These are rough times for a TiVo fanatic. The company and its groundbreaking box are getting squeezed into irrelevance. On the one side, cable companies offer their own DVR boxes, which may not be elegant but are easy and cheap. On the other side, you have PC-based solutions like Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, which do more than a TiVo and are improving by leaps and bounds every year.
I’ve been thinking about this topic for the past month, after I received a weekly Circuits e-mail on the topic from David Pogue, a sharp and funny writer for the New York Times. (It took me 20 minutes to navigate through the Times’ horrible search facilities, but I finally found David’s column online. You can read the whole thing here until the Times decides to put it behind their paid-subscribers-only firewall.)
Anyway, David’s thesis was that TiVo (the company) isn’t doomed, because TiVo (the gadget) is so refined and elegant and ingenious that nothing should be allowed to compete with it. And to prove it, he provides a laundry list of features that make the TiVo so hip it hurts. The list comes with a qualifier, of course: “I do realize that many rival boxes have some of these features. But none that I know of offers all of these them — and especially not in such an easy-to-use, brilliantly designed software package.”
Well, it’s a very good list. And since I am in the enviable position of owning a Series 1 TiVo, two PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, and a high-definition Explorer 8300HD digital video recorder from Scientific Atlanta, I thought it might be instructive to compare all three.
One caveat first: My Scientific Atlanta HD-DVR runs the miserable SARA software instead of the slightly less miserable (or so I’ve been told) Passport software. So if you have a Scientific Atlanta box, your experience may be slightly better than mine. So now, without any further ado, let the comparison begin! My commentary is in italics following David’s original words. (Update: Note that the text at the top of each bulleted point is from David Pogue’s list. Although I noted earlier that I own a Series 1 TiVo, I think it’s safe to presume that David’s write-up was based on a Series 2.)
- Retroactive recording. You come home, flip on the TV, and discover that you’re 35 minutes into what looks like a great show. If you have TiVo, you can either rewind into the past (to view what you missed while the TV was off) or even record it, thanks to the TiVo buffer that always stores the most recent 45 minutes of the current channel.
To the best of my knowledge, TiVo’s buffer is 30 minutes, not 45. MCE keeps a similar buffer but doesn’t allow you to save it. That’s one of the few flaws in MCE. The SARA software keeps a buffer and lets you record it.
- Wish list. On a TiVo, you can type something — an actor, movie title, anything — that you’re interested in, even if it’s not anywhere in the TV guide. If and when it’s ever broadcast, on any channel at any time, the TiVo will record it for you.
You can do this with MCE as well. In fact, the MCE interface is a bit easier to use, in my opinion. SARA does nothing at all like this.
- Built-in reaction time. When you’re fast-forwarding through a show (or, more often, through commercial blocks), you’re watching the video flickering by. And then you see the part you want to watch — and hit Play. Now, on a less intelligent machine, you’d be too late. You’d have missed the first 20 seconds of what you wanted, because the fast-forwarding had already blown past it.
But not on a TiVo. It compensates for your reaction time. When you hit Play, it doesn’t begin playing from that point; it begins playing a few seconds before that, with uncanny “it knew what I wanted” accuracy.
MCE has this option as well. It’s called Reaction Time Compensation
, and it’s customizable using theTweakMCE PowerToy. [Update: As Matt Goyer points out in the comments, this tweak didn’t work properly. It was in the first iteration of TweakMCE included with the Winter Fun Pack but was removed from the standalone version now available for download.] SARA doesn’t do this, and the absence of this feature makes the experience of watching a recorded program annoying.
- 30-second skip. It’s not a documented trick, but it’s nonetheless a juicy and delicious one. Press the following buttons on the remote while a show is playing back: Select, Play, Select, 3, 0, Select. Now your Advance button is a 30-second skip button. Press the same sequence again to turn off this feature. (You have to re-do this after a power failure.) It’s a much quicker, more precise way to skip ads.
This is an undocumented trick on TiVo, but on MCE it’s a well-documented feature. In fact, the MCE remote control even has a Skip button dedicated to this function, as well as a Replay button that jumps back in 7–second increments. SARA has a “jump back” button, but you have to push it after you fast-forward too far.
- Season pass. On many DVR’s, you can ask to have a certain show recorded every week automatically — “Desperate Housewives” or whatever. But on a TiVo, you get some important options with that. For example, you can tell the TiVo to record only first-run episodes and not repeats. And you can give it a maximum number to store, so you don’t return from a two-week trip to find 579 new and syndicated reruns of “E.R.” clogging your hard drive.
MCE offers this exact functionality and then some, including a “once per day” option that TiVo doesn’t have. (Click the image shown here to see the full screen.) SARA offers only “Record one” or “Record all” options, and the record settings are specifically tied to a given time slot. If your show gets moved in the lineup, it may not be recorded.
- TiVoToGo. A software upgrade, which is arriving silently over the phone lines this month and next, lets you copy shows onto a Windows laptop from across your home network for watching on the plane, train or automobile.
It looks like TiVo has a lot of work to do on this feature. I can’t say, because my Series 1 box doesn’t support it. By contrast, I can freely copy any recorded program from my MCE machine to any other machine and watch it using Windows Media Player. SARA doesn’t allow any access to recorded programs.
- Folder groupings. Your list of recorded shows can be sorted by name, recording date or expiration date — and can arrange themselves into “folders” of shows (for example, all your “West Wing” episodes) to save list clutter.
Ditto for MCE. I can also tag recorded files with star ratings and sort them in Windows Media Player on any attribute, including station name and channel. SARA gives me only a crude alphabetical list of my recordings.
- Smart offers. If you bail out of watching a recorded show within a few minutes of the end, TiVo asks if you want to delete the recording to free up hard drive space. That’s smart; it’s assuming that since you’re near the end, you’ve probably watched all you intend to watch. (If you cancel playback in the middle or beginning, though, TiVo doesn’t bother you with that offer; it assumes you’re not finished with the show yet.)
With MCE, every time I stop a program, I get a short menu of options that allow me to choose whether I want to Resume, Restart, Delete, or Keep it. If I choose Keep, I get a second menu with more sensible options. I can bypass any of these choices by going straight to the main menu. Personally, I prefer this option over TiVo’s supposedly more intelligent behavior. I often record a program, watch a minute or so, and realize I have seen it before or it’s on a subject that I’m not interested in, and I want to just delete it. SARA makes me go through a similar menu whenever I stop watching a program, but the choices aren’t particularly well thought out.
- Retroactive TV guide. The Guide button on the remote brings up a scrolling TV guide. What’s really cool is that, for a given channel, you can scroll both forward into the future (to see what will be in HBO in, say, two weeks) and into the past (to see what was on earlier this day or week). Both are very handy in certain circumstances.
MCE’s guide doesn’t look into the past, but it works just fine when looking at the future. MCE also offers a very cool Web-based guide and a Remote Recording service that lets you schedule a recording on your MCE from any computer. [Update: A Series 2 TiVo with a TiVo Central Online account can do the same.] SARA has a guide that goes only 6 days into the future, which is not nearly long enough.
- Recording log. TiVo can show you what you’ve recorded — and, when something you requested did not get recorded (it happens), it can show you exactly why. It will tell you that your hard drive was full, for example, or that somebody in your house scheduled a conflicting show and gave it higher priority.
Yep, MCE does this too. In fact, every such event is also captured in the Windows Event Log, so you can dump it to a text file or a spreadsheet for further analysis. SARA does no such thing.
Bottom line? Feature for feature, Windows XP Media Center Edition matches TiVo and even exceeds it in some measures. I could put together a list of MCE-only features that I especially like. For instance, the Movies button lets me scroll through all movies available in the current guide, sorted by rating. Once a week I go through and pick out a selection of great films from Turner Movie Classics, American Movie Classics, HBO, Starz, and Sundance Channel, which means I always have a selection of interesting movies to watch. I can copy any recording to DVD in WMD format or use a third-party program to make a disk that will play in any DVD player. And I can use my Media Center Extender to play anything from the Media Center PC (which is in the den) on the TV in the bedroom.
And now let’s talk about the two elephants in the room that David’s column don’t mention at all:
- HDTV. TiVo doesn’t do it at all, unless you pay $1,000 for a DirecTV with TiVo and then sign up for a service that in my case costs $30 per month more than my cable bill. MCE does HDTV, but not particularly well. It doesn’t accept input from my cable box, only from an over-the-air antenna. Rumor has it that will change later this year, but for now it’s the big advantage for my cable company, and the only reason I’m willing to put up with the horrible SARA software.
- Multiple tuners. Again, TiVo gives you one tuner per box, unless you’re willing to pony up for the pricey DirecTiVo solution. By contrast, my MCE box supports multiple tuners, and I currently have a Hauppauge dual-tuner card that does a superb job. The 8300HD has dual tuners as well, which means that I get to watch both Lost and The West Wing each week in HDTV.
I bought my first TiVo in 2000, when the company was only a year old. I was a charter member of the Cult of TiVo. But these days, I don’t miss it. The Media Center interface is every bit as usable, with some clear technical advantages as well. If the 2006 upgrade delivers on the promise of HDTV through a cable card, I’ll finally be back to one box that does it all.