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Alvin Meets Tivo

tivo.jpgThis blog is normally about switching to Mac, but I needed a place to talk about my experience switching to Tivo, so I figure this is as good a place as I can find (there will be Mac stuff mentioned as well). If you’re reading this thinking, “Switching to Tivo? Does your Tivo have a time-travel feature to take me back to when that was actually something worth reading about?” Well, cut me some slack (you must be living in the U.S., the Land of Media Plenty). In Canada, we’ve only had Tivo officially available for a couple of months. (Many have been using Tivos purchased independently for years.) Now we have official Tivo service in Canada along with the Tivo Series 2 boxes on sale. I hadn’t found much feedback on the web from Canadians who had actually purchased one of these boxes and were using it with one of the local TV services (I use Rogers Cable) so I wanted to put my experiences out there.

As most of you probably know, Tivo is a popular brand of digital video recorder, used for pausing and recording TV programs. Tivo is known for its user-friendly interface and super-handy recording features. I’ve been using the Rogers Personal Video Recorder (made by Scientific Atlanta) since they first started offering it more than 5 years ago. At best, the Rogers box does an acceptable job, but I’ve always longed for the fabled ease-of-use that a Tivo brings. Before I continue, I need to make the obvious caveat that the Series 2 box which is now selling in Canada does not support high definition recordings. From what I’ve read, there are incompatibilities between the Tivo Series 3 box and the delivery devices for HD programming here in Canada. Boo-hoo for all you HD fans out there.

First Impressions

There are very clear setup instructions (in the form of a poster with connection diagrams) and two bags of cables clearly labelled A and B. I’m pretty experienced with home audio/video equipment, but the instructions made it very simple (even including connecting the ethernet cable to allow my Tivo to access to my home computer network). In a snap I was ready to go and there was an on-screen guide to take me the rest of the way. (Oh, I forgot to mention, that before I got going with the on-screen setup, I followed the instructions to activate my Tivo service — which you need to pay for — at tivo.com/canada first. That part was a little odd. Be sure to click the link for Canadian subscribers because a pop-up window shows you how to fill out the form if you have a non-U.S. address.)

So once I got up and running it was very nice to use. The interface was as slick as promised. Lots of soft little chimes and fun graphics. This was a far cry from my Rogers experience with its clunky and primitive interface. The show listings were very easy to navigate and since Tivo uses a semi-transparent overlay on top of the TV image, I could see a lot more information at once. Scrolling was quick and smooth (Rogers is slow and very stilted. Often if you hold down the arrow button you end up going past where you want to get to and then you have to navigate back — whaddapain!) The one oddity I have found with the Tivo listings so far is that it’s not very easy to switch from one day to another. It’s a few clicks down some not-quite-logical submenus to change the date on the listings. There’s got to be a quicker way.tivo2.jpg

Recording stuff

The one big drawback that I was anticipating from what I’d read was that Tivo was not going to be able to decode the digital cable signal directly. I have standard definition digital cable with Rogers, which means that I have a box which changes digital channels for me. When I used to use a VCR, I had to keep it on channel 3 and make sure that when I set a timer to record a show, the VCR would record channel 3 and the digital cable box would change itself to whatever channel the actual show was on. The same kind of thing happens with Tivo. The machine comes with a set of little sticks that you put around the digital cable box and these IR blasters send infrared signals to the digital box as if it were your remote control, changing the channel for you when it’s time to record a show. This was not a problem that I had with the Rogers box. The digital cable tuner was integrated with the recorder, so I could record any channel at any time and the machine would change the channel itself.

Thankfully, Tivo is able to take care of the channel changing for the analog (i.e. non-digital) channels which appear in the lower numbers (up to 72) but the quality is not digital, so the picture is definitely inferior. Because the Tivo Series 2 is a dual-tuner machine, it can record two shows at the same time. However, you can only record one digital signal because your digital cable box can only be showing one channel at a time. Also, if you’re watching TV on a high-numbered channel, Tivo warns you that it needs to change the channel for a recording (if that recording is on a digital channel). All that being said, Tivo does a really good job of making things as painless as possible. You don’t have to worry about which channels are digital and which ones aren’t. You can just let Tivo do its thing for the most part.

Tivo meets Mac

One of the most exciting aspects of the Tivo experience for me was going to be TivoToGo. That’s the feature that allows you to transfer your recorded shows to your computer and from there to your portable media (i.e. DVDs) or devices (i.e. iPods). The catch, however, was that it wasn’t going to be as simple as just copying a file off of the Tivo. Tivo offers some free software, but for the Mac, the TivoDesktop software only allows your Tivo to show photos from your computer on the TV and play your music (from iTunes). While that in itself is a pretty cool set of features, it’s still missing that major video piece. The Tivo downloading feature is (for some reason) packaged within another company’s CD/DVD burning software called Roxio Toast, which costs about $100 (or their smaller program Popcorn, which is about $50). Tivo offers a more complete TivoDesktop application for Windows users (which I tried to run within Parallels on my Mac, but couldn’t quite get it to work). Along comes the open-source community to the rescue: a free program called Galleon (after a few trials at getting the settings right) allows me to download the shows off of my Tivo and allows my Tivo to see the videos on my iMac (make sure you convert video files to mpeg2 if you want to transfer them back to the Tivo). Another little program called Tivo File Decoder allows me to strip away the stuff around the Tivo video files (.tivo) so that other video conversion programs can convert them to a normal format for me to use. Yay! I am now able to truly take Tivo To Go.

I’m really enjoying the Tivo (I’ve only had it for 4 days), and I don’t mind the sacrifice in video quality or the whole IR blaster inconvenience (though I’d still love it if they could integrate digital cable decoding in the Tivo box). I especially love the great interface and the back and forth communication between my computer and the Tivo. Also, compared to my Rogers PVR, it is the difference between something you have to use to something you actually enjoy using. If you’re thinking of getting into the world of Tivo, you’re in for some fun.

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