Wherefore Art Thou, TiVo?

May 21, 2011
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Early last year and late in 2009, tech fiends were debating the best product to come out in the first decade of the new millenium. My answer was decisive: TiVo. Not just the DVR in general, I mean, specifically, TiVo. I love TiVo. Tech friends, always quick to correct technical errors, would point out that TiVo actually appeared in 1999, but they did not have to tell me that. I owned one in 1999. I might have been TiVo’s best customer of all time. But this month I shut off my TiVo service and switched to something different.

I did not cut off TiVo because of incompatibility problems, though those do exist. I have eschewed satellite television and IPTV solutions like AT&T U-Verse because they are incompatible with TiVo. I suffered cable service, and I was using cable cards before the cable company installers themselves even knew how to use them. I recently moved to a new apartment, where I had a choice between Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-Verse. After 3 weeks of meditating on the issue, and living without cable TV or wired Internet, I chose U-Verse.

(Disclosure: I work for Samsung in the mobile phones division. We sell stuff on AT&T.)

When my wife and I split, I got the good TiVo. She got the Series 2, I took the TiVo HD. I thought she would live with the non-HD model, but I went to visit one day and sitting above her TV was a shiny new TiVo Premiere. She asked me to help set it up, but I had already returned my cable cards. She needed a professional. Of course the installer showed up without the proper cable cards, and though Time Warner claimed to have scoured the North Texas area, none could be found for half a week.

At first I was jealous. It was a shiny, new black box. The remote was fresh, with no buttons worn down or missing. I couldn’t wait to give it a whirl. Then I noticed the WiFi adapter sitting next to the box. It was the old adapter I had used for my Series 2 and my TiVo HD. It cost a fortune, because the TiVo HD requires a TiVo-branded adapter, which is a scam and a half (maybe there are 3rd party solutions, but I went the easy and lazy route).

I turned on the new TiVo, expecting a shiny, new, modern interface. Nope. Same old interface. The same design I’ve been staring at for years and years. New features, of course, but these are mostly buried in the menus, and not obvious to users. The device didn’t seem to perform any better. There was still a long delay after button presses. Search was unimproved. Season Pass management is still a slog.

The biggest change? TiVo service is now $20 per month. For $20, you mostly get a TV Guide listing. It’s not even 100% correct. It’s especially bad at separating first run shows from reruns on the same channel from syndicated reruns on less-popular networks.

I never bought a TiVo lifetime pass. When I bought my first TiVo, actually a Sony box, I was living paycheck to paycheck in New York City. I couldn’t scrounge the money for a lifetime pass, but I could handle the $12 monthly fee. I’ve been paying the monthly fee ever since, for almost 12 years. When I finally could afford the lifetime plan, I was never convinced TiVo would be around long enough to justify paying in advance. I’m still not convinced.

When I finally cancelled my TiVo service, I was paying 2 monthly fees, one for each TiVo. One was $12, the other was about $16. Almost $30 per month for a TV Guide. You can use TiVo without paying the fee, but you have to manually assign each recording, and they show up in the recorded program menus with a time stamp, not a program name. Too much hassle.

My ex-wife bought her TiVo Premiere for $300. With that ‘subsidized’ price (excuse me, I just threw up a little in my mouth), the user still has to pay $20 per month. You can pay more for the Premiere, and then you get a cheaper monthly plan. But there is no lifetime option any more.

Where to begin? When I was pricing Internet and TV packages, I compared similar offerings from Time Warner and AT&T U-Verse. Time Warner was cheaper, but the difference was less than a hundred dollars over the course of a year, with all of the discounts and premiums thrown in. However, AT&T U-Verse came with a multi-room DVR, while my Time Warner plan involved skipping the provided DVR in favor of my TiVo. The DVR provided by most cable companies is an embarrassment. It’s horrible to use, and I think DVRs would be much more popular, and more highly regarded, if the cable companies spent more than 5 minutes on interface design.

Including the monthly TiVo fees, the cable service is much more expensive. This comparison does not take into account the quality of service. I wasn’t worrying about compression issues with HD programming over IP (U-Verse), or the saturation of users on available modem bandwidth (Cable). I was only thinking about the channels I wanted, and the download speeds I require.

Then there is the hardware. The TiVo Premiere box is huge. It’s about the size of a large gaming console, and much larger than an HTPC that you could buy to perform the same tasks, and much more. There is no WiFi built in. How can that be? I suspect a cynical grab at more money from accessories, which is also why the sliding remote control with a QWERTY keyboard, which is really a necessity for power users, is also an add-on.

The reliance on cable cards would have been a convenient option if the cable companies had played along, but they did not. They charge a similar rental fee for the cards as they do for the box, and getting cards installed properly can be unreliable, depending on your technician. I’ve had the cards installed three times in three states, and only once did a tech get it right on the first try.

Most offensive, though, is the pricing. On TiVo.com, the company prominently promotes generous upgrade pricing for existing users. In fact, TiVo’s prices are higher than Amazon’s. TiVo doesn’t care that I’ve been a member for 12 years. It doesn’t offer any real discount for existing members, even though I would trade in my older hardware for a new box if they would knock $100 off the price. They have even raised the monthly fee, and existing users don’t catch a break on this increase.

TiVo treats its customers like dirt. As an original TiVo owner, I feel like TiVo has been riding my coattails, milking me for all the money I’m willing to shell out without making any significant improvements. There have been no great hardware improvements, no great software design improvements. The logic behind the search and program management systems is horrendous and confusing. TiVo has failed to innovate for the last decade.

This might have been acceptable when there were no better alternatives. For years, TiVo customers could be happy knowing their boxes were better than the DVR offered by the cable company. But a Windows 7 Media Center PC is a great improvement over TiVo. AT&T’s U-Verse seems like a much better interface, with more features to boot, though I’ve only been using it for less than a week.

TiVo, I’m sad to go. I have great affection for my TiVo, in the same way I’ve had great affection for many groundbreaking products over the years. I thought it was the best product of the last decade, even though it was launched before the turn of the century. But it’s still just that, the best product from the last decade. Instead, I want the best product for right now.


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