Experiences of a TiVo Newbie
Updated:- Friday October 20, 2006
This document is a Work-In-Progress. It will probably never be finished. At some point it will be left to languish in whatever state it is in at the time.
Most of this was written to document my experiences from the time I opened the box. This was a conscious decision so that I could record my learning experience with TiVo. Some weeks later I now know the answer to many of the issues raised. The section at the end, under the heading A Couple of Weeks Later, was written further down the track when I no longer considered myself a newbie. I had a bit more experience under my belt!
If you are not sure what a TiVo is, and you would like to find out, you can read all about it at Wikipedia (preferred), or at the TiVo site. A TiVo is an intelligent DVR (Digital Video Recorder) which, among many other functions, allows you to pause or replay live TV. Their claim is that it will change the way you watch TV.
Let me start with my television viewing habits. I don't watch TV very much, normally just 2 hours per day on 6 or 7 days per week. I watch 2 programs and half of a third between 10 PM and midnight on 2 broadcast channels. Until last month I had not subscribed to cable for about 15 years. Because I hardly ever watch TV it hasn't been worth it. Back in the early 1990's when the Playboy channel went from subscription to Pay-Per-View, that was the final straw that caused me to cancel my cable subscription.
Sure, I've been known to watch reruns of Seinfeld and M*A*S*H on odd occasions. And sometimes 60 Minutes on CBS, not for the program content, just for the commercials.
My 12 year old Sony VCR lost its ability to record a couple of years ago. So instead of having it repaired or buying a new one, I decided it was time to move on to the next generation of video technology. I'll never be an early adopter, and obviously I've missed the boat this time too. So after much procrastination I finally ordered my first TiVo. Everyone I have ever heard on the subject speaks glowingly about them, so I concluded that getting a TiVo was the way to go.
I ordered a TiVo TCD649080 Series 2 from Amazon.com. What a deal. Total price $215 with a $150 rebate. The only catch is that to qualify for the rebate it is necessary to subscribe to the TiVo service. I'm told that in practice one has to do that anyway. So no complaints about the deal, the hardware at this price must be at or below cost. The way I figure it, Tivo has to make some money, hence their subscription service.
I hear that the TiVo Series 3 is due out around this time, just in time for the Christmas shopping season, so maybe that is another reason the Series 2 machines are being discounted. The price of the Series 3 machines is NOT right, so the Series 2 will do me for a year or two.
The shipment arrived promptly from Amazon via UPS Ground. It was a flimsy Amazon cardboard box with one of the lid panels open. Not surprising, it appears to have been sealed with just 2 small strips of sticky tape on the top of the box. However the contents appeared in good condition. The TiVo box inside was in perfect factory condition, and was encased in plastic air pillows on the top and side, but not underneath.
On opening the TiVo box I found the very large red "Start Here" document. A full size wall poster actually. I had been forewarned that TiVo had done an excellent job with their printed and on-screen documentation. Specifically that the online instructions were done in such a way that you didn't need to be a technical whiz to set up an use the TiVo. I found the printed setup instructions to be very easy to follow also. Using cable bag A, I connected the TiVo to my TV using the composite A/V cable, not the Coaxial RF cable. I connected it to my home network using a wired Ethernet cable, not the wireless or telephone options.
After making all the connections it was time apply power to the unit. I understand that a TiVo is essentially a Linux based PC with an 80 GB disk, so I connected the power cable to my Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). The only sign of life was a green LED at the bottom of the front panel, not visible if you are looking down on the unit, so I did not notice it at first. I was expecting to see a flashing 12:00 (just kidding! Even my old VCR doesn't do that).
But just like the instructions said, the "Welcome" screen appeared on the TV. The setup went smoothly except for one minor glitch. A window I can't get back to without completely starting over asked what type of cable connection I had. From memory the choices were something like analog cable with a a converter box, digital cable with a converter box, or the choice that I selected, satellite or cable without a converter box. This proved to be the wrong choice, because from that point forward it assumed I had satellite and was forcing me to select one of the satellite services. Eventually I worked out how to jump back several steps, I selected the first choice, and had no further problems with the setup process. I would like to see those choices again to review exactly how they are worded.
Now it was finally time to play with my new TiVo box. I spent the rest of this first evening learning how to do the most basic functions, watching live TV, setting up to record programs, and of course, pausing live TV.
On reading the Viewer's Guide, I got quite a shock. I read on page 2 that the pause live TV feature could only pause the program for a maximum of 30 minutes, and equally bad, if you changed channel before catching up with live TV, the remainder of the program was immediately lost. I guess I had assumed that as I was interrupted by phone calls, or preparing a meal or whatever, I could pause it anytime during the 2 hours of watching TV each night and view the remainder of the program at my convenience (or elsewhere).
It soon occurred to me that I could set it up to record my 3 programs each night, but I could have done that with a new $60 VCR! However, I later learned that unlike a VCR I could watch the programs as they were being recorded, and even pause or move backward and forward to my heart's content. In practice it seems this is also pausing live TV, and you end up with the program being saved for later viewing.
At last it was time to pack it in for the night. I powered off the TV, then realized I didn't know how to power off the TiVo. Wait a minute, I thought, it probably wants to be left on at all times. As obvious as this is, it hadn't occurred to me until now. Seeing it is in reality a Linux based PC complete with a hard drive and at least one fan, its power consumption is significantly more than that of a quiescent VCR. The power consumption of the average PC is 65 watts, not including the monitor. The TiVo specifications state that its power consumption is 40 watts. This being the case, the cost of running a TiVo for a full year at my marginal cost of electricity, 20 cents per kilowatt hour, is $70. Trust me on this calculation. This is an amount over and above my careful calculations of the cost of TiVo ownership. I'll update this when I measure its actual consumption.
Then it occurred to me, how do I power it down if I need to move it? I can't find any reference to this subject. I did find reference to what happens when a power failure occurs. And I did find Standby mode, but it's not clear what this does. The Guide says it will continue to record programs and continue to connect to the TiVo service while in Standby mode, so what does it do? It is not stated what the purpose of this mode is. It goes against my normal practice to simply pull the plug on an intelligent device, but I don't see any alternative. And because of my admittedly unusual pattern of TV viewing, why do I need to leave the TiVo running for 22 hours a day doing nothing except consuming electricity.
As I walked into the living room next morning I immediately became aware of noise from the TiVo. That's funny, thinks me, it sure didn't sound that loud last night. Maybe it's because the room is so quiet. I put my hand flat on top of the unit, and noticed a vibration. I also noticed that my hand caused the noise to all but completely disappear. It appears the top panel is only supported around the edges, and the vibration causes the top panel to resonate. A book placed on top cured this!
I haven't had the opportunity to continue the adventure today. I happened to notice around 6:15 PM that the red "Recording" LED on the front panel was lit. I made a mental note to follow up on this later tonight. I noticed around 8 PM that the LED was off, but was back on around 9:45. When I switched on the TV at 10 PM, I bumbled my way through the process of discovering that it had been recording a sports program on channel 33, ESPN. It had also recorded a program on channel 38, the golf channel. I have no idea why. I didn't even know there was a golf channel. How boring! I haven't set it up to record anything yet. Is this an example of it having a mind of its own? I don't like that.Later I learned these are called "suggestions". I discovered how to stop it recording suggestions, that function is now optioned off.
Anyway, I now know enough to view TV through the TiVo, and even to pause it and catch up. That's it for today. It's time to relax for the remainder of the evening.
This afternoon I noticed the amber network activity light next to the RJ45 connector flashing intermittently, and in a quiet environment I can hear the hard disk working. Later when I turned on the TV there was a message saying that the software had been upgraded. It was all to do with KidZone, so not a lot in this upgrade to interest me. But it was of interest to see how upgrades are done.
As the days passed I noticed that the amber light next to the RJ-45 connector continues to flash intermittently. I can't believe it is being caused by network activity. It's probably not the fault of the TiVo, I suspect it's my cable modem sending out far too many ARP's. For now I choose to ignore it.
But if I listen closely I can still hear disk activity every few seconds 24 hours a day. Nothing major, just minor "clicks", as if the disk arm is moving between cylinders. But what is it doing? If I were recording programs or watching previously recorded programs I could understand it. But not when it's quiescent.
At some point I became aware that the TiVo is always recording the previous 30 minutes on both tuners. Always meaning 24 x 7 x 365. This is because it has no way of knowing if the TV is actually switched on. So it is continuously recording the program on each tuner. Probably at "best" quality. When the time arrives for it to record a program on the to-do list, it selects the background tuner, leaving the foreground tuner playing the selected channel. If a second program is scheduled to be recorded, it puts out a message on the active channel 60 seconds before the program is due to be recorded. If you are actually watching a program you can tell it what to do. If you are not watching, it "steals" that tuner to record the second program. Very clever and very effective.
It will no longer record programs. I am getting a message that no DVR functions are available without a subscription. I guess they gave me a free trial 7 day subscription and that is what has expired. I really will have to subscribe to their service. I was under the impression I could use the device without a subscription except that I wouldn't have access to their downloaded program information. Not so. It simply won't record. It will however allow me to pause live TV.
So at this point I subscribed. Amazing what you can do with a credit card at www.tivo.com/activate/.
An Ongoing Learning Exercise
The amber network activity light is still flashing regularly. I still hear the disk working. Note to self: follow up on this, but it is low priority.
I must learn what communications can be done with PCs on my network. I have been told it is possible to listen to music stored on a PC. I believe it is possible to download recorded video to a PC or maybe even to a video iPod. Low priority for now.
I later learned there is a free server application program that can be downloaded from the TiVo site to any PC on the same network as the TiVo. This application is what enables the above functions.
I have also learned there are several hidden key functions that can be used to change the way TiVo works. For example to change the Advance button to a "jump 30 seconds forward" button. There are also several fastpath key sequences. Too much for my brain now. Will investigate later.
Things I haven't worked out how to do yet
How to return to the beginning of a recorded program without having to fast reverse. That is, the opposite of the Advance button.
How to record just part of a program. I would like to be able to record just 25 minutes of a 60 minute program.
How do you power it down as a prelude to powering it off. What happens after a power failure. I haven't been able to find any reference to this area in the manual.
I would find it useful to have an optional indication when watching in time shift mode. The current time bar display would be fine if it was possible to leave it on. It has a very short timeout, I would like it to be there for a longer time, and sometimes for it to remain until you catch up with live TV.
I haven't come across any way of determining how much disk space is being used, and how much remains, or to express that in less technical terms, how much recording time remains. If I go on vacation for a couple of weeks, how do I know if there is enough space to record my programs without it deleting some I haven't viewed yet.
The Ant's Pants (aka Really Cool)
The automatic rewind of 8 seconds when resuming normal play from level 2 fast forward. If you have a fast reaction time you get to see the final few seconds of the last commercial which I don't mind at all. I notice that it's affected by alcohol, after a couple of glasses of wine I need to press the instant replay button also! What's more, this 8 second feature works in reverse when resuming while fast backwarding. Sorry to be so cryptic, it's something you need to experience for yourself.
You record two consecutive programs on the same channel. You start watching the first program. When it reaches the end of the first program, the second program continues continues seamlessly without you having to press any buttons.
Pardon My Negativity
There is a half second interruption when recording starts or stops when watching a live program.
Similarly a minor interruption is included in the recording of a program under some circumstance related to viewing/pausing an earlier part of the program being recorded. A few words of dialog are lost.
Similarly similarly, a minor interruption occurs occasionally when viewing at the extreme point of the 30 minute delay.
Traps for young players
The single program I watch more than any other is the 10 o'clock news on KTVU 7 days a week. On a week night sporting news is the final segment, starting at around 10:55. On Saturday and Sunday an expanded sports segment starts at around 10:40. I have TiVo set up to record the 10 o'clock news every night using the Season Pass feature. On week nights it records the full hour. On weekends it records only 45 minutes. Now I'm not a big sporting fan, but I do like to see what the Oakland A's, the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Raiders, and the San Francisco Forty-niners did today. I realize this is not directly a TiVo issue, it is because of the way the program information is set up.
Comments that don't fit anywhere else
Folklore has it that there are many people in the population who find programming a VCR difficult to impossible. Even setting the time is supposedly a challenge for many. Well, I've got news for you. TiVo is not the answer. The whole TiVo experience has been a real eye opener for me, I consider myself reasonably technically savvy, but I feel I have some distance to go before I am comfortable that I have reached an acceptable level of expertise with it.
Because programming a TiVo is based primarily on programs and to a lesser extent on channels and times, for the system to work the program data provided to TiVo must be exact. Back to my KTVU example, in baseball season a Giants game will often go past the start time of the 10 o'clock news. And so the 10 o'clock news is broadcast from, say 10:20 to 11:20. On the night of the Raider's opening game of the football season, the opposite of this occurred. Tivo thought the 10 o'clock news started at 10:18 PM, but it actually started on time at 10:00, so the first 18 minutes of the news were not recorded. No doubt there is nothing TiVo can do about these situations.
Now that I don't need to organize my life around the times TV programs are broadcast, I find that I usually decide not to watch live TV. There is some advantage of starting to watch a live program 15 minutes late because you gradually catch up as you speed through the commercials. But the problem is that because I know it's no longer important to hurry home to watch a program, I have noticed a tendency to never get around to watching some recorded programs. Moral of this story:- How important was it in the first place?
I really like it. It's a fun toy to play with. The ability to seamlessly pause or replay live TV is awesome. And that's not a word I use often or lightly.
I've got a lot more learning to do, but that's the fun part. But being a frugal person I still resent having to subscribe to the TiVo service just so that I can watch my 3 programs on 2 broadcast channels. Yes, I do need to get over that!
Feel the need to comment?
A Couple of Weeks Later
The claim that you can
pause or replay live TV is really true.
The claim that it will change the way you watch TV is really true.
If you do not own a TiVo, and you have read the above two statements and think you understand, let me tell you that you don't. You have to experience it.
Don't let the number of line items in this section compared to those in the section below affect the magnitude of what I am saying. Nothing can override the above. I can't imagine life without a TiVo. Many of the items below are extremely trivial, and would only be noticed by someone like me. And even I would agree that several of them are inconsequential nits.
Now that I am no longer a card carrying newbie, here is a summary of what I am still not totally relaxed about.
Can't watch TV or even listen while programming.
Recording some programs with a Season Pass specifying first run only actually records one or more repeats. Examples are: the Tonight Show (weeknights 11:35 PM) which additionally records a second episode at 2:15 AM, and This Week in Northern California (Friday evening 7:30 PM) which records multiple repeats over the weekend. So what, you might be tempted to say. Just don't watch them. Except that it limits the space available for programs I do want to record . When I go away for a couple of weeks, for example.
Pulling the plug to power down still doesn't sit well with me.
Some of the on-screen terminology
doesn't sound right. I thought I would get used to it, but I haven't.
Examples from TiVo Central:
Now Playing List: This is a list of programs previously recorded or currently being recorded.
Watch Live TV: I can't improve on this one. Excellent!
Find Programs: This is the way into setting up to record a program, or to review previous requests. It includes:
Search by Title, Record by Time or Channel, Season Pass Manager, and To Do list
There are too many steps to perform some functions. I need to learn the shortcuts. One example of this. At the completion of watching a recorded program, it takes 5 separate key presses on the remote to start watching another recorded program.
All the on screen functions have a sluggish feel. I'm used to a PC where most responses are instantaneous. Is it using an underpowered processor?
There is no display of what channel you are watching without pressing Info. When using my old VCR as a tuner, it displayed the channel number on its front panel.
I would REALLY like to have an option to leave the green bar permanently displayed when operating in delay mode, ie at any time when you are not watching live TV.
I don't know how to get to a particular point in a long recording except by fast forwarding at level 3. For example, how to get to the 90 minute point of a 2 hour recording.
On some occasions the picture
totally breaks up. Maybe it's caused by being in Basic quality mode. Maybe
it's being caused by the TV station sending an unusual frame sequence. Further
Later- I have since observed a full 6 second total breakup while recording in the default High quality mode. It occurred while David Letterman was reading his top ten list. He counted down from number 10 to number 2 ok, but at number 1 the picture disintegrated. No matter how much I replayed it forward and backward, fast and slow, the corruption was present, and I never got to find out what his number 1 reason was. I strongly suspect an edited frame sequence initiated the breakup.
When the date and program progress counter are optioned on in the bottom right corner, the program progress counter isn't always there. I thought at one point that maybe it wasn't if you were watching a program that was also being recorded, but this proved not to be the case.
Is this statement correct? Watching a program in delay that is NOT being recorded is done at Best quality, setting 1 of 4. But when watching a program in delay that IS being recorded, it depends on the Record quality setting for that program, which by default is High quality, setting 2 of 4.
I have come to the realization that the TiVo is always recording 2 programs for its rolling 30 minute replay on each of its two tuners. It is doing this 24 hours a day 365 days per year. Therefore, the noise of its disk working ("rattling") at all hours of the day and night is normal. Similarly, the flashing amber network light that reflects off the wall behind the unit does not mean that it is generating network traffic, rather it must be other unrelated network activity that is causing this. These two things are driving me crazy! I am very sensitive to distractions.