TiVo made its name by popularizing the digital video recorder (DVR), but now that set-tops distributed by Verizon and every other TV provider perform similar tasks, TiVo has to reinvent its core product in order to survive. Why go through the trouble of paying $299 for the TiVo HD plus whatever costs there are for getting the required pair of CableCARDs from your cable or FiOS provider? Well, not for the media moving capabilities. Instead, do it for the media-collecting features.
The TiVo HD almost treats your PC’s media as an afterthought. It’s not what’s already in your possession that matters to TiVo, but the video you can pull in from the outside world. If you thought D-Link’s extender was cool for linking in Flickr, wait until you see the slew of online sources TiVo builds into its box: everything from Yahoo! Traffic to Fandango to Live365 to the godfather of online video, YouTube. Simply having links for these wouldn’t be enough. The beauty of TiVo has always been its interface. But while these sites are very different in content, TiVo makes navigating them blissfully easy. And, yes, you can also move your own media around your house with TiVo HD.
A Hitch or Two
The TiVo HD supports video modes up to 1080i over composite, S-Video, component, and HDMI outputs. Audio output can either go over optical SPDIF or RCA. You’ll find two USB 2.0 ports on the TiVo HD’s back, but these are strictly for adding a wireless network adapter. The DVR ignored our media-laden USB drive—in fact, we lost video output and had to reboot the box upon removing our SanDisk Cruzer. So, don’t bother inserting any USB storage. However, you can add an eSATA drive for additional recording storage. As we’ll see, this goes beyond TV show recordings and includes video snagged from the Internet.
One issue we ran into happened when we cycled the power on the TiVo HD, which resulted in the download and installation of another major firmware update that apparently wasn’t completed during the initial “Getting Setup” loading process. (Being notified that you may have more than an hour’s wait sure makes you want to wipe the smirk off that little antenna guy’s face.) You may want to perform the first setup, then unplug the TiVo for a few seconds, plug it back in, and see if you get a second data update before digging into the service.
Get The Setup Looking Good
Once you have the TiVo HD all connected, a Welcome screen starts your setup process. You’ll be prompted to perform an audio test, activate the TiVo service, select your network connection type, enter your ZIP code, scan channels, and download program info. When the TiVo is ready, you’ll be shown an introductory video. Finally, you’ll land at TiVo’s home page, called TiVo Central.
We suggest the first thing you do is fix your resolution. You may have noticed that the readout on the front of the TiVo HD shows a default setting of 480p fixed. Assuming you have a more capable display, dip into the Read New Messages and Settings area, then go to Settings > Video > Video Output Format and select your most optimal setting. While you’re there, check out the Aspect Correction Mode area. We prefer a Panel setting, which won’t distort your playback but instead gives you colored bars on the top or sides of the screen. If you don’t like the default bar's gray color, go into Letterbox Color and select Black.
Search and See
Hit the TiVo button on the remote to return to the TiVo Central page. The first of eight listed items here is the Now Playing List. This is not like the Now Playing item on your iPod. The Now Playing List is also your queue and holding area for saved items. Let’s say you’ve been dying to watch Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Use the remote control’s arrow pad to navigate down to Music, Photos, and Showcases. Hit the Select button located under the arrow pad. There are two ways to get your Thriller on. First, you can go to Music Videos from Music Choice, then select the Search for a Video link. This brings up an on-screen keyboard. Use the arrow pad and select buttons to spell THRILLER. Sure enough, a hit comes up for Michael Jackson: “Thriller.” (You could also find Thriller listed under Genre > ‘80s.) Arrow over and select this. You’ll see some metadata info for song duration, rating (TV-14 in this case), and genre. Pressing the remote’s Info button will add artist, title, and copyright restrictions. Finally, go to the bottom of the page and select Request this video. The second method, also available within Music, Photos, and Showcases, is to use TiVo Search. Currently in beta as of this writing, TiVo Search is a more global interface that can currently scan through TV listings, YouTube, Music Choice, and Amazon Video On Demand from one query. In the future, expect TiVo Search to span even more of TiVo’s content areas.
To Watch, Return To Now Playing List
Here’s the confusing part. You might expect at this point that your "Thriller" video will buffer up and start playing, but no. You need to go back to TiVo Central and select the Now Playing List, where the video will show up after you’ve given it a few minutes to download to the TiVo’s hard drive. If you select multiple videos in fairly quick succession, you may not see them listed immediately in the Now Playing List. Music Choice music videos are just one example of the media partnerships through TiVo.
Again, since we’re straying away from your media with this, let’s be quick and just pick one more example: YouTube. From TiVo Central, go down to and select Watch Free Videos. If the most recent update has been completed, you’ll find an entry for Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. Also present are Amazon Video on Demand and Walt Disney Studios, both of which charge at least $2.99 for movie rentals. But if you select Youtube, you can expect to blow a few hours watching free video.
Overwhelmed? Start Here
If you’re new to YouTube on the big screen, you can’t go wrong with navigating to Most Viewed > All Time. One of our favorites is “Jeff DunhamAchmed the Dead Terrorist.” Don’t expect HD quality here. YouTube isn’t known for stunning visuals, so be prepared for VHS-like results.
Prep the PC
You can literally spend days exploring all of TiVo HD’s content partnerships, but let’s get back to business: moving your photos, music, and videos to your TV. The key to sharing your media with the TiVo HD—and to sending TiVo recordings back to your PC—is to go to www.tivo.com/desktop and download then install the TiVo Desktop application. Note that this is a free application, but it will only let you share audio and photo files. If you want to share your videos, you’ll need to purchase the Upgrade to Desktop Plus for $24.95. The single hiccup we encountered during this installation was a “Files In Use” pop-up advising us to shut down some running applications. We couldn’t actually close down the Print Spooler, Windows Explorer, or Windows installer processes, so we hit Ignore to move past these and the installation completed successfully.
Media Access Key
During the Desktop installation, you’ll be prompted for your Media Access Key. Just as the on-screen instructions say, we went back to TiVo Central and selected Messages and Settings > Account and System Information > Media Access Key. We wrote this down, then entered it into the waiting Desktop window. So far, so good.
Index Your Media
With TiVo Desktop running, it is time to provide the system with files and folders to index for sharing with the set-top box. Click the Share Music, Photos, and Videos icon on the left. To add music, make sure the Music tab is selected, then click the Add Music button. Find a folder location you want to add, such as “My Music,” and hit the Add button at the bottom. Select the Photos tab and repeat this to add your photo locations. To pull TiVo recordings onto your PC, click on the TiVo recordings icon, then click the Pick Recordings to Transfer button. As you can see, we had two videos stored on our TiVo HD, but both were copyright protected and couldn’t be moved off the set-top box.
TiVo Meets PC
We made the initial mistake of thinking that our photos would now be listed under Music, Photos, and Showcases—and they are, just not where you might first suspect. The Photos area lets you interact with photos you’ve uploaded to services such as Picasa and Photobucket. This is good stuff but not what we’re immediately after. Keep scrolling down. After setting up the Desktop application, our TiVo HD automatically recognized and initiated contact with the PC, resulting in two new entries in this area: William’s Music on WILLIAM-PC and William’s Photos on WILLIAM-PC.
Let’s dig into the William’s Music link. TiVo keeps you notified about the sub-folder you’re in right under the Music header at the top of the page. Under this appears the lengthy list of files and folders within your folder. As with most media players driven by a remote control rather than a keyboard, this is where the usage model gets cumbersome. We have hundreds of music folders, and it’s a long trip from 2 Unlimited down to ZZ Top.
Song playback works well enough. You can pause, rewind, skip tracks, and so on. There’s no eye candy to watch while music was playing, so once we had AC/DC’s "Dirty Deeds" album cranking away, we went in search of photos...and discovered that TiVo’s music playback stops the moment you back out of the Music area. So if you want to play slideshows from your PC with a music soundtrack in the background, bring a harmonica.
The William’s Photos area feels much like William’s Music, only now TiVo switches to a grid of thumbnails instead of lists. Again, depending on how you organize your media, this could mean a lot of scrolling right through endless pages of image previews. In general, though, we found the interface intuitive and friendly. Clicking on a thumbnail gives you a larger thumbnail preview along with metadata about the photo, the ability to rotate it, and the option to start a slideshow. We would have liked the ability to create a custom slideshow from multiple folders on the TiVo—as well as custom playlists for music—but this isn’t currently possible.
Much To Love (Mostly)
The TiVo HD was the only product we reviewed for this series that left us with an impression of significant loss in photo display quality. Photos on the TiVo HD look less vibrant and sharp with a notable loss of fine detail. In standard definition, this will be less apparent and some people may be happy with “good enough.” Ultimately, while we found a few drawbacks to the TiVo HD—having to shell out another $25 for video compatibility topping the list—the device’s amazing Internet support made ample amends. When we announced to the family that it was time to pack up the TiVo HD and return it, there was more than one voice that suddenly cried out, “Silence! I’ll keeel you!”