The TV market in the UK is an enormously competitive one. There's the BBC with its huge and reliable budget coming from the TV License (running to several billion per year), Sky Corporation, part of the Murdoch empire with it's satellite TV service and Virgin Media, the UK's largest cable TV provider.
With Internet speeds rising, choices for television are getting even wider and potentially more confusing with the likes of LoveFilm offering DVDs through the post and 'streaming' of movies and TV over the Internet. Internet streaming has been possible for a while, but the quality is now viable enough to be watchable, not only on our computers, but the huge TV screens in our living room and really represent the future of all programme delivery. No wonder then that all the games consoles (Sony's PS3, Microsoft's Xbox etc.) also offer movie streaming these days and online companies like BlinkBox and Netflix are also piling in with pay-per-view or subscription streaming plans.
So how to stand out in such a crowd? Well Virgin Media thinks it has the answer and it's called 'TiVo'.
TiVo have actually tried to sell us their wares in the UK before, but it's unlikely most of you have heard of them. An America based company, who are a huge success story in the US, they offered one of their first models to us in about 2000 through the Dixons store chain. Sadly sales weren't strong and the last nail in the coffin was probably when Sky launched Sky+.
You see TiVo essentially pioneered the recording system behind Sky+. Known as PVRs (personal video recorders), Sky+ and TiVos etc record TV to a hard disc drive inside the box, where the recordings can be played back at full quality with none of the painful fast forwarding and rewinding that we were used to before on VHS tapes or recordable DVD. The trouble for TiVo was, they never managed to get across to customers just how revolutionary this idea could be. Sky with it's superior knowledge of its UK homeland pitched it just right and now many people don't "tape" or "record" TV, they say they "Sky+" it. If you can get into the language and become a verb, you know you've been a marketing success!
Tivo left the UK with their tail between their legs, but now they're back! In a major partnership with Virgin, their latest box is at the centre of the cable TV experience. Now although times have changed and everyone knows what a Sky+ box or PVR is - I'm not sure everyone understands what is so special about a TiVo. So let's take a closer look. This is not a review as such - it's a look at the standout functionality that sets this box apart from the others.
It's a well known fact that TV companies don't like you fast-forwarding through the adverts. For many, it's their source of income. So the Tivo's ability to skip 30secs cannot be a popular one for them. However, as a TV viewer it's so great. A single button skips 30secs forward through your recording. A second one skips 3 secs back. Skip an advert you hate, or tap it 8-10 times (depending on the length of the break) and the Tivo will automatically jump forward and get you to the next section of the show in no time. Much better than fast forward!
The Next Generation of EPG
Although all PVRs have an 'Electronic Programme Guide' (EPG) - there is none better than Tivos. Presented in an attractive high definition grid layout you can easily scan forward up to two weeks into the future looking at the channel line ups and reading detailed synopsis. As with a traditional PVR, you can of course set up your recordings from here, but you can also look at Directors and cast lists and pull out an individual to see what other upcoming shows they're featured in, setting those to record too. Another unique feature not found elsewhere is the ability not only to look forwards through the guide, but to look backwards! Why would you want to look at what you've missed you ask? Well, because the EPG has been cleverly integrated with Virgin's 7-day catch-up service and any of the programs marked with a 'C' style icon can be selected and watched immediately on-demand! It's this sort of simple, joined up thinking that makes the Tivo so special.
TiVo Can Suggest Programmes You Might Like
Whilst the Tivo looks to build upon features we're already quite familiar with, like the clever EPG above - there are also examples of original thinking that make discovery of new shows much easier. After all it's possible to have nearly 200 channels to browse through. Might sound impressive, but it's a bit of a pain and for people with limited time to watch TV and trying and failing to find a new show you like soon grinds. Tivo provides a helping hand by monitoring the shows you like to watch and suggesting, or even automatically recording 'suggestions' - ie shows it thinks you might like. These are not random guesses either. Behind the Tivo service sits a massive database where all broadcast TV and movies are recorded. Each show will have cast and director information, as well as an elaborate tagging system which helps describe what sort of subject or genre the show is a part of. So if you're particularly into watching 'The Office', the Tivo may decide you would be interested in 'Extras'. Like BBC's 'Click' technology show? Then maybe you'll like Channel 5's 'The Gadget Show'. Tivo will record these shows and file them under a 'Suggestions' folder for you to try. You can even help Tivo make its suggestions even more accurate by telling it what you like and don't like. On the remote is a 'Thumbs up' and a 'Thumbs Down' button. Whilst you're watching any show, you can award it up to three thumbs up, or three thumbs down and Tivo will use it to further refine its suggestions. Amazing.
One revolutionary function of PVRs that video recorder users of the 80s and 90s could never even dream of is the 'series-link'. Before series-link, if you wanted to watch a whole series of a programme on TV, say Spooks for example, you'd have to set up each recording individually, or set a weekly repeat record and hope that the broadcaster didn't change the schedule. With series-link, one click and the whole series is set to record, even if the broadcaster changes the time! I honestly thought this was about as good a record function as you would hope to get, but Tivo have gone and topped it with their 'Wishlist' function. Again, clever use of their vast database of TV programme information means that you can enter the title of a programme, let's say "Top Gear" and it will record every episode of Top Gear broadcast across all the channels you have access to. Brilliant! You'll never miss a new one again! Oh, but it's recording all those bloody repeats too. No problem, simply tell the Tivo only to record new episodes and all those hundreds of repeats shown on the Dave channel and BBC2 are ignored. Now perhaps Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear is your hero (okay, maybe not, but this is just an example OK?) - you can set your Wishlist to record every program Jeremy Clarkson is in, not just Top Gear. So if he shows up on any other program, Tivo will record it. This is fantastic if you have favourite movie actors or directors as you'll never miss a film with them in it again! Keep a list of wishlists of movies as they come out at the cinema and Tivo will record them once they're released on TV - potentially saving you a fortune in cinema and rental fees if you're cash or time poor. Put simply, wishlists are the next generation of the series-link and they're a revolution.
As I mentioned, a lot of Tivo's most clever functionality is an evolution of functions we're already taking for granted in PVRs, like the series link being made into wishlists, or they're brand new ideas, like the thumbs up and down functions for discovery of new programmes. Well, the last function I'd like to draw special attention to is a bit of both. You see in the mobile phone world, we're now well used to downloading 'Apps'. Pioneered by (but not invented by) Apple - the iPhone was the first device to have an 'App Store' as we've come to recognise them and to date, billions of these little programs have been sold at remarkably low prices to smartphone users looking for a new function, or some amusement to keep their device up to date and relevent. Well, Tivo have borrowed that idea and introduced 'Apps' to the TV! Now it's early days for apps, but there are already some useful ones for viewing your online photographs on your TV, watching BBC iPlayer and streaming music from Spotify. Virgin have indicated that they would like to see thousands of apps available to their customers, so if this is even half as successful as it has been in the mobile phone world, Tivo users are in for a treat that will see their box never go out of date as new functionality is introduced. The fact that the Tivo has it's own unmetered 10MB broadband connection (your own broadband is kept entirely separate) means there is plenty of potential.
There is no doubt in my mind, that the TiVo is the best TV set-top-box on the market to date. Virgin seems to know it too and is putting plenty of money into marketing it and releasing regular software updates to enhance and improve functionality. There are also exciting developments on the horizon including an iPad app rumoured to give you access to the full functionality of your Tivo via a lovely touchscreen interface. The idea of being able to play with the Tivo without disturbing other viewers is fantastic and if the app works over the internet so you can set recordings etc from anywhere, then we have yet another small TV watching revolution in the making!
There are plenty of other sites that have reviewed the Tivo in terms of the overall experience of owning it - but I hope this article explains just how this fantastic and clever device sets itself apart from all the other PVRs out there and, in my opinion, even beats the previous crown holder, Sky HD.
Your move, Sky.
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