How a Cable-Company Box Drove Me Back to TiVo

I've been a big fan of TiVo ever since I picked up a Series 2 upon its debut, quite a few years ago while living in Vermont.

I wanted one earlier, but knew the Series 2 was coming, so I decided to wait. Back then, we were living in a standard-def world, and the Series 2 was all I needed.

As far as I'm concerned, if you don't have a decent DVR, you're just not watching TV.

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I can't imagine a world where I have to be in front of my TV at a specific time of the week just to see a particular show — a show, mind you, that lives off the ad dollars and product placement whose worth is directly tied to the number of people who watch the show.

You'd think the networks would actually subsidize anything that lets you watch more of what you want when you want to, but I'll never understand why networks do what they do.

I still can't wrap my brain around FOX giving "Firefly" the worst possible time slot, then killing it off after less than one season. So what do I know?

Once Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 hit, I replaced my trusty TiVo with a small Shuttle box running MCE.

This gave me a slicker interface in many ways, more apps, but mostly I did it because it was easy to get a lot more DVR space and it meant I could drop that TiVo monthly fee.

It was great — for a while. Then came HD, and it screwed everything up.

I got an HDTV for a song. Well, a song at the time. The Good Guys stores were closing shop and running huge going-out-of-business sales.

So I was able to pick up one of those nice 42-inch 3LCD rear projection sets (a Sony KDF-42E2000 to be precise) for $1600. Oh sure, it's got a list price of $1400 now, but back when I bought it, the thing cost over $2,000.

These days you can get good 1080p LCD TVs for what I paid ... thinner, brighter, sharper, better video processing. That's progress for ya, and I'm sure I'll replace it in a year or two with something that costs $1,000 and is twice as good.

The point is, I had an HDTV, but the only HD content I had was Xbox 360 games.

It was time to call my cable provider (Comcast, because hey, there's no real competition in cable TV, right?). If I wanted hi-def TV shows to watch on my hi-def TV, I needed to go the cable route.

Where I live, I'm surrounded by somewhat taller buildings that make over-the-air impossible to get from my apartment. Satellite might be an option — if I wanted to deal with the expense, wrestle with my landlord to get permission to put a dish on the roof, and hope none of the taller buildings blocked the sight line I would need.

So I pay a visit to my local Comcast office to sign up for digital cable, and what the heck, gimme HBO as well (actually it's about 12 different HBO channels, but I just want to watch some of their great original shows in hi-def).

I got the newer Motorola set-top box with HDMI output, but man, does that thing stink.

First of all, it's got 120 GB of storage. Plenty for digital standard-def shows, but you record just a few episodes of "Planet Earth" in hi-def and the thing is practically full.

The interface stinks. The remote is extremely picky: I have to move it so the beam very precisely points at the box without my coffee table in the way, or it won't work.

Sometimes I would press buttons on the remote and nothing would happen, but it queues up those inputs and then, after 10 seconds of inactivity, rapidly executes them all at once.

The guide and menus are ugly, recording shows is harder than it should be, and telling "season pass" type recordings to start early or end late would cause the DVR to lock up every couple of days.

I heard that Comcast would start offering TiVo service on their DVR boxes, so I held out.

After all, the content itself was great — it's just the box's software I had a problem with (well, and the anemic storage, but I could deal with that, I guess).

First TiVo service was supposed to come late in 2006. Then it was early 2007. Then Comcast demoed it at CES in January and said it would roll out "soon."

Now it's nearly summer and it's still maybe just, y'know, next quarter.

Well, the hell with this, I'm going to TiVo. I'm getting a Series 3.

For my birthday the other week, I did what any good geek would do: I decided to buy something impractical, unnecessary and expensive.

I decided to ditch my Comcast box and pick up a Series 3 TiVo. All I would need is a pair of CableCARDs from Comcast and I could ditch that awful cable box.

Without the CableCARDs, the TiVo works fine with analog cable, but I don't get digital channels, and that means no hi-def.

So I call Comcast customer support, wait on hold for 15 minutes, and tell the nice customer service lady that I have digital cable now, and I'm going to turn in my box and get a TiVo Series 3.

Me: So, all I need is a pair of CableCARDs, right?

Her: That's right.

Me: Do they have those at my local office? Can I just, y'know, go down there and pick them up?

Her: Yes, they have those at your local office.

Me: Nobody needs to come install them or anything, right? I just go get the cards myself, bring them home, and put them in my TiVo.

Her: That's right.

So before I stop by my local computer-and-electronics megastore (you can't really find a special deal on the $800 Series 3 anywhere), I stop by my local Comcast office.

I stand in line for 25 minutes while the 15 people in front of me take forever to pay overdue bills and stuff.

When I get up to the counter, I have the following exchange with the service-desk guy:

Me: Hi! I'm getting a Series 3 TiVo and I need to pick up a pair of CableCARDs.

Him: We don't have those here.

Me: I called your customer support this morning and she said you did.

Him: No, we don't keep those here. We have to schedule an installer to come hook it up.

Me: I don't need an installer; I can handle that part myself.

Him: We always schedule an installer. They have to call in the codes and stuff.

Me: Well that's not what your service people told me. Okay, when is the soonest you can have someone come out?

Him: Saturday between 2 and 6.

Me: (grumbling under my breath) I should tell them I'll pay my bill between August and October ... (out loud) Okay, that's fine.

Him: I'll make sure we waive the service charge.

Me: Damn right.

So I go buy my Series 3 TiVo, take it home, hook it up, and run through a depressing standard-def setup to make sure everything works okay. And besides, after it pulls all this guide data and stuff, it'll make the setup go faster next time.

So Saturday rolls around and the installer guy comes by.

Before he hooks up the CableCARDs, he tests my signal, and it's awful. Like -7dB.

It's "really shouldn't be working" awful, though everything does work, pretty much.

After pulling wires and digging around in my roommate's room and replacing splitters and bad cable ends, he manages to get the signal up to about 1dB, a massive improvement but not where it should be.

It turns out that the four houses (converted to 2 or 3 apartments each) down my alley don't each have the individual feed they're supposed to. There's a four-way splitter in our alley.

The signal still isn't too bad coming into my building, but after it gets split for the upstairs and downstairs apartment, and then split to different rooms, it's not looking so hot.

Still, the TiVo takes it all like a champ, and after a fast 10-minute CableCARD setup, it's dutifully displaying all my digital channels, recording two HD programs at once, you name it.

And I'm thrilled — mostly. With the exception of the latest Media Center stuff, nobody has an interface as good at TiVo's, and it's still the best remote in the business by far.

The Internet apps are neat, too. I've got it scheduled to download internet video of the Onion News Network every week, and how cool is that?

It's not all sunshine and roses, of course. I'm still miffed that TiVo doesn't display how much space you have left on your DVR. (C'mon, just a "73 percent full" message would be fine, based on drive space. We're not dumb, we know higher-quality recordings and HDTV take up more space.)

I'm doubly mad that the latest TiVo Desktop Software doesn't work on Vista without some annoying hacking of the installer program, and some of its features don't work on Series 3 units yet.

C'mon TiVo, Series 3 customers are your highest-paying, most loyal customers. They deserve full software support.

And Microsoft has sold 40 million copies of Vista, so maybe it's time to get on top of that. Or didn't you see the release coming, oh, three or four years ago?

Ultimately, though, there's still no substitute for TiVo. Those new Media Center PCs with CableCARD compatibility are really nice, but if I can't build my own (and I can't), forget it.

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.