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Monday, 01 January 2007
Image Nothing stays stagnant in nature or in consumer electronics. The VCR, one of the last vestiges of the analog world, is about to meet its successor and I don’t mean digital videotape. Personal TV (PTV) is a brand new product category. One of the first units comes from a joint venture between service provider TiVo and consumer electronics manufacturer Philips Electronics.

More than just another black box, PTV uses an attractive and intuitive graphical user interface that overlays the TV broadcast signal. It’s possible to record shows and store them on the PTV’s internal hard drive. TiVo can also time-shift material, functioning as your own personal instant replay system.

There are two differnet PTV components. For $499 you get a PTV unit capaible of recording upto 14 hours of TV programming. For $999 you can buy a machine with more hard drive space providing up to 30 hours of recording time. On top of the price of the PTV unit itself, is the TiVo service priced at either $9.95 a month or a lifetime service fee of $199 which allows you to download TiVo menus and serives for one fee for the lifetime of the unit.

TiVo is easily integrated into any video system, regardless of whether the TV signal comes from satellite, cable or off-air broadcasts. With cable or satellite systems, TiVo is inserted between the TV’s receiving device and the TV via RF, composite or S-Video connections.
Using RF, S-Video or standard RCA jacks, a VCR may still be inserted into the video chain. While TiVo records, it has limited storage capacity, so it still needs a VCR for archiving.

I use a cable box. However, since my cable box isn’t one of the new models on the market with a serial port, I had to use the supplied IR (infrared) repeaters that attach to the cable box, allowing TiVo to recognize the cable box’s IR codes.

A phone jack is needed to accommodate the PTV’s built-in modem. Aside from the initial calls the unit makes during the setup procedure, daily calls are made to the TiVo server to invisibly download new programming and system software updates. Without these constant revisions, the hard drive will run out of programming within two weeks, though you might notice some missing data sooner.
Before you can relax and check out TiVo, there is a lengthy though technically simple setup process. TiVo must be programmed with key operational facts such as how you receive TV signals (i.e. cable, satellite, etc.) and what kind of converter/receiver you are using. Once the correct converter is selected, then it is necessary to test several different IR codes until you find the one that works best. TiVo concludes by making a quick ten-minute call but it still takes about forty minutes to sort and index the new information before the PTV system becomes fully functional.

TiVo’s remote can become your system’s prime controler for TV viewing, incorporating basic volume and channel selection, along with the added PTV features. When you first turn on the TV or change a channel, a Program Banner appears across the top of the screen telling you the channel number and the name of the program. If you want more information about the program, press the "Live TV guide" button on the remote. It tells you the year the show was produced, who’s starring in it and gives a brief synopsis. Curious what’s on the same channel later on? Scroll down and see programming for the remainder of the day. You can even check what’s on other channels and their daily programming. No longer are you restricted to the two-hour window and slow scrolling preview channel courtesy of your local cable company.

It’s also possible to browse for programming by category or by channel. Using the remote and an onscreen keyboard, a specific program can be typed in and TiVo will find it for you.

Browsing the TV guide, you can choose programs to record by simply pressing Record on the remote, adding the program to TiVo’s "To Do List." TiVo will record and store every program in its list. In fact, TiVo will record a program every time it airs. You’ll never have to reprogram your favorite weekly shows. When you’re ready to view the stored programs, press the special TiVo button that opens the Central Menu where you access recorded programs. Since the hard drive capacity is limited, save only programs you plan to view again or record to VCR. Since the system was never meant to archive programming, it starts dumping material (oldest to newest) when the hard drive gets full.

TiVo even learns your programming likes and dislikes. The cute thumbs up and thumbs down keys, tells the service what programs you like and which ones you don’t. Pressing thumbs up indicates you like the program and TiVo will search for similar programming and suggest it to you. Thumbs down prompts TiVo to ignore other such programs. TiVo’s suggestions are listed in the Central Menu, where you can also re-check what programs you’ve scheduled for recording.

Perhaps the most unique feature, as it has never been commercially available before, is time shifting. Did you miss the end of Ally McBeal for that urgent phone call from your business partner? No problem, take the call and when you come back it’s possible to go back to the point at which you left, because TiVo is always recording. Not sure the umpire made the right call? Go back a few seconds and see the play again. Impress your friends and do it in slow motion like the pros.

An important programming note about the live recording feature: it only stores 30 minutes’ worth of new incoming material. If you think you’ll be gone for some time, best to just hit record. Also, it restarts every time you change channels, so this is not a solution for watching one station and keeping track of a program on another channel.

The Downside
First generation anything seems to have its share of bugs and so the glitches I encountered were not unexpected or surprising. However, the bulk of my problems stemmed from TiVo’s server not recognizing my "accommodated" account status. Consumers should find few if any real problems with this technology, even in its infancy.

The one annoyance that seemed specific to the system was the occasional pixilation. That’s right: TiVo delivers a digital picture. Taking the signal from the cable feed, it digitizes the picture, then sends the new signal to your TV, causing a slight broadcast delay, which you won’t notice.

There are four recording qualities, though I didn’t find the highest quality setting to be much better than VHS at its fastest speed. Then again, I didn’t have to deal with setting the timer or fiddling with tape and that was a tremendous plus.

For the casual TV watcher, TiVo’s 14-hour hard drive at $499 and the 30-hour version for $999 is probably a bit steep. However, if you are a TV freak with a few dozen shows you tape weekly, TiVo was made for you. I’ve gotten so lazy lately that I miss shows I would normally watch just because I don’t want to deal with setting up the VCR and scrounging around for a fresh tape. When it comes to recording, TiVo is fantastic. As I am flying out the door, I can check the guide and just click on the shows I want to record and off I go -- no worrying about setting the correct on and off time or whether I got the right channel. Once I am ready to watch the shows, I don’t even have to wait for a tape to rewind.

If this sounds like the answer to Must-See-TV, then the $199 for Lifetime Service is cheap. If you want to be a bit more frugal, the same service can be delivered for $9.95 a month. However, if TV is important enough for you to shell out this kind of cash for the system, Lifetime Service seems most appropriate. Goodbye VCRs. Hello PTV.

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