Digital Media Hub: How TiVo Compares

I've been using a TiVo Series 2 digital video recorder (DVR) for the past month, and as a long-time Media Center PC user, I have to say I'm impressed. On the other hand, TiVo has some serious limitations when you compare it with a Media Center PC, so your mileage may vary. Here's what I've found out.

As a DVR, the TiVo is excellent. It's a fairly simple device, once you get it properly set up, with no switches or buttons marring its front and a fairly obvious remote control. TiVo Series 2 devices come with enough storage for 40 to 140 hours of recording, according to TiVo, but that's a bit optimistic. At the highest recording quality, my 40-hour TiVo is good for about 11 to 15 TV shows, or about 9 to 10 hours of recording time. That's not that much, and I'd certainly buy a larger-capacity device if I were spending my own money.

Value for Your Money
Speaking of money, TiVo devices are relatively inexpensive, compared with their Media Center PC counterparts. The Series 2 devices cost $200, $300, and $350 for the 40-hour, 80-hour, and 140-hour models, respectively, but that price doesn't include the subscription price you'll pay for the TiVo service, which is a necessity. The TiVo service costs $12.95 per month, or you can pay $299 to cover a single device for its lifetime—and that service isn't transferable to another TiVo. So, you could pay as much as $650 upfront for a TiVo. That compares favorably to the $1000-plus cost of a typical Media Center PC (which, incidentally, doesn't require a subscription fee for its DVR service).

For that money, you get a simple, easy-to-use device with few extras. Video quality is fair to good, depending on the recording-quality setting you use, compared to fair to excellent on a Media Center PC. That's because TiVo Series 2 devices don't support HDTV/composite video out, which is a huge problem, especially if you have a new widescreen TV. That shortcoming, along with the lack of an integrated Ethernet port are—to my mind—the TiVo Series 2's greatest faults.

The missing Ethernet port is a problem because without it, the TiVo relies on a slow and potentially intrusive phone-line connection, through which it must download program-guide information and software updates. You can add a USB-based Ethernet connection later at a cost of about $35, and that's exactly what I did. However, even with the network connection, you still have to set up the TiVo with the phone line, then switch to networking later. It's not a huge problem, but I'd like to see that process streamlined to work natively over Ethernet out of the box.

Home Networking
Another reason to use Ethernet is TiVo's new home-networking capabilities. Recently, TiVo has added two interesting new features that make TiVo more applicable as a digital media hub device, and both of these features require the Ethernet connection.

The first is a new Digital Music & Photos feature that integrates with digital content stored on a Windows 2000 or Windows XP PC. Using TiVo Desktop software, you can configure your PC to share folders of digital music and photos with your TiVo. Then, you can enjoy this content from your TV and, presumably, a decent stereo system. The Digital Music & Photos functionality is a welcome addition to the TiVo, but it's fairly bare bones. For example, you can't play a photo slideshow with an accompanying music soundtrack; you can enjoy only one or the other. Hopefully, this feature will be updated in the future to be more useful.

The second new feature is called TiVoToGo. This feature extends PC-based TiVo Desktop software to download TiVo-recorded TV shows to your PC so that you can watch them on the PC, a laptop, or even a portable device such as a Portable Media Center. Or, using software from Sonic (which I'll look at in a future edition of Connected Home Express), you can burn TiVo shows to DVD. Like Digital Music & Photos, TiVoToGo is a welcome addition but poorly executed. Transferring shows to the PC takes forever—far longer than copying Media Center content—and the shows look even worse on the PC, for some reason. Transcoding recorded TV shows to a smaller format, for use on a portable device, is also time-consuming, but that's to be expected.

TiVo also lets you connect two or more TiVos in a home, although you can't chain the service contracts—that is, each box needs its own active subscription service, or the chaining feature won't work. By connecting TiVos this way, you can record shows on each device, then seamlessly access all the shows from any device. Very nice.

When it comes to digital media hub features, the TiVo has one serious omission: You can't play PC-based video content. So, you'll have to figure out a way to play all your PC-based home movies and other video content on your TV—perhaps with a dedicated digital media receiver (most of which are fraught with problems). With a Media Center PC, of course, this isn't a problem. (However, it's a bit more of a concern if you use a Media Center Extender in your living room, because codec support on Extenders is dicey.) A second digital hub omission: TiVo Series 2 devices can't play DVDs or CDs, so you'll need a separate device for that, too. So much for that all-in-one living room hub.

Making the Choice
If you're choosing between TiVo and a Media Center PC, you have a few considerations to keep in mind. The TiVo is cheaper and much simpler than any Media Center PC, and it's far more reliable. However, Media Center PCs offer better video quality, give you much more functionality, and are almost infinitely expandable—they are, after all, true PCs. If you're looking for a middle ground between a TiVo Series 2 device and a Media Center PC, consider other DVRs. For example, Humax sells a TiVo-based DVR that includes an integrated DVD player and DVD recorder for $400, plus the normal subscription fees. And if you don't mind switching to satellite-based TV, DirecTV is excellent and offers TiVo-based DVRs and even an HD-based set for the highest possible image quality. And if even TiVo seems too expensive, check out your local cable company, which might already offer a bare-bones DVR set-top box.

My recommendation is to choose TiVo if you're a non-technical or average user. Power users should instead consider an expandable Media Center PC. Just wait for upgraded Extender technology later this year, with the new Xbox 360. The current generation of Media Center Extenders is seriously lacking and should be avoided if possible.

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