Sunday, 27 November 2011

Virgin Media roll out Tivo 15.2 software update

Over the last few weeks Virgin Media has been rolling out a software update to Tivo customers across its network. Known simply as 15.2 it has a multitude of features that improve the service and lays the groundwork for future features.

This updates includes software that greatly enhances the performance of the Tivo, gone are the lock ups and the red doughnut of death that would greet viewers when trying to use the device. Tivo is now very stable and channel changing has never been so quick on UK digital cable before. Other features in this update include:

Express Series Link: This nifty little feature allows you to set a series link with one click, except that the options are not user configurable at all. The standard Express Link sets a recording to start 1 minute early, finish 4 minutes after the scheduled end time, set to new and rerun, limited to keeping only 10 episodes and delete when space is required. It’s a great start but if they can make all the settings user configurable then this would be a killer feature lets hope this is taken on board for 15.3

Multi tap text entry: Entering text using an on screen keyboard has always been a pain but now you can use the number keys on your remote like you would on a mobile phone when composing a SMS. However Virgin has gone one better...

Network connection: The Ethernet port is now active and you can now use apps on your Smartphone and tablets to interact and control Tivo. On both the Android Market Place and the Apple App Store you will find various apps that allow you to control your Tivo and most include a QWERTY keyboard that makes text entry a breeze. For those of you who don’t have any such devices or don’t want to network your Tivo the USB port on the back has also been activated and you can use a USB keyboard. Posters on various forums have also confirmed that the Tivo remote with slide out keyboard on sale in the US now works as well.

Parental controls: If you are not a parent or do not have kids at home or just a lousy guardian Virgin now gives you the option of disabling the PIN which prompts you for a number when trying to watch material recorded after the watershed before nine PM. You can now also place restrictions on apps so they either need a PIN to be accessed or can be hidden away altogether.

Live PPV: Believe it or not you couldn’t buy a live PPV on Tivo prior to the update but now you can.

Scart RGB: Again believe it or not prior to the update Tivo’s scart socket did not output a RGB signal which made watching on a non HDTV a horrid experience.

HD Upscalling: There has been an outcry across the internet about the poor picture quality on standard definition channels, even though this update is supposed to fix this issue it seems to have made little or no difference at all.

UI enhancements: The new update is littered with lots of little touches that increase the enjoyment of using a Tivo, the video preview window now shows video for all channels, previously Sky channels were restricted from being shown. When viewing a recording and you press stop it now shows a live TV channel in the preview window instead of continuing with your recording. There is also now a first aired date and genre listing when you press the info button.

Youtube: The Youtube app has been redesigned and you can now play HD video content and the picture looks sublime unfortunately just about everything else about the new app is horrible. You can no longer sign in and use your favourites or subscriptions, videos auto play when you start the app, this even happens when the video you have selected has finished. There are no suggestions after you have watched a video for similar items and worst of all the app seems not to work very often.

Overall it’s a mixed bag the, 15.2 brings lots of new features and lays the ground work for the future services such as Spotify and red button interactivity as well as performance enhancements which make Tivo a joy to use. But simple things like the Express Series Link which should have been a home run have been implemented poorly.

One last feature I would like to touch upon is Multiroom Streaming, if you have two or more Tivo’s at home and have them on your home network they can now talk to each other. Currently you are unable to stream any content due to each file being marked “Restricted by broadcaster” but this could be one of the most exciting things to come from Virgin Media. Imagine starting a recording in your living room, pausing it and then continuing the same recording in another room. It’s almost like living in the future...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Google Music (Yes it’s a beta)

Yesterday saw the first day of Google I/O 2011, their annual get together with developers where new products and services are previewed.

The biggest announcement was that Google will be shortly launching a music service simply called Google Music. Whereas iTunes and Zune’s business model is to sell music or subscriptions Google is a cloud based music locker.

The current beta version will allow users to upload 20,000 songs and sync playlists over the air.

It even has a handy feature which allows songs that were recently played to be available off line so you still have access to them when you do not have a data connection. The demo also highlights how easy it is to keep your computer, phone and tablet all in sync. Both Apple and Microsoft take note this how it should be done.

Currently for mobile platforms the service is exclusive to Android but some clever folks have already found ways to enable some of the features to work on iOS devices.

Google had planned to launch a music store along with their locker service but were unable to come to terms with major record labels, citing some conditions that they simply were unwilling to agree too. It is not the first time that the music industry has refused to play ball, Spotify is struggling to sign the same deals in the US that they have across Europe. While the world changes the music industry is still fighting tooth and nail to hang on to an outdated business model and draconian business practises.

Cloud based services are the darlings of the moment, Apple is rumoured to be launching a similar service shortly possibly called iCloud. But as much as I love my gadgets I just don’t think I am ready to give up having my music on my physical devices. With mobile phone providers currently enforcing strict fair use policies and most finding it difficult to even provide continuous fast 3G connections, a service like this will eat through your bandwidth in no time.

Currently the service is open to the US and by invitation only, there is no word on when this will become available in other territories.

Virgin Media's baby TiVo is now on sale

First there was the daddy 1TB TiVo. Today Virgin have launched it's
baby version with a 500GB HDD.

£49 for the TiVo, £40 install and a TiVo fee which depends on your TV package.

This is currently only available to existing customer, new customers
can have the all singing and dancing TiVo from July.

Full details on the Virgin Media site.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

And its Official Microsoft buys Skype

Microsoft has announced a deal estimated to be worth $8.5bn to buy Skype from investor group Silver Lake. Their press release already mentions support for existing Microsoft products such Xbox 360, Kinect and Windows Phones.

It is also stated that Microsoft will continue to support Skype clients on other platforms. It will be very interesting to see what direction they take in the mobile phone market where Skype has been a huge hit with customers. Will Microsoft bring new feature first to their platform or restrict or withhold features entirely from competitors.

Skype will become a new business division within Microsoft headed by Skype CEO Tony Bates.

Just last week both Facebook and Google were rumored to be in heated battle to buy Skype. Facebook were planning heavier integration into their social network behemoth. While acquiring the company for Google would have perhaps brought Google Voice to countries outside of the US.

With their recent tie up with Nokia and now the purchase of Skype, Microsoft have shown that they are still in the game and can still flex its financial muscle with the new kids on the block.

See the full press release.

Microsoft to buy Skype?

Microsoft seems to have come from behind and beaten both Facebook and
Google to purchase the worlds favourite VoIP service.

Ballmer and co are rumoured to be spending a whopping $7 bn, a record
for Microsoft in recent years. Are we going to see Skype tightly
intertwined with Windows Phone 7?

Announcement possibly latter today.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Kinect: Your Body may be the controller but is it in shape for it?

Last year both Sony and Microsoft raced to have their new motion controllers in the stores for Christmas. Both came and went without a flicker of enthusiasm from myself, the Wii had been there, done that and had laid dormant on my AV stand for the better part of a year.

Microsoft dared to be different and ditched a physical input device all together and used the tag “You are the controller”

On a Christmas day visit to a relative’s home and a session on Kinect I was convinced! This was more than just a gimmick and actually worked like advertised. What was truly remarkable was that for the sum of £150 you had a device that could track the limbs of two fully grown adults, something that has cost Hollywood millions of dollars over the years.

Within days I had my own and armed with a copy of Kinect Sports and Dance Central my body was pushed to the limit of exhaustion and only the fact that I felt aches and pains in areas where none had existed before made me stop.

First thing first let’s get the biggest issue out of the way, Kinect needs a lot of space, a minimum of 6ft is required between you and the device, 8ft is optimal. For the average British home this will be extremely difficult to achieve. There are things that you can do if you are tight for space, I have had to mount mine about two feet above the TV which gives me just enough of a playing area without having to rearrange my living room.

There is a new hub on the Xbox 360 dashboard specially designed for the Kinect but other than fine tuning your settings and creating your profile there is little to make you go back. Controlling the menu with arms is fun for a few minutes but quickly tires.

Gaming is where the real fun lies and Kinect delivers by the bucket load. Kinect Sports has a number of games that test different skills with table tennis and bowling being my favourite. And just like any Xbox 360 game Kinect Sports is Live aware. Playing table tennis over live works extremely well, in fact I was surprised how well it worked considering there is an ever so slight input lag on some games.

There is a football game where you have limited control over the players but it is so satisfying to kick the ball and watch it sail into the goal. There are a number of other games and wealth of mini games included that will keep you busy for days and with Live leader boards you will be left continually trying to beat your friends scores.

Next I tried Dance Central, unlike Kinect Sports which used the same input System as the Kinect hub on the 360, DC has created its own input method. In my opinion I find that this one works far better at controlling the screen. You stretch your right arm horizontally parallel to your body and wave it up and down to highlight menu items and then swipe your arm across your body to make a selection.

We have all played dance games on the Wii or via a dancemat on the various other consoles. On the Wii you basically just moved your arms anything else was just you getting into the spirit of things. The amazing thing with Dance Central is that this will simply not cut it.

You have to accurately copy the movement of the on screen dancer and can be marked down for not bending your limbs in the correct manor. The precision with which Kinect can track you is really an amazing feat although this does come at a price, there is no simultaneous two player on this game.

This is the only game which my wife can beat me at, that comes as no surprise as I look as though I am suffering a stroke rather than dancing to the sounds of Lady Gaga. What is surprising is that the more I play the worse I get and my wife makes it look effortless.

There is a variety of music across a number of genres and there should be something for everyone.

Both DC and Sports employ a recording feature that plays back highlights of your session and speeds up the video with some amusing results. Both games are a riot with multiple players and Live adds longevity to Kinect Sports.

It must be noted that there is a slight input delay to your actions. Some games like Kinect Adventures, which ships with the system, can suffer quite badly. Luckily both DC and Sports suffer far less and this in no way ruins the enjoyment.

I must also point out that this is no Wii, your body really is the controller, you will sweat, you will push your body and you will feel pain. Those used to the sedate nature of relaxing in a recliner and letting your fingers do all the work may not like the idea of prancing around their living room.

Kinect was recently recognised by the Guinness World Book of Records as the quickest selling consumer electronic device of all time, shifting an impressive 133,333 units a day during its first 60 days on sale. So far in 2011 there have been no Kinect games of note, let’s hope Microsoft is saving all the good stuff for E3.

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.