Two years ago we bought a Tivo, and it dramatically changed the way our family watches TV. Broadcast schedules are pretty much irrelevant. We tell Tivo what we want to watch, and it records it, even if the network reschedules the broadcast. TV commercials are a thing of the past – we don’t watch any unless we want to (and you can imagine how often that happens). If we don’t schedule many shows and there’s extra room on the hard drive, Tivo uses it to record things it thinks we’ll like, with remarkable accuracy.
It ain’t cheap. It costs about four hundred bucks, (although you can usually find a $100 rebate) and there is a $12.50 monthly fee for the listing service. The service dials out every couple of nights and downloads the most recent TV listings, which allows it to work it’s magic.
Time Warner supplies my cable TV and my broadband connection. (The term Broadband is derived from the two primary uses of high speed internet access: downloading porn (broads) and illegal MP3s (bands)). They’ve been endlessly hyping their digital cable option. We ignored them, because our Tivo won’t work with digital cable. Then TW announced that they had their own DVR (Digital Video Recorder). There’s no charge for the box and the service is $6.50 a month. The price of broadband, plain old cable, and the Tivo subscription was about the same as their combo package of broadband, Digital Cable with HBO, and their DVR. It sounded like a no brainier, so we signed up.
We lived with the TW DVR for three weeks before having them yank it out and put our old Tivo back. We loved digital cable, but hated the TW DVR enough to give up all the advantages it offered. We gave up 30 extra channels. We gave up 45 commercial-free digital music channels. We gave up fourteen channels of HBO, which meant giving up Bill Mahar’s Reel Time and Dennis Miller Live. We gave up a sharper, clearer picture. We gave up a 50 hour DVR with two tuners in it (which lets it record two different shows at once) to get back our little single tuner 15 hour Tivo. That’s how much Time Warner’s DVR sucks.
Tivo is one of the simplest and most reliable high tech devices I’ve ever used. The TW DVR, produced by Scientific Atlanta, is needlessly complicated and missing dozens of Tivo's useful features. We could have lived without those features if it wasn't so unreliable. Their random record and random delete “features” were just too much to put up with. After the unit didn’t record several shows as scheduled and randomly deleted several others before we had a chance to watch them, we called Time Warner and schduled them to delete it from our house.
Tivo just works. You tell it what to record, and it records. It doesn’t forget what you tell it. The TW DVR will record what you tell it to most of the time, but not always. Several situations will make it skip recordings, including a full hard disk and scheduling conflicts, but sometimes it just doesn’t bother for no particular reason. Once it listed the same episode of “Friends” eight times in its scheduled recording list, and then didn’t record it once. (Yeah, I know, but my kids still like it.) It was almost as if it was taunting us.
When I called to complain about this I was told “they’re aware of that problem, and they’re working on it.” I asked for an approximate fix date, and was giving a very unconvincing “uh, in a month or so.” Sorry, folks, but when a device can’t perform it’s primary purpose reliably, it's as useless as acting lessons from Jennifer Lopez. Fix the damn thing before springing it on an unsuspecting public.
The problem seems worst when you tell it to record all episodes of a show. This inevitably causes conflicts with other scheduled recordings. Faced with such conflicts the TW DVR often just says “to hell with it” and stops recording your show from then on.
Tivo records all episodes by creating a “Season's Pass.” All Passes are on a list called The Season's Pass manager. Shows at the top of the list have a higher priority than shows lower on the list. When there’s a conflict between Passes the show with the highest priority gets recorded. For instance, if the networks reschedule Judging Amy so it conflicts with 24, Keefer Sutherland kicks Tyne Daily off the recorder. I have the O’Reilly Factor set to a lower priority, so when there are conflicting shows on at 8 PM weeknights Bill gets the boot. When his show is rebroadcast At 11 PM, The Daily show boots him again. Eventualy, Tivo picks him up at four AM. The next evening I spend about an hour watching the two shows, skipping dumb bits on TDS and the dull bits on TOF. This leaves me slightly more informed than someone who watches CNN for twelve hours a day.
Season's Passes can also be set to record only first run shows and ignore repeats, another feature missing from the TW DVR. With no priority list, the TW DVR just makes a random guess as to which shows to record when there’s a conflict. And this, in turn, sometimes triggers the deletion of any future recordings of that show.
When you schedule a recording of a single show, Tivo searches for conflicts. If it finds one, it asks which show you want, and you’re finished. The TW DVR handles it quite differently. Because it has two tuners it can record two shows at once, so conflicts don’t happen as often. You’ll have to request three shows in the same time slot before you have to make a decision. When this happens, the TW DVR pulls up a list and lets you pick which one to eliminate. Sometimes this works. Other times, especially if there are more than three conflicts (due to recording all episodes of several programs) it completely loses it’s mind. You make your selection, accept it, and the “one moment please” message pops up the way it’s supposed to. But insteand of disappearing in 15-30 seconds, it stays on the screen for several minutes, and then the machine crashes. The clock on the front of the unit flashes strange Klingon symbols, then the system shuts itself off. The front panel, which usually shows the time, stays blank for several minutes while the thing gathers it’s thoughts. Pressing the “on” button does nothing but help pass the time. Finally, several minutes later, it starts working again.
Every show recorded on the Tivo has an expiration date of about two and a half days. (You can extend the life of any show, including leaving it there until you specifically erase it.) The TW DVR has a default setting of 14 days, which can be changed to one, two, or seven days. Using the default, we quickly filled the hard drive with 50 hours of nonsense without realizing the disk was full. As a result, the DVR just didn’t bother to record anything else. There was no warning or indication that there was a problem.
Tivo never runs out of disk space. If your request a recording that would exceed the disk capacity, it tells you that it’s going to delete existing programs sooner – and gives you the option to accept that or not.
The second major reason we scrapped the TW DVR was their random deletion feature. Recorded shows would just vanish for no particular reason. Late one Wednesday night my wife said “Let’s not watch The West Wing tonight, I’m tired. We’ll watch it tomorrow.” The next evening we sat down to watch it, but it had vanished without a trace, the victim of spontaneous deletion. Several shows just disappeared into the TW DVR black hole before we could watch them, usually before they were even a day old. TW reps acknowledged the problem, but had no idea when it would be fixed.
Tivo’s interface is a breeze. My wife, a true technophobe, figured it out on her own in about five minutes. TWs DVR was obviously designed by programmers, and never tested out on regular people. It is much more difficult to do anything, including the most basic functions.
For instance, to record a program by name on Tivo, you just go to a screen that gives you the alphabet on the left side and a list of programs on the right. You select the first few letters in the show’s name, and the list scrolls down the appropriate place. If you want to record “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” you just select B, U, F, and there it is. On the TW DVR, you can only pick by the first letter of the title. So you pick B, and then scroll down, and scroll down, and scroll down, and scroll down, and keep scrolling for a minute or so. Eventually you’ll see the show listed. Select it carefully, because if you press the wrong button the screen will jump to something else, and you get to repeat the entire process.
Because of that we used the on screen time and channel listings to schedule most recordings. It only shows an hour and a half at a time, so picking any show this way also required lots of tiresome scrolling.
Tivo allows you to rate any show with up to three thumbs up or thumbs down. It uses your ratings, as well as your recording and playback history, to fill any excess hard drive space with shows it thinks you’ll like. (These shows are the first to be deleted when it needs space.) After you've used it for a couple of weeks the guesses are so accurate it’s a bit eerie. I just checked the list, and Tivo has recorded Barney Miller, Taxi, Bob Newheart, The Twilight Zone, The X Files, La Femme Nikita, The Rockford Files and Mary Tyler Moore, just in case I’d like to watch them. There is no such feature on the TW DVR – if you don’t specifically schedule something, you don’t get it. (Of course, if you do specifically schedule something, you might not get it either.)
Tivo also offers Wishlists, which let you search for particular actors or genres, even recording them automatically if you’d like. The TW DVR doesn’t offer anything similar.
There are plenty of other annoyances with the TW DVR, features it's missing or funky little things we would have put up with if the damn thing worked reliably. Tivo keeps a bookmark for every show. If you stop watching a show somewhere in the middle, it picks up exactly where you left off when you come back to it. Each show has it’s own separate bookmark. The TW DVR has just one for the entire list. If you return to a show without watching any other recording, it will pick up where you left off. If you watch any other recording, it loses your place. This wouldn’t be so annoying if you could jump to the end of a show with a single button press, like you can on a Tivo, or jump through a show fifteen minutes at a time, like you can on Tivo, but you can’t. You have to fast-forward and wait and wait and wait and wait until you find your place again.
When you press a button on Tivo's remote it responds instantly. The TW DVR lags, sometimes for a half second, sometimes for a couple of seconds. This is particularly annoying when you’re fast-forwarding through commercials. You see your show flash on the screen, press play, and it keeps fast-forwarding for a bit, so you now have to rewind. Tivo, when fast forwarding, responds to the play button by jumping back about 30 seconds, which is usually just where the commercials end and the show begins. The TW DVR tried to copy this feature, but it just kind of hiccups back a few seconds, which isn’t enough.
This article is getting way too long, and I still haven’t addressed all the ways that the TW DVR is inferior to Tivo. Tivo’s Now Playing list (the list of recorded shows) displays colored dots next to each title which shows you, at a glance, how soon they’ll be erased. TW’s DVR doesn’t – you have to select each show to see how long it’s going to be saved. Tivo’s Now Playing list displays eight shows per screen; The TW DVR shows five in smaller print. This is because they take up space with a picture in a picture thumbnail that we found more annoying than useful. Tivo’s listings contain a fair amount of information on most shows, akin to those found in the TV Guide. The TW box gave terse, often useless descriptions. Most Tivo functions can be accomplished with one, two or three key presses, most TW DVR functions take twice as many. There’s plenty more, but there is a point to this article, and if I keep talking about all of the TW DVR shortcomings I’ll never get to it.
If I had any confidence in Time/Warner, or the company they chose to provide and program this equipment, I’d give them another month or so to work out the major bugs. But I’ve been here before, and have no confidence in them. One of the first articles in The Hittman Chronicle, published back in 1999, was “Roadrunner, We Suck Faster.” It outlined the trials and tribulations suffered by subscribers to TW’s broadband service, which was as reliable as a crack whore with an extra fifty bucks in her pocket. The system would die often and be down for long periods of time. E-mail was often unavailable, their Usenet feeds were useless, their support staff was clueless, and their attitude toward their customers was atrocious. Now, years later, their broadband service is pretty good. I can’t say “excellent” because there are still noticeable outages, but they’re fairly rare and resolved quickly. But it took them two years to work out the glitches, and they seem incapable of passing their expertise to people in other parts of the country. Although more than One Standard Eternity in Internet time has passed since that article was published, every time TW introduces their service to a new area I get loads of fresh e-mail from people suffering the exact same problems.
Rather than licensing a working DVR, Time/Warner has once again foisted a sub-standard, unreliable, badly broken service on the public. I’m guessing they’ll get around to fixing it sometime, maybe in a year, maybe in two or three. Who knows? Until then, anyone married to DVR technology would be best to avoid the box they are installing. The damn thing just doesn’t work.
Postscript: TWs left hand doesn't know what it's right hand is doing. Last night I received a phone call from one of the phone drones trying to sell me on their DVR. The conversation went like this:
Drone: I'm calling to tell you about our new Digital Video Recorder.
Me: I know all about it. I had it in my house for three weeks. I had you remove it because it's horrible. I'm about to publish an article on my web site about how bad it is. Would you like the URL?
Drone: Thank you sir, have a good evening.
I love messing with telemarketers.
If you like messing with Telemarketers, check out Telemarketers, Make My Day and Telemarketers, Make My Day Again, two of the most read articles in The Hittman Chronicle.
© 2003 Dave Hitt