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UPDATE: I’ve heard from Georgie at TIVO about using a TIVO box if you’re NOT a Telecom broadband subscriber – it IS possible – see section “True video on demand” for details.

While TIVO’s arrival on the New Zealand market should be wholeheartedly welcomed, MySky’s entrenched presence in the market has really stolen the thunder of the iconic US brand that made time-shifting and add-skipping standard TV watching behaviour.

Nevertheless, despite the lead Sky has with tens of thousands of paid up Sky subscribers shelling out extra each month to rent the MySky HDi box, TIVO has a few features that are very much new to New Zealand and could help secure TIVO a lucrative niche.

TIVO suggesttivo thumbs 2ions

TiVo has some seriously intelligent software built into the box which is designed to help you come across TV programming you are likely to enjoy watching. Every time you record a show on the TIVO box, the software tracks the type of show you are watching and offers up similar types of programmes based a series of criteria – genre, age demographic and the actors starring in the show included.

You can really hone the selections by rating the shows you are watching and the suggestions served up by TIVO by pressing the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” buttons on the TIVO remote. The more shows are rated, the better TIVO is at making suggestions. Ratings can be applied to any programme whether it is currently playing, is recorded or is simply listed in the electronic programming guide.

A couple of weeks into using TIVO the suggestions are already getting closer to my real TV viewing tastes, reminding me in part of the Pandora “music genome” service which served up music based on the listeners ratings to deliver an internet radio station tailored to the listener. Sadly, Pandora is no longer available to listeners in New Zealand, though there are several similar services available, most famously, lastfm.com.

True video on demand

The real promise of TIVO is the efficient way it utilises your broadband connection to download movies and TV programmes. It should be pointed out that you will need a Telecom broadband connection to purchase and operate a TIVO box. That’s right, TVNZ, the local licence-holder for TIVO stitched up an exclusive deal to provide TIVO to Telecom customers only. So if you are on an Orcon or Vodafone broadband plan, you’re out of luck if you want to use TIVO. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re mulling over moving away from Telecom for broadband but like the look of TIVO.

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UPDATE: TIVO got in touch to pull me up here. Georgie Hills writes:  “A non-Telecom Broadband customer (say, if you’re with Orcon or Vodafone) can use the TiVo media device and enjoy all features of the TiVo media device except the broadband content and services, which we call CASPA On-Demand.

“You will still need a wireless modem or a multi-port router with an ethernet port located near your TV. If you are with another internet provider your basic TiVo download activity (including the nightly update to the On-Screen TV Guide) should generally use up no more than 25—30MB of your monthly data allowance.”

So you don’t have to be a Telecom customer to buy a TIVO box. If you really do want one, you can buy one from a Telecom store and use the DVR functions of it. It will still use your broadband network of choice to update the electronic programming guide.

However, not being able to use the CASPA video on demand service would make a TIVO purchase for the average TV viewer a marginal proposition. The whole point of TIVO is the potential it has to open up content choices significantly.Still given the current price differential between the regular Freeview DVR and TIVO – only about $200, some non-Telecom subscribers may be tempted.

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I was fearing that I’d have to string an ethernet cable across the lounge to connect the box to my router, but TIVO has supplied an 802.11g wireless adaptor, which allows the TIVO to use your internet connection without the hassle of cables. I had my reservations around this knowing, the occasional flakiness of wi-fi, but so far I’m very impressed at the robustness of the wireless connection. The wireless adapter is inconspicuous and plug and play, connecting to the TIVO box via USB.

I simply had to plug in the wireless network security code on the TIVO remote to open communication between TIVO and my wireless router. While the broadband connection is used to update TIVO with customer service messages, its real use is to connect you to the CASPA video on demand service where you can pay to download full-length TV shows and movies. Using CASPA involves opening an acocunt with a credit card via an internet form – there doesn’t appear to be an option to charge downloads to your Telecom bill.

With CASPA you top up a digital wallet to use to buy content – full-length movies cost $6.95, TV episodes, $2.95. There are limitations on how long the content will stay on the TIVO box, ranging form 3 days to permanent downloads that will never be erased. You need to make sure you read the licence terms before hitting the “download” button.

B-grade moves galore

Downloads turn up on the TIVO box surprisingly fast – a half hour TV episode may be 500 – 600MB in size and take a few minutes to transfer. Movies take longer, but not a frustratingly long time. The TIVO box lets you get on with watching other programmes and a blue light appears on the front of the box when the download is complete.

There’s a smattering of free content – some music videos and short films, but the bulk of the material is premium content. That would be okay if there was a massive library to browse. Instead, there are only a couple of dozen movies, most of them pretty standard mainstream Hollywood flicks. The same goes for the TV shows. TIVO will really have to improve the content options to make CASPA an attractive element of the service.

Remote scheduling & PC viewing

As with MySky, you can set up recordings remotely using TIVO Genie via a web browser logged into your TIVO account and on an internet-enabled phone. The service doesn’t yet work for Prime, Maori TV or Radio New Zealand, but seems to work pretty smoothly otherwise.

Downloading the TIVO desktop software to your computer will also allow you to transfer recordings on your TIVO DVR to your computer. This is hugely appealing to me. I travel a fair bit so like th eidea of being able to watch the odd TV episode in Windows Media Player on my computer. The transfers take place via your wireless network so won’t contribute to your broadband download cap.

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Some of the programmes are rather large, especially those delivered in high definition. Transfers then take some time, but can churn away in the background on your PC and won’t tie up your broadband connection.

You can also transfer TIVO content to mobile devices including the Blackberry Bold, iPhone and Nokia N80. This is hugely attractive for commuters, a great way to catch up on TV episodes on the bus or train. It seems to require a premium upgrade to the TIVO desktop which I am yet to install. However I have a Blackberry Bold and an iPhone so will report back with a progress update.

In part 3: TIVO vs MySKy – a price and feature comparison, buying tips, which box is best?

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