Thursday, December 4, 2008

Time Warner Reaching Out & TiVo HD

Maybe I should just rename this the "Time Warner Blog." Only kidding. Skip down a few paragraphs to get to the TiVo HD impressions.

Well, as I expected, Time Warner Cable didn't "reach out to me" or do anything else for me for that matter. I did call TWC again with TiVo HD in home and ready to change service. So here are the facts, from the customer service and technical support people at Time Warner Cable/Austin:
  • With CableCard most of the HD channels are unavailable without the new "tuning adapter." By most, I mean all except for most of the local network channels (which I can get from antenna), Discovery HD Theater, and one other one (insignificant to me, so I didn't remember)
  • The tuning adapters that were supposed to be available "next week" (according to Jeff Simmermon) are not available in the Austin area. There is a sign-up form on the web site, but that is only to reserve one "when they become available." I was told by technical support that they weren't even allowed to talk about the tuning adapters except to people who were part of the beta test.
  • In order to get CableCard for the TiVo, I will need to have someone come to my house to "install it," and it will cost me $41.26 in installation fees. This was not negotiable. The monthly price is $2.65. I was told that it was priced that way "because it doesn't receive all the channels."
  • If I disconnect cable TV completely but keep RoadRunner, it will not cost anything extra (in other words, I don't get charged any change fees).
I'm on the brink of simply canceling my cable TV service until TWC can get their act together and complete the so-called "beta testing" of the tuning adapters. I didn't cancel today because the decision will be final and I want to take one more day to determine the impact of doing this.

Here are my initial impressions on the TiVo HD:

The shiny new TiVo HD arrived yesterday all activated and ready to go. As I have come to expect from TiVo, the unit itself seemed well-built and was nice and quiet. The remote is easy to use and set-up and the interface is as I remembered it from the DirecTV TiVo days. If you've ever used a TiVo, you'll understand what I mean by this, if not then you're not aware yet of what you're missing. It's actually a real pleasure to use. So rather than just listing what it does and how great or terrible it may be, I'm going to just list my experiences and hopefully that will give you an idea of what it's like.

For those who are impatient, a good summary of my initial feelings are that it's nice, it works pretty well, but still has some issues that need serious attention.

So that said, here's the longer version:
  • Hooking it up was simple. It connected to my network well, although I had a typo in my network configuration (on my computer, not a TiVo problem). Connecting the TiVo to the TV was as simple as one HDMI cable. Nice.
  • My firewall is pretty restrictive, but it managed to contact TiVo just fine. Despite the fact that I opened up all the ports (services on the firewall) that the TiVo web site mentioned, the TiVo is still complaining (ports test failed) that I have something blocked. Even when everything was wide open, the TiVo still complained. Everything does appear to work though.
  • The antenna reception is excellent. It gets all the channels I was able to get with my PC TV card, and then some. The sound was cutting-out a little on channel 42-2 (that's the retro TV network) but I have seen that happen without the TiVo. I need to investigate this further.
  • The responsiveness of the system is a bit slow. I've heard some complaints about this, and while it is mildly annoying, I wouldn't say it is a show-stopper. The good thing about TiVo is that they tend to improve this kind of thing over time.
  • TiVo boasts being able to connect to many different Internet-based services if you have a network connection attached. One of these is YouTube. YouTube literally crashes the TiVo. I mean, hoses it seriously up to the point where it needs to be power-cycled most of the time. If you're lucky and it doesn't crash, then things start to function poorly, like it started having problems tuning TV channels until I restarted it. This is VERY VERY bad and gives me an uneasy feeling about what else may be lurking that I haven't tried yet. My guess at the problem (from personal experience) is that the Flash implementation in the TiVo is broken. That doesn't surprise me, of course, because Flash is evil anyway. But when you're paying for something, you expect it to work, and work well.
  • When accessing the external "broadband services" I would get a message that the services aren't available right now (try again later), then if I went right back in it would start working. Weird. Not sure what that was all about.
  • I did download some videos ("TiVo-casts") and they worked okay, but it was kind of like watching it on a computer screen than on a HDTV. In particular, the Music Choice videos were 16:9 (widescreen) format, but showed-up as letterboxed 4:3 on my screen (I had to "zoom" the screen to make it fill up my screen properly). Again, it was more like watching a computer video online - was definitely not high definition.
  • I was able to log-into my Picasa account and access the photos in my album, and they looked awesome on the screen. Using it was a little cumbersome, but it was otherwise nice.
  • The recording options worked great, as expected. I scheduled recordings of The Simpsons and some other programs and everything worked well. I even hooked the cable line and told it to use analog cable (because I don't have a CableCard...argh...) and that worked fine as well (as well as low-def analog signals look on a big TV, anyway).
  • I also tested setting-up a recording remotely through my TiVo account online. It did work great, and I was impressed that all the recording options available on the TiVo itself were available through the online recording screen. Only problem is that you can't see what you already are set-up to record. That would be a nice feature. Maybe it is there and I haven't found it yet, but that would be a problem too (should be easy to find).
  • The dual tuner feature as implemented in the TiVo is an absolute pleasure. Unlike the cable DVR, you can flip back and forth between both tuners and it doesn't lose the playback buffer for each channel. You can also go to other menus and the TiVo just happily keeps that buffer going, so if you missed anything you just rewind a few minutes.
  • The TiVo very happily works with over-the-air antenna and cable TV simultaneously. Since getting the broadcast channels from the antenna is actually better quality than over cable, you simply tell the TiVo to remove the cable channel and use the antenna for each broadcast TV channel, and it just works.
  • What I need to find out from the instructions, though, and I certainly hope it is possible, is how to tune in a digital TV channel on the antenna from the keypad. There is no minus sign on the remote, so I can't select channel 42-1 or 7-1 because there's not a "-" key. If I just select "42" then it goes to the analog TV channel 42, or cable channel 42. Ed note: I just read the instruction guide again, and pressing the "=>" arrow button causes a "-" to be inserted in the channel number. Cool!
  • Picture quality is good. I noticed no ill effects here.
  • I dislike that, like the cable DVR, I cannot use the closed captioning feature on my TV, I can only let the TiVo do the captions. Why is this bad? Because with my TV, I can change the style of the captions so they don't interfere with the picture, and if the TiVo does the captions itself, then I can't use the TV's style changes. I'm not sure what's up with this, in general. Can closed captioning be sent over the HDMI cable?
My biggest complaints about the TiVo HD are cost ($300 for the box) and the very flaky broadband services stuff. If they're using Flash to render things, then this is the wrong way to do it. They should stream MP4 video or something like that. If I purchase a movie through Amazon or view a Netflix movie through their interface, I don't want it to look like it is coming off a Flash or AVI file on a computer - I want it to look like I put the DVD (or Blu-Ray) disk into my player and watching it that way. If what I've seen so far is the best they can do, then I can just let my PC do the playing, and the TiVo HD becomes just another DVR (albeit a nice DVR).

I have 30 days to decide whether or not I feel this whole thing was worthwhile and if I want to keep the TiVo HD. I'm sure over the next week or so I'll have a better feel for whether it is worth keeping. I'd like to be able to say how the CableCard works in the TiVo, but since Time Warner wants to be pig-headed about things that'll probably not be happening.

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