Tuesday, November 11, 2008

TiVo Multi-Room Viewing (Again)

Recently I got a TiVo HD digital video recorder:

It joins the TiVo Series 3 I bought two years ago:

You can read about my experiences with the TiVo Series 3 in earlier installments in my TiVo series of posts. In particular, this post gives more details about my main topic herein: TiVo multi-room viewing.

My new TiVo HD hooks to my new living room TV — see My New Samsung LN52A650 TV. The old one hooks to my two-year-old Sony KDL-40XBR2 upstairs in the bedroom. The new TiVo, like the old one, digitally records cable TV programs, including digital channels, analog channels, high-def channels, and premium channels.

One of the nice things I can do with either TiVo is take advantage of TiVoToGo capabilities (see my TiVoToGo series). Programs that have been recorded on a TiVo (if they are not copy protected) can then be transferred via a wired or wireless home network to a computer, where they can be stored or converted into videos playable in iTunes or on an iPod.

Another nice thing I can do, now that I have two TiVos, is "multi-room viewing." MRV (click here for an official description; click here for a FAQ) lets you transfer shows between two or more TiVo DVRs.

Say you have recorded an episode of "House" on your bedroom TiVo but want to watch it on the TiVo in your living room. You go to the Now Playing list on the living-room TiVo — that's the list of programs that have been recorded locally on that TiVo — and scroll down until you reach an entry for, say, "Bedroom TiVo." Selecting the entry brings up the Now Playing list of the remote TiVo in the bedroom!

From that list you select whichever program you want to watch in the living room and then select "Transfer this recording," and the show begins streaming from the bedroom TiVo to the one in the living room. (This assumes, by the way, that you have both TiVos on the same wired or wireless home network.) After you initiate the transfer, you can optionally begin watching the transferred copy as it is being made.

After the transfer has been completed, you will have two copies of the program, one on the bedroom TiVo and one on the living room TiVo. The new copy is for all practical purposes identical to the original, and you can watch it as often as you like, set it up either never to be deleted or to be eligible for deletion after so many days, and do whatever else you are accustomed to doing with "live" TiVo recordings. The only obvious difference is that the new copy does not show the channel, time, etc. of the original recording — though the program information you can pull up by pressing the Info button on the remote is the same.

That being said, there are (as always) some gotchas.

(1) One gotcha is that watching a show in "real time," as it is being transferred, TiVo to TiVo, can be an iffy proposition. If your home network can't keep up speed-wise, then the real-time viewing process can bog down. I have a wireless 802.11g network that I find can keep up nicely with a transfer of a standard-def TV program, but with high-def material it bogs down. HD material uses more bits per second and requires higher bandwidth than my network can manage in real time. As a result, when I am watching an HD transfer in real time, the receiving TiVo frequently goes into pause mode and requires me to hit the play button on the remote to continue. The transfer, meanwhile, continues normally, and after a while, even if I never restart the viewing process, it finishes — at which time all the viewing glitches go away.

(2) Another gotcha is that you may not want to create a permanent second copy. There are two variants. One, you may want just to watch the program stream from the bedroom TiVo on the living room TV, without having the recording copied permanently (until it's deleted, that is) on the LR TiVo. Or two, you may want the permanent copy to stay on the LR TiVo, while that on the bedroom TiVo goes away, automatically and immediately, once the transfer is done.

TiVo multi-room viewing supports neither option.

TiVo MRV does not have a "stream without copying, for viewing only" mode. Possibly this is because many home networks are too slow to make this a viable option.

Nor does TiVo MRV have a "move" mode that allows automatic and immediate deletion of the original recording, once the transfer has been done. And this leads into the next gotcha ...

(3) Copy-protected shows that have been recorded on, say, a bedroom TiVo cannot be transferred in any way to another TiVo. They can't be copied, they can't be streamed, and they can't be moved.

Cable companies use a set of flag bits in a byte called the Copy Control Information, or CCI, to invoke copy protection. This byte is present in all digital broadcasts and cablecasts. Depending on how it is set, it can limit the amount of copying that can be done. You can visit this thread in the TiVo Community Forum to find out more about how CCI, copy protection, and "digital rights management" (DRM) affect TiVo usage. The official TiVo Inc. policy regarding copy protection can be read here.

Basically, if the CCI code represented as hexadecimal 0x02 is set by the cable company, it means "copy once" (or "copy one generation") is technically permissible — as opposed to CCI 0x03, "copy never." "Copy once" should accordingly permit MRV transfers. However, the agreement TiVo Inc. has signed with the cable industry won't let digital recorders transfer CCI 0x02 programs between themselves unless CableLabs, a consortium which represents the cable industry, approves the way the recordings are encrypted while they are being transferred. In the absence of such approval, a company like TiVo Inc. is expected to fall back on not letting such transfers take place at all.

And that's exactly what TiVo Inc. does.

Technically, this restriction applies only to TiVos that have CableCARDs — credit-card sized objects that when inserted in a TiVo Series 3 or TiVo HD allow the TiVo to receive scrambled digital channels. Consequently, shows that are received on analog channels or "clear" (unencrypted) digital channels can always be transferred from one TiVo to another.

CableLabs' "DFAST Technology License Agreement for Unidirectional Digital Cable Products," which sets forth in legalese the copy-protection constraints applying to CableCARD-enabled TiVos, can be accessed by clicking the hotlink above.

So, what programs are copy protected, and what programs are not? First of all, I have found that anything that I receive on premium channels like HBO is protected. Likewise, episodes of many series, such as "The Closer" on TNT (or TNT-HD), that are shown on cable-only digital channels are protected.

On the other hand, anything that is aired on a local digital or high-def TV channel and is retransmitted over cable is, by law, required not to be copy protected. So, for instance, "House" on Fox is always copyable (even in HD!).

Unfortunately, the number of programs that are legally copy protected on cable may be growing. I have found that some series on some cable networks that used to be copyable are no longer copyable. (Of course, the episodes recorded before copy protection went into place are still copyable.)

The use of copy protection may vary from one cable provider (mine is Comcast) to another. It is generally believed by those concerned with the issue — but I can't confirm this — that cable companies have been signing agreements with program providers that require the cable companies to use copy protection on certain shows or certain channels.

Now for some editorializing on my part: I believe TiVo multi-room viewing should be allowed for "copy once" programs.

Specifically, I don't think copying, streaming, or moving copy-protected material from one DVR to another constitutes a basic violation of copyright law. Rather, it qualifies as "fair use" of copyright-protected digital material.

However, a cable-TV program provider (such as a Hollywood studio) who holds a copyright has a legitimate worry: that a show such as "The Closer" could be pirated en route from a "source TiVo," during an MRV transfer, to a receiving device. The digitally transmitted stream could be forced to make a "detour" into someone's personal computer. For example, the PC could conceivably masquerade as a TiVo and receive the digitally transmitted stream from the source TiVo. The received program stream's CCI byte could then be set to 0x00. Then the resulting copy could be distributed over the Internet.

There are at least two ways to guard against such a scenario. One is to insist that a robust scrambling/encryption method be used during a TiVo-to-TiVo transfer. The other is to make sure that the "handshake" between any two TiVos prior to initiating a transfer is sacrosanct and can't be mimicked by another device.

In the present state of affairs, apparently CableLabs is emphasizing the robustness of the encryption method and paying less attention to the sanctity of the handshake. Because TiVo Inc. has not obtained approval of the encryption method used for all files on its TiVo boxes as satisfying the CableLabs requirement that would allow at least a "move" operation for copy-protected shows, MRV is currently being crippled with respect to the fair-use rights of TiVo owners.

If the cable industry would allow "copy once" programs to be moved (or copied, or at least streamed) from one DVR to another solely on the basis that the sacrosanct handshake between the two DVRs is valid, and would waive the requirement that in such a scenario the encryption method used for the transfer must be specifically CableLabs-approved, some progress could be made.

In short, there is room for compromise.

Such a compromise could, and probably should, include establishing an MRV encryption/scrambling method that would be acceptable to the cable industry and to DVR makers. Presumably, such a method would have to be more robust than the simple encryption TiVo uses today for recordings on a TiVo box. Yet it would not necessarily have to be as robust as HDCP, the elaborate method used to encrypt video for transmission over an HDMI cable. The reason: if HDCP were an acceptable option from the point of view of DVR makers, then, since it is already included as part of the CableLabs agreement, TiVos and other DVRs could use it for MRV right now! That they aren't doing so implies that HDCP is too elaborate (and probably too dependent on costly hardware add-ons such as computer chips) to be used in this way.

If DVR makers could formally agree on handshake and encryption requirements, multi-room viewing of "copy once" material could become a reality. What's more, the agreement might enable TiVos to "talk to" other DVRs such as those built into some cable boxes, and to exchange programs with them.

So I say to the respective industries: c'mon guys ... put your heads together and come up with a mutually satisfactory way to let me watch "The Closer," as recorded on my bedroom TiVo, on my living room TV.


Anonymous said...

I recently bought a HD FP to put in my garage (man's room) and of course want HD from my tivo out here. After reading your review I think I'm going to hold off. I really wanted the MRV thing to work! But I watch alot of premium channels which wouldn't transfer from my 1 TB Tivo unit in the house. If I did buy a Tivo for the garage I'd have to duplicat my recording preferances in the garage. It's strange because this will increase greatly the amount of bandwidth to copy the same shows to two diffrent locations. Thanks for your review as ponder what I will do to get Tivo in my garage. defish@comcast.net

eric said...


You said: "I recently bought a HD FP to put in my garage (man's room) and of course want HD from my tivo out here. After reading your review I think I'm going to hold off. I really wanted the MRV thing to work! But I watch alot of premium channels which wouldn't transfer from my 1 TB Tivo unit in the house. If I did buy a Tivo for the garage I'd have to duplicat my recording preferances in the garage. It's strange because this will increase greatly the amount of bandwidth to copy the same shows to two diffrent locations. Thanks for your review as ponder what I will do to get Tivo in my garage."

I feel your pain! I have a 1 TB TiVo in one room, the Series 3 with a 1 TB external drive, and my second TiVo, the TiVo HD, is much smaller in capacity. To get around the inability to copy some programs from the former to the latter, I'd essentially have to duplicate the entire To Do List of the former on the latter, for all those programs that I know to be, or suspect to be, copy-protected. That would mean I'd basically need to add 1 TB of storage to the latter. That pretty much kills the attractiveness of MRV.

It's just another example of how DRM (digital rights management) is trespassing on the marketability of various devices and services. I ran into another recently when I started using the Instant Queue at Netflix with my TiVo boxes.

As of just a few days ago, it became possible for TiVo HD and Series 3 users to stream movies instantly from Netflix to their TV sets, via their TiVo. You just find a movie that is capable of being streamed instantly and add it to your Instant Queue. Then you access that queue directly from your TiVo menu system and select a movie to watch ... and it immediately begins playing on your TV!

Netflix says it has over 10,000 movies available for instant viewing, with more coming all the time. However ... when I look at my Instant Queue in my web browser, several of the entries are marked as needing to be viewed before the end of 2008 (or by Jan. 1, 2009).

I called Netflix to ask why and was told that their contract(s) with the contract provider(s) to offer these movies in instantly accessible digital form is due to expire. In other words, Netflix may or may not re-up, and if they don't, they will no longer possess the "digital rights" to stream this content over the Internet.

Which would mean that anyone who buys a TiVo in order to get this nice feature would end up feeling cheated when a whole slew of movies "go away" due to DRM restrictions!.