TiVo: Endless Entertainment

Anti-War rally in Washington
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
The TV in our living room is connected to a digital cable box that gives us access to Showtime, Encore and lots of other movie channels. That same TV also has a TiVo digital video recorder that lets us automatically record those movies and other shows to watch at our leisure.

Trouble is, sometimes my wife and I like to watch movies on the bedroom TV that only gets basic cable channels.

But that's now possible. By installing a second TiVo (borrowed for review purposes) in our bedroom, we're now able to transfer shows from the living room TV to the bedroom or vice versa.

In addition, both our bedroom and living room TVs can now be used to play any of the thousands of MP3 music files stored on my home Windows and Macintosh PCs and to view our entire library of digital photos.

TiVo has also introduced an Internet-based programming feature. Say you're on a trip and hear about a show you want to watch when you get home. You can go to TiVo's web page, sign in and select that show. Because your TiVo is connected to the Internet via your network, it will automatically receive the remote programming request and add it to its "to do" list.

In case you haven't heard, TiVo is the most popular of a new breed of digital video recorders (DVR). Unlike a VCR, a DVR has a hard drive and an onscreen programming guide that eliminates having to change tapes and all the hassles of programming a VCR.

Installing the Home Media Option is easy if you already have a wireless network or if you have a regular wired network with outlets in the same rooms as the TVs. I opted for the wireless approach because it took only seconds to plug the adapters into the USB port on the back of the TiVo.

The ability to transfer shows from one TiVo to another is a very cool feature, but it's not quite as painless as I had hoped. Before you can watch a show stored on the other machine, you have to transfer it (kind of like copying a computer file) over your network. The 802.11b WiFi wireless networks are more than fast enough for today's Internet speeds, but they're really not up to speed when it comes to the enormous data streams used by full-length movies and TV shows. In theory, the data "streams," which means you can watch it as you're transferring it but I found that a bit frustrating because the show would stop and ask me to wait a while and press play again. If you wait long enough, the entire show will transfer and there will be no delays but it can take a couple of hours to transfer a full-length movie. I haven't tried it, but a TiVo support person said that it would be much faster if I used a wired Ethernet connection instead of 802.11b.

You don't need two TiVos to take advantage of the other advanced features of the Home Media Option. To view photos or listen to music on your TV, you need a single TiVo and a small piece of software running on a PC or Mac that's connected to a local area network. I wasn't sure I'd like this feature but I do enjoy the ability to listen to my PC's MP3 files from my living room TV which happens to be connected to our home stereo system. You can order up your music using the TiVo remote control and your TV screen displays the title and artist of a song that's playing. You can also fast forward, rewind and skip to the next song.

The photo viewing option, which allows you to turn use your TV to watch a "slide show" from digital photos stored on your PC, works pretty much the same way. Unfortunately you can't use the TiVo to view photos and listen to music at the same time. It would be neat if you could add a sound track to your slide show.

The remote programming feature has its uses as well. As I was sitting at my local coffee shop surfing the web, a friend asked me if I had been watching the Tour de France on TV. I've had been meaning to add that to my TiVo's "to do" list but kept forgetting. So I went to the TiVo web site, searched for "tour," located the show and programmed it right from there.

There is a one-time $99 charge for the Home Media Option but no additional monthly charges, unless you add a second TiVo. If so, you'll pay an additional monthly service charge to use that TiVo.

TiVo's basic service is reason enough to spend $249 for a unit and pay $12.95 a month for the service. It really does revolutionize TV because you're no longer a slave to the schedule. You get to watch what you want when you want it. It also helps you get the most from whatever TV service you have by making it easier to locate and watch shows.

The advanced options are icing on the cake. Not everyone will need or even appreciate being able to view photos or listen to digital music on their PC and I think it's a bit of a stretch for most people to buy a second TiVo for another room in their house. It's also expensive. In addition to having to buy another unit, you have to pay an additional $12.95 a month or an additional $299 for a subscription that lasts the lifetime of that unit (not your lifetime). It would make sense for TiVo to offer a family plan with a deep discount for extra units or simply charge a single fee per household and not worry about how many units you have. The increased hardware sales and goodwill would probably be more valuable to the company than the extra revenue they'll extract from the few people willing to pay for more than one TiVo.

TiVo's biggest challenge isn't to get people to buy a second unit -- it's to get them to buy their first. TiVo is quite popular among movers and shakers in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., yet they haven't caught on with the general public. DVRs have been around for a few years, but it's estimated that fewer than a million units have been sold by all the vendors in this field. TiVo claims to have sold just over 700,000 units. I think that will eventually change -- not because of TiVo's retail approach but as cable and satellite operators aggressively promote them as low-cost options. Dish Networks and DirecTV already offer a PVR option and Charter Communications, a major cable TV provider, has announced recently that it will roll out a cable set top box with the same functions as TiVo and its Home Media Option.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid