Sunday, 17 June 2012

Hardware Review: VIRGIN MEDIA TIVO

Sunday, 17 June 2012

It's been available for awhile now, but I recently took the plunge and bought one of Virgin Media's new TiVo boxes. No, before you ask, it wasn't those David Tennant adverts that swayed me. I opted for the 500GB model, rather than the premium 1TB model, mainly because I don't record and keep enough HD content to make the 1TB a key requirement. I nearly always record, watch and delete everything within a week or so.

The many features of the TiVo have been well-documented over the months by professional gadget geeks, so I'll just give my overall impression of the key aspects I find most desirable and impressive.

Audio-visual. People forget that the primary function of a DVR is to display things to the consumer on their TV screens. I've heard it said that the TiVo doesn't handle standard-def channels as well as the old V+HD boxes, but I think this issue's been fixed in an update, or my Toshiba flatscreen isn't an affected model. I didn't notice any real difference, see. The HD channels are likewise very good, and appear to be an improvement. But that could just be wishful thinking. Whatever's the truth, I'm more than happy with the output of the TiVo. The option to have audio go "Dolby Digital to PCM" is also very handy for me, because it means all the sound can be processed in my dedicated 5.1 surround sound system.

Menus & EPG. Virgin had an ugly yellow-black aesthetic for its set-top boxes before TiVo (don't they know that colour combination means danger in nature?), but this has thankfully been abandoned. The new menus have a red themed TiVo design with discrete Virgin logos, looking very similar to the US TiVo boxes. They're much faster and easier to navigate than V+HD and Sky+HD, with far less lag. I even like the default setting that gives a pleasant "pop", "bloop" or "bong" sound effects when you press buttons, move around, or encounter errors...

Apps & Games. This isn't something I'm especially interested in, but after you sign-up through Virgin's website it's possible to connect the TiVo to your Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts. I haven't done so yet, because you need a keyboard to prevent yourself going crazy trying to text-type with a remote control. But the Facebook connectivity could be fun, as it means you could view family photos/videos on your TV with ease.

YouTube. Technically, this should come under the app section above, but I think it's deserving of its own paragraph. There's a TiVo feature that I never hear anyone talk about, but it's bloody fantastic. If you have a phone/tablet, you can pair that device with your TiVo wirelessly, then go to "", select "remote" from the grid options, and stream your YouTube content directly to your television. For me, this is a very unexpected and brilliant innovation. I have lots of videos "favourited" that I now prefer to playback via my TiVo, giving you the ability to show home videos more communally (rather than get everyone hunched around a laptop/tablet). Oh, and because the TiVo accesses the internet with its own dedicate broadband line, there's no slowdown of your internet speed for anyone else in the house using their computer. Bonus!

Series-linking. This isn't new to me, because it was the main reason I bought a V+HD box many years ago, but TiVo makes the process faster and smoother. It also helps that it's now capable of recording THREE things simultaneously, which puts an end to most recording clashes and me having to sacrifice a recording and try to watch it later via on-demand. This was often because recordings overlapped for just a few minutes at the start/end, too! I don't have to worry about any of that now, because it's unlikely a jam will happen with the extra tuner.

Small joys. I like the info banner that can be called up during a show you're watching, because it has handy tabs of information and, best of all, a useful green line showing how long a show's been airing with a quick glance.

I also like the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" idea of ranking content you watch, which in turn enables TiVo to develop a profile of you and suggest other things you may like. For me, this isn't an especially useful thing, because I already know what's on, but it may catch the odd thing I would have missed. Regardless, there's something very satisfying about giving a show the maximum three thumbs down or up.

Being able to explore the TV guide backwards is a delight, mainly because it's a much easier way to find a show you missed and (in most cases) play it using one of the integrated catch-up services (BBC iPlayer, 4OD, ITV Player, etc.)

There's a button called "slow" that does exactly what you imagine to live television. It's hard to see what it could be useful for, though, beyond savouring some risqué pop videos or watching THAT scene in Basic Instinct.

The "peanut" remote control is amazingly comfortable, and despite looking quite childish in someways, I prefer to see it as "fun". The buttons are pleasing to push and nicely laid out. A big improvement on my V+HD controller, and Sky's own flatter remote.

And finally, the TiVo doesn't have a pointless display on the box with the current channel number. This means it's less of a distraction if you're watching TV with the lights low/off. I'm amazed it took them that long to realise people are quite happy using the huge TV screen to note what channel they're watching, and don't need the box to tell them.

The downsides. There are downsides to TiVo, of course, but not very many. I miss being able to set on-screen "reminders" on the TV guide, but Virgin seem to think that's an antiquated idea and you should instead be immediately recording things. But that's silly to me. Sometimes you just want a handy reminder about something. I hope the reminders come back.

I also find it can be a struggle to watch something on "catch-up", despite how TiVo has integrated it better. You're still sent to a ridiculous number of sub-screens until whatever you want to watch starts to play. It shouldn't really take longer than two button presses. Admittedly the process is easier if you just use the TV guide and browse backwards through the listings, but there's still room for improvement overall.

Recommendations for the future. It's still a shame no DVR on the market has a USB port viewers can use (or so I believe). This would allow you to connect an external hard-drive or data-stick and play music/videos or slideshow photos. If one did, I'd be using my TiVo more often than my Playstation 3 (which does have USB and allows this common activity). It surely can't be that hard to add a USB port at the front, can it? Or are Virgin worried customers will realize they can torrent TV from the internet (ironically at great speed thanks to Virgin's cable broadband) and grab content to be played using the TiVo and bypass the broadcast TV option entirely.

In summation. I'm very happy with my purchase, and don't begrudge the £5 extra it's costing me each month. I tend to fritter away £5 on crap, so I'll just stop that and know the money's going somewhere worthwhile. Does this all mean Virgin's better than Sky? I believe so, even before TiVo arrived, unless you're particularly keen on the channels Sky hold as exclusive. But if you don't really care about sport and watch enough movies elsewhere (I subscribe to Lovefilm), it's hard to see why you'd choose Sky over Virgin if you're in a cabled area. Their TiVo box is the best DVR the UK has to offer, and appears to be something of a global leader in key areas. They should be rightly proud of it. With a few improvements here and there, I can't think of anything to complain about.