So Long, TiVo; Hello, Cable-Company Digital Video Recorder

The last six years have been great, but I have to say goodbye.

I'd love to say it isn't you, TiVo. But it is.

As the friendly Time Warner guys came to install my brand-new Scientific Atlanta 8300HD cable box, I felt wistful that my little daughter wouldn't get to use TiVo's kids-only programming menu, wield the peanut-shaped remote or watch that little antennaed guy bobble down his slide.

But then I turned on my new HDTV and my doubts went away.

• Click here for's Personal Technology Center.

TiVo does many things well. But as HD went mainstream, TiVo chose to become irrelevant, pricing its Series 3 box so absurdly high — $800 — that there's no way you can justify it over the free alternative from your cable company.

Here's the thing: The cable-company box isn't so awful anymore.

I used to look down on cable-company digital video recorders the way a music snob looks down on Radio Disney. But nowadays they're 90 percent as good as a TiVo. And they do stuff my old TiVos didn't, such as play video on demand or record one program while I'm watching another.

They're even geekable: I hooked up a 500 GB external SATA drive to my Scientific Atlanta box and got a lot more storage, with only a few annoying quirks (such as losing the ability to pause live TV, for which I've found a workaround).

I even heard that the FireWire port on the back of the box is live, which would let me send video to a camera or a PC.

I really miss only one TiVo feature: the ability to stream music from my PC.

I hope to get that with the Netgear EVA8000, a media-extender box I'm testing next month. It can stream not only music, but also HD video from my PC — something TiVo can't do.

I looked at the slick new Apple TV, but Apple's hostility to non-iTunes video content makes it a clumsy solution for people who don't get all of their PC video through iTunes. (Who buys movies on iTunes, anyway?)

Yes, you can painstakingly transcode your Internet video into an Apple TV-compatible format, but the Netgear box should handle YouTube and BitTorrent stuff without that extra step. And am I the only person who finds the Apple TV's half-syncing, half-streaming model confusing?

If the only price points you can find are $0 and $800, you know there's something wrong with the set-top box business. But that's what happens when there's no free market.

Cable companies have succeeded in cowing set-top-box manufacturers and crippling the CableCARD effort, so you must either pick the set-top box your cable provider sponsors, go for TiVo's luxury option or get an even more expensive CableCARD PC.

That slows innovations such as the one from Motorola, whose "follow-me TV" box lets you schedule your recordings from a smartphone or watch them on the go.

Motorola's upcoming "social TV" box will combine cable TV and instant messaging, letting friends snark and snipe about the latest episode of "Project Runway" from the same screens they're watching on.

But if I want one, the odds are slim I'll actually be able to get one. Chances are, my cable company won't offer it.

Cable companies say you have a choice of TV providers, but my options, like so many people's, are extremely limited.

Satellite doesn't work because my apartment faces the wrong direction, and apparently fiber will come to my neighborhood only if the whole place is razed.

So that leaves what? Rabbit ears?

That isn't competition. It's monopoly. And monopolies, as we know, get lazy.

A free market in set-top boxes might offer more options than just the good-enough cable-company model (and it is good enough) or an overpriced TiVo. And maybe if TiVo had more competition, its price would come down.

Trust me. If I'm leaving TiVo, it's in trouble.

This breaks my heart; TiVo has always been friendly, innovative, fun and easy to use. It should be celebrated, not abandoned. It's a verb, for heaven's sake.

But by turning into a luxury product, it's consigned itself to the quiet fringes of a bustling TV world.

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.