Friday, January 27, 2012

I bought a TiVo! And why other DVR's suck.

TiVo! To some people, it sounds like a throwback. Whenever I mention it to someone, I almost expect them to say "they're still around?"

Yes. Yes they are. And they still make the best DVR. In fact, in all this time, I'm frankly amazed at the fact that nobody else has even really tried to replicate what they do. It's like Apple with the iPod, which stood basically alone for years. The rest of the industry just didn't get it. "But my Rio plays MP3's, you just drag and drop them." Oh, but first you needed to buy a physical CD. Then you needed to rip it. Then you needed to put the files in your folder hierarchy. Then you needed to manually create a playlist. And that's assuming you had some way of finding new music in the first place - it's not like commercial radio's any help these days. If you want to do all that work every time you get new music, great - I have better things to do.

My last DVR was a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD from Cablevision, running SARA software. Holy crap, what a piece of junk. I'm amazed they can still call this current equipment in 2012. It still had a fully SD menu and guide - I mean it was even shown in a 4:3 box on a 16:9 TV.  When you clicked the guide, it would take about 3 seconds for it to come up, then about another 3 seconds to finish populating itself. That repeated every time you changed times or paged through channels. The fonts were ugly, the box was slow, and half the time it wouldn't register any button presses at all for about 2 minutes, then suddenly it would execute every command you'd been trying to send it during that time, all in a row.

And forget about actually helping you figure out what there was to watch. It was basically a channel listing with a record button, which is what most DVR's still are these days. It was a glorified VCR married to a standard cable box.

Frankly, this is still what passes for DVR's on most cable and satellite systems these days. There are a few boxes that try to do more (Moxi is one) but they're all either missing some major feature TiVo has or they cost a massive amount up front. There's also Windows Media Center, but I've tried that and honestly, it doesn't do half what TiVo does and it's not something that "just works" - it takes some doing to get it set up right so you can just come home, turn on your TV and plunk down on the couch like with a real DVR. (It's also not really cheap, once you buy all the stuff you need to make it work like a DVR.)

So what makes TiVo so awesome? It's a cliche, but the short story version is still that it changes the way you watch TV. Most DVR's work as described above. At best, if you're shall we say "fastidious", maybe you religiously check TV Guide every week and so have a mental (or even written) list of shows you want to watch, and you can search for those on your cable DVR and set up recordings for them. I am never that organized. I need a box that can do most of the work.

TiVo does that. TiVo puts everything in one centralized location, independent of its screening time or the service or channel that it's available on. You get a list of available shows and movies broken down into categories and genres, not a list of times and channels (though it has that too, it's just not the central feature of the box). Some of those may be available now (via some on-demand service, or even in your list of recordings), some you may have to wait a little bit for (until their next screening time), but the point is you start by choosing what you want to watch, not hunting around randomly by time on a channel guide or just looking through a small list of things you've previously recorded.

Here's a video I made mostly for current TiVo owners to show them the new 20.2 OS update, but non-TiVo owners might find it interesting as well to see some of how the box works (and this should be more up to date than most pro reviews out there, which are based on the 14.9 OS):

And TiVo is both a curated service and a box that learns your likes and dislikes. I've found many new things on TV that I would never have known about had TiVo not recommended them to me, either through one of its curated "collections" (that's just one of many above) or through its suggestion engine.

TiVo will just record stuff it thinks you might like until it runs out of space (you see it thinks I like science and nature documentaries, which I actually do). These suggested recordings just get deleted automatically if it needs space for shows you've asked to record.

Its show-centrism extends even further:

When you "explore" a show, you can see a list of all seasons and episodes and whether they're available - not just on TV, but also on Netflix, Blockbuster, Amazon or Hulu Plus. (You can turn any or all of these extra services off - I've chosen to ignore Hulu Plus.) I love this feature, because - and Fringe is a great example of this - demands on my and my wife's time mean we often fall behind on shows, stuff gets deleted and we lose our place. It's really annoying trying to figure out where we left off, and sometimes we stop watching shows entirely rather than bother trying to catch up. This helps me figure it out, and I can sometimes even just start off watching again right there - and if not, I at least know what episodes to get. (And - ahem - TiVo can play TV episodes downloaded to your PC. There are various tools to quickly transcode to TiVo, including one officially produced by TiVo themselves, though the official one is payware.)

This is actually my second TiVo - I had my first from 2001-2003, but had to ditch it for HD, which TiVo had no answer for for a little while (they needed to wait for the CableCARD thing to get sorted out).  Today's TiVo Premiere boxes are of course HD, and with CableCARD there is no recompression of the video anymore. In fact, both my wife and I are convinced that our picture quality has improved with TiVo. I think that old SA8300HD just didn't have the horsepower to even display HDTV properly, so the picture would break up during pans or otherwise get pixelated quite often. With TiVo, there is literally no pixelization. It could be our imagination, but we both commented on how smooth the picture became with TiVo. And it's not a softer picture, because on-screen text and graphics are razor sharp even up close, it's just smoother, less glitchy, and less harsh.

When you buy a TiVo, you're buying on the cell phone model - the box is subsidized, and you sign up for a year of service at $19.99. You can also get a lifetime subscription (that's the lifetime of the box) for a flat $499, which is basically like buying an unlocked cell phone - except you still need the TiVo service, it's just free. Some people are annoyed by this, but I don't get that - my far inferior Cablevision DVR was costing me $18 per month anyway ($10.95 for DVR service, $8 for a cable box), so I'm paying just $2 extra for the much better TiVo. The CableCARD also costs $2 per month, so my total's $4 more. I can live with that for what I'm getting. And I own the box, unlike with the cable company - a Premiere is $99, which I think is reasonable.  (The Premiere Elite, which has 4 tuners and a bigger hard drive, is $300.)

I actually can't believe I waited as long as I did to get TiVo again - I should have done it right when the first HD boxes were released. One reason I didn't was the horror stories I kept hearing about CableCARD rentals. See, the cable companies don't want you to rent these things (they want you to rent their own box that they make more money from), and they've done any underhanded thing they can think of to make it as difficult as possible.  Anything from forcing a "professional install" that costs extra money, often with appointments months out (it's literally just sticking a card in a slot), intentionally giving TiVo owners the wrong type of CableCARD and one that they know won't work, telling people there's a six month waiting list for CableCARDs, etc.  But the government's been clamping down lately and honestly, my experience with Cablevision was pretty pleasant - I walked into my local Optimum store, rented a card and was out of there in 2 minutes. I stuck the card in my TiVo, called Cablevision to activate it and was done. Total time investment: maybe 10 minutes. Total cost: $0 up front, and $2 per month.

Now all I need is an exercise bike to keep me from getting fat from all these extra hours in front of the TV.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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