Technology

TV That Travels -- Slowly


By Cliff Edwards

(Readers'

Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good No-cost way to take shows on the road

The Bad The shows hog lots of hard-drive space on your notebook

The Bottom Line Long download times make it more hassle than pleasure

For me, the world over the past few years has been divided into two species: Those who have TiVo (TIVO) and those who don't. Like all TiVo lovers, I've gotten on my soapbox and preached to skeptical friends and colleagues about how the outfit's digital recording experience is unlike any pretender's offering. There's the season-pass feature that records your best-loved shows regardless of the day or time they're on. There's wishlist, which finds shows by keywords that could be your favorite actor, director, or show type. And the familiar interface ranks second to none in terms of ease of use.

So when the industry pioneer introduced its long-awaited TiVoToGo service in late December, I was raring to try it. Much like it sounds, TiVoToGo lets you take the shows you've recorded on a stand-alone TiVo Series 2 digital video recorder on the road. But after trying it out for a week, I'm ready to concede it's one of the few disappointments I've seen from the company.

EASY START. The good news is that setting up TiVoToGo is a snap, and it comes with TiVo's $12-per-month subscription charge. If you already have a Series 2 digital recorder -- the stand-alone analog box you can get for $99 at your local Best Buy (BBY) or Circuit City (CC) -- TiVo automatically downloads a software upgrade to the box. You receive a notification message on your TiVo Central home screen when that happens. Then, you'll need a wired or wireless network adapter, which costs about $30, to connect to the standard USB port on your TiVo and make it part of your home broadband network.

Finally, log onto www.tivo.com to download Tivo Desktop version 2.0 to the desktop or, more likely, notebook computers to which you'll be transferring shows. To prevent theft or unauthorized duplication of content, enter your TiVo's media access code, found in the video menu. And you'll need to create a unique password that must be used any time you want to play back a show recorded to the PC.

If you're a person who thrives on anticipation, you'll love the time it takes to actually download shows once you get the setup out of the way. For anyone else, the wait seems unbearable. I expected the transfer system to have a lot of oomph after I installed TiVo Desktop on a new Dell (DELL) 6100 consumer notebook, featuring Intel's (INTC) new Centrino platform with the 1.6 gigahertz Pentium M processor, tri-band chips for wireless technology, and improved multimedia functions.

FUZZY IMAGE. To my surprise, however, when I tried to download a high-quality recording of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit over a wireless connection, the TiVo software informed me it would take a leisurely 2.5 hours to grab the hour-long program. When I subbed in wired Ethernet adapters for both laptop and TiVo, I cut the time for the same download to just over 90 minutes.

You can fiddle with the video-recording settings on your TiVo to get the transfer time down to about the actual time of the program, but expect characters to look a bit fuzzy when you're playing back on the notebook since the original recordings are analog, VCR-like quality.

Even recording shows captured in low-quality settings takes up a lot of room on your computer's hard drive. A 30-minute episode of Malcolm in the Middle, for instance, used more than half a gigabyte of space, which means you'll have to watch and delete files pretty often to prevent your hard drive from quickly filling up.

DEALBREAKER. Another quibble: The service is available only on Windows machines. When using Windows Media Player, there's no way of easily fast-forwarding through the commercials. And when downloading shows, you can't pause the transfer. When my computer suddenly restarted after installing a Windows security update, I had to perform the entire transfer process again.

To avoid alienating Hollywood and other content providers, TiVoToGo prevents you from transferring any programming with Macrovision (MVSN) copy protection, including some pay-per-view shows and premium channels like HBO and Showtime. That's not much of an issue now, since most of these protections aren't enabled, but it could hobble the service as more digital programming rolls out.

Combined, the drawbacks to the service are enough to make it a dealbreaker for me. For a lot less hassle, you can buy a combination TiVo and DVD recorder from consumer-electronics makers such as Humax, Toshiba (TOSBF), and Pioneer (PIO). They let you quickly burn disks of your favorite shows to take on the road.

TIVO'S WAY. At $300 to $500 for the box, with the additional costs of each DVD, that could get pretty expensive. But it represents a nice alternative, particularly since TiVo claims the majority of its customers are well-heeled anyway.

For those who want a low-cost way of taking their shows with them, TiVoToGo may be just the thing. But the hefty chunk of time it takes to perform the task seems to defeat TiVo's stated purpose of "television your way."

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's San Mateo bureau


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