Why I’m not going back to TiVo

I was a very early adopter of TiVo, buying my first Philips TiVo box with a lifetime membership way back in 2000, less than a year after the company shipped its first box. I loved it then, and the Spousal Acceptance Factor (SAF) was high. High enough, in fact, that I bought an HD TiVo and signed up with DirecTV a little over three years ago when we moved into the home we live in now.

But DirecTV and TiVo had a falling out shortly after I made that purchase, and DirecTV introduced one of the suckiest DVRs ever unleashed on an unsuspecting public. So bad, in fact, that I willingly paid an early termination fee to get rid of it.

For the past year, our home entertainment system has been a Dell Media Center PC equipped with two external CableCARD tuners and two ATSC (over-the-air HD) tuners attached to an external antenna. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had various Media Center extenders in other rooms of the house. The system has been an absolute joy to use, with an extremely high SAF.

Every so often I get an e-mail from TiVo offering me some sort of deal to come back. Today, just for grins, I decided to see what I’d have to pay to rejoin the TiVo fold.

For starters, I would need at least two HD TiVos (ours is an HD-only household), at $300 each, plus a My DVR Expander drive at $200. The best deal on service charges is a three-year prepaid plan at $299 per box (the multi-service deal is $99 [per year for the second box, so no discount there). For an extra $99 I could get lifetime service on both boxes, but let’s assume a thee-year life.

We’re now up to $1400 for TV access in two rooms, with the ability to record up to two programs at once, including ATSC digital from the antenna. The storage on the second box can be expanded with another $200 external hard drive, which would drive the cost up even higher. After that, I’d have to start hacking the hardware to get any additional storage. That’s an awful lot of money to pay for a two-room DVR.

By contrast, the HP m9300t Media Center PC I just purchased cost $930 delivered. It includes a quad-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 750GB hard drive, which matches the storage of the TiVo with its drive expander. It includes a single digital cable tuner and a dual analog cable/ATSC tuner. As I noted earlier today, I can pick up a pair of Media Center extenders for roughly $130 each. That gives me three rooms of full HD coverage for $1190, which is $210 less than I would have to pay TiVo for two rooms of coverage. (I could also choose to spend the difference on more powerful extenders, including an Xbox 360.) As a bonus, the extenders are completely noiseless, unlike the fan-equipped TiVos, and I don’t have to do any shuffling to share programs between boxes. The extenders just log in remotely to the main system and access everything from a single location.

In addition, I can expand the storage capacity of the Media Center system by adding another internal hard drive or any number of external drives. I can extend the system’s capabilities with add-ins. I can back up recorded shows and easily transfer non-copy-protected content (anything recorded from the digital antenna) to another PC or a portable device.

But the killer feature for me is the digital music interface, which is the best 10-foot interface I’ve ever used. The TiVo music interface is unusable for a large collection like ours(we have more than 20,000 songs and something like 1800 albums). By contrast, the Media Center music playback experience is ridiculously easy to use. It’s also wicked fast, even on an extender. It takes 20 seconds or so to read in the index when the extender starts up, but after that I can jump to any artist, album, or genre just about instantly.

Costs less than TiVo, easier to use across the board, more expandable. Hmmm. What’s not to like?

Update: In the comments, Ryan Walters notes a link I saw this morning but didn’t include: DirecTV and TiVo kiss and make up, again, with HD agreement. Apparently the joint announcement says that “in late 2009” TiVo will have a new HD DVR for DirecTV. I’m not holding my breath (DirecTV has a way of making announcements about products that take longer than expected). And as I note in the comments below, it would take a lot for me to go back to DirecTV, who managed to alienate me for life with their less-than-stellar customer service.

23 thoughts on “Why I’m not going back to TiVo

  1. What’s not to like?

    Trying to hide a PC in your living room is a lot harder than a Tivo box.

    With two HD Tivo’s you could record four HD show from cable instead of just one with your Media Center setup. You could also view a second HD cable show while the first is recording.

    Media Center needs a lot more baby-sitting than Tivo.

    In three years your Media Center PC will likely need replacing anyway.

  2. I don’t keep it in the living room. It sits in a corner of my office. And because I use it as a dedicated device, not installing any other software on it or trying to use it for other purposes, it needs virtually no “babysitting.” Meanwhile, the usability issue trumps all for me. Using a TiVo as a music server is painful.

    Also, I have additional CableCARD tuners (they cost $179 each when I purchased them) and much of what we watch comes over analog cable channels (MSNBC, Comedy Central) or OTA digital (all four national networks, plus PBS and some local channels). That’s a total of five tuners: three cable, two ATSC. So we can already record up to four HD programs at once and watch any live signal or a prerecorded program in any room where there’s an extender.

  3. Ryan, I wouldn’t go back to DirecTV unless you gave me the box for free and subsidized my subscription for a year. And even then I’d have to think twice. DTV’s custgomer service was that awful. As I noted earlier, the biggest stumbling block for me is the digital music part. We love the music playback feature set of Media Center and find the TiVo interface completely unusable for a collection the size of ours. I really find it hard to imagine that they’re going to fix that, but we’ll see.

  4. While I agree I’d never go back to TiVo in its current incarnation, I do miss the stability of TiVo. I’ve had my VMC for a few months now and I’m starting to loose faith that I’ll ever have a stable system. So for now I’m choosing features and usability above stability, but I have my hopes that I can have both one day.

  5. This is a great setup. I am just wondering what kind of cable cards do you have the usb variety or pci. Did you have a hard time getting your cable company to get you the cards. I tried with an HD tv and it was just like pulling teeth. Oh and what are your system specs, it sounds like a hog.

  6. You’re being very unfair on the price of Tivo. A refurbished Tivo HD can be purchased for $180 and a 500 GB my DVR Expander for $150 at Amazon.com. So, $360 for two Tivo HDs, $300 for two external drives, $600 for two 3-year subscriptions. That’s only $1260 for everything. That’s far less than the Media Center when you factor in extenders and CableCard tuners.

  7. Kevin, the Media Center total of $1190 already includes two extenders and one digital cable tuner plus two additional ATSC and analog cable tuners. I realize I can get refurbs, but I think it’s fairer to compare new to new. But even if I use refurbs, the total cost of $1260 for TiVo is still more than the $1190 for the Media Center system WITH one digital tuner, three additional tuners, and two extenders. And it’s covering three rooms with the potential to expand to more.

    I really don’t need four CableCARD tuners. After a year I know that two is more than enough…

  8. Oh, and one more thing, Kevin. The refurb deal from Tio has a big gotcha with it. You MUST buy a service plan with it. You either sign a contract for one year at $12,95 per month OR a prepaid one-year plan for $129 OR a lifetime service plan for $399. What’s missing? The $299-for-three-years option. You also can’t get the $99 annual rate for multi-service. (“Multi-service discount pricing does not apply to Web Specials.”)

    So the math goes like this:

    $360 for two HD DVR refurbs
    $300 for two add-on hard drives
    $399 for lifetime service on first system
    $129 for annual subscription on second system.

    Total cost: $1386 rather than the $1260 you should be able to pay if you could get the refurbs with the $299 plan. (And I’m assuming you can convert to $99 for years 2 and 3, but if you can’t, then the price for the room 2 system goes up another $30 for years 2 and 3, making the total $1446. Or you could just buy a second lifetime subscription for an extra $12.)


  9. Just adding a couple thoughts here:
    * Replacing the TiVo’s internal drive is fairly trivial if you’re technical, so there really isn’t a need to buy the expensive external drive. The bonus is that you have a backup of the part of the TiVo that’s most likely to break. 750 GB drives are about $100.
    * I have a VMC PC that I use for photos, music, Flickr, DVDs, Internet video, etc. and a TiVo that I use for actual TV watching. I lose the integration, but my Media Center PC was less than $600, as opposed to the ~$1,200 I would spend with Ed’s system. I should note, however, that we’re a one TV household. My VMC PC is about 90% as reliable as my TiVo, which I consider to be pretty good, but not good enough to trust to record TV every week.
    * I love the TiVo interface for TV watching, but I agree that it’s not suitable for large music collections. The inability to buy CableCard adapters for the PC I already own irritates me to no end. When I go HD, I will replace my DirecTV TiVo with HD TiVo. But I will keep my VMC PC for everything else.

  10. Just to clarify – if I could buy CableCard adapters for my existing VMC PC, I might be willing to give it a shot, knowing I could dump the adapters on eBay if it doesn’t work. But I’m not tossing a perfectly good 2 year old PC because Microsoft/CableLabs/Satan (sorry) think I’m going to do something nefarious with them. I realize that I could eBay the PC, but I’d be taking a pretty big loss, and would end up with a thousand dollar-plus investment that may result in me having to buy a TiVo HD anyway.

  11. Just to be clear, the cable-ready system I purchased cost $683. That’s for a quad-core Intel Q9300 (2.5GHz Penryn) with 2GB of RAM and a 750GB drive. I paid an additional $250 for a CableCard tuner and a dual ATSC/Analog cable internal tuner (the latter is a superb performer, btw). So total cost with tax and shipping was well below $1000. The CableCard tuners would easily sell on Ebay for $200+.

    This system replaced a one-year-old Q6600 PC, which I was able to sell for roughly what I paid for it. So worst case is I would have a pretty kickass quad-core system for roughly $700. I can’t complain about that.

  12. Your solution sounds fine….if one has a contact at Dell to custom configure the PC and add-ons. And if one can figure out how to install and manage the thing.

    I just went to both the Dell and HP sites and would have no idea of what I needed to order to install a multi-tuner, multi-room media center. I can’t imaging trying to get help resoolving an installation problem.

    The appeal of Tivo is that it comes out of the box and installs simply. It has very well written user documentation and a help line to call.

    A couple of times, I’ve considered a windows media center setup, but have found the task of configuring and installing too much of a potential nightmare. (kinda like my past attempts at Linux…)

    I guess one could assemble a wristwatch, but I prefer to buy mine assembled and working.

  13. Blue, stay tuned. I’ll write up my experiences with the HP system shortly. There are a couple of gotchas, but very few, and for the most part things are pretty easy to set up.

  14. What I really get out of this is that any company (in this case DirectTV) can easily piss off a customer for a very long time.

    And that’s not good, especially when it’s someone like Ed Bott who has a blog that lots of people read. I’m surprised DirectTV hasn’t read this and started offering Bott massive apology freebies.

  15. Have you considered the additional electricity usage from running a media center system 24 hrs a day? Would the higher energy cost negate the savings from not having to pay a monthly (or lifetime) service fee? I’m curious if anyone has done any calculations. Any idea of the total power consumption for the system (tower, extenders, external cable card tuners, etc) vs a tivo box?

  16. Good question, Jeff. I did some calculations on a previous Media Center setup and published them here:


    My WAG is that I probably pay about $2 per month more in energy costs for the Media Center than I would for two TiVos. The extenders are off most of the time and the system I have now is more energy efficient than the one I used back then. I have some Kill A Watt devices here. I’ll do some more measurements when I get a chance.

  17. Ed, looking forward to your post on your new HP. I purchased the same one myself and ran into a gotcha with the DCT’s drivers. Curious if you had some of the same experiences.

    The only problem I have had is fighting for a CableCard. My local cable company stiffed me on a date to install yesterday, insisted that my area did not offer that service, and when I called them on it insisting that if they offered digital cable they have to offer CableCard they finally relented. Now whether I am going to have to fight them for a couple of weeks to get it is going to be interesting.

  18. RL, I discovered that I had to manually update the DCT (OCUR tuner) drivers, which also updated the firmware at the same time. Pretty stupid to ship a cable-ready system with 2006 drivers. Sheesh.

    Also, the Norton Internet Security 2008 software interferes with the CableCARD operation. Also sheesh.

  19. Ed, four digital cable tuners are better than one. So, again, if you’re going to compare apples to apples, you should price it out with the same functionality on both sides. I’ve run into several situations when there are three or more things that I want to watch at the same time, especially in the fall when both the new TV season and college football start at the same time.

  20. Kevin, that’s your opinion. Personally, I prefer the over-the-air digital tuners because we get better quality than from cable, some interesting subchannels, and the ability to freely transfer recorded files. Lots of stuff on the OTA channels still. And it is unheard of when we want to record more than two premium cable programs at the same time. (We do have two digital tuners.) When that happens, I just choose the Other Showings option and pick a different airing.

    Anyway, I freely concede your right to choose any number and combination of tuners you want and would never think of trying to tell you that your choice is wrong. You might want to look at the title of this post again. My explanation of why I made the choice I did, not an argument that everyone should do the same.

  21. Though I am a little late to the game here it goes.

    Keven: one thing you are not realizing here is that with a VMC solution is that you have ONE SINGLE recoding location. Say you have two tivo’s in two separate rooms, you have to manually transfer over recordings or have both boxes record the same show on both boxes, making it much harder to mange series recordings and figure out which box has which recordings.

    With a media center solution, you have a CENTRAL system where one device (the VMC pc in this case) doing all the series recordings/management/storage.

    Another huge advantage is that you can start watching a tv show on one extender/PC located in one room. Pause or stop playback, shut everything down. Go to another tv/extender location and pick right up where you left off. You can not do that with tivo at all.

    Also as Ed pointed out with non-copy protected content, ATSC and analog NTSC recordings you can easily transfer them to other pc’s and or devices like the Zune extremely easy with no converting or transcoding needed.

    I personally have a 10 tuner setup at the moment, Doing 4 ATSC tuners, 4 analog NTSC tuners, and 2 QAM digital tuners. I have 4 extenders in my home (3 linksys DMA 2100’s and 1 xbox 360) I have 1.5TB of storage space, have third party plug-ins like Lifextender that automatically remove commercials, or plug-ins like webguide that allow me to stream live and recorded tv over the internet to my PDA, and or laptop, do remote scheduling, view photos, stream my music library, ect….

    Also the last big thing is that you DO NOT have a monthly, yearly, life time subscription fee, like you do with Tivo.

    So with that said I can fully understand where Ed is coming from.


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