Your old TiVo is dying: Here’s what to replace it with
It’s got fans across the globe, but the programme guide feed that powers the older generation of TiVo boxes in the UK will officially cease on 1 June this year.
Originally sold to BSkyB customers at the turn of the century, the clever PVR capable of making recordings based on its owner’s preferences was the first of its type in the known world, and used by a generation of "in the know" consumers (only around 35,000 boxes were sold).
TiVo’s stand-alone demise is for two reasons. Firstly, the exclusively Thomson-manufactured TiVo boxes are a tad old and frayed around the edges these days, with their limited "record live TV" capabilities overshadowed by more recent PVRs - unlike in the US, where new hardware is available and the service has "national treasure" status.
Secondly, the TiVo experience is to become a corporate cog in cable; TiVo has signed a deal to make it part of Virgin Media’s latest hardware.
Virgin Media TV powered by Tivo
At first glance this is the obvious instant upgrade path for existing TiVo owners, though it comes with strings attached. "Turbo for your TV" – reviewed here – entails a 1TB hard disk, three tuners (one more than Sky+ HD, as with the current V+HD box), 4,600 hours of on-demand and catch-up TV (again, as with existing V+HD boxes), and an internal modem for access to YouTube, Twitter and the like.
TiVo-ness comes in the shape of the famous search and browse functionality, which includes metadata and cover art from the web; the "Wishlist", which records content according to certain parameters you set, including your favourite actors, directors, series, programmes or keywords; and its suggestions feature, which records shows you might like based on previous recording habits and your favourites (signified through the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons). Possibly just as appealing to some is Virgin Media’s promise to make remote recordings via mobiles sometime in the near future, though Sky managed that yonks ago.
All this for the cost of a £199 activation fee, £40 installation and a £30 per month subscription to Virgin Media’s XL package, which comprises 160 TV channels and a cable phone line.
Limited in availability (a ballot of interested Virgin Media subscribers is currently in action, while cable isn't UK-wide - check your postcode) and pricey in comparison with the old TiVo service, it may be out of reach for some.
Sky+ HD with Sky Anytime+
If Virgin Media’s incarnation of TiVo is just not possible because of where you live, or if you're not quite as TV obsessed to need those reams of targeted content at your fingertips, the Sky+ HD service could suit. Now with 1TB storage, it’s only got two tuners and an on-demand service that is a little less comprehensive than Virgin Media’s TiVo - and certainly a lot less clever. It's also more expensive still, at £249 just for the 1TB box (not including the subscription fees).
On-demand content - in standard definition - can be watched over broadband, though you must buy that from Sky. As well as on-demand movies, Sky carries on with its previous tactic of roping-off part of the hard drive and pushing content - now in HD - into it overnight. Okay, so it's no TiVo, but if all you want is a random movie or the occasional surprise in HD - something from Sky Movies or yesterday’s Sky Sports 1 footie game, for example - it's surprisingly effective at time-filling. That said, it wholly depends on what subscriptions you have - and it's not a patch on Virgin Media’s TiVo box for sheer choice. Not that Sky seems worried.
You could, of course, continue with your current TiVo box. TiVo-created programme information will no longer be provided after 1 June, turning your Thomson into a one-trick PVR capable merely of manual recordings on one live TV channel. If that sounds a bit limiting, help is at hand from a third party company called TiVo Central, which is offering a subscription-free, community-led service run by TiVo enthusiasts. The only requirement for this unofficial service is that you replace the hard drive in your Thomson TiVo with one from TiVo Central, with 500GB costing £89 and 1TB at £109. If you’re not interested in long-term contracts, this could be a great way to keep the TiVo flag flying.
Smart "connected" TVs
Do you even need a set-top box? The latest generation of connected TVs from the likes of LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba (The Internet TV's of CES) all boast beefed-up online hubs that combine a plethora of apps not only with online catch-up services and YouTube-style sites, but also with digital media on PCs your own network. Limited to specific content deals and licensing agreements, this way of watching TV is getting slicker, but more fragmented - and none of these TVs will (yet) make recordings of catch-up content
Plus, they can't output true 5.1 surround sound to a compatible amplifier, which Sky's and Virgin Media's services are capable of.
Forever delayed, with a 2012 launch now looking likely, the attractiveness of this on-demand video platform is starting to wane. Formerly known as Project Canvas, this venture (owned by BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV, as well as ISPs Arqiva, TalkTalk and BT - which already runs BT Vision) promises to tie-up content from online catch-up TV platforms with Freeview and recordings.
Crucially, it will mean a one-off payment, and though it’s more about being source-neutral than predictive, we’ve no doubt that making guessed-at recordings is on the cards, too. Trouble is, by the time it arrives it’s likely to be a crowded market. And is hardly a replacement for your box at this precise moment.
You could also check out Freeview+ HD PVRs. Some, such as those from Humax, are undoubtedly close to challenging subs services and are starting to carry applications such as BBC iPlayer and Sky Player. However, they are still limited in the amount of content they offer.
And also worth a look are BT Vision, Fetch TV and, even, the PS3 with its on-demand services such as 4OD, iPlayer and Lovefilm. Of course, it doesn't have a TV tuner, though.