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Series: Dominate Your TV
Hard disk-based video recorders free you from the tyrrany of TV schedules
Article 1 of 4 in series
I didn't realize it, but for years someone has been controlling a large portion of my leisure time: the nameless network executives who create the television schedule. I've never thought of myself as someone who watches a lot of TV, particularly compared to the average viewing time of 19 to 32 hours per week (culled from U.S., Canadian and Japanese sources)Show full article
I didn't realize it, but for years someone has been controlling a large portion of my leisure time: the nameless network executives who create the television schedule.
I've never thought of myself as someone who watches a lot of TV, particularly compared to the average viewing time of 19 to 32 hours per week (culled from U.S., Canadian and Japanese sources). Nevertheless, a portion of my brain was dedicated to keeping track of the shows I like, when they air, and on what channel. If I wasn't able to watch them live, I had to program the VCR, supply a tape of sufficient length, and track what program was on which tape. The program schedule presented obstacles to overcome in my personal schedule: Am I going to be home? Is a tape in the VCR? When should I have dinner? Do I have time to do laundry and call my mother? For friends with young children, their problem is worsened by a six month-old who insists on being walked around the house during The West Wing and a three year-old who isn't interested in watching Sesame Street in the early morning - he asks for it when the only programming to be found is the likes of Jerry Springer or The Young and the Restless. Add in the perennial perception of 57 channels and nothing on, and it becomes apparent that the network-controlled television schedule doesn't meet many folks' needs: it requires us to schedule our lives around the television instead of the television providing the content we want when we want it.
Enter the Personal Video Recorder -- Relatively new to the consumer electronics scene, Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) are sometimes described as souped-up VCRs that have memorized the television schedule. A PVR knows the programming schedule of all the channels you receive. Based on your instructions, it records programs to an internal hard disk for later playback. Freed from tape's linear medium, the PVR brings new functionality to the television experience. You can pause, rewind, fast-forward, or watch in slow-motion any program, live or pre-recorded. If 60 Minutes started fifteen minutes ago, you can start watching it from the beginning, while the PVR records the remaining portion; fast-forward through the commercials as you go, and you'll watch Andy Rooney from the live broadcast. You can watch The Sopranos from last night while simultaneously recording tonight's Ally McBeal. And finding a recorded program is merely a matter of picking a show from a list, rather than sorting through poorly labeled tapes and fast-forwarding to the right point in the tape.
The first entrants to the market were TiVo and ReplayTV, in 1999. Each company provides the device's software, as well as a service that updates the built-in program guide. The hardware units are manufactured and sold through established hardware partners - Sony, Philips, and Hughes sell TiVo units, while ReplayTV's service is sold on Panasonic hardware. More recent entrants include Microsoft's UltimateTV (sold by Sony and RCA) and the Dish Network's DishPVR 501.
Welcome to the TiVolution -- The first TiVo I saw belonged to a friend, a die-hard home theater addict and eternal first-adopter. To be honest, his initial descriptions and zeal left me wondering the extent of his laziness ("you never have to change the tape!"). When I saw it in action, however, I began to understand its appeal. The capability to pause live television (to answer the phone or nature's call) showed immediate usefulness - just press Play and pick up where you left off. The capability to rewind a few seconds of a live show to replay muddled dialog immediately removed an element of television's frustrations. The playlist of recorded programs, immediately available and composed of programs my friend already likes, showed that good television does exist, but not necessarily when you feel like watching. Finding a TiVo at an August 2000 clearance special at Circuit City sealed the deal for me - my recorder, holding up to 14 hours of shows, was only $99 after rebates.
Upon opening the box I was greeted by a foldout placard showing the steps for hooking the recorder into my TV and stereo. Accustomed to the PC industry's philosophy of little to no documentation and a la carte accessories, I was pleased to find a complete user manual and more than enough cables for plugging in the recorder. The setup process involved attaching it to the television and signal feed (antenna, analog or digital cable, or satellite - it works with all three and lets you combine up to two) and running through a series of setup screens.
First you identify your ZIP code, then the recorder uses its built-in 33.6 Kbps modem to download lists of local phone numbers and your local television providers. Another call downloads fourteen days of program guide information (courtesy of Tribune Media Services) to match your chosen television provider and channel package. Next, the recorder decompresses and indexes the guide data. Once this process is complete, your television is TiVo-enabled.
57 Channels, Surely Something's On -- The TiVo on-screen user interface offers two menu options for watching programs (Now Playing, Watch Live TV), three for selecting programs to record later (TiVolution Magazine, Network Showcases, Pick Programs to Record) and one for system preferences (Messages and Setup).
Now Playing is the chronologically sorted playlist of recorded programs (each with a short description, categories, and channel information). You can watch any program in Now Playing, even if the unit is currently recording something else, and you can also delete shows from Now Playing to free up space on the hard disk for more shows. (The recorder also automatically deletes old shows when space is needed.) Watch Live TV shows whatever is on television right now. Press the Live TV Guide button on the remote control to scan through the TiVo's program guide for a program that's currently airing.
To select programs for later recording, TiVolution Magazine and Network Showcases aggregate everything on television into categories. The former is supplied by TiVo, providing five categories for browsing according to genre and program type: TiVo's Spotlight, Kids' Stuff, Movie Marquee, Sports Arena, and Lifestyle. Network Showcases contains network-specific lists of programs, for which the networks pay TiVo to be listed. Both are potentially useful only if you have cable or satellite TV - if you pull signals in over an antenna, they're a tease for channels you don't receive.
Pick Programs to Record offers three methods for more exact program selection: Search By Title, Search Using Wishlists, and TiVo's Suggestions. Search By Title uses type-ahead alphabetical listings which are updated as you select letters from an on-screen alphabet. To find Buffy the Vampire Slayer, enter "BU" and the program list instantly scrolls down to show items beginning with "BU." When I tried this, "Buffy" was listed six or so items down, after the 1947 Abbott and Costello movie Buck Privates Come Home and Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. (Hey, I like Abbott and Costello! The movie airs eight days hence at 3:00 AM on AMC, but no matter - I selected "Record This Showing" to add it to my TiVo's To Do List.) Search Using Wishlists allows you to define search sets and automatically record matching programs. For example, a Director Wishlist might comb out Alfred Hitchcock movies, while an Actor Wishlist coupled with a category ("Eastwood, Clint" and "Western") conveniently omits his Dirty Harry material. Keyword Wishlists match any text in the program's description.
TiVo's Suggestions lists programs that TiVo thinks you might like, based upon your previous program selections and preference indications. (The remote control has buttons for Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down ratings. The more you use them, the more accurate the suggestions.) Do you like the movie Cool Hand Luke? Give it up to three thumbs-up ratings and TiVo might suggest Hud because it thinks you'll like that, too. By default TiVo will automatically record program suggestions, based on available disk space. This function can be turned off, but for me it's a big part of the TiVo experience. One morning I awoke to discover that it had recorded Casablanca late at night on a channel I didn't know I received. (TiVo, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.)
Once you've found a program you want to record, selecting Record This Showing adds it to the To Do List. If you want to watch a database programmer's eyebrows shoot up, select View Upcoming Episodes to see a list of future showings. Say you would like to record South Park, but your wife already watches Law & Order - both air at 10 PM on Wednesdays. Since Comedy Central repeats South Park several times during the week, choose View Upcoming Episodes and record another listed showing.
TiVo's Season Pass removes the need to know when things change - such as when a show changes to a new night, runs a two-hour cliffhanger or a bonus episode later in the week. When you tell TiVo to record a Season Pass of Frasier on NBC, its database records Frasier on NBC - not channel 4 from 9:00 to 9:30 PM every Tuesday. If the network moves the show (again) to another night or time, the recorder notices the change in its nightly guide download and silently updates its To Do List. You can tailor a Season Pass to record only new episodes, retain a maximum number of episodes at a time, pad the recording by a few minutes in case of overtime, use a particular video quality, or specify how long you want to keep an episode in Now Playing.
Pricing and Availability -- Stand-alone TiVo recorders are available from Sony and Philips in recording capacities of 20, 30 and 60 hours; prices range from $199 to $599. DirecTV-integrated units are available from Sony, Philips, and Hughes, recording up to 35 hours; prices range from $299 (after rebate) to $399. All units require the user to purchase the accompanying TiVo service, which provides program guide updates and software upgrades. The service is either $10 per month or $250 for the lifetime of the recorder. Recorders can be purchased at several retailers, including 800.com, Amazon.com, Best Buy, Circuit City, Good Guys and Outpost.com, and it's well worth checking a price comparison service like DealTime or mySimon.
In the next installment of this article, I'll delve deeper into how TiVo works, how a vibrant community has grown up around hacking it, and how it has freed me from television's tyranny.
[Having chosen a career in computing, Andrew Laurence is the black sheep in a family of writers. Evidence to the contrary, he doesn't watch all that much TV. Really.]
Article 2 of 4 in series
In last week's issue, I discussed the barriers presented in our lives by the television schedule, and how a Personal Video Recorder's (PVR) trick play functionality adds new flexibility to the television experienceShow full article
In last week's issue, I discussed the barriers presented in our lives by the television schedule, and how a Personal Video Recorder's (PVR) trick play functionality adds new flexibility to the television experience. The TiVo's user interface enables the user to choose programs to be recorded based on their titles, and tracks schedule changes through nightly updates. Now we'll look at the change a TiVo can bring to users' lives, how it works and the vibrant user community that has sprung up around it. Also be sure to tune into the TidBITS Talk discussions that have looked at issues such as using the TiVo in countries other than the U.S. and UK, other personal video recorders that compete with the TiVo, and much more.
Freedom from Television Tyranny -- TiVo helps you find programs, schedule recordings to your heart's content, and ferret out little nuggets you wouldn't have otherwise known about - but is it truly the revolution in watching television that your TiVo-owning friends say it is? We are, after all, talking about a glorified VCR. Or are we?
TiVo changes your viewing habits, but it can also have a profound impact on how your life is structured - especially today when people are spending record numbers of hours in front of their sets. This impact, however, is the hardest part to describe: it's just better, dang it, and when you have a TiVo it seems obviously so. Watching normal TV is now an excruciating experience - I have to choose from the dreck that's currently on or schedule my time around the shows I want to see, and must wait for a commercial break to answer nature's call. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the change TiVo brings is to describe how my girlfriend and I used to live.
Cynthia takes ballet classes three nights a week, and the class schedule dictates our carpool. She needs to be there at 5:30 PM on Mondays, so we're home by 4:45 PM so she can change clothes and get something to eat before dashing out again. I used to channel surf for a while then, despite already knowing that I wouldn't be interested in anything on at that hour. Other nights we'd have dinner around 7:00 PM and eat at the coffee table while watching Friends reruns, even though we already knew the plot lines. On Thursdays Cynthia would race home from ballet to arrive by 10:00 PM and watch ER - she'd burst through the door, flip the TV to channel 4 and catch her breath during the opening credits, still grasping her purse and keys. We subscribed to a premium movie channel package, yet often rented movies.
Once the TiVo arrived, our habits slowly changed. After only a couple of days we noticed that we ate dinner- at the dining room table - whenever we felt like it; there was no need to worry about sandwiching the meal between slices of sitcoms. On Thursdays Cynthia gets home at a leisurely 10:10 PM, changes clothes and eats dinner before settling into ER around 10:30 PM; she fast-forwards through commercials and finishes the program in about forty minutes. We don't rent videos any more, but instead use TiVo's Movie Marquee feature to keep a couple on tap. (The cable company's HBO package became a lot more valuable, and hey, that Encore channel is pretty cool, too.) Since everything we watch is listed in Now Playing, we no longer channel surf to find something tolerable, and we no longer know or care when or on what channel a particular show airs. We watch TV on our schedule, eradicating the concept of prime time. It feels like we watch less television now, because we watch only programs we really like. Just as the Internet removes geography from commerce, TiVo has liberated our television from the broadcast schedule.
Along the way, we find ourselves evangelizing TiVo to friends and family. This is a reflection of the transformation in your life - once we had a PVR, we could see all the flaws in normal television and felt compelled to share the knowledge. Cynthia has entranced her ballet cohorts with tales of its convenience, and my sister-in-law wanted one within five minutes of seeing ours in action. This transformation into a TiVo evangelist is somewhat disconcerting, but apparently normal and undoubtedly accounts for a significant percentage of the 229,000 current TiVo subscribers. I asked several friends what they thought of their TiVos, and their comments were overwhelmingly positive. "I can't imagine life without this device," says a friend who's had a TiVo for only six months.
After Adam briefly mentioned shopping for a TiVo in TidBITS-543, TidBITS Talk caught fire with discussion about PVRs and their possible effects on advertising, given that most PVR owners skip or fast forward through commercials. Plus, once the television stream is digital, it's conceivable that a PVR could actually replace the commercials in television shows with others that were more tailored to individual viewers.
Under the Hood -- The TiVo recorder uses a combination of surprisingly humble hardware and innovative software. At its heart is a 27 MHz IBM PowerPC 403GCX processor, 16 MB of RAM, and either one or two Maxtor Fireball LCT series IDE hard disks. Video is compressed and stored in the MPEG-2 format, with dedicated encoder and decoder chips (the Sony CXD1922Q and IBM MPEG-2CS22, respectively) doing the heavy lifting. Extensive use of DMA (Direct Memory Access) keeps data moving to and from the hard disks, while the CPU maintains an astonishingly low average busy rate of 11 percent. TiVo uses the open source Linux as the recorder's operating system, with the company's own scheduling modifications coded into the kernel. The TiVo software itself runs as a proprietary application on top of the operating system; video streams are written to TiVo's MFS file system, which is tuned for efficient space management and to extract the maximum performance from the hard drives.
Interestingly, the recorder is never at rest - to the point that it lacks a power switch. It's always recording a video stream - if it's not recording a specific program, the live television signal is saved into a 30-minute buffer. It's also always playing a video stream - "live" TV is played out of the buffer, with about a one second delay. It's even playing a video stream when you're in the user interface, as the background animations are MPEG2 streams, permanently stored on the disk. Although managing gigabytes of video streams, the TiVo software itself occupies only 24 megabytes of disk space. As of January of 2001, 150,000 TiVo recorders were managing an astonishing 4.5 petabytes of total storage and downloading 5.1 terabytes of daily guide updates. [For reference, a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes, or over one million gigabytes. A terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes. -Geoff]
In April of 2001, TiVo's CTO and co-founder Jim Barton gave a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley entitled, "An Overview of the TiVo Service." His slides are available in PDF format, and the 90-minute lecture can be viewed in RealPlayer and MBONE formats. If you're interested in a highly technical discussion of the TiVo recorder's hardware and software, you won't be disappointed.
A vibrant and inquisitive user community has sprung up around TiVo, inspired not only by the effect it has on its users' lives, but also by the enticing combination of off-the-shelf components and an open source operating system. The AV Science Web site, an information repository for the home theater set, hosts a dedicated TiVo discussion forum. TiVo staff actively monitor the forum and use it as a means for customer support, communications, and floating the occasional trial balloon. The TiVo Underground section is devoted to hacking the TiVo hardware, discovering hidden software codes, and the like. The most common hack is the addition of larger hard drives, a process that once required arcane knowledge of Linux disk partitions and byte swapping. Today, several software utilities are freely available to aid this process, and one user has written an excellent how-to primer for upgrading your TiVo's hard drive. Enterprising folks have also discovered how to hack an Ethernet card into the recorder and instructing it to get its guide updates via Ethernet instead of the built-in modem. (All of these modifications void your warranty, of course, but that has barely slowed enthusiastic hackers.)
Limitations and Caveats -- Like most things in this world, TiVo has points of frustration. For starters, the recorders are advertised and priced according to hours of storage. There are four levels of recording quality, and the advertised number is achieved only if you exclusively use the lowest quality setting. This Basic setting uses tight, lossy compression and looks to my eyes about the same as a VCR's Extended Play setting; Medium is less compressed and appears about the same as a VCR's Standard Play. The High and Best qualities both look superb, but you lose a lot of recording capacity - my unit's 14.5 hours of Basic capacity shrinks to 4.3 hours at Best. Basic is fine for talking head shows and most sitcoms; we use it as the default quality on our 14-hour recorder. We use Medium for any show with fast-action shots (e.g. ER or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and High or Best for anything we want to savor, such as Bruce Springsteen's HBO concert special. Keeping track of recording quality and disk space grows annoying, however, and the hacking community has spawned a storage upgrade cottage industry. TiVo recently floated a survey regarding storage upgrade pricing, and I think they or their hardware partners (perhaps through the service desks at retailers like Circuit City) would do well to offer such an option.
For the TiVo to work its magic with the program guide, it must use its built-in modem to call in for daily television schedule updates. TiVo's service provides local dialup numbers in most areas, and until recently they offered an 800 number if a local number wasn't available. (The 800 number is still available for existing customers, but was removed from the options given to new customers.) The hacking community has found that the unit's phone call is actually a PPP dialup to UUNET. In light of this discovery, many feel that TiVo should enable the recorder to use a customer's existing ISP account as an alternative dialup method.
Given that Wishlists contain specific criteria of what I like, and that Suggestions record things TiVo thinks I might like, one assumes that the former influence the latter. This is not the case - the only thing that affects Suggestions is the user's use of the Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down buttons.
I'm often asked, "Can a TiVo record two programs at once?" The answer is "it depends" and "soon, apparently." There are two types of TiVo recorders: stand-alone and DirecTV combination receivers (also known as DirecTiVo). Stand-alone units can receive television from an antenna, cable (analog or digital), or satellite, but they have only one tuner - which means only one recording at a time. DirecTiVo units integrate the satellite receiver and TiVo recorder into the same box and write DirecTV's MPEG2 stream directly to disk. (These units don't have or need the MPEG2 encoder chip and thus can be used only with the DirecTV service.) Integrated recorders also have two hardware tuners, but until now only one of them was actually used. On 20-Aug-01 TiVo announced the release of software version 2.5 to DirecTV combination receivers. This release enables the second tuner and the capability to record two programs simultaneously. During the financial conference call, CEO Mike Ramsay stated that the all DirecTV combination receivers would receive the update during the next few weeks.
If you receive a lot of channels (from digital cable or satellite), the second setup phone call can take quite a while, and the decompressing/indexing can take hours. If the TiVo recorder comes with version 2.0 of the software it will allow you to watch live TV (and pause, rewind, etc.) during the indexing. Earlier versions make you wait for the indexing to finish; the box doesn't say what version comes pre-installed, but the recorder downloads the latest software during its first daily call. (Digital cable and satellite services also include music channels, for which TiVo isn't very helpful. You can watch a music channel live and play it through your stereo, but TiVo will still want to change the channel when it's time to record a regular program.)
<http://www.avsforum.com/ubbtivo/Archives/ Archive-000002/HTML/20010812-1- 005908.html>
Television Transformed -- For anyone who owns a PVR, the experience is so transforming that we wonder how we possibly lived without them. Along the way we notice that we stop watching scheduled television, and watch only the PVR's recorded subset. Thus, it becomes clear that the PVR should not be a separate device, adding further clutter and cable morass, but should instead be integrated into our existing devices. TiVo's DirecTV-integrated receiver is such a device, as are Microsoft's UltimateTV (also a DirecTV-only receiver) and EchoStar's DishPVR 501. As further evidence of this trend, Motorola has announced intentions to integrate ReplayTV technology into their digital set-top boxes, and Panasonic has shipped a television with an integrated ReplayTV PVR. Meanwhile, cable provider Comcast has conducted a trial with TiVo recorders in the Cherry Hill, New Jersey area, and ZDNet reports that Cox conducted a similar trial in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After living with a TiVo for a year, one thing is for sure - I will never again watch normal television. Having a PVR has turned the uncooperative, cantankerous television into a faithful butler who is attuned to my whims and fancy. Viva la TiVolution!
[Andrew Laurence works in computing at the University of California, Irvine. He is an avid reader, enjoys a large music collection, and doesn't watch all that much TV. Really.]
Article 3 of 4 in series
Tonya and I have been big fans of the TiVo digital video recorder since we first got a 30-hour unit a few years back. It fits our style of watching television perfectly, since we previously used our VCR to record TV shows for watching when we felt like it, rather than on the scheduling whims of network television executivesShow full article
Tonya and I have been big fans of the TiVo digital video recorder since we first got a 30-hour unit a few years back. It fits our style of watching television perfectly, since we previously used our VCR to record TV shows for watching when we felt like it, rather than on the scheduling whims of network television executives. There may not always be much on TV that's worth watching, but if there is, the TiVo captures it for us. (See Andrew Laurence's two-part TidBITS review of the TiVo for full details; there's also been a great deal of discussion of TiVo and other digital video recorders in TidBITS Talk.)
But all was not well in TiVo-land for us. The change happened when we moved from Seattle back to Ithaca last year. In Seattle, we'd happily limped along with antenna reception of about six channels; the TiVo helped us extract shows we wanted to watch from our limited selection. The video quality wasn't great, but that was largely the antenna's fault, and we weren't interested in buying a satellite dish. In our new home in Ithaca, though, we could no longer receive TV over the air, forcing us to pay for cable. The TiVo showed its worth once again, helping us find good shows from our now-massive selection. The video quality still wasn't great because I'd set the TiVo to record at either Basic or Medium quality to avoid erasing shows before we wanted to watch them. Even then, the TiVo didn't have enough space to store the variety of shows we might want to watch on any given night.
Clearly something needed to be done.
Perhaps the Sequel? One possibility was buying a new TiVo Series 2, which offers up to 60 hours of recording time (all the quoted sizes match roughly to gigabytes of disk space when recording at Basic quality, the lowest level, so a 60-hour unit probably has a 60 GB hard disk in it). The TiVo Series 2 is also smaller, features a new remote control, and, most interestingly, has a pair of USB ports, just like on our Macs.
Research on the TiVo Community Forum revealed suggestions from TiVo about how they expect these USB ports to be used. With USB-to-Ethernet adapters, you'll be able to download program data over a broadband Internet connection rather than the internal modem, and at some point you'll be able to access your TiVo over the Web. Plus, that extra bandwidth will enable a video-on-demand service, making it possible to order just shows you wanted - the example given was the popular Se... er, "Fooling Around" in the City" (dratted content filters!) that would otherwise require a monthly subscription to HBO. You could also attach a USB CD-ROM player, have the TiVo Series 2 import the music in MP3 format in a Music Library (complete with album names and title tracks downloaded from the Internet), and play it from there. Finally, TiVo also plans to make it possible for you to connect digital cameras for importing and displaying photos. Slide shows could even include music from your Music Library.
Although the TiVo Series 2 hardware is available now, none of these services are out yet as far as I can tell (though there is completely unofficial support for a number of USB Ethernet adapters, with which you can download guide data over the Internet instead of via the modem). TiVo's Web site merely says that the "two integrated USB ports will allow support for a number of digital peripherals and access to exciting new future services in home entertainment." Since I'm already happily using my Macs as MP3 music and digital photo libraries, I'll wait and see how good a job TiVo does. Plus, buying a new TiVo Series 2 would cost $400 for the hardware and another $250 for the lifetime service. $650 is more than I'd like to spend right now, especially given that the TiVo Series 2's 60 GB hard disk isn't that large compared to the size of inexpensive hard drives today.
(And yes, I know I could also buy a ReplayTV unit, which already has some of this functionality, but I'm extremely fond of the TiVo and its interface. For other people, a ReplayTV or other digital video recorder might be a good choice.)
We Can Rebuild Him. We Have the Technology -- These promised features for the TiVo Series 2 are possible because the TiVo is essentially a computer running a custom version of the Linux operating system. And as Andrew Laurence mentioned in his review, a huge user community has grown up around the TiVo, in large part because the company has been accepting of the many hacks and modifications TiVo owners have performed on their TiVos.
Without question, the most common hack is to add more disk space to a TiVo by installing a second hard drive. The process involves connecting the new drive in slave mode to your Mac (not too hard in a Power Mac, but essentially impossible in any other model), formatting it with Erik Wagner's free MacTiVo Blesser program, and then transferring the drive over to your TiVo.
The MacTiVo Blesser program is a bit old, isn't Mac OS X-native, and the last comment posted on the site is from over a year ago (plus, unless Erik has ponied up for .Mac, the entire site will go away soon). It didn't make me particularly comfortable, and although I'm perfectly capable of mucking around in the innards of computers, the discomfort discouraged me from taking the time to investigate more fully. More recent and more supported software and instructions are available for PCs, but I couldn't muster enthusiasm for using a PC if I could possibly avoid it. Finally, I was concerned that any bare drive I purchased wouldn't come with appropriate mounting hardware for the TiVo - I'm not one of those people who can bear attaching hard drives with plastic cable ties.
In short, dealing with the TiVo had been pushed to the back burner.
Arthroscopic Surgery -- That was when Michael Adberg of Weaknees.com (a self-admitted terrible domain name) contacted me to ask about sponsoring TidBITS. He and his partner did FileMaker consulting, but they'd started Weaknees in late 2000 to provide TiVo upgrades after they'd been bitten by the TiVo bug. Sponsoring TidBITS was a bit expensive for them, but then Michael suggested paying partially in the form of a TiVo upgrade. Though we don't make a practice of it, we're not opposed to the concept of barter, particularly for hardware we'd likely buy anyway. Besides, we like to have experience with our sponsoring companies, and what better way to get it?
Michael shipped me their standard upgrade - currently priced at $265 with free shipping - for adding 145 hours to a single-drive TiVo (I had to check the model number on the back of my Philips-built TiVo to verify that I had a single-drive unit). The well-padded package included a pre-formatted 120 GB Maxtor drive, printed installation instructions, a mounting bracket, all the necessary mounting hardware, and the all-important Torx #10 screwdriver for removing the screws that hold the TiVo case shut. I happen to have a collection of screwdrivers that included the necessary size of Torx screwdriver, but many people may not have this particular tool, without which you can't open a TiVo.
(For anyone who works with electronics frequently or finds opening cases with lousy or incorrectly sized screwdrivers frustrating, I strongly recommend Wiha's tools - I have a slotted/Phillips set and a Torx set, though I'd probably get one of the larger interchangeable blade sets if I were buying now.)
With everything ready, I disconnected my TiVo from its many cables, set it on the dining room table, removed the screws, and tried to open it. Failing miserably, I then followed the advice Weaknees suggested for opening the extremely tight case (which involves putting the TiVo on the floor, where it's easier to apply more pressure). It's certainly possible to open TiVos, but TiVo has no incentive to make it as easy as Apple does with the Power Macs. Bear in mind that opening your TiVo voids your warranty.
The rest of the upgrade process went exactly as the instructions said, including cutting a cable tie that restrained the second power connector and removing the hard drive cable from a clip. The two pages of instructions were accurate, clearly written, and accompanied by pictures, though marred slightly by a couple of typos and the way they made you go off in the middle and read a separate set of instructions for attaching your drive to the mounting bracket. If you've ever opened up a Mac to add memory or a hard drive, you shouldn't have any trouble installing a hard drive in your TiVo. The hardest part for me, in fact, was getting the case back on straight after I was done. The entire process took less than 30 minutes, despite the fact that I was working methodically to avoid mistakes.
After I reconnected all the TiVo's cables and plugged it back in, it came back up and reported 184 hours of space at Basic quality. More important to me was that it said I'd have almost 52 hours at Best quality, so I immediately changed all my Season Passes and Wishlists to record at Best quality. Later that night, after the TiVo had recorded some shows, Tonya and I compared the difference between Basic and Best. Basic was certainly watchable, but Best was crystal clear, and using it significantly improved the TiVo experience for us. Life was good again.
(I also noticed that Weaknees sells external modems you can use to replace fried internal modems and recommends using a phone line surge protector to safeguard your TiVo's modem from thunderstorms. It's good advice - two months ago, a massive storm managed to hang our TiVo's modem for ten days. I was initially worried I'd have to hunt down a new modem, not realizing at the time that the TiVo modem is soldered to the motherboard. Luckily, unplugging the TiVo and plugging it back in reset the modem; I'll be getting a phone line surge protector to go with the old uninterruptible power supply I use to protect the TiVo, VCR, and cable box from power spikes and outages.)
Goldilocks Upgrades a TiVo -- To sum up then, there are three basic ways you can expand your TiVo.
First, as I noted earlier, you could buy all the parts and pieces separately and do it yourself. That will undoubtedly save you money because you aren't paying for someone to format the drive or package it with mounting hardware and installation instructions. If you're comfortable buying and installing computer components, and you have the time to spend assembling all the parts, this is certainly the least expensive approach. The TiVo FAQ will point you in the right direction.
Second, there's the upgrade kit that I got from Weaknees. I gather that there are also a few other companies offering similar upgrade kits. Upgrade kits are ideal for people who are comfortable installing computer components, but don't mind paying more to avoid the trouble of researching and ordering all the pieces and formatting the drive (which isn't even possible unless you have a Power Mac or a PC).
Finally, if you're just too intimidated by opening your TiVo, Weaknees and other companies will perform the upgrade for you. It costs more, of course, and you must ship them your TiVo. I'd recommend this option for people who have never opened a Mac before and who are concerned they might not understand the directions (you can read Weaknees's instructions online if you're unsure of your comfort level).
In the end, I'm glad I used the Weaknees upgrade kit, since doing it from scratch would have taken hours, and that in turn would have meant putting the task off forever. Now I have a far more capacious TiVo that can store a wider variety of TV shows and play them with a high quality picture, and the whole effort took less than a half hour out of my weekend.
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Article 4 of 4 in series
by Alex Hoffman
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 itShow full article
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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