At a coming out party, TiVo dons a straitjacket.
By FRANK BAJAK
NEW YORK -- As a family, our TV viewing is fractured, sporadic and free of network scheduling. We are Generation TiVo, a subspecies that doesn't sit through commercials.
And we've been waiting it seems like forever for a TiVo service that has finally arrived. Called TiVoToGo, it unfetters your video recordings from the hard drive-based box that pioneered television time-shifting.
In other words, you can take your shows on the road.
The good news: The service doesn't add a penny to TiVo Inc.'s $13 monthly subscription charge. The bad news: It's only about half of what I'd hoped for.
Not to blame
TiVo Inc. isn't to blame for all the bad news.
We'd surely have had TiVoToGo sooner but for objections from the likes of the NFL and the movie industry. The Federal Communications Commission addressed those in August, ruling that TiVo users could share their recordings over the Internet with a small circle bound by copy restrictions.
But the Internet-sharing is not happening yet, and don't hold your breath. Technology and Tinseltown are not happily married, if you hadn't noticed. Nor are the cable and satellite TV industries big TiVo fans.
A growing catalog of TiVo alternatives are emerging, the biggest threat coming from cable and satellite companies. They're promising set-top boxes with built-in digital video recorders that may trump TiVo in their ability to stream recordings to multiple TVs in a home.
None of those offerings, however, appear to rival TiVoToGo for portability.
Simple and straightforward
The new TiVo service is simple and straightforward.
Since we got TiVoToGo two weeks ago I've transferred shows to computers over my home network with ease, even went a step further and burned DVDs of a show that my wife wanted to send to family overseas.
Of course I'd like to omit the DVD-burning from the equation. I'd like to be able to just point, click and send a show as if it were an e-mail attachment.
It's worth noting that PCs running Microsoft Corp.'s ever-improving Windows Media Center operating system and Media Center Extender boxes already have a leg up on TiVo when it comes to video transfer and picture quality.
Lucky for TiVo Inc. that most people aren't yet ready for a PC in the TV room.
But let's look at TiVoToGo, which only works with TiVo Series2 recorders (they start at $99 after rebate):
It has three main components, software you install on computers on your home network to which the recordings will be transferred, a network adapter you must purchase and a software upgrade for the box itself.
Getting the upgrade is a cinch. TiVo Inc. began automatically downloading it to all Series2 boxes last week. You'll get a notification message on your TiVo Central home screen.
If you don't yet have one, you'll need to buy a wired or wireless network adapter (about $20) and connect it to one of the two USB ports on the recorder's back.
Then you go to TiVo's Web site, create an account if you don't already have one, enter your box's unique Media Access code and download the software to the computers to which you wish to transfer recordings.
Set a password
You'll need to set a password that TiVo insists you don't share with anyone outside the family.
Transferring a show to a desktop or laptop over the home network generally takes about as much time as it does to view the show. The transfer speed increases if you've recorded the show with low video quality and decreases if your TiVo is recording or otherwise in use.
But let's face it. This is a crawl, something you'll need to do the night before that plane trip on which you plan to watch the new Ken Burns' documentary.
TiVo uses the MPEG-2 format for its video, the same used on commercial DVDs, and encrypts it. Your password unlocks the encryption and the video can then be played with any program that supports MPEG-2.
Since TiVo doesn't wish to alienate Hollywood any more than necessary, you won't be able to transfer any programming encoded with Macrovision copy protection (this includes pay-per-view programming and store-bought DVDs; premium channels such as Home Box Office don't yet employ such encoding but are expected to add it, especially as television lurches toward more high-definition content).
But all this is overkill for now, because TiVoToGo doesn't support high-definition programming, only standard analog video converted to bits for storage and transfer.
So the video will look fuzzy on your laptop's display. And the files aren't small: 1.2 gigabytes for an hour of medium-quality video.
TiVo should use better compression. Microsoft does. (There is currently no Mac version of the TiVoToGo desktop software. I won't be surprised if Apple Computer Inc. debuts TV recording software of its own this year).
Microsoft's Media Center software also supports high-definition video -- but not for transfer over networks to television sets, an idea anathema to Hollywood.
DirecTV actually sells a $1,000 TiVo box that supports high-definition recording but not TiVoToGo or any of TiVo's already offered home media features such as over-the-Internet programming or sharing recordings among different TiVo boxes on a network (News Corp.'s DirecTV sold its 4 percent investment in TiVo last year. Time Warner and NBC remain minority investors).
Early this year, TiVo expects to offer transfers to so-called portable media players, devices that cost about $500 and run a Microsoft operating system.
And there is always the DVD-burning option. TiVo plans to shortly offer it for those willing to pay $50 for the upcoming MyDVD Studio 6.1 from Sonic Solutions.
I succeeded, however, in converting a TiVoToGo-ed recording to an unencrypted MPEG-2 with a freeware program called TMPGEnc. From there, any DVD-authoring software will burn you a disk.
Of course I could take a show I've stripped of TiVo's copy protection and share it over the Internet. That would violate TiVo's user agreement, and the last thing the company wants is to court lawsuits.
It's got enough to worry about with the likes of Microsoft, Comcast Corp., DirecTV and Echostar's Dish Network nipping at its heels.