April 24, 2002

Review: TiVo Series|2 Personal Video Recorder

- By Jeff Field -
I hate my VCR. The recording quality is terrible, tapes often break and need to be rewound all the time. The six program recording slots do not come close to filling my needs, and if the power went out, the VCR would instantly lose its settings. I have been looking into PVR (personal video recorders) for quite a while now, and settled on the Linux-powered TiVo Series|2.
The idea
Many people, when trying to explain TiVo, end up calling it a "digital VCR" or a "VCR on steroids." After using TiVo for a month, it is clear that these methods of explaining TiVo's function are unfair -- TiVo is so much more than a VCR, it can change the way you watch TV, unlike a VCR, which for the most part just augments your viewing habits.

There are two quintessential parts of TiVo -- how you watch live TV, and how it records programs. The first part, live TV, is perhaps the most revolutionary of the two. When watching live TV through your TiVo, there is a buffer in which you can rewind or pause. The buffer contains the past 30 minutes of whichever channel you have been watching, starting from the point you changed to that channel. This feature is really handy if you miss something. No more bathroom breaks during commercials.

Next is how TiVo records programs -- there are several methods of recording, from manually setting something (along the lines of a VCR, you give it a time and date or set of dates to record a program) to the season pass, TiVo's central feature. Season passes are set per program. You tell it to record, for instance, "The West Wing," and it will record the program whenever it is on. Depending on your personal settings, it may only grab first-run episodes, or all episodes, rerun or not.

In either case, TiVo offers some very subtle features that make the experience all the better, such as taking into account reaction time when fast forwarding. If you are fast forwarding or rewinding (both of which can happen in 3x, 20x or 60x speeds, TiVo will go back a certain number of seconds in the opposite direction, so when you pass the point you were looking for and hit play, it finds just about the right spot. For me, it's almost always correct, and is one of my favorite TiVo features.

Other interesting and useful features are wish lists and TiVo suggestions. Wish lists allow you to have TiVo look for programs using certain parameters -- actor name, the name of a sports team, director of a movie, or a number of other items. This is especially useful if you want to see only the episodes of a show with a certain actor, such as the episodes of "3rd Rock from the Sun" with John Cleese. TiVo suggestions use what programs you record and how high you rate programs to try to figure out some programs that might be of interest to you. By default, TiVo records these programs in the empty space, although this can be turned off at will. In TiVo's 3.0 software, the suggestions seem much more accurate than in 2.0.3, so if you have a TiVo and did not like it, give it another chance!

Physically installing the TiVo is as easy as hooking up any other piece of home theater equipment. In my case, because I have an S-video capable TV, I plugged the S-video and stereo outputs into the back of the TV, plugged the cable wire and the phone cord into the TiVo, plugged the TiVo into an outlet, and that was it. One item of note is that your TiVo, unlike most VCRs, will not pass the RF signal along unless it is in standby mode. To avoid this (admittedly minor) annoyance, you should split the cable signal coming in into the back of the TV and the back of the TiVo, avoiding the pass-through entirely.

Ease of use
One feature TiVo has going for it is its interface. TiVo has an easier interface than any VCR on the market. Plug it in, and turn it on, and it starts by asking you some simple questions -- where you live, your cable/satellite provider, your area code. These questions allow TiVo to pick the correct lineup for your broadcast area/provider. TiVo then dials in on its phone line, gets your lineup data, and processes it. This can take a few hours, so don't expect your TiVo to work out of the box.

Once the setup is done, you can use the various menu functions of the TiVo to pick programs to record, check listings, or anything else TiVo allows. This is the easy part -- but if you have any trouble, you can refer to TiVo's documentation, which is well written. Even the most technically inept, the people who cannot program a VCR, will have an easy time setting up TiVo programs. The interface is intuitive and well thought out. For those with more advanced problems/questions, there is a horde of TiVo fanatics on the TiVo Community Forums (a site ran independently by TiVo fans) who will be perfectly willing to help you, but before you go you should check out the TiVo Forum FAQ. One of the people you may meet on this forum is Richard "TiVolutionary" Bullwinkle, who is interviewed later in this article, and is TiVo's liaison between the company and the community.

The remote
The TiVo remote is the key to the unit -- without it, the TiVo is non-functional, because there are absolutely no buttons on the unit itself. The remote is of very comfortable design, with a number pad, fast forward, rewind, play, slow motion, skip-to-end, directional and enter buttons, as well as thumbs up and down for rating shows, and the TiVo button, which you use to access the TiVo menu. Also present are TV input, TV power and volume controls for controlling the television the TiVo is attached to. Also very useful are the display and guide buttons, which show you a guide to what is on TV and information on the show currently playing.

Penguin inside
Some of you may be wondering why NewsForge is covering what appears to be a proprietary piece of consumer electronics, but the reason is simple -- this particular piece of consumer electronics runs Linux! TiVo runs upon a combination of a modified Linux kernel and modified versions of the GNU utilities. TiVo has released its changes in compliance with the GPL. More about the use of Linux in TiVo is in the interview later.

Smaller package, bigger hardware
As for the hardware, Series|2 has a few clear advantages over Series 1 units. First, the Series|2 unit is smaller, fitting nicely on top of my now-deprecated VCR. This is a big advantage, because older TiVos were huge in comparison. In the rear of the unit, the addition of USB ports is quite noticeable. Initially, these USB ports were not used, but as you will read below, the currently-rolling-out version 3.0 of the TiVo software unofficially supports the use of USB network adapters to connect to the TiVo service over a network connection instead of dialup. Last, the processor and memory of the TiVo have been upgraded to a 200MHz MIPS processor and 32 megabytes of RAM, up from a 52MHz processor and 16 megabytes of RAM on Series 1 models.

TiVo 3.0
As I said before, TiVo is currently beginning the process of rolling out TiVo's 3.0 software to customers. My TiVo has 3.0, and I have to say TiVo kept its word -- the purpose of this release was mainly to synchronize the versions of the various stand-alone TiVos. Some features that were changed from the Series|2's original 2.0.3 version are improved wish list functionality, better TiVo suggestions, and other small features here and there, as well as the unsupported broadband feature and broadcast data download.

The most significant feature in TiVo 3.0 for Series|2 users is the ability for a TiVo Series|2 unit to support a USB network adapter to connect to the TiVo service instead of a phone line. Normally, a TiVo dials up to a UUNet number which TiVo must pay a per-connection fee for. With Series|2, TiVo 3.0 and a USB network adapter, your TiVo can connect via your home/office network, which saves TiVo money by cutting the number of calls that must be made. In order to enable this feature, connect a USB network adapter, connect the adapter to your network, and reboot the TiVo. Next, go into your phone settings and set your dialing prefix to ,#401, then simply tell your TiVo to make its daily call, and it will be made via the network connection instead of the phone line, which you can now unplug.

Broadcast data download
A feature useful for all TiVo units is broadcast data download. This feature allows a TiVo to switch to a particular channel at 3 a.m. EST and download national lineup data via encoded TV broadcasts. TiVo then only needs to connect to the TiVo service to retrieve local broadcast information and the decryption key for the broadcast data. If you happen to record something during the time the broadcast download occurs, it will get the data normally from the TiVo service.

Interview with a TiVolutionary
Below is an instant message interview I did with Richard "TiVolutionary" Bullwinkle, TiVo's chief evangelist, regarding the future of TiVo. Please note this interview took place slightly before the original release of TiVo 3.0.

Question: Lets start off with an easy one - who are you, and what is your function at TiVo, Inc.?

Richard: Function? Heh!

Richard: I am Richard Bullwinkle, and I am TiVo's chief evangelist. I act as a customer advocate, a spreader of the news, and a listening rock within TiVo.

Richard: I work with many different customers from the everyday Joes to Howard Stern.

Question: Wow, that sounds interesting. When did you become part of TiVo, Inc? Have you been there from the beginning?

Richard: I was early. I joined in spring of 1998. I've just had my fourth year anniversary. I had worked on digital video apps with Macromedia before that.

Question: So your background was in the engineering aspect?

Richard: Yes, I joined TiVo as head of QE (quality engineering) and then progressed through several jobs as the company grew and needed new tasks. I was the webmaster for a while. That's how I got involved with the online communities.

Question: TiVo, as most of our readers may know, is built on the Linux kernel as well as some of the GNU utilities. How did this happen? Was Linux always a part of TiVo?

Richard: Yes. That was a fairly easy decision, and was made even back when it wasn't such a clear choice. Perhaps because Linux became such a powerful OS with a huge community behind it, and perhaps a bit because of our lead, Linux is showing up as the OS for many systems, even set-top boxes.

Richard: We needed something very robust.

Richard: We needed something very powerful.

Richard: We certainly didn't want to start from scratch,

Richard: and Free was a BIG plus!

Question: Speaking of free, when TiVo released its modifications to the Linux kernel and the utilities involved, was that going to happen anyway or was it a result of requests from the Linux community?

Richard: Oh, we're very aware of the GPL. We had releases ready from almost the moment we shipped. In fact, it's mentioned in the appendix of our very first manual. But we certainly seem to get respect from the Linux Community. We have made some fairly easy decisions that made us quite popular. We are grateful to them, and respectful of the body of work we built on.

Richard: When I say releases, I mean releases of our modifications.

Question: How deep did the modifications to the kernel/utilities go? Are you aware of what particular changes had to be made to make Linux suitable for TiVo?

Richard: Well, sort of.

Richard: I'm no kernel hacker, but I sit next to one on TV!

Richard: We had to do some fairly major things to deliver the real-time performance we needed.

Richard: We also had to make it work with our filesystem, of course, and a few other tweaks here and there. I heard a bit of cursing over the cube walls about different bugs that were found, but I don't remember the details.

Question: Does TiVo, Inc., use Linux internally for anything besides the TiVo software itself? Servers, workstations, etc.
Richard: Oh, yes!
Richard: The TiVo Service also runs on Linux
Richard: and most of engineering uses Linux as their primary OS.
Richard: We do have to resort to PCs for most of our financial and marketing teams, and we use Macs for design
Question: The TiVo service being what the TiVos dial into?
Richard: Exactly.
Richard: TiVos dial into a Linux-based server farm.

Question: Linux users tend to be a bit more "playful" when it comes to hardware -- many of them aren't afraid to open something up to see how it works, or even change it. In TiVo's case this has resulted in smaller upgrades such as increasing the space on the devices, to larger scale updates that add additional functionality such as the "TiVonet" upgrade from 9thtee. How do you feel about these projects?

Richard: Well, how I feel and how TiVo feels are fairly close. I'll try to answer for both. :)

Richard: First, we couldn't be more pleased that people are so enthusiastic, and like their TiVos so much that they spend so much time with them.

Richard: I must admit that we are often very impressed and pleased with the what the "hacker" community comes up with.

Richard: We are also often very happy to see the way they are respectful of our intellectual property and right to make money. Very rarely do we see hacks that are intended to cheat TiVo or our partners out of money.

Richard: In those cases we fully support it.

Richard: There is the rare case where someone tries to steal TiVo Service, or use a DIRECTV receiver with TiVo without paying DIRECTV, and those people certainly anger us a bit, but like I said the overall community is quite moral and forthright.

Richard: We do have to spend some engineering dollars keeping slightly ahead of the hacker community, or our partners begin to wonder if our technology isn't going to cost them lots of money.

Richard: Digital Media copyright is certainly a hotbed right now.

Richard: Many of our partners are trying to draw a line in the sand, and in that light we have to be a bit more strict with what kinds of hacks we allow, and which we make very difficult.

Question: Which brings up an interesting point: What is TiVo's view on hacks with the goal of extracting the video from the TiVo?

Richard: Well, it really comes down to use, legally, but because there is no honor system we have to discourage it intensely. When I say discourage, I mean we have to write code that makes it as difficult as we can. We are very aware that there is no hacker-proof system, but we try to make it very difficult.

Richard: Conceivably TiVo will provide technology that will allow users to share video within their home, but not allow it to be sent outside the home. We believe that the fair-use aspects of video extraction are very compelling, but we must protect the content providers and protect ourselves from lawsuit with respect to the DMCA.

Question: TiVo recently released its Series|2 product, which on the surface adds USB ports, makes the unit smaller and adds increased space as well. What are some of the internal changes with Series|2?

Richard: Well, we switched to MIPs, went from 52 MHz to 200 MHz, and moved to a PCI bus, allowing for more versatility in part configuration to allow for different manufacturers to add high-end features if they like.

Question: Do any particular high-end features come to mind?

Richard: Well, someone could add component out, or digital out, or even an HD tuner if they liked.

Question: Interesting. What advantages will the increase in CPU speed have for stand-alone TiVos? Does it affect the basic functions, or will it only affect the newer features planned for later?

Richard: I don't think normal DVR features will show a noticeable increase in performance. We needed the extra horsepower to allow for other applications like the Real Music Service announced for later this year.

Question: What will the Real Music Service add to TiVo?

Richard: Well, we haven't announced details, but you can imagine things like MP3 players and Internet radio tuners.

Question: Can you tell us what sort of features version 3 of the TiVo software will add? To me, the main purpose seems to be to synchronize the various unit types, although there is talk of such features as downloading listings through encoded TV broadcasts and broadband support on the Series|2 models via USB.

Richard: Well, I wouldn't think of 3.0 as a new feature release. Yes, there are some new technologies in play, but I can't really go into specifics. Ethernet will be a back-door feature in 3.0. We don't plan to release it for the masses until this fall.

Richard: Mostly 3.0 is to get many different platforms to a similar code base and feature set.

Question: Will the 3.0 version of the software have a "Free Space" meter? Right now a personal pet peeve is never knowing if I'm running low on space.

Richard: No.

Richard: 3.0 has almost no visible user features.

Richard: And space meters mean almost nothing on a TiVo.

Richard: What we do instead is tell you if you won't be able to keep something as long as you have requested it to if there is a space conflict.

Richard: But space availability changes moment to moment on a TiVo.

Richard: Yeah, if you mark everything "save until I delete," you'll see our conflict management is quite robust!

Jeff: Ahh, I've never run into that, so I guess I'm ok. Sixty hours is quite a bit of TV!

Question: What does that mean for Series|2 owners? Series|2 uses version 2.0.3 of the TiVo software, while original stand-alone TiVo units are at 2.5.1 -- what are the Series|2 folks currently missing out on?

Richard: Wow, I wish I knew the specifics. When we froze the software version to port it to Series|2 we were still on 2.0 Now that he platform is released and no more changes will happen to the hardware we are very anxious to get the Series|2 boxes up to our latest release. After that I expect you'll see the Series|2 platform slowly move ahead of the Series 1 boxes in functionality.

Question: What are TiVo's plans for the future of Series 1?

Richard: Well, the Series 1 combo boxes are still the standard for DIRECTV receivers with TiVo, but the stand-alone boxes are no longer in production. We will always provide service for them, but I think most of the new services and new features will be available only on Series|2. We will make a few improvements here and there on Series 1, but they just don't have the horsepower or expandability to do too much more.

Question: Are there plans for Series|2 DirecTV receivers?

Richard: Oh yes.

Richard: They will be available later this year.

Question: What made TiVo decide to offer Series|2 units with the TiVo name on them ahead of their availability in retail? Will these units be available in retail or will that wait for your partners (Sony, Philips, etc.) to make Series|2 units?

Richard: Actually, the big CE manufacturers said that our brand was strong enough to go into retail, and TiVo branded DVRs will be available in all Best Buy stores on May 1.

Richard: We will also have TiVos branded by our partners later this year.

Richard: We never had a deal with which we could get to retail profitably before, but the Best Buy deal is very good for us and for Best Buy. That's what allowed us to do it ourselves, as well as with partners.

Question: The Original TiVo units had some fairly-common trouble with modems being very sensitive to the voltage of the phone lines, resulting in the modems going bad and needing to be repaired. Are the modems in the newer units built to be more resistant to voltage problems?

Richard: Well, I don't really want to comment on Series 1, but I can say that the Series|2 units incorporated many design changes that were the direct result of our findings from three years of having Series 1 units out there in people's homes. The Series|2 units are very robust.

Question: This is looking a bit far ahead, but how will HDTV affect TiVo, assuming HDTV becomes a reality?

Richard: Well, we have shown an HD TiVo prototype at CES and other shows. It's not too hard to do. It's expensive, but not hard to do. We are certainly ready, and when a CE partner wants to create that product we'll help them do it. It is not a product we want to manufacture ourselves at this time. It will be high-end, and difficult to market to the right customers.

Question: There have been rumblings that future standards such as HDTV will carry digital copyright protection, does TiVo feel this could adversely affect future TiVo products?

Richard: Well, it could. I don't think ANYONE will adopt a standard that doesn't allow time-shifting. That would be the kiss of death for people adopting HD in this country, I think. We certainly aren't going to sell TiVos out of the back of cheesy magazines like macrovision breaking boxes. In other words, we don't spend a lot of time worrying. We're fairly confident that technical Darwinism will solve that problem for us. And of course, we belong to the correct lobbying groups. ;)

Question: Exactly how much research did TiVo do to figure out exactly how far to automatically go back when I fast forward too far?

Richard: A lot! Actually, we constantly tweak it. It changes on different releases as performance varies, and that drives me batty. I wish we'd just put in a slider and be done with it. We test fairly extensively, though.

Question: One feature that Series|2 lacks that TiVos running version 2.5.1 of the TiVo software have is variable bit rate recording. How much of a benefit is this feature? Does it allow one to "set it and forget it" as opposed to tweaking each show by the quality it needs? Also, is it heavily affected by signal quality as some people have suggested?

Richard: No. For stand-alone recorders, our VBR is not a set it and forget it. It's a "use these parameters, but burst if things get crazy." In other words, we set an average bit rate, and allow the TiVo to drop below it in low action scenes, and burst above it in high action scenes.

Question: Interesting -- so you could, for instance, set it to "basic VBR," but for action scenes it would go above that to store them properly?

Richard: Yes.

Richard: Our Series|2 boxes use a different chip. It may use VBR one day, but not yet. We're still perfecting things on that chipset.

Richard: Combo boxes, by the way, are ALWAYS VBR, and yes, it's a "set it and forget it" implementation.

Question: One user suggestion I found interesting is the possibility of networking TiVos and coordinating their schedules -- is this something TiVo may do in the future? I could see a house with several TiVos that exchange programs over a LAN as an interesting possibility.

Richard: Yes. It even has a cool code name, but I'm not ready to leak it, yet.

Richard: Series|2 TiVos will talk to each other one day, for sure.

Richard: We will be very careful about protecting the copyrights of others, however.

Richard: Sharing would only be allowed within a home.

Question: Sounds great! That was the last question. I want to thank you for doing this, it has been very interesting. Any parting comments?

Richard: No. Thanks for having me! ;)

After using TiVo Series|2 for a good amount of time, I have to say it really does change the way you watch TV. I no longer rush around to make sure I don't miss the beginning of my favorite shows, I can walk in late and just watch what TiVo has already recorded, inevitably catching up to live TV becase I can fast-forward through commercials. At $399 for a TiVo Series|2 (available direct from TiVo at TiVo.com or at Best Buy retail stores plus a monthly fee of $12.95 for the service or a $250 subscription that lasts the lifetime of your individual unit, TiVo is not cheap. However, if you are a big TV watcher, it will be well worth it.

The only downside is you will probably end up watching more TV than you do. However, you will spend less time doing it. I find I spend 40 minutes watching an hour-long show, thanks to being able to quickly fast-forward through commercials. TiVo will give you complete control over your viewing habits, which is excellent for those who do not want to be dependent on the networks' time slots.

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