For the past few weeks I’ve been using one of Virgin Media’s new TiVo boxes.
Though I’m broadly impressed with the box’s potential, my view is that it’s very much an early adopter product which needs some fairly big issues addressed before it’s suitable for a casual TV watcher.
The Virgin/TiVo tie-up is one which could deliver great things for Virgin Media and its customers alike but as it ships the box feels rushed to market and reading Virgin’s own customer forums is reminiscent of reading a beta tester’s bug report.
Red Button & On Demand
I don’t know how it works in TiVo’s home country of the US, but here in the UK we love our Red Button services including multiscreen – especially when events like Wimbledon are taking place and the action won’t all fit into a single channel
Unfortunately the TiVo doesn’t offer Red Button services.
Pressing the button merely brings up the BBC’s iPlayer, at least it does if you’re on a BBC channel, otherwise the button does nothing.
If you were buying a Freeview box which lacked Red Button functionality you wouldn’t pay more then a tenner for it. Yet here’s a premium, subscription product launching in 2011 without it.
As for the iPlayer, I don’t care if the blame rests with Virgin or the BBC, the implementation of it leaves a lot to be desired.
After 5-10 seconds of staring at a ‘loading’ bar you’re confronted with a fullscreen rotating gallery of someone else’s picks of highlights. You then have to ‘arrow down’ or ‘arrow up’ to reach the top or bottom menus so you can start searching for the programme you actually want to watch.
There’s a lot of clicking involved and personally I preferred the iPlayer’s integration on Virgin’s V+ box.
Even more bizarrely, iPlayer content no longer shows up in the Catch Up TV On Demand menu so you’re forced to access it either via the Red Button or by navigating to the Home screen, then Apps & Games and then clicking the iPlayer icon.
Other catch-up services are ‘hot linked’ to within the EPG – programmes available are signalled by a ‘C’ denoting a catch-up version. Not so BBC content.
Again, I don’t care if that’s the BBC or Virgin’s fault – as a customer I simply want a consistent user experience.
As for the implementation of other On Demand content – this is a complete mess.
Let’s say you want to watch Jedward’s annoyingly catchy Eurovision entry Lipstick.
You might try finding it by searching for ‘Jedward’ in the ‘Search All TV’ option, but while this brings up an option for YouTube results, it lists nothing from Music Videos On Demand – one of Virgin Media’s own On Demand services.
However, if you go into the Music Videos On Demand menu and browse by artist (the search facility for music content seems to have vanished) the Irish duo are there in all their cheesy euro-pop glory.
But you have to REALLY want to see them as paging down through the artists is a slow and dull process which could last longer than the song you want to listen to.
How can the TiVo’s search facility know what’s on YouTube and let me search for content by actor or director but be utterly ignorant of Virgin’s own services? Surely tying the device into the in-house services should have taken priority?
As for Pay-Per-View events, it’s not currently possible to order these on the TiVo itself and even if you also have a different model of Virgin box in the house you can’t use this to order the event.
Instead, users of Virgin Media’s newest and apparently state of the art box have to open up their laptops and order the event online via a workaround webpage.
Gaps and inabities like this make the box feel like a work in progress which isn’t yet ready for the mass market.
Suggestions, EPG & Recordings
The main selling point of the TiVo is meant to be the box’s ability to ‘suggest’ programmes based on shows you’ve watched and recorded.
It does this by matching the genres and casts of shows you like with others in the EPG and your votes (the remote has ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ buttons you can use to rate programmes) but it’s not always smart.
I love BBC One’s Casualty so it’s in my series links but the box insists on recording old episodes of the series which are being shown on Watch or GOLD or some other repeats channel.
I delete these suggested episodes unwatched but still it records more. I want it to stop but there seems no way to make it.
I could probably eliminate these suggestions by giving the Casualty repeats three ‘Thumbs Down’ but as I’m a fan of the series why would I want to do that? Surely doing so would lead the box to believe I don’t want to watch any related shows or programmes the cast might pop up in?
Suddenly my TV viewing has become an exercise in computer science, second guessing the impact of my input on the box’s future behaviour and deleting loads of unwanted episodes.
I don’t know where the responsibility for seeding the EPG with data rests – why would I care? – but when I recorded what was billed as the 2007 version of Sleuth last week I didn’t expect the 1972 original to appear when I hit ‘play’.
Yes, the original is far superior so you could argue I got lucky, but that’s not really the point.
If you’re the sort of person who forgets what’s coming on later be warned, the TiVo doesn’t do ‘reminders’.
If you see something is on later and don’t want to miss it you either have to record it or remember to turn over. Never mind that almost every other major recorder will also flash up a reminder on screen, the TiVo wants you to adapt to its way of doing things, at least for now.
So finally we come to recordings.
In any box this is a pretty important feature and the TiVo offers three tuners so you can record three different shows at once. Like the V+, Sky and Freeview+ competition it also offers series links.
What it doesn’t do is automatically pad recordings to start X minutes before and end X minutes later – you have to set this manually for every series link because there’s no way to do it in the settings menu – nor does it know when programmes start or finish outside the published times.
This doesn’t feel like a brave new world of TV, it feels like the fairly primitive one we used to have before On Digital, Channel 5 and DVRs came along.
The TiVo looks very nice, is generally speedy and is packed with potential – the Games & Apps feature allows for future enhancements which could see the TiVo become the centre of a home’s entertainment world.
But as product being sold right now it should be measured on what it actually does, not what it might do in a few weeks or months.
And on that basis it falls short of expectations.
Thought it has good points and obvious potential, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a product awaiting software updates to implement features most users would expect as standard.
Customers are in effect ‘upgrading’ from the V+ to the TiVo only to find it lacks features their older box – and almost all competitors – offer.
How much of an issue these missing features are can only be decided by potential buyers – if you don’t use multiscreen you lose nothing from its absence.
But none of these shortcomings were mentioned when I got mine and I’m not sure I’d have ‘upgraded’ if they were. While I’m reasonably content to wait and see what updates do get released, others are already sending the TiVo to its bedroom.