Practical Technology

for practical people.

$800 Worth of HDTV Goodness? The TiVo Series3 HD DMR


The new high-definition TiVo is almost here to play with… and I have to say I’m disappointed.

Maybe I was expecting too much. Some people seem to think that this release is a big deal, because it’s the “company’s first to support high-definition programming.” I don’t think so!

The HD-enabled HR10-250 in my entertainment room has been doing just fine by me for years now. I guess what’s really disappointing me when I look at the TiVo Series3 is how little has been improved since 2004.

There is some good news. It is much faster than the HR10-250. Of course, since the HR10 is as slow as a pig waist-deep in mud, that’s not saying much.

The Series 3 is also the first DVR (digital video recorder) to include certified THX support. Of course, to really get the most from THX audio, you must also have THX-quality audio equipment, like an Onkyo 7.1 HT-S990THX integrated system and have it set up appropriately.

In short, to really get the most from the Series 3’s THX-capabilities, you’ll need a THX-enabled home theater to match.

To connect THX, and everything else, to the HR10-250, you need to go to the back of the unit. There, you’ll find a component-video and HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) connection for HD video. For less high-resolution output, it also has a pair of Audio L/R and composite video ports and an S-Video port. It also has an optical audio port, which will be darn handy for THX.

One very nice extra is that it comes with most of the cables you’ll need. This includes not just the usual coaxial and composite video, RCA stereo A/V pairing, but the often pricey component video and HDMI cables.

To get the signals in, TiVo gives you a pair of analog antenna and cable TV ports. But, for the real HD fun, you’ll need to fill in at least one of the two CableCARD slots for dual-tuning standard or HD digital cable.

This is paired with dual-tuners, so you can record two-shows at once. But, pay attention here. If you only have one single-stream CableCARD, you can use only one-tuner. If you want to use both tuners, you need a multi-stream card or both CableCARD slots filled with single-stream cards.

Without CableCARD, you can still receive and record clear QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) channels OTA (over the air) or on cable. What you can’t do, however, is set up Season Passes or Wish Lists, because those require the guide data for digital cable channels and you get that only with CableCARD.

DirecTV or other satellite services? Sorry, this unit doesn’t support those. Since I prefer DirecTV to cable, I’m not amused.

The unit also has a pair of USB 2.0 ports a 10/100MHz Fast Ethernet port, and ye old plain old telephone service jack. Unfortunately, none of these do me as much good as I’d like.

The problem is those darn CableCARDs. CableCARD, you see, is a PCMCIA type II card, just like the ones you may use in your laptop for Wi-Fi. .It has several jobs, one of which is to decrypt protected HDTV MPEG-2 video streams. Another is to make darn sure you don’t copy the decrypted, protected HD video.

What that means is that you can’t use any of the really cool TiVo networking features like Multi-Room Viewing, TiVoToGo, and TiVoToComeBack. The software, 8.0.1a, a 7.2 variant, could support it, but the CableCARDs won’t permit it.

I’ve already heard a rumor that TiVo may be able to support those features later. I don’t think this will happen. One of CableCARD’s main goals is it’s to prevent people from pirating TV, and I can’t see the group behind CableCARD, CableLabs, changing from their position anytime soon.

That’s not to say you can’t do anything with your Series 3 over the network, you can. With the unit as it is you can still use Guided Setup, look at Yahoo Photos and the like. You just can’t get your video off the Series 3 to any other device.

The Series 3 also comes with a 250GB SATA hard drive. I really wanted to see a bigger drive. Again, my old HR10-250 already has that much storage. This up-to-date model does have an additional SATA port, but I’m told that the external SATA port doesn’t work at this time. Of course, that’s easy enough to hack open, but I’d rather it had been activated at the factory.

On that equipped drive, you can put up to 250 hours or more hours of standard TV. If you want to go HDTV, and that is why you’d buy it, you can put about 25 to 30 hours of HD content.

When you view it, you have your choice of Native, 480i Fixed, 480p Fixed, 720p Hybrid, 1080i Hybrid, 720p Fixed or 1080i Fixed video outputs.

In English, Native means you see the video in whatever format it was transmitted in. With the fixed mode, everything you get is translated into its corresponding format. And, hybrid converts HD formatted video into the HD display of your choice.

Let spell out something while I’m at this. While you can transform ordinary analog TV, 480i, into an HD display, you aren’t going to get HD quality. It’s a neat trick, but I’ve seen way too many naïve users assume that simply because they can display an old videotape of a M*A*S*H episode in 1080i, they’re getting the HD experience. Nope. Wrong. One look at a real HDTV video compared to a souped up ordinary TV show and you’ll wonder how you ever could have mistaken one for the other.

What I personally find more useful is to use a different aspect display with ordinary TV. For that, the Series 3 supports 16:9 widescreen, Smart Screen, which switches from 4:3 ordinary TV to 16:9 HD as needed. And, finally, there’s 4:3 Classic Screen, which, as you might guess, only supports 4:3.

On top of that, you can use Full, which stretches the video to fit the screen, Panel, which uses letterboxing, or Zoom, for widescreen content letterboxing broadcast with an ordinary TV 4:3 broadcast.

To get this, you’ll need to pay a cool $799.99.

Ouch! My wallet is already hurting. For me, it’s a no-brainer; I’m sticking with the old HR10-250 and DirecTV. For you, well, I’d wait to see if there’ are any holiday sales before pulling out a credit card.

It’s good, but I’m not sure it’s 800 bucks of good.

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