TiVo - the Hard Drive for your Television Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

TiVo - the Hard Drive for your Television

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David Letterman mentions it in his monologues; comedians on Conan O'Brien do entire routines about it, and when Buffy the Vampire Slayer announced the move from Warner Brothers to United Pictures, Entertainment Weekly announced:

It won't be as simple as just reprogramming your TiVo.

But what is it? Below is a general introduction to the concept of the TiVo, which is a life-changing device1.

A lot of people, upon hearing about the TiVo, think 'Oh, it is just a digital VCR', and give it short shrift because of that. It really is much more than that though, and the goal of this entry is to give an idea of how much bigger the scope surrounding TiVo is.

What Can it Do?

TiVo is one of the niftiest things to happen to television in years. It does a number of things very well. For example, it will:

  • Digitally records programmes, on four quality levels, of which the lowest is slightly better than a mid-quality VCR, and the highest is high-quality digital.

  • Allow you to pause and rewind live television, or fast forward that paused/rewound section, so that you will not miss any of your favourite programme. It can pause up to half an hour; rewind up to half an hour or for as long as you've been on a particular channel.

  • Download television schedules, so that you have a complete listing for the next two weeks.

  • Let you search out and record television shows by name, instead of time and channel ie, Buffy, instead of 'Tuesday, 8pm, one hour'.

  • Give 'Season Passes' to shows which allow you to set the show to record once, and forget it. Even if the network moves the show around, preempts it, etc. Barring a last minute interruption of service in an emergency, the TiVo knows what the network is doing, even if you don't have time to keep up.

  • Find all other instances of a show, and record them if you let it (thus alerting the viewer to a showing of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie one afternoon).

  • Use a rating system which notifies you of things you might otherwise enjoy. For example, if you positively rated Buffy, Angel, Charmed and The X-Files, it would alert you that a local station was re-running Twin Peaks.

Additionally, and of great interest to people in the online community, TiVo is Linux-Based, and there are some sites devoted to hacking it. More on that below.

Digital Recording

The recording quality of the TiVo is very good. The number of hours you can get on your machine's hard drive will vary according to the quality that you want to achieve; basic quality is fine for most television shows. Machines range in space from 14 hours to 50 hours recording time at basic quality, and the hacker community has gotten some machines with up to 120 hours or more.

Additionally, because the recording is digital, you don't need to mess around with lots of video tape. All the recorded shows are stored in a hard drive inside the TiVo unit. Shows you particularly want to save can be saved to a VCR (there is a command for that in the 'Play' menu). Deletion takes a second; you can delete a show at the end of watching, or any time you decide you just do not want it anymore. There is no degradation of quality, the way there is with tapes that get used over and over again. Shows are automatically saved for two days, but that time can be shortened or lengthened to 'Do not delete until told to'. After the two days, the shows are kept until the space is needed.

Scheduling Yourself

The schedule download normally takes place every night at around 2am, though this can be rescheduled. Setting the TiVo up initially is simple, and takes about four hours to download, with about 20 minutes of that requiring attention from the user. Subsequent downloads of new data take about two hours (15 minutes to download and approximately 90 minutes to process), and require no input from the TiVo owner (nor do they interfere with your using the TiVo normally). It is very useful to be able to see what all the up and coming episodes for two weeks will be.

Got your Name, Got your Game

While this is not necessarily an essential task , anyone who has gone away to college only to have to deal with calls from their mother asking how to set up the VCR to record yet again understands that this is really a fabulous feature. Additionally, the 'season pass' feature is very handy; it allows you to never worry about finding your show again, no matter where the network moves it. TiVo will also flag and record shows according to keyword, allowing you to record everything having to do with say, Miss Piggy (very good), Abalone (good; but will get you nature shows and cooking shows) and horses (badly vague; you'd get all sorts of stuff). Keyword searching is, as anyone who has searched online knows, both a science and an art.

Setting It up

A TiVo is remarkably easy to set up; it takes about three to four hours, and most of that is you sitting there waiting for the TiVo to be ready for you to play with it. It has Coax, RCA and S-Video connections. More information on that will be available from the manufacturer of your unit (Phillips makes the most units, followed by Sony then Hughes). What you will do is hook the machine up to your TV (output of your choice to television), to your cable box or cable (input of your choice to TiVo), and to a telephone line (standard phone chord from TiVo to wall jack). It's very simple to do. A walk-through menu will have you enter your zip code or area code to determine your location, and will let you identify the cable company you subscribe to. Make sure no one is using your phone, and then you let it dial out and... wait.

Integrating with your Current System

TiVo works best with cable or satellite systems; the walk-through system for Atlanta identified all local cable possibilities, and has updated seamlessly through a recent change from Mediaone to AT&T Broadband (based on one Researcher's experience). TiVo and DirecTV have been pushing a combo set box which lowers the cost of buying either unit, slightly, and at the time of writing (May 2001) rebates are available to owners of either unit that purchase the other. Please see their websites for further information, as this may change.

The TiVo cannot act as an antenna, and the scheduling services cannot be used with antenna services, because they can be so variable; the station that comes in on channel 11 in one neighbourhood might be overpowered by another channel 11 station only a mile or two away. If you have an antenna with a compatible input (Coax, RCA, S-video), however, you can hook it into the TiVo and use all the other features that do not rely upon downloading a schedule.

What about Privacy?

TiVo does make some of its money from collecting information on what's being 'watched'. The information collected is anonymous, and does not identify your household, according to TiVo's website. However, you can call their opt-out phone number and request that no information from your household be collected into this pool. The machine doesn't report back your ratings preferences (the thumbs up/thumbs down system that lets the TiVo system flag shows you might like by letting you rate other shows you already know you like and dislike).

As a note, since the TiVo unit cannot be turned off, it is always 'watching' something, and this Researcher is not, frankly, sure how useful this information can possibly be to anyone. Is a viewer watching FoodTV or the Cartoon Network or MuchMusic for six hours (quite possible) or have they left the house?

Not Satisfied unless you Break It?

Well, break might be too strong a word. But if you itch to get in there with your screwdriver, and a new hard drive, then the Hacking the TiVo FAQ is the site you need. It has plenty of information about how to open the TiVo, bless a new hard drive on a Mac, PC or Linux box, install the drive, etc, as well as information on drive selection, and so on and so forth. Once you start mucking around with the TiVo's insides, you cannot go back to TiVo or to the manufacturer with a problem, so be exceedingly careful about this! On the other hand, you can get a lot more storage capacity this way than you can buy from the manufacturer; and for far less money than it will cost when they do make these amounts of storage available.

And then there's the Patent

TiVo is also the holder of the patent on the whole personal video recorder device. Specifically, in late May 2001, they were granted a Patent for a Multimedia Time Warping System (6,233,389)2:

The invention allows the user to store selected television broadcast programmes while the user is simultaneously watching or reviewing another programme.

The term 'time warp' in their patent, allows them to control the technology (see links below to ReplayTV and UltimateTV).

The Other Side

There is no 'reboot' button on the machine. If you ever need to do a hard reboot of a TiVo (for some reason the soft reboot in the 'User Options' menu isn't available) the only way to do it is to reach behind and unplug the thing. It's an absolute pain in the keister, and lots of TiVo support staff complain to about it. Like a VCR, you can't watch-record something on it and watch something on a different channel; the only way to do that is to have a splitter before the TiVo, so you could have a feed into both the TV and the TiVo.

One final thing is the system does have a subscription fee. At the time of writing, it is US$10 a month, $99 a year and $199 for a 'lifetime' membership. Some people consider this inconsequential (it's a fee for downloading information every night, and someone at TiVo has to sit there and enter that info into their system; you can use the TiVo without the schedule information, it's just more like a VCR), some people consider this a pain (you paid $200 for it, and now you need to keep paying to use all the features?). For the record, though, ReplayTV, which charged for the service and the unit at the same time (ie, two years ago, if you bought a 14-hour TiVo, you paid $300, and could buy one of the three subscription plans, if you bought a 14-hour ReplayTV, you paid $500, and got the lifetime subscription service, no matter what), never caught on nearly the way that TiVo has. UltimateTV from Microsoft, the other highly advertised option in this field, requires a DirecTV satellite dish, costs twice as much to buy, and costs twice as much to subscribe to monthly, and is useless without downloaded information.

1Unfortunately, it is hard to communicate how much it does change one's life. It is just one of those devices that you think, 'Oh, wouldn't that be nice to have some time?'. You maybe put it off for a while, because there are groceries and socks to buy, then one day, two weeks later you would rescue it from a burning building after your pets or first born child, but maybe before your spouse...2Please follow the link provided, then use the Patent Number to look up the TiVo patent.

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