Fun With TiVo

The service gets an A, the product a B, the company a C.

In July, I purchased my first TiVo box, a 40-hour HUMAX DVD Recorder (Model DRT400). Getting the TiVo to work how I wanted it to was much more difficult than it should have been.

My Home Network

I have an iMac with an installed AirPort card that I’ve happily been using as a “software base station” for my wireless clients (desktops, laptops, etc.). I also stream iTunes from the iMac in my office via an AirPort Express to my stereo (i.e. AirTunes).

Enter TiVo. TiVo needs a data connection (phone or network) to download television metadata and software updates. Setting up the TiVo requires a phone line, which I don’t have near my TV. And the telephone cord that TiVo provided wasn’t long enough and (I’ll spare you the details of how I figure this out) was defective. Not exactly a user-friendly setup experience. I didn’t want to use a phone line for downloading, I wanted to use my home network. Plus there are other cool benefits to having the TiVo on my home network, like viewing photos and listening to MP3s on the TV. Presumably to save money, TiVo decided not to put an Ethernet port in its hardware. Instead, they have two USB ports and require you to get a funky USB-to-Ethernet adapter. Lovely. So I got one of those, the Linksys USB200M, a pretty flimsy looking piece of hardware that set me back $37.

Except that the Linksys USB200M wouldn’t work until the TiVo’s software was updated, so I had to buy another (longer, non-broken) phone cord to do that. (This also took some time to conclude.)

Configuration 1 – Failure

What I wanted to do was this: iMac -> wireless network (via software base station) -> AirPort Express -> Ethernet Cable -> USB200M -> TiVo.

In the figure above, I’ve shown a wireless connection as a dotted arrow, a wired connection as a solid arrow. I will skip to the conclusion and tell you that this did not and will not work. It should work, Apple could configure the Airport Express firmware and Airport software to do this, but they chose not to.

The AirPort Express can work as a bridge, but the consensus on the street is that the wireless base station can’t be a software base station but instead needs to be an AirPort Extreme (or the like).

In short, I was trying to bridge the wireless network to the AirPort Express, using the RJ45 port on the AirPort Express as a LAN port, not as a WAN port. (The AirPort Express also has a USB port, but you can’t connect to the TiVo with that either.)

Configuration number 1 was an elegant solution that didn’t require me to modify my existing network. Alas, it did not work.

Configuration 2 – Success

My second attempt, much less elegant, involved drilling a hole in the wall and threading a long Ethernet cable through there to my router. This worked.

Oh yes, we also had a power outage that killed my (admittedly very old) router. So I had to get a new router. I got a wireless one, a Linksys WRT54G.

Configuration 3 – Should Also Work

I’m using one of the wired ports on the Linksys WRT54G for the TiVo rather than try to go wireless to the AirPort Express. But this solution should also work. I just don’t care to implement it at the moment.

TiVo Grades

I give the TiVo service an A. We pretty much use the TiVo box as a movie cache. We’ve programmed the TiVo to automatically record movies featuring our favorite actors and directors. So instead of there just being one movie on TV, we now always have 20 movies. If I were to upgrade the box, I’d like to get one that allows me to record two channels at once, so I could use the “pause live TV” features while recording movies. The TiVo is pretty much recording all of the time (but good luck guessing what the status lights mean on the front panel – that’s not in the TiVo documentation).

I give the TiVo product a B. The documentation is lacking. The lack of an Ethernet port is silly. Last night, I was using the TiVo Desktop software to send my iTunes MP3s (the only file type supported) from my iMac to the TiVo, so my band could listen to songs for possible inclusion in our setlist. I don’t know if it was the iMac or the TiVo box, but skipping from one song to another took a long time (like 10 seconds or more), and on one occasion the TiVo box crashed and rebooted (which takes a really long time – like a couple of minutes). I’d also like to upgrade the TiVo box with a larger hard disk so I can record more movies or record at a higher quality. So I like the box overall.

I give the TiVo company a C. I don’t think TiVo knows what business it is in. Each step of my TiVo experience (ordering, delivery, setup, service) has had problems. TiVo’s package offerings are confusing. When I got my order confirmation email, the tracking number was wrong. The package was left on the front steps in the rain without a signature. The supplied phone cord didn’t work. The USB-to-Ethernet thingy didn’t work with the version of the software installed on the TiVo box. TiVo Central Online, which supposedly allows you to program your TiVo box from the web, has yet to work. (The first time I tried to program my TiVo box from the web, I entered the program info and never got a confirmation email. The second time I got a confirmation email but the program did not record. Maybe the third time will be the charm.)

TiVo should let another company handle order fulfillment. It was silly that I got the wrong tracking number. And when I got a call back from TiVo (which took a long time), the callerID didn’t say TiVo. Basic stuff. TiVo should also have order wizards that prompt you to buy things like extra long (non-broken) phone cords and flimsy (but necessary) USB-to-Ethernet adapters. Staples or Amazon already do this – and could do it better than TiVo.

All things considered, I have enjoyed the TiVo experience so far. Last night’s music review with the band would have been much more difficult if everyone had to ask the name of each song and artist. When Playing my iTunes MP3s through the TiVo, the song names and titles are displayed on the TV screen.

We’ll see how I feel after I upgrade to Verizon FiOS TV later this month.

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