Thursday, March 27, 2008

TiVo review: for better or worse (Part 1 - Setup)

It hasn't been too long since TiVo's services became available in Canada (well, available unless you're in Quebec, but that's a discussion for another time).

We'd contemplated setting up a digital video recorder for some time now, but I was hesitant to go with one of the free options out there like MythTV. Don't get me wrong -- MythTV and its peers have received glowing reviews from my friends. Setting something like that up can be a fun project, too. The thing is, though, if I implement something "homegrown", then I'm really the only one around to support it or fix it if something goes wonky. With time being a precious commodity, there are other things we would be better off doing than having me take the time to sort out whether a feature could be added or why something's not working properly.

With that in mind, when TiVo's Series 2 Dual Tuner model hit the local shelves at $200 per unit, it took no time at all to jump on the bandwagon. Setup was a breeze, taking only a few minutes out of the box. Although I've been told that there are ways of getting free feeds of programming data, we kept on the commercial path and signed up online at for the relatively modest monthly fee. (Partly for the worry-free nature of it, partly because we make a habit of supporting those who put out products or services we like to use). Subscribing to the service was also painless, and only took a few minutes.

The TiVo unit was online and downloading our local programming information in short order. Although it had been mentioned that it could take days for it to buffer the next two weeks of shows, it really only took hours. The information for the first couple of days was in fact downloaded in minutes.

After a few more minutes, we had the remote that shipped with the unit set up such that we could control the TV and stereo, too, cutting down on the number of remotes floating around in the living room. Hooray for small victories.

It was a nice touch to find that brief instructional videos are included on the unit, which can be viewed, saved, or deleted to free up space. They provided a quick overview to using the basic features of the unit, allowing you to hit the ground running.

The menus are easy to use and logically laid out for the most part. It takes very little time to have the unit recording your favourite programs once, or on a schedule. You can specify what shows take priority over others when space becomes an issue, how to behave if a show is a rerun, and how long a given recording should be kept. You also have a few options relating to the quality of a recording -- tailoring your recordings to a quality that suits a particular program type allows you to store more shows in the long run (lower quality recordings require less space).

When it's not busy recording things that you've specified, TiVo will record somewhat random programs to begin with, trying to find things which match your viewing habits. You have a quick thumbs-up or down rating system for shows which allows TiVo to tailor what it's recording for you, so that over time it will be more likely to record random shows that meet your interests. If you're only in the habit of recording the odd show or so, then once it's trained sufficiently this could be a nice touch that allows you to find things that match your interests which you would have otherwise missed. If you have a busy lifestyle and record a number of shows, you likely won't have the time to view many of those recordings and will probably just delete them. The shows it records for you in this fashion are fortunately the first to go when space starts to become an issue.

As your library of recordings grows, you have the option for it to group shows for you, in a folder-like fashion -- a nice touch, helping you avoid having to go through just one big long list of programs.

Having a unit like this is a big step up from the old VCR days. There's no scrambling for a tape with space on it, all of your recorded shows are at your fingertips, nothing needs rewinding, and you can record a show at the press of a button. Hey, you can sometimes even record a show that's going to air at some point in the future at the press of a button when a preview for that show is being played. Yes, yes, you can also pause "live" TV for up to 30 minutes, of the people I know of starts watching their "live" shows 20 minutes late, having kept it paused, just so that they can fast forward through all of the commercials.

Overall, the unit and experience get a big "thumbs up" from me. I've been very pleased with the primary DVR functions so far, and am often amused with some of the shows it records that it thinks match my interests (admittedly, it does get it right some of the time). Although the "random" recording behaviour is one of the features they promote, it would already have been a worthwhile purchase without it.

"Ok, so you like the unit and the service...what more is there to say to warrant additional commentary?"

I'm glad you asked.

So far I've mentioned how I like the unit, how it's easy to use, and so on. There's more to it than that, though. At the moment I have two additional parts planned -- how making recording/playback of your favourite shows so convenient changes your viewing habits (not necessarily for the better, if you don't pay attention to it), and my experience with setting up some of the other features it supports (like viewing digital photos, playing your iTunes library, archiving recordings when you start running out of space, or taking shows on the road).

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