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.
TiVo Suggestions is where the PVR recommends shows based on your tastes. Using the green and red buttons on the remote you rate recordings or live TV shows, giving them one, two or three Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down. Despite rating many shows, we only achieved precious few suggestions out of our test unit – and some of those shows we were already recording with a Season Pass. We’ll give TiVo the benefit of the doubt there, however, as we were reviewing a pre-production unit several before the service goes fully live.
Other unfinished features that we were unable to test or achieved only patchy results with include the ability to filter the EPG listings so that certain genres are highlighted (eg. kids shows or movies) and a remote scheduling option that will allow TiVo owners to set up recordings from their web browser – handy if you leave for work and haven’t set TiVo to record a new show.
Like all hard disk PVRs, TiVo allows you to Pause and Rewind live TV. The 30 minute recording buffer is pretty standard, as is the way TiVo displays a progress bar on the screen so you can visualise how far behind the live broadcast you are. Switching between the two channels currently tuned in is easily done with a push of the Live TV button on the remote, and TiVo keeps the recording buffer going as you hop from one to the other. If you ever feel the need, that means you can timeshift both channels at once, leaving one on pause while you rewind and replay a few minutes on the other, for example.
Not all perfect
For all its features, there are a few notable things missing on TiVo. We had hoped EPG recordings would start and stop when the show actually airs, rather than going by the clock, but that’s not the case. You can set TiVo to extend all its recordings by default (and tweak recordings and Season Passes individually so you don’t miss the end of shows that habitually run over time), but having to lengthen recordings for almost everything commercial networks show is surely just bad PR for the network’s programmers, as well as a waste of the EPGs full potential.
With twin tuners on board, it’s also disappointing that there’s no picture-in-picture feature. It would also be more convenient to skip 24 ahead hours through the EPG via a dedicated button on the remote, rather than drilling down through a menu system.
Not surprisingly, given that Seven is behind TiVo in Australia, there’s no ad skipping button, but you won’t miss that as much as you might expect as TiVo makes it easier than most PVRs to fast forward through ads. When you see your show reappear on screen after the break, hit Play and TiVo jumps back about 10 seconds so you don’t have to rewind to the end of the last ad.
New customers won’t notice what else is missing, but close TiVo watchers should be aware that many features available in the US will not be available at launch. These include online services that enable TiVo to access podcasts, internet radio stations, online photo albums, and music and movie downloads; and the TiVoToGo service that allows you to copy shows to a portable media player.
The KidZone feature – which allows parents to control what their children watch and record – was confirmed as being available at launch just as we were going to press with this article, as was the ability to stream music, photos and videos from your PC to your TiVo. Indeed, both these were enabled on our pre-production model, as were a couple of those features described above, but while this signals plenty to look forward to, it’s unclear as to when each of the additional services will be rolled out and which – if any – will incur additional charges.
What is clear is that the updates can be pushed to TiVo automatically over the internet, ensuring it’s somewhat future-proofed. TiVo receives updates and EPG information online, which means it needs to be connected to a home network – something that could put off less tech-savvy customers. The TiVo setup process is painless, however, and connectivity is excellent. HDMI, component, S-Video and composite video output suit all types of TVs, a digital optical out sends surround sound to home cinema systems, and there’s even an e-SATA jack so TiVo’s storage can be expanded with another hard drive.
Power users may lament the lack of features present on rival models which have more IT connectivity options, but for the majority TiVo’s ease of use – and the fact that it’s around $200-300 cheaper than these types of devices – will make it the preferred choice. We’re holding back half a star until we see the full range of TiVo’s features unleashed, but with its friendly face and free EPG, TiVo is clearly the PVR most consumers have been waiting for.