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Tech Lab

Comcast’s TiVo isn’t the ultimate, but it’s close

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 12, 2012
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Your cable TV box hooks you up to hundreds of channels and thousands of on-demand programs and movies. And if you want to enjoy online videos or music, the local electronics store will sell you a separate box, like a Boxee Box, Roku, or Apple TV, that streams Internet entertainment to your living room.

Or, if you’re a Comcast Corp. subscriber, you can dig a little deeper into your wallet and opt for the Premiere, an impressive device from TiVo Inc. that delivers cable TV, Internet entertainment, and quite a bit more in one package. Everybody from Microsoft Corp. to Apple Inc. is dreaming of creating the ultimate living room entertainment device, and while the TiVo Premiere isn’t quite that, it’s clearly in the running.

The Premiere is a combination Internet device, cable box, and digital video recorder — meaning it can record high-quality copies of favorite TV shows onto a built-in hard drive, even while you watch another program. TiVo helped to pioneer that technology, and it’s now used by millions of consumers.

You don’t get the Premiere from the cable company. Instead, you buy it at a retail store or online at prices ranging from $149.99 to $399.99 (depending on recording capacity), plus a $14.99 monthly subscription fee.

You can use TiVo without cable; it works fine with over-the-air TV broadcasts. But the Premiere also works as a set-top box for Comcast’s Xfinity cable TV service. In fact, Comcast recently granted TiVo users full access to Xfinity’s huge library of on-demand TV shows and movies.

Users can’t record on-demand programs, but at least they can now view them through the TiVo, making it a worthy alternative to Comcast’s own set-top box.

For access to Comcast’s array of digital TV programming, you’ll need a CableCARD decoding device that slides into the back of the TiVo.

Comcast will send a technician to do an installation at your home, for a fee of around $20, or you can run the software yourself, then go to a Comcast office and get the card for free. Bring it home and slide it in.

I chose professional installation. The cheerful and diligent Comcast tech who installed the box had never put in a TiVo unit before, and the process took nearly three hours. Still, it all worked out in the end.

And it was worth the effort. TiVo connects to the Internet and downloads a comprehensive guide to cable programming for that day and for many days ahead. This makes it easy to set up recordings of future shows. It even has a smart “season pass” feature that will automatically record every episode of a favorite program.

Oddly, the TiVo box doesn’t have built-in wireless networking; instead, you’ll need a $60 Wi-Fi adapter or a wired Internet connection with an Ethernet cable.

If you lack broadband, forget about streaming any Internet video. But you can still get dial-up Internet access to TiVo’s excellent TV program guide, which makes it easy to schedule video recording. A dial-up phone adapter costs $30.

For broadband users, the Premiere is a first-rate Internet video box. It’s got built-in access to the Netflix and Hulu Plus video subscription services (you still need to pay for the subscription), free videos from YouTube, and Amazon.com’s video rental service. A very good unified search feature stitches them all together. Punch in a movie title, and TiVo will tell you which video service carries it.

Download the TiVo app for Apple or Android mobile devices and your phone or tablet becomes a remote control that works even if you’re away from home. For instance, you can order the TiVo to record a favorite show as you’re traveling.

The Premiere makes the most of its connection to your home network. It communicates with other computers in your house, so you can play your favorite music downloads through the living room audio system, or run a slide show of vacation photos on the big-screen TV. There’s also software that will copy recorded shows from the TiVo to your personal computer, so you’ll have something to watch on your laptop during a long flight.

In all, the TiVo Premiere is an exceptionally capable product and a serious rival to add-on Internet TV devices. After all, there’s no point buying a second box when what you really need is a smarter box.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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