'

How I dumped my DVR for a terabyte TiVo

Recently my house was struck by lightning and one of my TiVo boxes got zapped (among other things). I had decided to try replacing it with a generic DVR from Time Warner Cable.

tivohdxl-remote-465.jpg

Recently my house was struck by lightning and one of my TiVo boxes got zapped (among other things). I had decided to try replacing it with a generic DVR from Time Warner Cable. Boy, was that a mistake.

I wanted to like the Time Warner DVR, I really did. The main reason was price. The Time Warner DVR box (actually a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8340HDC) model was free, and the service cost $7.95/month. Also I was excited at the possibility of finally getting high definition content on my Sony HDTV. I asked some friends who used it and they seemed happy with it.

I can sum up my experiences with the Time Warner DVR in one word: Argh!

The first problem was the remote they gave us. What a disaster that thing is. So many tiny buttons - six pairs of buttons that go up and down alone. And take the power buttons at the top - one for the TV and one for all systems (TV, DVR, Stereo, whatever you have programmed in). Why on earth does a DVR even need a power button? Turning it off doesn't really do anything - it keeps recording no matter what. Only the output signal is cut.

twremote-465.jpg

Many times I'd get the power out of sync - the DVR would be on and the TV would be off. I'd press the Power button. Now the DVR would be off and the TV would be on. Oh yeah, I have to press the OTHER power button. Nothing happens. Right, I forgot to select the device, so I press the TV button and then the second power button. Now the TV is off. Press the left power button again. Finally they're both on. Turning the TV on shouldn't be so hard.

There's a big green button in the middle of the remote. That must be the Play button, right? No, it's the button that gives you a list of recordings you have saved. And by the way, you can sort that list by date or title but you can't group them. If you have 25 episodes of Law & Order, you'll have to scroll past all of those to see if you have a new Stargate Atlantis.

Speaking of recordings, setting up the DVR to get all episodes of a series is primitive at best. With the TiVo I could re-arrange the priorities so that, say, if an episode of House and yet another Pokémon rerun were on at the same time, I could move the House program above the others in the Season Pass screen so it would always prefer to record that. But with the SA DVR, whatever you programmed in last takes priority. The only way to move things around is to remember the order you put them in, and re-enter the ones that are most important.

Even basic operation of the Scientific Atlanta was poor. Say you're watching a live show and you press the Pause button. The screen goes black for a couple seconds. Huh? Watching a recorded show is an exercise in frustration. Say you're fast forwarding over a commercial. When the show starts again you press Play. Nothing happens. Press Play again. Now it's stopped. No, actually it's playing in slow motion. What's up with that? How do I get it going again? Try pressing Play again. Now it's playing. I think.

It reminds me of a coffee machine I use at work. You have to be careful with this machine. You put your cup in it, press a button, and coffee comes out. Let go of the button and the coffee stops. Simple, right? Except it doesn't stop when you let go. It keeps pouring for several more seconds. So every morning it's the same thing - trying to guess when to let go of the button when the cup is about three quarters full so that I won't end up with coffee spilling on the floor when the cup runs over. The Scientific Atlanta DVR works the same way. I have to press the Play or Pause button a little before I actually want it to play or pause. Eventually it will recognize my entry. Well, usually. Sometimes the IR beam is blocked or I wasn't quite pointing the remote the right way, so I have to wait a bit to see if it's going to work, and if it doesn't work, try again.

After two weeks of this I decided enough was enough. The family all agreed. We wanted TiVo!

Choosing a TiVo

There were two TiVo options I considered. Option One was to repair my old TiVo. It was out of warranty but had a lifetime subscription to the TiVo service. For $150 I could return my dead box to the company and get a factory refurbished model. Since it would count as a repair, a TiVo representative told me that they would transfer the lifetime subscription to the replacement box. The new DVR would actually be nicer than the one it replaced: it has 2 tuners and stores up to 80 hours of recordings. However I would not get high definition programs and I would not get digital channels. My youngest son really wants Boomerang, which is only available with the digital package.

Option Two was to buy a TiVo HD and rent a CableCard from Time Warner. This would cost $250 for the box, and $2.50/month for the CableCard. The card is the decryption key that unscrambles the signal for the digital and premium channels. It plug into the front of the TiVo, is activated by the cable company, and then you can get anything on the TiVo that the cable company's box can get except video on demand and 2-way communication. That was no great loss for me since VoD never worked for me on Time Warner's DVR anyway.

The only down side to option two would be that the regular TiVo HD only stored 20 hours of high-definition video (180 hours of standard definition). I could add an external eSATA disk drive such as the WD My DVR Expander, but those are limited to 500GB, for up to an additional 65 hours of HD (600 hours of SD), and would set me back another $150.

What I ended up with: Option Three

I actually ordered the TiVo HD from Amazon, and was waiting on that to be shipped when TiVo announced a new model: the TiVo HD XL. This box has a 1TB disk drive, compared to 160GB in Time Warner's Scientific Atlanta box so it will record up to 150 hours of high-definition (1,360 hours of standard definition)! So I did what any gadget freak would do: I canceled my order and ordered the new model instead. It arrived a few days later.

This was the most expensive option, but the most capable. I got the new TiVo HD XL for $599, then I had to get the TiVo brand wireless adapter for $70, and I had to get the cable company to come out and install a CableCard ($2.50 / month + $45 install), and I have to pay TiVo $9.95 / month for the subscription service.

But finally, I have my TiVo back!