Sunday, 8 May 2011

My time with Tivo

At the turn of the century a little upstart company introduced the world to a device that would change the way in which we watch TV forever. No longer were we tied to rigid schedules, no longer did we have to sit through tedious and intrusive commercial breaks and no longer did you have to scour the TV guide to find out when your favourite show would be returning only to discover that you had already missed the first episode. While the Americans have been enjoying Tivo ever since, except for a brief outing in the early part of last decade, it has been a largely unknown quantity in the UK.

Celebrations were in order when Virgin Media broke the news in 2009 that they would be partnering with Tivo to power their next generation of set top boxes, finally I would get to partner a Tivo with my AV rig and consign my V+ to annals of history.

In the years between the Series 1 and the new Series 4 Premier which the Virgin Media version is based on not a lot has changed. We have a prettier HD GUI built on flash, more powerful hardware and three, yes that is right three tuners and unlike the V+ you have full control over all three. Which just goes to show how ahead of the curve Tivo was all those years ago and how other manufactures are still playing catch up. The extent of options and setting on the Tivo is staggering and it doesn’t make it complicated at all. If you just want to use it as a dumb PVR to record your favourite shows you can, the interface is simple and intuitive. There is the odd thing that takes some getting used to like pressing the left arrow key to navigate to the previous menu instead of the back button. For those who like to tinker and get the hands dirty there is a wealth of options with regards to searching, creating WishLists, exploring TV shows, viewing extras and online services.

With generic PVRs or even ones that have been supplied by Satellite or Cable providers, searching for shows has been a limited and frustrating experience. If you had a Scientific Atlanta V+ box you will know what I mean, it was beyond painfully slow with navigating menus and searches. I am happy to report that Tivo is fast, extremely fast and like the US version it has a dual core processor but currently only one core is active.

Now you can create WishLists and have your Tivo automatically record shows that you like, and they are not only limited to shows, you can set a WishList to record using keywords, actors, directors or genres and most importantly there is a HD setting as well so that only the HD version gets recorded if you are so inclined. And the more you record the more Tivo gets to know what you like and after a day or two will start to record shows it thinks you may like, you also have the option of adding a thumbs up or down, up to three of them, to indicate your preference to a particular show. The more input that you give it the better the suggestions become. On the first night that Tivo was installed I was up till 2:00 AM setting WishLists and thumbing shows and within three days I had almost one hundred suggestions recorded. Mostly it was shows that I thumbed up or had already seen, the one show that it did record that I would like to have seen was recorded in SD instead of the HD version. And here lies the problem with suggestions; there is no option to make sure it records the HD version and looking on various online forums, some seem to get mostly HD while others get little or none. Hopefully this is something Tivo will work on for the future.

The Menus

The main hub itself includes the new Discovery Bar which includes a selection of shows that you may like or be interested in. Compared to the archaic interfaces of the past this really looks stunning, it shames the old grid like GUI that we have been accustomed to. From the main hub you can explore the TV Guide, your shows, suggested recordings, manage your WishLists and apps. There are little touches all over the guide that make it a pleasure to use my particular favourite is the channel logos that appear in the TV Guide when you highlight a particular channel.

The TV guide itself has three weeks worth of data two weeks forward and one week in the past which allows you to go backwards through the EPG and watch shows via Video on Demand (VoD) directly from the guide itself. Currently this is limited to a handful of broadcasters who Virgin have catch up deals with but does include all the terrestrial broadcasters. Although BBC content cannot be viewed this way and can only be accessed via the BBC iPlayer app.

A brand new feature to Tivo is exploring a show. You can now get full season episode guides, actor information and YouTube videos. All this is closely intertwined with the whole experience and while exploring a show you can see listings not only for upcoming episodes but ones that you have recorded and ones that are available via VoD all in one handy screen. This really helps to give Tivo a nice fresh new feel compared to its competitors and the way content is aggregated blurs the lines of linear TV, VoD and online content bringing all the different services together in one cohesive manor. I was scrolling through the guide and decided to explore Two and a Half Men which directed me to Youtube to watch outtake videos all of which happened in a seamless transition. This left me quite impressed as this level of integration has only been available on media streamers and home theatre PCs so far.

The menus for the most part are logically laid out and the ones that have been rendered in HD look beautiful. Finally a guide in HD and 16x9 that makes use of all that screen real estate unfortunately not all the screens are in HD and the transition to SD is quite jarring and really bring you out of the experience not to mention how blurry they look blown up on a 40” screen. The Tivo Premier also has this issue in the US and Tivo have assured us that they will be upgrading all the menu screens to HD eventually. A year on, our friends across the pond are still waiting.

With the launch of Tivo, Virgin Media have finally introduced remote record. The mobile site needs a lot of work though as you cannot search by channel which means a lot of pressing next and when select a show to see a synopsis and then go back, you get dumped right back at the beginning of the guide. The same happens if you change the time slot that you are looking at. Hopefully we will get a dedicated app for this soon. iPad owners can use the desktop site with one (tiny) exception, you are unable to press the record button!


Now you can surf YouTube till your heart’s content from the comfort of your sofa but currently this is a extremely poor implementation. There is no way of seeing any of the HD videos and the low resolution ones look horrible blown up on a big screen. I loaded up the Thor trailer and quickly turned it off after just a few seconds. Some people are experiencing problems with their favourite list or playlists being empty when they log into the Tivo version. Only videos that are coded in H.246 are viewable so that means none of the content from 4oD or C5 is available.

If they could just give you an option to use a higher resolution if available, this would greatly improve the application. When using the explore a show option most of the bonus content is garbed via YouTube as well as movie trailers for films listed in the EPG which is a really nice touch when deciding on something to watch or record.

There is also a Weather app that is simple and does the job, eBay which is just a horrendous mess to navigate with a remote, Twitter which I have yet to try, a Celebrity gossip app that at least has a nice and easy to use interface, a Who Wants to be a Millionaire game which seems to use 8bit audio and BBC iPlayer.

The BBC iPlayer app now access its content via the internet form the full iPlayer site as opposed to Virgin Media VoD servers which means you now have access to all iPlayer content. The interface is well designed if somewhat basic. As it is now going out across the internet instead, you are now at the mercy of Tivo’s inbuilt cable modem and users are divided on the picture quality with many claiming that it is not as good as when content was accessed directly via Virgin’s own VoD service.

Virgin has promised more apps for the future, with Facebook and Picasa already being tested. It would be interesting to get Lovefilm on board with a streaming service and there is every chance that Spotify will be on there as well with rumours of a deal being imminent between the two.


The hardware is different than that being used in the US for the Premier. Virgin has teamed up with Cisco and a similar box is being used in other European territories as Tivo aims to conquer the world by partnering with a number of Cable companies. The box sports the usual array of sockets, one HDMI, a scart socket, optical out, Ethernet and USB ports along with a slot for your smartcard. There is no component video out so those with older flat screens are left out in the cold and there is no phono output for audio if your amp does not support HDMI or have a optical input. Both the Ethernet and USB ports are currently disabled and as of yet it is not known if these will be activated in the UK. And let’s not forget the 1TB hard disk drive (HDD), cable customers have been crying out for bigger recording capacity as HD content delivered using MPEG2 compression eats through the paltry 160GB of the current V+.

The memory and CPU should be similar to what is used in the US and the second core on the CPU will eventually be enabled which should make it an even faster beast. The box also comes with a built in cable modem which is currently limited to 10MB. This means that any of the online services that Tivo access via the internet do not use your current broadband connection and thus does not count toward any fair usage policy or data caps your plan may include. It also supports three tuners and you can jump between each turner and rewind the buffer on any of them, so if you have changed the channel and then go back to it via the switch tuner screen you can rewind and watch anything you have missed which is a fantastic feature. Pressing record at on any of the active tuners will allow you to keep the last 90 minutes that has been buffered.

The remote is the icon Peanut shaped device, it is comfortable and the buttons are of a decent size and nicely laid out. I use a Harmony One for all my AV gear and didn’t spend much time with it but there are no complaints apart from the fact that it is not the qwerty slide out keyboard variety.

It’s not perfect

There is much to admire about the new Tivo but it is not without its pitfalls. Currently there is no global padding option, you have to set padding per recording or series link, this has caught me out a few times and what is especially annoying is that almost all my suggestions have an extra ten minutes automatically padded on at the end.

If you are still using a CRT then you may want to think twice before jumping on the bandwagon as the scart socket currently does not output RGB. I have been told by Virgin that the box is capable of outputting RGB, seeing as the software is based on the US premier and things have to be tweaked for the UK version, the option to enable this may still get added and let’s hope they can enable it while the HDMI is active. As a non RGB signal piped to a HDTV looks hideous and scart is currently the only way to archive to HDD/DVDR. Talking of archiving unlike the V+ where you could make a playlist and then archive in the background, with Tivo you have to do it in real time which means you can’t watch anything else, a real oversight and hopefully something that can be remedied in future.

Text entry can be a pain on the current remote and there is no sign of the Tivo remote with a slide out qwerty keyboard in the UK yet. Typing long strings of text in the YouTube app is a long and laborious process especially if you spot a mistake at the start as there is no current option to go back without deleting all the text that comes after it.

The 1TB box is expensive £150 for existing customers and £200 for new, the real stickler is that you never own the box and should you decide to stop subscribing you have to give the box back to Virgin Media. There is also a £49 install charge and a £3 monthly Tivo fee. The 1TB box is currently only available to customers who subscribe to the top tier XL package. The good news is that a cheaper Tivo will be launching in mid May with a 500GB HDD and will cost just £49 plus an installation charge and will not be limed to XL subscribers although a Tivo monthly fee will still apply. Even though you don’t own the Tivo but just rent it, you do get a lifetime warranty should anything happen to it and can be swapped out for free should a fault develop regardless of how long you have been a subscriber.

The EPG data is not completely accurate yet, all shows are tagged with the US dates for first run episodes so the record only new episodes option does not currently work.

When the hard disk reaches around 50% capacity, some of the functions start to slow down.

There are also a number of standard features on older V boxes which are yet to be implemented on Tivo. Currently there is no interactive red button service on the BBC or Sky Sports and it is not possible to buy live PPV events, all this will be added later in the year.

Finally and probably the biggest issue with Tivo is that the upscaling of the standard definition picture is nowhere near as good as the V+. The difference between SD and HD has never been so apparent and is a real let down! Let’s hope that Virgin go on a shopping spree and add more HD channels this year.

Closing thoughts

Virgin have taken a huge step forward and brought their PVR kicking and screaming into the new decade and while it has a few niggles that need sorting out, it has been worth the wait! I highly recommend upgrading, the disk space alone is worth it if you tend to record a lot of HD. With Tivo prepared to defend their patent portfolio aggressively in court (as shown by their long running court case with Echostar) a lot of these features may never make it to other PVRs and this should give Sky plenty of restless nights.


  1. Thank you for a very comprehensive and fair assessment of the Virginmedia Tivo!

  2. Thanks for stopping by and posting.