Thursday, October 06, 2005

Rise of the Ti-vangelicals


Once in a while, something becomes so ubiquitous that I get sick of hearing about it. I have now reached that point of burnout critical mass with TiVo, the subscription digital video recorder service.

For those of you who aren't familiar with TiVo, it's basically a hard drive in a rudimentary computer that is connected, via phone line, to a database that contains all the TV listings for your area. You can do some cool things with it, like set it to record a program every time it airs, or record one program while you're watching another. You can do a few other things with it, but basically, you're paying $10 or $12 a month for a machine that does the same thing that VCRs have been doing for decades.

How cool is it?

The die-hard TiVo loyalists will go on and on about how cool it is to fast-forward past commercials, or how nice it is that TiVo automatically records their favorite shows (even though it occasionally records the wrong programs or cuts off the beginning or end of a show). They talk about the days before they got TiVo as if those were the dark ages. In their eyes, TiVo is the greatest thing since sliced bread! They'll never miss a TV show again.

To which I have to reply....Big freakin' deal! I've been doing that for over 20 years with my VCRs, and I don't have to pay a monthly service fee. Essentially, TiVo is for people who have been too lazy to figure out how to operate the timer function on their VCRs. Whenever I talk to these Ti-vangelicals they get a peaceful, spiritual glint in their eyes while they talk about how easy it is to record a show when they're not home. I feel like I'm dealing with a lapsed Amish person who's experiencing electricity for the first time. Where have you people been for the last quarter-century?

Watch this?

Last year I made the leap and bought a DVD recorder. One of my VCRs crapped out on me, and I lucked into a great deal and upgraded to a wonderful Panasonic model. Now, I never missed taping a show that I wanted to watch before that--and I tape obsessively--but the DVD recorder added the one feature that TiVo offered that I couldn't duplicate with a VCR. I can now start recording a show, and then halfway through I can start to watch it from the beginning while it's still recording. This is the major selling point for TiVO. It's the big feature they hype in all their ads.

But you know what? In the 13 months that I've had the DVD recorder, I've never had any need to use this feature, even once. I haven't decided which it is yet, but in terms of necessity, the "watch while you record" function is either a bell, or a whistle.

Now that Charter, my cable company, offers Video On Demand, the need for something like TiVo is even more questionable. I can choose any program from the movie channels and watch them whenever I want to. So I don't even have to bother taping "Rome" or "Extras." They can be summoned up at the touch of a button. Charter also offers a TiVo-like DVR, but it costs an extra ten bucks a month and isn't much better than TiVo. I can do a better job with my various recording devices, and I don't have to pay any extra for the priviledge.

What's more bizarre about this phenomenon is that TiVo does some really horrible stuff, too. I mentioned that it can cut off the beginning and end of some shows. It also records shows that it thinks you might like.

Republicans are watching

Let's say you record an episode of "Beverly Hillbillies" because it had an interesting guest star on. TiVo will remember that, and one day you'll come home and your TiVo will be filled with dozens of episodes of Beverly Hillbillies. And TiVo keeps a database of what you watch, to allow it to do this. You just know that information will find its way into the hands of Republicans, someday.

Do you really want a record kept that shows that you watch "Saved By The Bell" and "Real Sex" back-to-back? Also, when you fast forward past a commercial, TiVo has developed a method that gives you a pop-up ad for the same product while you're skipping the commercial. Pop-up ads? On TV? And people are paying for that?

And the disc does fill up, so you have to go through and delete shows every so often. If you want to keep a show, then you have to record it to a VCR or other outside device. One report says that 30 percent of the programs recorded on TiVo gets deleted without being watched. It seems to me that TiVo causes more headaches than it cures.

"TiVo" has become a generic term for a DVR (digital video recorder), which can't be good news for the folks at TiVo. Every week or two a new article pops up in a trade magazine about how TiVo is doomed. Yet the Ti-vangelicals still run about, blathering about how "I TiVo'd this last night" or "I'll be sure to TiVo that."

Come on people. Say you recorded it, and get over yourself! It's just a video recorder. You pay extra each month because you can't figure out how to set the timer. We get that. Now move on.

1 Comments:

Blogger J. Steven York said...

Actually, there are compromoses between the trusty VCR and TiVo.

Recently our main TV, a 32 inch tube set, died a slow and painful death. We ended up replacing it with a 27 inch LCD, HD monitor, which was great as far as it went. The trouble being that VCR tapes, especially those recorded at the EP speed we favored for convenience, just looked like crap. We do a LOT of time-shifting and archiving (writing TV based novels like our Star Trek stuff and my wife's upcoming ALIAS novel, kind of makes it a professional necessity) so we had to find a suitable replacement.

I looked at both TiVos and DVD recorders, and both had drawbacks. DVD recorders can only get so much on a disk without sacrificing quality, and TiVos limit archiving (yes, I know that's not absolute, but read on).

We ended up buying a combination unit, the Pioneer DVR-531H-S, which incorporates a hard-disk recorder and a DVD-R/RW recorder in the same housing. So far, I'm delighted with it in most respects.

It wasn't the cheapest solution by far. You can get some DVD recorders now for about $100, and this cost over $300 as I recall. But I think it was money well spent (except in the sense that you'll probably be able to buy one with more capacity and better features for half this in six months).

Ways it's better than the old VCR:
Recording convenience - Recording on the old VCR had become such torture that I had come to dread it. The unreliable power in our area was constantly resetting the clock, and our cable system didn't let the auto-clock-set feature of the VCR work. The user interface on the machine I used most was terrible (as were most of them), both for resetting the clock and date, and for programming recording. There were a million ways to go wrong, and if you did, you had to start the programming process all over again. Even if you did get it right, there was still the matter of having enough tape in the machine to record everything, and making sure that the cable box was on the right channel before you left (in theory, the VCR could change the box channels using an IR emmitter, but that never worked reliably with my cable system either, and even if it did, it forgot its settings with ever power glitch).

With the new machine, the manual recording menu is very easy and clear to use. If you screw up something, you can easily edit it. It changes the channels on my cable box, and works well. However, I didn't make much use of the manual recording setting after the first week or two. More on that later. With the HD recorder, you never worry about running out of tape. Yes, the hard disk fills up, but so far, that isn't an issue, and when it does, you can burn things to DVD if you want to save them.

The power problems were less of an issue (the unit holds its settings very well without power), but we added another layer of protection to eliminate them completely, an uninteruptable power supply. Now the cable box and DVR can keep working through several hours of power outage (much less the more common momentary glitch) and our expensive new TV and our older surround system have high-level surge protection.

Getting back to why we don't do the manual recording thing much, this has a completely different on-screen programming system licensed from TV guide. It pulls in its listings for free, over the air. Select a program on the grid, press a couple buttons, and it's programmed. Change your settings a little, it will pick up the program every week. Change them a different way, and it will grab the program, even if they move it around.

Finally, it shares with TiVo the nifty ability to time-shift on the fly, and multitask. I can record one program while I watch another from the hard disk or DVD. I can come in late while it's recording (in fact, it's desirable to do so), push play, and watch from the beginning while it's still recording. I can skip commercials (up until the time that you "catch up" with live recording). I can pause, or rewind to look at something again, all while recording. It's a huge convenience. The only thing it can't do is record on two channels at once. (Supposedly Charter Cable has a rental box with two built in cable decoders, which does just this, but it isn't offered in my area, yet. If it ever does show up here, and I'm not holding my breath, I'll order one up as a back-up for the current unit.)

Also, picture quality is AMAZINGLY better than tape. There are occasional compression glitches, but they're minor compared to the low resolution and frequent drop-outs and noise with tape. I think this would be noticable even on a regular set. On an HD set, well, it makes ALL the difference.

Finally, half my living room is jammed with video tapes, most of which will probably end up in a landfill somewhere. DVD in sleeves take up way less space.

Ways it's better than TiVo - The big one, is no subscription fee. I just couldn't see paying $13 a month (or a steep one-time-per-unit fee) for what was essentially a program grid. The TV Guide system doesn't give all the detailed info of TiVo, nor have all its "smart" programming features, but I can live without them, and the local digital cable has its own program guide with better detail info to back it up.

Of course, this also addresses Rudy's privacy issues. Info goes INTO the box, not OUT of the box. If the Guvment (or private industry, for that matter) wants to know what I'm watching, they can only do it by knocking down the door and stealing the box. At least then, I'd know they were doing it.

It gets its programming info off broadcast channels. Most major markets have a station that carries their signal (I suspect it's hidden in a subcarrier somewhere), but I was skeptical it would work in our area. We get our network stations out of Portland (OR), but I figured that by the time it had made its way 120 miles to our cable, it might have been filtered out somehow.

It wasn't at all apparent at first that it would work. TiVo hooks up via phone or internet, and downloads its data through a big pipe. The TV Guide system sips it through a coffee-stirrer. The instructions warned that it could take 24 hours for the first listings to appear, and up to a week for its full 6-day programm buffer to fill. It picks up data while the unit is turned off, and the cable box has to be left on. In practice, what happened to me was, I turned the unit off, and it started changing channels on the cable box. Constantly, almost (I feared) as though looking for a signal that wasn't there. All the while, mysterious numbers would appear on the recorder's display, and the hard disk could be heard purring away. Program listings didn't appear in 24 hours, or 48, and I pretty much had given up on it. But we went away for a weekend trip, and when we returned Sunday night, the listings (some of them anyway) were there. Now that it's caught up, there have been no problems at all.

In most other respects, it's a poor-man's TiVo, lacking mainly in the smart programming aspects. It won't record anything you didn't at least vaguely program it to record. You may well consider that a feature, not a drawback.

There are some shortcomings in the unit. The menus are pretty well designed, but they can be sluggish in appearing. There's no tactile or audio feedback when you hit a button, so you just have to take it on faith when you press (for example) the TV GUIDE button that the guide will appear in a few seconds. If you don't and press it again, the guide will eventually appear, then immediately disappear before you can do anything with it.

Paging through the program grid is slow, and while it holds multiple days of programming info, I haven't yet found a way to get from one day to the next without painfully, and slowly, paging through the whole grid. The program grid also doesn't have channel numbers. It sorts the list by: local stations first, followed by pay movie channels, followed by everything else in alphabetical order. This was very confusing at first, and I still wish it allowed me to configure things my way. (I don't get those pay movie channels, for instance, and I'd love to be able to lock up some of the sports and religion channels I never, ever, watch. Possibly, there's a way I could do that with parental controls. I should look into that.)

Anyway, I think HD recorders are something you just have to experience to understand. It's not a fancy VCR. The experience is just completely different. It's like a car and a business jet will both get you from Dallas to Kansas City, but a business is not just a very fast car.

5:24 PM  

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