A few weeks ago I was talking with an acquaintance and he told me that the
TiVo that they had purchased for Christmas 2000 had really changed the way they
watched TV. Their lives are busy (two school aged kids and both parents
work) and this allowed all to watch what they wanted when they wanted. The
comment that really got me was when he said he never felt that it was “80
channels, nothing to watch” anymore. When the employee store
offered refurbished units at a discounted price, I did some research on the
TiVo and I thought I would give it a try.
I had heard about TiVo a couple of years ago and dismissed it.. It
wasn’t clear what it did and why I should pay an extra $10 a month on top of my
cable to watch TV. Personal Video Recorders (PVR) sounded like a VCR on steroids
and I didn’t hear a compelling reason to get one as I didn’t use my VCR much
anyway since I had a DVD.
As a baseline, I would
classify a PVR as having the following functions:
Extended recording time
TiVo’s started with 14hr recording capabilities. The currently
available commercial units range from 20-60hrs of recording time. This
time is usually listed as a function of the lowest resolution recording
capability. The units can also be modified with off the shelf hard
drives to get well over 100 hours of recording time – see below.
PVRs have the ability to pause “live” TV and allow the viewer to
resume viewing where they left off. The TiVo will allow up to 1/2 hour pause. This
feature is very handy if the phone rings or nature calls.
Sophisticated Scheduled Recording Capabilities
PVRs allow the setup of multiple recording capabilities. Programs
featuring favorite shows, team, or actors can be set to record
automatically. Even distinctions between new shows and repeats can be
There are three main companies selling PVR services right now: TiVo, Replay,
and Microsoft’s Ultimate TV. I cannot speak about the others as I have not
seen or used them. Each of the vendors offers custom features and business
models. Replay provides the scheduling service for free. Ultimate TV starts at
$9.95 per month but can be combined with WebTV for $29.95. TiVo is $9.95 per month.
Access to the service is generally via dial-up to a local number so you must connect
your unit to a phone line at least a couple of times a week so it can update.
TiVo is the company that sells the programming subscription for TiVo
hardware. Philips and Sony sell stand alone units as well as units that
integrate with DirecTV satellite systems.
TiVo is powered by a 50 MHz PowerPC chip, IDE controller, plus some specialized
MPEG encoding and decoding hardware. Storage for the video is provided by a
Quantum 13.9GB IDE (14 hr) hard drive. Newer units come with
20, 30, or 60 hrs of recording time using one or two internal drives.
There are no buttons on the front of the unit, just the IR window and two LEDs
that signify status. The units also come with lots of cables and a very
intuitive remote. The back of the unit supports RF in/out, RCA in/out,
S-Video in/out, serial communications, and IR communications.
The most interesting about the TiVo is that it runs on the Linux operating
system. This has allowed a
very active community of people to
reverse engineer the TiVo. There are detailed instructions (http://www.tivofaq.com/hack)
on how to add additional hard drives to boost recording time and for the more adventurous,
add a network card to the TiVo so it can be a web server or video server.
Some aftermarket companies are selling upgrades
and parts. TiVo
supports this community with the tacit understanding that they won’t do anything
to hurt TiVo (like replacing the TiVo subscription service with a free pirate
HACKING THE TIVO VOIDS THE WARRANTY!!!
(you have been warned!)
My Experience with TiVo
I purchased a refurbished HDR112 from Philips. This is one of the
original 14 hr. units. These can be found on eBay, uBid, etc. for about $175.
(Be aware if you want to hack your TiVo, be sure and get a system with
only one drive.) Mine came with software version 1.3 installed and the in-store
demo mode enabled. Following the hack instructions, I also purchased a
Maxtor 15GB drive on sale for $50 and a Seagate 40GB 5400 rpm drive for $115. I
backed up the TiVo A drive and then “blessed” and installed the
Seagate drive. My TiVo went from 14 hours to 64 hrs without a hitch!
If I had bought a 60GB drive I would have had near 90 hours and a 80 GB drive
would give me near 110 hours of recording time (about 1 GB/hr in basic
quality). If you start from a single drive, 30 hour Sony or Philips you
can get near 125 hours! The drives do not need to be fast, in fact
the cheaper 5400 rpm drives run cooler and quieter, an important feature as TiVo
is always on. The setup was painless and well documented. The
hardest part of the setup was running a phone line to my entertainment
Using TiVo is simpler than a VCR in many ways. You can, of
course, set it up to record a channel at the same time every day or
week. TiVo also allows you to set up a “Season Pass” for a
particular program. This means that even if the time or channel that the
program is broadcast changes, TiVo will automatically record it. About a
week after I started the service, my box was automatically upgraded to latest
software, version 2.0.1. This added the ability to search and setup on
keywords such as director or actor names. Passes can be prioritized for
conflicts and you can also set it up to only record new shows and not
repeats. Programs can be saved indefinitely or allowed to
automatically delete to free space. Sports and movies can be set to
record in high quality and news/talk programs can be recorded in basic quality
to save space. TiVo can also archive programs to tape and the Sony units
supposedly integrate very well with their brand of VCRs.
I have had TiVo about three weeks and I’m wondering how I lived without
it! I’m not watching more TV, just better TV. I get to see the
things I want when I have the chance. If I don’t get to them and TiVo
needs the space, they disappear. TiVo is also starting to learn what I like
based on what I record and also the “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs
Down” buttons on the remote. If there is space available on the drive it
will record programs that it thinks I might want to watch – so far the jury is
out on the accuracy of suggestions, people say it takes a month or
so…. (For those concerned about the Big Brother Telescreen,
read the TiVo
useful than I would have thought. The stored guide holds two weeks worth
of programming information and for $9.95/mo, it is better than TV Guide and a
Price: $200-700 retail, $9.95/mo for the
Program Guide subscription
Great user interface that even technophobes can use
Hackable Hardware and OS supported by a strong user community
Perfect companion product to 60+ channels of cable and satellite
Only one tuner so you can’t pause live TV while TiVo is recording another channel (coming in mid-2001 on DirectTiVo only)
No digital output (IEEE 1394)
YAR (yet another remote…)