TivoToGo... eh, not so much.

So the long-awaited OS update came to our Series2 Tivo a week or so ago. Aside from supporting the new TivoToGo service, I’ve noticed only two things with the new version.

1. The UI feels slower.
2. While listening to music with the Home Media Option, the current song’s info banner moves around every few seconds (presumably to avoid burn-in). 

I’m sure there are others, but that’s what I noticed. On to TivoToGo…

This update also added a web server and small web app to the Tivo box. This can be reached using https://[tivoipaddress]/nowplaying/index.html (note the “s” for secure http). You’re prompted to log in with “tivo” as the username and the password is your Media Access Key (you can find this in your Tivo’s System Information page).

Once logged in, you can see your current recordings and even download the .TiVo files to your machine. This approach for getting at video files isn’t officially supported, but it’s kinda cool to see the actual file sizes for all those shows you’re hanging on to. 

Alternatively, you can use the new Tivo Desktop software  (version 2.0), which provides a nice little UI for viewing your recordings, copying a bunch of them at once, and launching a media player to view the local files. Note that you MUST install the Tivo Desktop app, even if you plan to use the web interface to download them. This is because installing the desktop app forces you to provide your Media Access Key and a “playback password” (which you’re prompted for each time you watch a show on your PC).

Tivo says that viewing that watching the .TiVo files on your machine requires Windows Media Player 10 and and a codec. I’ve had good luck with the Intervideo codec that comes with WinDVD, but it seems there are lots of free/cheap codecs out there to choose from. I also found a program called The Core Media Player, which seems to play them all by itself just fine. Tinkering with codecs is a pain, but the ones listed on the official Tivo page seem to work well enough.  Once the desktop app is installed, the files are transferred, and you have WMP set up with a compatible codec, you’re set. 

Top 10 Things To Know

1. As you can imagine, the files themselves can be quite large. A half-hour show I tested was about 680MB and a 2–hour movie is a few gigs of data.

2. These files naturally take a while to transfer to your local machine. Not only are they large to transfer, but the Tivo does some type of on-the-fly encoding/conversion of the files with your media access key. This is to ensure that someone can’t just post a file to the file-sharing networks and have it be viewable everywhere. I also understand that it takes even longer if your Tivo is otherwise busy (ie. recording a show), which makes sense given that the CPU is  occupied.

3. To make the long transfer times liveable, I switched our Tivo from being wireless to being wired (using the Linksys USB200M). I was getting about 750kb/sec, which made a 680MB file transfer in about 15–8 minutes. It should have been faster for a file that  size, but again the Tivo itself is “processing” the file as it copies it to your local machine — so that’s the bottleneck. Another thing you can do is use the Tivo Desktop software to queue the files up for copying… click some checkboxes, push a button, and go to bed.

4. Apparently, the 7.x version of the Tivo OS adds 802.11g and USB 2.0, which might make wireless transfers liveable (though still not as fast as wired).

5. Closed-captioning information isn’t retained in the files that end up on your machine.

6. You can learn all sorts of geeky things about the service from the hardcore Tivo fans at http://www.tivocommunity.com.

7. I think Tivo really needs to do something about the codec issue. Unless you have a machine that already has a DVD player package, you may not have a codec that lets you play back the mpeg2 files in Windows Media Player (or elsewhere). And using one of their recommended codecs

means you pay $15 for the service that is otherwise marketed as free. Not a big hit to the wallet, but I do see the whole “download and install a codec, configure WMP, wait for long file transfers” thing deterring the non-geeks out there. It certainly wouldn’t meet the Wife-Acceptance test.

8. Some codecs and configurations make seeking forward/backward impossible, leaving you with just the WMP slider bar to navigate within a show. That’s a pain, but the Core Media Player did allow moving forward/backward easily with the right/left arrows. The size of the jump is configurable, so you could make the right-arrow jump exactly 30 seconds to skip commercials.

9. To burn a show on to a DVD, Tivo says you need the Sonic MyDVD software (not worth the link). The http://www.tivocommunity.com gang can point you to other options that supposedly work (haven’t tried them myself)… but the MyDVD software does apparently use the PACE Interlok copy-protection mechanism. I’m somewhat familiar with this “solution” because it’s used by several vendors in the electronic music world (particularly with soft synths and fx plugins)… lots of problems have been reported with this over the last few years, mostly because it replaces kernel-level drivers on your machine. Even if you uninstall MyDVD, those are left behind… nasty stuff and lots of electronic musicians (myself included) simply won’t purchase software that uses it.

10. Bottom line… in a pinch, it’s a useful option to have. I don’t see its release as a huge win for Tivo in the market (getting it to work still feels too “techy”), nor do I see it as something that even tech-geek Tivo owners will use a great deal. On the other hand, if you are the geeky type and you regularly travel, it’s a handy way to have something to watch during layovers or long flights.