substantial amount of your download allowance because each movie is between one and two gigabytes.

The movies will last for 30 days from download and 48 hours from when you first start to watch. But to sign up to the service you mustput $35 into a Blockbuster account, which is debited as you rent movies. Once you go below $10, your account is automatically debited $25 to top it back up. Should you decide to stop the service, TiVo/Blockbuster will refund any money in your account with them.

We suggest you read the CHOICE report on direct debits before you leap in.

Podcasts

In May 2009, TiVo launched a podcast service that features breakfast and 'drivetime' podcasts from Nova and Vega radio stations. The broadband usage for each podcast will vary depending the length of the podcast and how long you listen, but should be between 1MB and 30MB. Apart from any costs you incur through internet downloads, the service will be free to TiVo users and will be updated daily.

TiVo Home Networking Package

 6th April 2009.

If you like the idea of transferring recordings from TiVo to your computer, this product might tempt you.

The purchasing process requires you to pay for the product online, wait for an email then put in a lengthy key via the My TiVo website. You download the software to your computer, then get a number from the TiVo itself (called a MAK number), which can take up to 24 hours to appear. You install the software on your computer and enter the MAK number, restart both the PC and the TiVo.

You then get constant reminders to upgrade the software to allow you to convert files so they can be seen on portable devices such as an iPod. To do this you get another lengthy number from the My TiVo website and enter it in the software when prompted.

You can then:

  • Tell the software what folders your video, images and music reside in so you can transfer them to the TiVo to view or listen to them.
  • See what is recorded on the TiVo box from your PC.
  • Transfer files from TiVo to PC and back again.
  • Convert files transferred from your TiVo to the PC to formats suitable for mobile devices such as an iPod, or Sony PlayStation among others.

This all sounds good, but this software has a couple of rather annoying features:

  • Every time you open or transfer a file the software pops up a dialogue box warning you about copyright issues. This does nothing to deter anyone determined to misuse the software and is just annoying for everyone else.
  • Conversion of a file takes a long time. We tried a couple of different files with different conversion formats, and a half hour program took around 45 minutes.

Conclusion

At $199 it's an expensive upgrade and not as easy to use as the TiVo itself. However, it does make it possible to store programs if the TiVo is getting full and watching your own videos or pictures on your TV could be a big plus for some consumers.

Movies on TiVo

On the 1 December 2008 TiVo introduced downloadable movies.

There will only be one movie available a week to begin with - starting with The Waterhorse and followed by Men In Black. In 2009 the service is supposed to get a wider range of movies.

There's no cost for the movie itself at this time, but it comes with lots of warnings that you'll have to calculate how much you're likely to get slugged for the internet download - the amount of data used in a movie download is typically quite large.

The TiVo movie download is no exception. The file size of the movie we downloaded was slightly under 2.6GB. The movie also took a long time to download - about three and a quarter hours to download over an ADSL 2+ connection. That's quite dissapointing because our TV reported the native format for the movie at 576i - Standard Definition TV. Not quite as good quality as a DVD and a long way off the quality of HD TV or Blu-ray.

The movie will self destruct if not watched within seven days. Once you start watching you have; either 24 or 48 hours to finish or watch it again before it self destructs. If you start watching on the last of the seven days, you can't delay past the end of the day. The confusion over 24 or 48 hours is because the initial download says 24 hours, but the information attached to the download itself says 48 hours.  It seems to depend on the movie title you select.

Leaving aside the image quality issue, by our reckoning it's a very expensive movie hire. If you're on an internet plan that limits your downloads to 7GB per month and charges around $90, you'll have used over a third of your allowance for one movie.

In dollar terms that's around $30 for a seven day movie hire. Until TiVo comes up with a way to negate or substantially reduce this cost, we suggest a short walk to the shop to hire a DVD.

Weather on TiVo

Weather channelOn the 22 October 2008 our TiVo got a weather page.

It's a regularly updated feature that provides weather information for all Australian capital cities as well as many regional centres. Access is via the main menu and ours currently has a big gold star, so it's hard to miss.

Also hard to miss is the prominent advertising for Channel 7's morning program and a chain of hotels. In this case the service is being funded in the same way as free-to-air TV, which is paid for by advertising.

"It's the first of many broadband services our customers will receive on their TiVo in the coming months - all at no additional cost," said Hybrid Television Services CEO, Robee Minicola. Hybrid Television Services is a subsidiary of of the Seven media Group and is the exclusive licensee of TiVo products in Australia and New Zealand.

Even if you assume advertising is a cost for the viewer, the weather page is a handy addition.

More for 2009

Some new simple games will become available over the next few months, along with a daily horoscope and a world clock that can handle up to six different time zones. 

A service to view images and share them with others who have a TiVo is called PixelEyes. You upload your images to either Picasa or PhotoBucket and others who have a TiVo and know your login can download them to their TiVo for viewing.

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