I've been carrying around a dirty secret for a couple of years now. When I wrote a TidBITS article about Netflix, the DVD rental service I had used and loved for years, I had already stopped using it. (See "Worthy Web Sites: Get Your Kicks with Netflix" in TidBITS-604). Netflix is great, but TiVo is better. Shortly after getting a TiVo DVR (Digital Video Recorder), my wife and I stopped needing to rent DVDs. Essentially, everything you've heard about TiVo is true (see "Dominate Your TV" in TidBITS-594 for more on TiVo). It is that good. So good, in fact, that when we moved this spring to a bigger place, we bought a new TiVo Series2 model, which features a degree of integration between it and our Macs. Buying a second TiVo also enabled us to have one on each television in our house.
The Appeal of TiVo -- To summarize quickly, a DVR records television shows like a well programmed VCR, but onto a large hard disk instead of onto removable tapes. You can program it to record particular channels at specific times or to record every occurrence of a show. You can even instruct it to record a show, but to skip reruns so your disk doesn't fill up with multiple copies of syndicated episodes. It keeps all of these recordings until you delete them, or until the disk space fills up, at which point the TiVo deletes the oldest ones. You also can pause live TV, or rewind or fast-forward through live or recorded shows. To borrow a tagline from a classic show, the TiVo Series2 is better than it was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.
Our new TiVo 2 Series DVR looks rather different than our old one. It's almost a third smaller in size than the old one, but to my eyes it looks even smaller; the new case is 2 inches (5.1 cm) narrower, 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) shallower, and 0.5 inch (1.3 cm) shorter than the old one. The Series2 has a rectangular IR sensor instead of the HAL-like eye at the center of the old TiVo. The remote control signal feedback LED now sits just below the power indicator.
The Series2's new remote is a little longer and includes a few more buttons that control other television set features (input source, for example). The Info, Live TV, and Guide functions, previously controlled by the one Live TV button on the old remote, now have their own dedicated buttons. The new remote also can be set up to control two separate DVRs, with a switch to select which unit is being controlled. If you feel you need the new remote for your existing TiVo, it costs $30 online in the Accessories section of the TiVo Store.
The Series2 also gains a speed boost by way of a PowerPC processor inside that runs at 50 MHz instead of 27 MHz. This does not make recording or playback faster, but it does make the TiVo interface a little zippier (MPEG encoding and decoding are handled by specialized chips just for those purposes). I noticed that the TiVo is more responsive to commands from the remote and doesn't suffer from the noticeable lags that can result when many programs are recorded. The faster processor probably comes in most handy after the nightly television schedule updates are downloaded and incorporated, or when season pass priorities are changed.
However, the most important hardware change is also the most interesting for Mac users: the addition of two USB ports. While you wouldn't want to attach a printer to a TiVo, the USB ports enable you to network your device using a Series2 network adapter. The TiVo Store sells both conventional 10/100 Ethernet adapters and wireless (AirPort, or 802.11b) adapters for $45 and $65, respectively. For me, wireless was definitely the way to go. It allows the TiVo to use our AirPort network for its daily calls in place of requiring me to install a phone jack near my TiVo. Be warned, however, that the TiVo still needs a phone line for the Guided Setup, both initially and for any subsequent cable provider changes.
To take full advantage of networking your TiVo, you can purchase the Home Media Option for a one-time fee of $100. With this software upgrade, you can schedule programs remotely, view programs in multiple rooms without recording the shows on each TiVo, view digital photos, and listen to digital music stored on your Mac.
Remote Scheduling -- Have you had someone at work tell you about their favorite show, but forget to add it to the TiVo's To Do schedule when you get home? Now you can queue the show from the office.
This feature doesn't quite fulfill the ideal of accessing your TiVo over the Web as if you were sitting in front of your television, but it's a step in that direction. You can log into TiVo's Web site and add programs to your TiVo's To Do list. The next time the TiVo makes its daily call for program updates, the instruction you made online is transferred to the device. However, that call might not happen until tomorrow, so you had better take care of this way ahead of time. If you use a network adapter, you can set the daily call to happen a few times an hour instead of once daily, making it a more useful feature - but just barely.
When online, you cannot see what is already scheduled on your TiVo, so you can only choose to make the new request either the highest or the lowest priority. You also have no way to see what other programs you might be overriding. For this reason, and because I rarely decide so late to record something when I am not at home, I've only used this function when I was testing it.
Multi-Room Viewing -- If you have multiple TiVo Series2 DVRs, each with the additional Home Media Option, all registered to one household, you can share recording between units. This means that a program recorded on one unit can be watched on another unit. It sounds pretty good, but there are a couple of caveats.
I've already mentioned the first one: sharing works only with new Series2 units. There is no way to interoperate with an old TiVo, so unfortunately I can't try it out. And although my neighbor has a new Series2, it is registered to his household, so we couldn't try it out. It really is limited.
But if you do have multiple Series2 devices, and have the Home Media Option on at least two of them, you can share programs. Yet it still is not as simple would be ideal. Programs must be copied from one unit to another in order to be watched. Even with 100Base-T Ethernet, this takes time. And if the program is deleted on the first unit before the copying is completed, you are out of luck.
Clearly, TiVo needs to work the kinks out of this feature (a task no doubt complicated by the spectre of movie industry lawyers). Like remote scheduling, it is just not as useful as it might seem.
Music & Photos -- However there is a good use of the Home Media Option, which I'm using right now: the Series2 can stream music and photos using the iTunes 4 and iPhoto 2 databases on your Mac. In order to do this, you must install the free TiVo Desktop software on your computer.
The TiVo displays the playlists and albums that you've already created on your Mac. You cannot create new playlists or search for photos or songs on the TiVo, but you can take advantage of the better group seating of your living room. If you have a decent sound system connected to your television, you can use the TiVo as a music jukebox.
The main TiVo menu includes a new entry labeled Music & Photos. Selecting it brings you to a screen which lists every computer sharing music and/or photos with the TiVo Desktop software. The Home Media Option software uses Apple's Rendezvous technology to locate shared computers on the network.
Once you select a computer for music, you can go through an alphabetical list of artists, albums or genres, but for me, even scrolling down to Cream takes way too many Page Down presses on the remote. The only practical approach is to search through existing iTunes playlists.
In addition to the music and photos shared from your own computers, the TiVo lists two additional categories: Photos from TiVo and Music from TiVo. The content of these seem to be updated regularly; Photos from TiVo currently includes things like Vintage Ads, Animals, Seasons, and Space. Music from TiVo includes songs from The Wallflowers, 50 Cent and No Doubt, among others. One assumes that this feature is supplying TiVo Inc. with another revenue stream. Everything I have bought from the company has been at a flat fee, and they need revenue streams to stay in business.
TiVo Desktop -- Perhaps the coolest thing about all of this is how easy it is to use with a Mac. The TiVo Desktop for Windows software is a 7.8 MB download, while the Mac version (Mac OS X only) is only 177K. Since Rendezvous is built in to Mac OS X, and since iTunes and iPhoto handle most of the user interaction, all that is left is a TiVo Desktop preferences pane. A start/stop button turns the service on and off, and you can decide yourself whether to share music and photos. You can also choose to share your entire library or just selected playlists and/or albums.
By contrast, the Windows version of the TiVo Desktop is much more complicated. There, you can select folders or individual MP3 or JPEG files. Rather than playlists, it shares folders. At a time when too many companies refuse to investigate Macintosh versions of their software/drivers, TiVo has done an amazing job of leveraging Apple's work to give their own Macintosh customers a better experience than their Windows customers.
Wishing for Groups -- Other than networking and the Home Media Option, there aren't many differences between the older TiVo models and the newer Series2. My wife, Devjani, wants folders in the Now Playing list. Rather than a list of individual recordings, all programs of a given title could be grouped together. All of our Six Feet Under episodes would be grouped together, regardless of when they were recorded. All of my America's Test Kitchen episodes would appear in one folder, even though they'd be recorded from two different Season Passes (because they are from two different channels). TiVo Suggestions could even appear in their own folder at the end of the list - however, if any of those match any recordings that we set up intentionally, they would appear in a folder together. These folders would also appear in the chronological list at the point of the most recent recording, meaning that the Six Feet Under folder appears at the beginning of June, the date of the season finale. This could be a handy little feature. (Did you know that the original Mac OS didn't have real folders? TiVo has always been Mac-like, and now we have support for Rendezvous, AirPort, iTunes, and iPhoto. How long until it becomes iTiVo?)
The Bottom Line -- Now we have a TiVo Series2 DVR in the living room which does everything the old TiVo did and also plays MP3s from our Macs, exactly as we wanted it to. However, it isn't cheap. A new TiVo Series2 costs $200 for a 40-hour model or $300 for an 80 hour unit. A service subscription (required to access the channel programming data) costs either $13 per month or as a one-time fee of $300 that covers the product's lifetime. Add to that $100 for the Home Media Option and $45 or $65 for a network adapter. If you want to upgrade the hard drive, add a few hundred more dollars for a new drive and the miscellaneous hardware you'll need from a company like Weaknees (see "Upgrading the TiVo" in TidBITS-644 for more information). That said, we found the upgrade to be worth it - now our TiVo can store 150 hours of programming.
But despite the cost, believe everything you have heard about how great TiVo is. We have gotten more out of it than we would have gotten out of a new computer. Or two new computers. Whether you love movies (catch them to record even when you don't know that they're on), episodic television (never miss a show) or sports (watch replays when you want to, and then catch up by fast-forwarding through the commercials), TiVo changes the way that you watch television, and the Home Media Option is the best way I've seen to play MP3s on your living room's sound system.
So, we are pretty much set, until a forthcoming HDTiVo arrives...
[Alex Hoffman is currently a high school English teacher in the New York City public schools. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.]
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