Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Three Cheers for TiVo Series3

I use a TiVo Series3 box to feed my Sony KDL-40XBR2 flat panel HDTV, and I love it.

What is a TiVo? It's a "digital media recorder" that tunes in and records the TV programs I really want to see, but which I don't want to watch in their official time slots.

(The official TiVo website is here. The extensive Wikipedia article on TiVo is here.)

If I tell the TiVo to get a "season pass" to automatically record all the episodes of "24" or "Heroes," for instance, it does that without further ado. Then, when I'm ready, I'll watch one or more of the episodes. Simple as that. Once I watch an episode, I simply delete it, so there's more space for other shows to be recorded.

Most of what I record, however, is movies in high definition, from HBO or one of the other premium cable channels I subscribe to. I can stack about 15 of those on the TiVo at any one time.

If I record programs in standard definition, I'm told I can get 300 hours worth on the TiVo's internal hard drive before it's full.

I use my TiVo Series3 with two CableCARDs from Comcast, my cable company. These are devices that are only a little bigger than a credit card and slide into the back of the TiVo box, giving it the ability to tune in the digital cable channels I subscribe to, up to two at a time, including all the high-definition ones and all the premium ones. (Of course, some of the premium channels are hi-def.)

Without the CableCARDs, the TiVo would only be able to receive non-encrypted cable channels. Frankly, I'm not clear on which of the hundreds of channels Comcast offers are encrypted and which aren't, but it's safe to say that most of the digital channels — those whose channel numbers have three digits — are in fact encrypted. They don't have to be "premium" channels like HBO to be encrypted.

(The channel numbers below 100 are mostly analog channels. They aren't encrypted, and they don't require CableCARDs in the TiVo. However, word has it that that will change. At some point, all cable channels will very likely be converted from analog to digital, and all channels except those in the cable company's "basic" tier will almost certainly be encrypted to block access to non-subscribers.)

Comcast offers its customers a TiVo-like, high-def DVR box (for "digital video recorder"). I currently have two of them, one for each of my two non-bedroom HDTVs. According to the terms of my current $129-a-month deal with Comcast, the first box is free, while the second costs an extra $5.95 a month. (My Comcast package includes high-speed Internet and "digital voice" telephone service.)

TiVo now charges $599 for its top-of-the-line Series3 box — I paid much more for it back in December 2006, just after it was introduced — on top of which I paid $299 for three years of the TiVo program guide service. You can also buy the service for as little as $12.95 a month with a three-year minimum guarantee. That comes to $466.20 over the three-year period. The TiVo box will not work without a subscription to the program guide service.

The TiVo program guide service replaces the interactive program guide on the Comcast DVRs with a far slicker, even more interactive one. One of the neat features that was just added to the interface is Universal Swivel Search, which allows you with a few clicks of the remote to find a list of programs that match the profile of one you especially liked. If any of those appeals to you, you can then search on it to get a second list ... and so on, and so on, and so on.

You can also create "wish lists" that will, say, automatically record anything that has Johnny Depp in it, or anything directed by Steven Spielberg. Or, you can search for specific program titles — optionally, in specific categories such as Movies or Sports — by selecting letters and numbers from an on-screen palette, using the remote.

The TiVo will also automatically record "TiVo suggestions" — programs that it thinks you'll like, based on your having given "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" responses to other programs. Although such recordings will never preempt space needed by the recordings you actually call for yourself, I find the feature annoying and have it disabled.

If I set up to record a live broadcast such as a football game, the TiVo will prompt me to pad the allotted recording time with up to an extra hour, in case the game runs long. Sweet.

I've enhanced my TiVo with a $59.99 adapter that connects it into my wireless home network, which allows the TiVo to display photos and videos from my computer or stored online at places like Yahoo. It can also download near-DVD-quality movies at Amazon Unbox — a service I have subscribed to but which I fear needs quite a bit of improvement before it replaces Netflix in the grand scheme of things. (Don't get me started on that subject!)

The wireless network adapter replaces the telephone connection which the TiVo would otherwise use every day or so to grab the information it needs for its program guide. Before I got the adapter, I would sometimes find the TiVo tying up my phone line at inconvenient times, resulting in callers getting a busy signal.

One of the other nice, though unadvertised, TiVo capabilities is skipping commercials. You can borrow the buttons on the remote that ordinarily skip forward or backward over large chunks of time and reassign them to skipping forward by just 30 seconds and skipping backward by a lesser amount — in case the forward skip overshoots the mark. Using them, you can speed past a three-minute commercial break in seconds, with about six clicks.

This thread at the TiVo Community Forum documents that trick and many others.

It is possible to add extra hours of recording time to a TiVo — something I haven't done yet. Details are available at websites such as The basic idea is that the internal hard drive can be upgraded to one with a larger capacity.

All in all, though the box and the program guide service are by no means cheap, not having a TiVo is something I never want to do, ever again.