It's been a good seven years, or thereabouts, since I've had a TiVo digital video recorder in the house. My first was attached to a DirecTV satellite dish and, in the early days of the 21st century, was quite cool - tons o' channels and a great picture.
But TiVo is well on the way to becoming a generic term for digital video recording, for the "time shifting" many of us do with TV. "Did you TiVo that?" "I need to TiVo 'Hannah Montana' for my daughter." That sort of thing.
This upsets the TiVo folks, of course: They believe their product has profound differences from your run-of-the-mill DVR, such as the one you get from your cable company. Thus, looking at the latest edition, the $599 TiVo HD XL DVR model, made a lot of sense. (Along with the box, you pay either $12.95 a month, $129 a year, $299 for three years or - wait for it - $399 for a lifetime of TiVo programming and reach-back-to-your-TiVo service.)
What a difference seven years makes. The new device can store 150 hours of television - 1 terabyte of data - and features the CableCARD tuning system. You can't use this product with a satellite dish, only with cable, preferably HD, and with a CableCARD, and by that hangs a tale or two.
A CableCARD fits in an expansion slot on the front of the TiVo (discretely hidden behind a flap, for the decor-conscious). Your cable company can program the card and when installed, it replaces the set-top box you normally get. The latest CableCARDs feature two tuners, again, something useful for the TiVo.
However, getting a CableCARD can be an effort, as I discovered with Verizon's FiOS service. On getting the TiVo, I called to arrange for a CableCARD. Sure, the cable provider said, but we have to send you a technician and it'll cost $80.
"Oh really," I replied. "You can't program this and just send it to me?"
We went back and forth a bit; in the end, I capitulated. I needed to review this thing, after all. The technician came, the setup did take a while but it worked, and I was on my way.
One possible conclusion is that in making it a bit difficult to get a CableCARD - you have to wait at home for the technician to show up, and the visit can cost some money - Verizon, presumably like other cable carriers, is trying to hold on to the monthly revenue from the set-top box. Fair enough, but I'd submit this is an ultimately losing proposition. In today's "open architecture" society, with the rise of Linux and "jailbreaks" for iPhones, etc., it might not be long before the FCC and Congress "encourage" the cable companies to be more accommodating. I could be wrong, but it's worth considering.
Using the TiVo is of course similar to a cable box, but with other features. One key is to have an Ethernet, Wi-Fi or telephone connection. This ties you in to the TiVo service, wherein you can get updates to the built-in, on-screen program guide (which replaces the one your cable company gives you). It also lets you log into the device from a remote computer, and then program recordings.
I used a Wi-Fi adapter to connect my TiVo to the Internet; the firm had preregistered my test unit so I could control recordings online. It's supereasy and, well, supercool. (There doesn't seem to be an iPhone-specific TiVo application, just yet, but one can hope.)
Playback quality of the digital recordings is very, very good. I get some occasional hiccups, but nothing that really detracts from the quality of a show. Also, unlike the Verizon-supplied DVR (still doing duty on another set in the house), the TiVo can be easily set to start or end recording a minute or two before or after a show's "scheduled" start and stop times. I don't know why, but some CBS-TV shows, for example, seem to miscue when being recorded; this eliminates losing the last seconds of a joke.
Also notable is the recorder's capacity. Those 150 hours is plenty, and you can add extender drives from suppliers such as Western Digital and Seagate, thanks to a SATA (or Serial AT Attachment) connection on the HD XL. Throw another terabyte or two on and I guess it becomes an HD XXXL.
Overall, the new TiVo is mighty tempting. It's not Verizon's set-top box, which means you have to (gasp!) use the phone to order a movie or pay-per-view program instead of the remote. But the Verizon box won't give you stuff from Netflix, YouTube and, I believe, even your networked computer. And it won't send recorded programs to your iPod.
Those tasks, plus a new search feature from TiVo, are things yet to be explored. You see, I have these episodes of "House Hunters International" to watch and ...
• What are you TiVo-ing? E-mail Mark Kellner.