In the six years since the first hard disk Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) went on sale in Australia, two things have been conspicuous by their absence: genuine ease-of-use and a free, complete Electronic Program Guide (EPG). TiVo, one of the original PVRs, with a decade-long track record in the US, promised to deliver both and, while the box has its flaws, it doesn’t disappoint on either count.
While most PVRs come with a steep learning curve – something that has restricted their appeal mainly to tech heads – TiVo is clearly aimed at mass market, bringing all the benefits of PVRs, including pausing and rewinding live TV, to Mum and Pop consumers.
Priced at $699, TiVo will be available for pre-order from 15 July at www.tivo.com.au, and will go onsale in Harvey Norman stores from 29 July. For those that want to kick the tyres before this date it will be on display in Harvey Norman stores from July 15.
Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice about TiVo is that it’s referred to in all its supporting literature as a DVR, rather than a PVR. In Australia, Digital Video Recorders (DVR) devices are DVD recorders – with or without a hard drive – whereas a PVR relies solely on a hard drive for recording purposes. TiVo is clearly the latter, but must wear this foreign nomenclature under terms of the licensing agreement struck by Channel Seven (which is marketing the box locally) with TiVo’s US developers. We’re under no such obligation, however, and will refer to it in local parlance for the purposes of this review.
More important than any three-letter descriptor, though, is TiVo’s welcoming personality; a user-friendly attitude visible not only in the company’s bopping TV logo, but in the remote control and onscreen menus. The simple, peanut shaped remote doesn’t overwhelm the uninitiated, with a dedicated, TiVo-shaped button that takes you directly to TiVo Central. No matter where you are in the menu system, one push returns you to this home menu, from where all TiVo’s features can be accessed using a simple four-way control pad.
The menus themselves speak plain English and have been thoughtfully designed so that the right options always seem to pop up when you need them. For example, when you finish watching a recording, TiVo asks if you want to keep or delete it. It’s a simple thing but one that typifies the user-friendly appeal that you’ll find throughout TiVo’s menus.
There’s no doubt that TiVo outdoes all its rivals for ease of use – including the previous holder of that crown, Foxtel’s iQ. But TiVo’s biggest breakthrough for free-to-air viewers is its comprehensive EPG, which will be a revelation to the majority of the first-time PVR buyers that TiVo is aimed at.
For those who have never used one, an EPG is simply an onscreen TV listing showing program times and synopses that can be browsed using the remote. It makes recording shows easy because when you see a show you like, you just click on it to schedule a recording – no more messing about with timer settings.
TiVo’s EPG shows the next seven days’ programming and represents something of a first for both TiVo and Australia. Overseas, TiVo has charged a monthly subscription to access the EPG, but in Australia it’s free (once you’ve stumped up the $699 to buy the TiVo box, of course). And while Aussies have had access to an EPG before, we’ve either had to pay for it or settle for the basic information provided by the broadcasters and which was, often, riddled with holes.
Combine the free, complete EPG with TiVo’s friendly menus and dual HDTV tuners (which let you record two shows at once even while watching a show you’ve already recorded) and you’re in TV heaven. You get a choice of EPG views, so you can see what’s coming up channel-by-channel or hour-by-hour. Pick a show to record and all the options you need appear, allowing you to finetune the recording times or sign up for a Season Pass, which records every episode automatically from then on.
Recordings appear in the Now Playing List, one step from Tivo Central. They’re ordered by date and multiple episodes of each show can be grouped into folders so you can easily keep track of them. With room on its 160GB hard drive for 20 hours of HDTV or 60 of SDTV, TiVo isn’t the roomiest PVR on the market, but it does have the best tools to manage your library. Intuitive coloured icons warn you if a show is in danger of being deleted to free up space for new recordings, and it’s easy to tag any files you want to keep.
While it’s simple to use, TiVo has some powerful features, many of which revolve around finding more shows you want to watch. To save browsing through seven days of listings, you can search the EPG by keyword, or have TiVo keep an eye out for shows for you.
Set up a WishList with the name of your favourite actor, director, show title or just a keyword and TiVo will continually scan the EPG for matching programs – and record them automatically if you want. It’s a brilliant feature and you can even qualify your WishList using a subcategory so, for example, TiVo only records movies starring Michael Caine, ignoring any TV shows he guests on.
It works better for actors than with keywords, where you’re dependent on whether, and how, your keyword is incorporated into the EPG synopsis. Our WishList for ‘Jane Austen’ dramas failed to catch some of the shows in the recent ABC season, simply because the program info described shows as being base on ‘Jane Austen’s’ novels. And ‘George Clooney’ wasn’t listed in TiVo’s database of actors.