So, its finally here. After four months of pre-registration waiting, lotteries,
|About time you showed up!|
The TiVo is a lot smaller than my trusty old TV Drive/V+ HD box, and it looks better too. Sexy, black curves has replaced silver, right angles. But size, in this case, doesn't matter, because under TiVo's sleek exterior is a powerhouse of a PVR. Its not perfect, by any means, but with future software updates, it can only get better.
After waiting long enough to get my hands on TiVo, its about time to take a closer look.
We're gonna need a bigger Hard Drive
When Virgin unleashed the V+ HD (previously known as the TV Drive in Ye Old NTL-Telewest days), lack of storage for HD content wasn't an issue, mainly because the only HD channel available on Digital Cable back then was BBC HD.
How times have changed. Virgin have added a host of HD channels over the last 18 months and currently have 31 HD channels available, with 19 of them available on the XL pack. All of a sudden, that 160Gb Hard Drive in the V+ HD box looked ridiculously small as far as recording space was concerned, capable of holding a mere 20 hours of HD content.
TiVo whacks up that recording capacity. The 1TB version can hold up to 121 hours of HD recordings, or up to 536 hours of SD recordings. Meanwhile, the 500Gb version has enough capacity to record around 50 hours of HD content, or 250 hours of SD content.
You can expect the HD recording hours on both TiVo boxes to increase when Virgin finally migrate everyone over to MPEG 4 compatible boxes (like TiVo), but for now, especially while Virgin are using MPEG 2 for HD, the additional storage space was very much required, and is welcome.
|Out with the old...|
Compared to V+ HD, it looks better. A lot better. There is one disappointing aspect however - certain screens are in low-resolution (like the series-link editing screen) and while they're good enough to be functional, they don't look great compared to the lovely HD screens such as the Home and My Shows screens. A pity, because some of those low-res screens would be more usable if they could contain more information.
Still, overall, this is light years ahead of Virgin's (or NTL-Telewest's) previous User Interfaces. Its bright, colourful, and like other aspects of this PVR, it benefits from the metadata (which I'll talk about in a bit).
But, what about performance? Its good, a bit better than I thought it would be to be honest, considering the sheer amount of metadata this PVR is dealing with at times. The only noticeable slow-down I've encountered is after editing the priority of series links (eight of them), I get stuck on a 'please wait' screen for several seconds before TiVo returns me to the My Shows screen. Apart from that, TiVo is reasonably nippy.
|...in with the new|
What isn't easy to understand, is the number of unnecessary, one-option-only screens throughout the UI. For instance, while selecting VOD content to play, there's one screen which gives you the single option to 'Watch Now', that's followed by another screen which has the single option of 'Play'. Why the extra screen? Shouldn't 'Watch Now' play the episode?
Record, Record, Record
The V+ HD possesses a feature which even Sky's HD box can't match - three tuners. This means you can watch one programme (live, recorded or from VOD) while simultaneously recording two other programmes.
TiVo's legacy software was designed to work with two tuner boxes. Virgin's TiVo is based on the Cisco-built CT8685, which packs three tuners. Only two of those tuners were active, until a software update several weeks ago enabled the third tuner. Now, some of you may think that three tuners is overkill, but later on as I explain key features of this PVR, you'll realise its just-about-enough-kill.
Since the 3rd tuner was activated (a day of much rejoicing), several key tuner improvements over the V+ HD have become apparent. The main one being that you can record three programmes simultaneously while watching a recording. That's right, TiVo doesn't need a tuner to playback a recording while you're recording three in the background.
|The Info Bar displays all sorts of information, including what|
the other tuners are up to.
Each tuner buffer has enough space for around 1 hour of 'delayed' TV, meaning that if you're watching a programme and say, halfway through it, you decide to record it, then TiVo will also grab the part of the programme already saved to the buffer and save that as part of the complete recording.
Say you're watching what appears to be a crappy episode of V from the start of the episode, and at some point you think 'Hey, this is quite good, gotta record this!'. Well, start recording and the chances are good that TiVo will grab the whole episode as your recording.
Oh, and unlike the V+ HD (or at least, the old TV Drive version), I've not had a single reboot while watching 1 HD channel while recording another 2 HD channels. Virgin's TiVo box eats MPEG 2 HD content for breakfast and if you let, it will come back for more.
Its the sheer amount of content metadata which TiVo is supplied with, which enables the box to perform its
There's one issue here with that data - Tribune, the American company who supplies the content metadata to TiVo for Virgin, are currently, and incorrectly, using American airdates for some American content. That means that when you tell TiVo to record new episodes only from a Series Link, it will use American premiere dates to identify 'new' episodes.
The result is the possibility of TiVo not recording all 'new' episodes from a American Series Link when its told to record 'new' episodes only, because the new episodes aren't considered 'new' for the UK.
Virgin are working with Tribune to resolve this, but in the mean time, the default setting (indeed, the recommended setting) for Series Link recordings is 'New & Reruns'. Now, you might think that you'll end up with loads of duplicate recordings - wrong, because TiVo won't record a episode if its already been recorded and if that episode is being broadcasted within 28 days since it was recorded. To date, I've yet to have a duplicate recording from the 8 series links I've set up. So, while the incorrect premiere date issue is, well, an issue, its not one which will have a major impact on your recordings.
Even with that issue, its the way TiVo uses the metadata which make it such a big improvement compared to V+ HD or any other PVR out there.
EPG, Mini Guide and Discovery Bar
I still remember the days when I got NTL Digital TV installed, the Pace STB I had came with a 3 day EPG. With the ever increasing number of Digital TV channels, that EPG had to contain more data, which consumed more of the STB's memory. Goodbye, 3-day EPG, hello 1-day EPG.
The move to the TV Drive/V HD+ brought with it a 7 day EPG. TiVo adds on another 7 days, allowing you to view what's coming up for the next 14 days, broadcaster schedule data permitting of course.
Better than that, TiVo's EPG allows you to go back 7 days. Why? Well, when you have a massive VOD Catch-Up library, why not?
Programmes marked in the EPG with a small 'c' are programmes which are, or will be, available, via Catch-Up VOD. Missed last Wednesday's episode of Hollyoaks? Just scroll back in time via the EPG, find that episode, and a couple of button presses later, you're watching last week's thrilling instalment. Its such a great idea (a Catch-Up EPG, not Hollyoaks) that you wonder why its not been done before, and while YouView will have the same feature, its going to be a while until you or anyone else can use it.
At the moment, Virgin is the only TV platform which offers access to Catch-Up content from all four terrestrial broadcasters. The change in the BBC syndication policy initially meant that Virgin couldn't link directly to BBC iPlayer content from TiVo's Catch-Up EPG, but as from July 2011 that issue has been resolved. As a bonus, BBC iPlayer has its own App on TiVo, more on this later.
Of course, the EPG benefits greatly from the metadata it uses. I must admit, the channel logos which appear within TiVo's EPG look very classy and being able to know exactly how far into a season an episode is, is very useful.
There's also the Discovery Bar at the top of the main pages, and its context sensitive. The contents of the bar will show images for programmes, films and actors, based on the content you're browsing. For example, select Gossip Girl and the Discovery Bar will be populated with an picture for cast member Leighton Meester. You can select that picture and locate content which she's appeared in. Other entries in the bar are based on Virgin's own recommendations.
But this is TiVo, and being as such, there's a far better way to find content.
Seek, Browse and Watch
The search feature can also find Actors and even Directors. A search for Arnold Schwarzenegger will show all the movies he's been in and from there, you can watch the one's available from VOD or even find and record the one's coming up soon on linear TV channels - like Red Heat which was on ITV 4 on Thursday night.
If the series or Actor isn't located within the search, you can still tell TiVo to find and record it via one of my favourite features which I'll talk about in a moment. You can also ask TiVo to search for that content/actor via YouTube - more on this later.
For now, the Search is an excellent feature, probably one Virgin needed given the 4,000+ hours of VOD content available. Add TiVo's metadata and you're onto a winner. Its like using Google Search for your TV.
The Browse TV option isn't bad either, grouping together numerous types and genres of shows and films, and revealing when that content is on next or if its available to watch on your schedule via VOD.
Stop wishing for a better Search
Now, TiVo Search is fantastic, but, if the programme you want to record isn't on within the next 14 days via the EPG, and is not available via VOD, then, well, you're out of luck, right?
Wrong. Enter Wishlists.
Unlike Series Links, Wishlists are channel-independent. They're also ridiculously powerful, and once you start using them, you'll wonder how you got on without them.
Wishlists can search for any programme, type of programme, or actor who want to find. And if you let them, they'll automatically record content which matches the search parameters you've given them. As the Virgin TiVo guide says, 'You can Search by one or all of these: keyword, title keyword, actor, director [and] category.'
That example merely scratches the surface. Here's another: I'm a fan of NCIS, and Sasha Alexander who was a cast member of that show. Now, I usually watch NCIS live on FX anyway, so I didn't want to record anything featuring Sasha in that show. So, I created a Wishlist to find and record all content containing Sasha which isn't NCIS. A few days later, TiVo recorded an episode of CSI which featured Sasha Alexander as a guest star.
Another Wishlist I've created automatically records all Sci-Fi movies. After 10 days, its recorded over 20 movies and counting, and TiVo (as least for me anyway) is smart enough to record the HD version of those movies when a HD version of that channel is available to record from.
If there's one problem with Wishlists, its that there's currently no way to filter what channels Wishlists can search and record from. Now, you may wonder why that's a problem, I mean, after all, you want to find everything from every channel that matches your search parameters, right? Well, you may change your mind after creating a Wishlist to record all Sci-Fi TV programmes, and later discovering that's its recorded Sci-Fi content from CBBC, or perhaps even radio channels.
As previously mentioned on this blog, Virgin can't add the option to 'remove' channels from the EPG (therefore filtering Wishlist search results, like on the TiVo Premiere) due to contractual agreements with the broadcasters. There's another possible option, that of restricting Wishlist searches to your favourite channels. If Virgin decide to implent that option remains to be seen. Still, Wishlists are still a very powerful feature.
May I offer a suggestion, Sir?
One of the key features of TiVo is...well, it will like to get to know you. You can rate content by giving it up to 3 thumbs up, or 3 thumbs down via the buttons on the remote. If that sounds like too much work, then bare in mind that TiVo will automatically give content you record (either manually or via a Series Link) 1 thumbs up because, well, chances are if you're recording it, you kinda like it, maybe a little.
If you let it, TiVo will automatically record content - or Suggestions - it believes you'll like. The more you rate content, the more accurate those Suggestions will become. In the week and a half I've had my TiVo, I gave NCIS 2 thumbs up and have set-up 8 series links.
The Suggestions TiVo has, erm, suggested are almost spot-on for me - it knows I like Bones; it knows I've kinda interested in Cold Case, and it brought to my suggestion Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a show which I've heard of but never watched until TiVo suggested it for me. One episode later and I was hooked and have since set up TiVo to record that show, which if I still had V+ HD, I probably wouldn't have got around to watching.
Now, you're probably wondering if Suggestions will conflict with Manual Recordings or Series Links you've created - well, don't worry, because Suggestions always have the lowest priority for recordings, and if disk space is running low and TiVo needs recording capacity, then Suggestions will be automatically deleted to make room for Manual Recordings or Series Link recordings.
There's an App (and broadband connection) for that!
TiVo was launched with apps for eBay, YouTube, Weather, Twitter, Celebrity News, YouTube and BBC iPlayer, for which the content is now streamed via broadband from the BBC, instead of from Virgin's VOD servers via the VOD frequencies, and that means that the amount of iPlayer content available to Virgin TiVo customers has increased, from around 350 hours on the legacy Virgin STBs, to 900 hours on Virgin TiVo. Additional features include subtitling, signing, access to Catch-Up Radio content and faster availability of content after the original broadcast.
The App also supports BBC HD Catch-Up content, which looks pretty good and not a million miles away from the quality of the legacy MPEG 2 HD streams used by the legacy VOD system. Now, maybe its just me, but the picture (both SD and HD) looks like everything has been shot by a video camera - the motion and camera pans just look a little too smooth at times, and yes, I did check that the 'Motion Plus' 100Mhz setting on my Samsung TV was switched off.
potentially 20mb in the future. This connection is completely separate from any existing Virgin home broadband connection, has been optimized for the delivery of video content, and isn't effected by Virgin's broadband traffic management policy.
In short, you can watch last week's Doctor Who in HD via BBC iPlayer, while the performance of your existing broadband connection will be completely unaffected. Ditto watching dancing cats on YouTube, or, preferably, movie content from YouTube.
Its this combo of Apps plus dedicated broadband connection which makes this PVR ooze with potential. Virgin are already talking to potential suppliers of video content, indeed, Virgin have declared that they have no fear bringing Apps for the likes of Lovefilm (who aren't shy about getting their content on as many devices as possible), Blockbuster and Spotify to TiVo. Virgin intend to have hundreds of TiVo Apps available within the next 12 months, so, watch this space and dream of the possibilities.
As for right now, the YouTube app is OK - and TiVo's search feature will offer you the option to directly search the YouTube App for the content or Actor you're looking for. There's one significant flaw at the moment with this App - it doesn't show you any of your existing YouTube favourites, playlists or subscriptions after you've gone through the effort of signing in (via the on-screen keyboard), which means at the moment, there isn't much of a point signing in.
As with YouTube on other devices (like the WDTV Live and my Samsung TV), some content is not playable on TV-connected devices. The quality of the video playback is of course dependent on the quality of video encoding, and how good your TV's upscaler is.
As for the other Apps: eBay is in Beta and at present doesn't allow you to place bids. The Celebrity App is OK if you're into that kind of thing. The Weather App is good and you can enter your postcode and set it to your 'home' location. The Twitter App needs to be improved to take advantage of live TV twitter events, like the next series of BBC 1's The Apprentice which will feature Lord Sugar tweeting his comments as episodes are broadcasted.
As for the 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' App/Game - its very addictive and I do believe that Virgin owe me £1,000.
More key differences between V+ HD and TiVo
The legacy TiVO software didn't have reminders. And at the moment, neither does Virgin's TiVo. At first, Virgin encouraged TiVo users to record everything - that's fine for people who never watch live TV 'events' (or even want to bet on such events), and fine for people who never wanted to set a reminder for that event a few days in advance.
It now appears that common sense has prevailed and that Virgin/TiVo are working on reminder functionality for a future software update. Until then, stock up on Post-It notes and stick them near the telly to remind you that your favourite live show is on soon.
- You've really gone too far this time!
TiVo will auto-compensate when you're fast-forwarding or rewinding through a recording. Remember the days when you're watching a recording and an advert break came on? And while fast-forwarding through the ads, you went too far into the programme after the advert? That rarely happens on TiVo, it seems to 'snap-back' a tad after you've exited fast-forward by pressing play, preventing you from pressing rewind to go back to the bit just after the advert break. Nice.
- Global Padding
On the V+ HD, you could set all series links to automatically to start X-amount of minutes early, and Y-amount of minutes late, in order to record all of the programmes in case they started late, or even a little early.
When Tivo launched, it had no global padding option. That was fixed as part of the 15.2 software update, but the padding is fixed to 1 minute before, and 4 minutes after. There's no way to change those pre-sets on a global basis, but you can change them for manually for each series link or auto-recording Wishlist.
This isn't an issue for Suggestions, which automatically get 10 additional minutes added on at the end of recordings.
- Overlapping Recordings
V+ HD can only record 2 programmes at one time, but it will drop the padding for back-to-back recordings on the same tuner, assuming of course that the other tuner is recording something.
The key difference here is that, on the V+ HD, when it comes to overlapping recordings, all recordings on the same tuner have equal priority. On TiVo, priority is taken into account when it comes to overlapping recordings on the same tuner, via the 'overlap protection' feature. This will clip up to 5 minutes from the lower priority recording, in order to retain all of the higher-priority recording.
As per the V+ HD, you can set recording priority for series links (and Wishlists). Suggestions automatically get the lowest priority for recordings, Manual recordings get the highest. When creating a Series Link, or Recordable Wishlist, TiVo will warn you if recordings will overlap.
You also have the option to switch off the Overlap Protection feature, but then TiVo will cancel the lower priority recordings altogether on that tuner - the choice is yours, but considering this box has triple tuner capability, the chances of this happening are slim, and you may actually be better off disabling Overlap Protection.
- The Curse of the Late-Night EPG download has been lifted!
EPG data for the V+ HD boxes is downloaded around midnight-1am. You'll know when a download is in progress because the box struggles to accept your remote commands. Want to change the channel while the download is in progress? Good luck with that, make some hot chocolate while you wait for the box to register the 1st number of the channel you're attempting to change to.
TiVo eliminates that issue altogether. It will download metadata once a day (or whenever you want it to, manually), but TiVo won't ignore you during the download, while ignoring your fanatic pleads to change the channel so you can watch some late night Football League goals on BBC 1.
Besides, the time of the download varies. The previous download for my TiVo was at 2.45am and the next download is scheduled at 5.26am tomorrow morning.
- That content isn't available right now, Sir, but we can order it for you!
If for some reason, TiVo can't record a programme from a Wishlist or Series Link, its smart enough to locate an alternative broadcast of that programme and record that instead.
I was watching live football on ESPN last Saturday, and as the time crept towards 6pm, I noticed that Doctor Who was about to start recording on one tuner, and the other two tuners were about to start recording two movies as part of my Sci-Fi movies Wishlist. With three tuners about to be used for recordings, and me needing one of them in order to watch the football, I was curious what TiVo would do.
TiVo eventually asked me if it was OK to cancel the recording of The Time Machine on Watch. I said 'yeah' to continue watching the football. To my surprise, it later located The Time Machine on Watch + 1 and recorded it. Nice.
The same 'find alternative broadcast of this programme' feature is also available for Series Links, but for them, TiVo will look for the alternative broadcast on the same channel as the Series Link. For instance, a scheduled Series Link recording for an episode of No Ordinary Family on Watch wasn't recorded on Tuesday evening (why? No idea, recording clash I imagine), but TiVo recorded a repeat of the same episode on the following Sunday.
- DVD Archiving
V+ HD had a handy 'Copy to DVD' feature. TiVo doesn't. You can still backup content to your DVD Recorder, but unlike the V+ HD, you have to watch the content to be backed up. Still, with the extra recording capacity, would you really want to do that with TiVo anyway?
- Viewing flexibility
I love being able able to call up the Home, My Shows and EPG pages while playing back a recording or watching Delayed-TV.
- Online and Mobile recording
A much requested feature for Virgin TV customers is finally here. You can set recordings for your TiVo either from a internet-connected computer or your Smartphone. You have to send your recording request at least 35 minutes before the programme you want to record starts.
- PPV Live Events
At the moment, TiVo doesn't allow access to PPV Live Events. A software update later this year will fix this issue, but until then, perhaps you should consider sticking with your current box if watching content like Boxing on Sky Box Office is important to you.
There's plenty of room to improve existing features as well. As good as the search feature is, wouldn't it be great if you could search for VOD music artists from there? That would rock - pun not intended.
Even with these (fixable) flaws, Virgin's Media's TiVo is currently the most powerful PVR available in the UK, and, more importantly, none of the current issues stop it from being a pleasure to use. Going from the V+ HD to TiVo is like using a Smartphone for the first time. You may think you wouldn't use the extra features, but once you do use them, you wouldn't want to go back to your 'dumb' phone. V+ HD (and Sky HD for that matter) are very capable PVRs, but compared to TiVo, they're.....not very smart.
In fact, there's a strong case here that TiVo actually makes Virgin's XL package better value for money - TiVo allows you to locate more content you'll like, which perhaps you didn't know existed, either from channels you may not have heard of before now but which are part of the XL pack, or from content buried 5 levels deep in the legacy VOD menus.
Without TiVo, I would have missed Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan on Film 4 HD. I would never have checked out Spartacus: Gods of the Arena on Sky One. I would have missed all the Sci-Fi movies which the Horror Channel have shown, probably because I was barely aware that the Horror Channel existed. I would also have missed all the Sci-Fi movies on Syfy HD, mainly because I didn't have the recording capacity to record so many HD movies on the V+ HD.
Over 30 HD episodes of Two and a Half Men wouldn't be sitting on my box right now. Nor would I have been aware that Season 9 of South Park is available to watch on VOD. I'd continue but I trust by now you're catching my drift.
Add the coming invasion of TiVo Apps and a dedicated broadband connection ready and willing to deliver streamed video content, and the potential for this box is staggering (and that's before taking into account controlling the TiVo from tablet devices, or multi-room streaming, or user profiles). It will be interesting to see what apps we have a year or so from now. Certainly, if the Internet TV service on my Samsung TV is any indication, there are no shortage of content providers for Virgin to get on TiVo.
The advert slogans may state that with TiVo, there's always something to watch. Its true. That leaves you to find the time to eventually watch it all. In the meantime, Virgin's TV offering, which has improved greatly over the last 18 months, has just taken another huge step forward with TiVo.
Check out more specs and pricing information for Virgin Media's TiVo and compare it to Virgin V+ HD and Sky's HD via the PVR Comparison document.