TiVo's HD DVR Steals the Show

The affordable, standalone digital video recorder proved a big hit with this reviewer. Too bad it only works with cable

Editor's Rating:

The Good: High-definition recording; detailed program search; seamless Internet movie and music links

The Bad: Incompatible with satellite broadcast services; limited capacity; confusing room-to-room streaming

The Bottom Line: A bargain-basement set-top box that melds Internet content with broadcast television to perfection

TiVo, the pioneer of digital video recorders (DVRs), has struggled for years with a thorny problem: Many potential customers would have been willing to spring for its pricey set-top box or its $12.95 monthly subscription—but not both. Indeed, the majority of the company's customers came from a partnership, now winding down, with DirecTV that bundled TiVo's service into the satellite broadcaster's monthly bill.

When TiVo (TIVO) introduced its $299 TiVo HD standalone box last year, the huge price drop, compared with the $599 TiVo Series 3, aimed to remove some of the sting from the equation. The jury's still out on whether the strategy is luring first-timers to TiVo. But after reviewing TiVo HD for the past few months, I'll wager that anyone who does buy the box will be more than happy with the purchase, especially with the company adding more and more features to the service. One unfortunate caveat: TiVo HD only works with regular cable TV services, not satellite providers.

To make the price friendlier, TiVo has dropped the THX sound certification included in the Series 3, the neat OLED screen that tells you which shows are being recorded, and the backlit remote control.

Like the Series 3, TiVo HD records high-definition video in the 720p or 1080i formats, as well as DVD-quality standard-definition programs. The device is equipped with multiple tuners that let you record two shows at once from a cable signal, while simultaneously playing a show already recorded to the drive.

For the Record

If you're a video junkie like me, you might be concerned about the TiVo HD's recording capacity. It stores 20 hours in high definition or 180 hours of standard definition, compared with 32 and 300, respectively, for the Series 3. Happily, though it'll add $200 to your cost, there's an eSATA data port on the back that lets you connect a Western Digital MyDVR Expander. This 500-gigabyte external hard drive will add 60 hours of HD or 300 hours of SD recording capacity, with a fairly easy installation process that takes just minutes to complete.

The basic TiVo service is enough reason to make me a big fan. Competing cable and satellite DVRs let you find shows by keyword and schedule, but only TiVo has the artificial intelligence software to identify and automatically record other shows based on your previous viewing history.

More recently, TiVo added another nifty feature called Universal Swivel Search that can scan hundreds of cable channels and, through its wired or wireless Ethernet connection, the Web for content. It's especially nice because of TiVo's partnership with the Amazon Unbox video download service, which offers rentals for about $4 and purchases for about $16. For instance, if I wanted to watch, rent, or purchase Will Smith's I Am Legend one night, TiVo would search cable listings and Amazon.com (AMZN) to see if one or both have it. In some cases, you won't get a fully correct answer because TiVo HD is not able to scan the pay-per-view offerings from cable providers.

But the real beauty of Universal Swivel Search lies in its ability to offer alternative programming that might interest you, based on the keywords you typed in, such as a genre or the name of an actor or director. It also lets you add a particular program to a wish list that automatically records it when it airs.

Media Everywhere, or Not

As part of its bid to evolve from mere video recorders into all-around media-players, TiVo also recently added the ability to sign up for a $12.95 monthly subscription to the Rhapsody digital music service. I'm a fan of the Sonos digital music system, which elegantly delivers Rhapsody (RNWK) to every room in my house through a wireless setup. But I like the ability to use a big-screen TV and the TiVo remote to browse through tracks and artists.

It's also still worth mentioning older applications such as TiVoCast, which lets you automatically schedule recordings of Web videos from the likes of CNET (CNET), The New York Times (NYT), and The Onion. This is a great way to get little snippets of information on your favorite subjects without ever leaving the couch or bed. Yahoo! (YHOO) users can easily pull up local weather forecasts and traffic conditions. There are also podcasts and Internet radio broadcasts to listen to, and you can still use TiVo HD to pull digital photos and music from your PC to your TV.

If you have more than one TiVo connected to your home network, TiVo says you can stream a show recorded on a box in one room to the other. Unfortunately, I had problems getting this to work: Both TiVos recognized the other's presence, but neither could access the other's content. I then discovered you have to go to TiVo's Web site to enable streaming between the two boxes, which also must be registered to the same account; even then I couldn't get it to work.

That problem aside, TiVo remains the simplest, most elegant digital video solution on the market today. Providers such as Dish Network (DISH) and DirecTV (DTV) have noticeably improved their DVR offerings over the past few years in terms of picture quality and recording options. But they have yet to come close to matching the basic TiVo service. Comcast (CMCSA) and other cable providers also have DVRs and are slowly rolling out an add-on basic TiVo service for those boxes.

But if you're looking for a DVR that can also save you a trip to the local Blockbuster (BBI) and serve up media around the home, then TiVo HD remains the undisputed best option on the market today.

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