How to Do a Set-Top Box

I love my TiVo.

Like pretty much anyone who currently has a DVR, I was interested, but skeptical before I had one. Skeptical not so much about the value-add from a DVR, but because of the rabid fan-ism exhibited by those who owned them.

Now, I’m happily one of those rabid fans. I’ve had TiVo for many years, long enough to have a Series 2 box with lifetime service that I will never surrender. When I bought my second Series 2 box, I was surprised (and saddened) that lifetime service wasn’t an option anymore.

I like TV, and according to research, unhappy people like TV. Oddly, and this is one people who don’t have a DVR don’t get, I watch less TV now than I did before TiVo. So, maybe a DVR is for happy people who want to schedule TV around their happy lives and spend more time on other things.

Anyway, I look at TiVo as the only way to watch TV. To me, not having a DVR is like getting TV out of the air on an antenna. Why would you do that?

I also happen to be a TiVo diehard. I’ve always liked their interface, and they continue to add incremental features that make the DVR more useful, e.g. they just rolled out a feature to allow online ordering from Domino’s through a broadband-connected Series 2/3/HD TiVo.

In and of itself, this feature doesn’t add an enormous amount of value to me, but it is yet another way that my TiVo provides value to me. The more online content I can order from my TiVo, the better.

For example, I was an early adopter of Amazon Unbox on TiVo, and I’m hoping the recently announced partnership with Netflix expands to include Series 2 DVRs.

To me, TiVo represents the way a set-top box should evolve and how it should function. Start with a must-have feature for the TV, make it so awesome that I can’t ever live without it and then layer on value-added features. I may not use them all, but it’s definitely a plus to give me additional features when I’ve already paid for the service.

Dating back to the days of the TV as the window to the Intertubes, set-tops have been hit and miss.

Even now, as Apple, Blockbuster and startups develop movie rental set-top boxes, I wonder why they don’t bundle other services, like DVR or gaming. Or better yet, why strike out on your own when you could partner with a DVR manufacturer, cable provider or gaming console?

This seems logical; look at the XBox-Netflix partnership. As an aside, I like what Netflix is doing (by partnering), but I’m not sure why they’re also building their own box.

Think about your TV area. How many boxes do you really want cluttering up the living room or where ever you have a TV? Used to be that video inputs were the constraining factor, but now that TVs include a minimum of three inputs, it seems like clutter is the overwhelming argument for consolidation.

Or at least that’s what my wife would tell you.

What do you think? Do you want a single set-top box to rule them all? Is clutter an issue? Or do you prefer single-purposed boxes that do one thing really well?

Sound off in comments.




  1. I think a single set top box should be what the future holds. My house is already cluttered with A Tivo, charter HD-DVR, DVD players, and other various equipment. I would much prefer the Lord of the Rings approach to my home entertainment … One Box to rule them all, One Box to Bind them. 🙂

    I too love my Series 2 Tivo. When I could hook it up to my home network, I was ecstatic about it. I geeked out on it. We still use it from time to time to play games. However, it is more cost effective for us to use our Cable providers HD DVR and receiver than to go out and deck out the house in Series 3 DVRs.

  2. Cool, I didn't know about the Dominos thing. I've had several people tell me about Slingbox lately as I have spent a fair amount of time in hotels lately and miss my Tivo when I'm not at home. Apparently, it can stream the recorded shows over the 'net which could (potentially) allow me to watch shows from anywhere I've got a network connection.

    I still love the Tivo interface too, don't see any need to change, but would like it if I could easily download Tivo shows to my computer (Mac, that is) for later viewing. My wife has hooked up Tivo Desktop for offline storage of some shows, but that's only for Windows I think.

    For me, simplicity is reducing the number of elements I have to manage. So, I'd vote for a single device that does it all since that reduces the number of devices I have to worry about–even if those devices are necessarily more complex.

  3. One box would be great, just add/subtract features as you want. I'd like to see TiVo as that box, but obviously the cable/satellite co's have the best position for the menu of services. I doubt they're agile enough to deploy them all though; maybe over the course of years, like it's been with DVR.

    One of my Series 2s has lifetime service, so I'll never surrender it 🙂

  4. I'm still kicking myself for not getting the Series 3 HD DVR with the upgrade to the Lifetime service for my Series 2 trade-in. Maybe they'll offer it again.

  5. Slingbox has awesome potential. I bought one very early, but it worked sporadically. Plus, the Mac client was in beta and behaved differently than the XP one. Between my network's bandwidth issues and early technology, I shelved it. I haven't used it in years, but I should try it out again.

    TiVo Desktop seemed pretty useful, but as you say, Win-only is a bummer.

    I just want TiVo to stay in the game to give the big companies some competition. Plus, TiVo's interface is still head/shoulders above what I've seen of the other DVRs, e.g. cable company-issued ones.

  6. I too have Tivo Series 2 with lifetime subscription. I also have Comcast HD DVR and a Windows Media Center PC with TV tuner. I like the Tivo interface the best too, but for me, it's not head/shoulders above the others.

    Tivo recently came out with PC software for $99, but why would I buy that when the DVR functionality is available in Windows Media Center, which is free with Vista and works decently?

    Years ago it seems, Tivo did a deal with Comcast to put their software in a Comcast DVR. It's supposed to be out soon, but they've been saying that for a long time. I will simply trade-in my rented Comcast DVR when the Tivo version is available.

    BTW, I think Tivo lifetime service is still available for $300 or $400, or it might be a temporary promotion.

    I have a regular Slingbox connected to my Tivo too. The primary user is my brother-in-law who watches Bay Area sports on his Mac from his home in Hong Kong. Totally free.

  7. What, it only records 2 shows at once? I need 4, seriously. Stupid parallel tv programming!

    I'm just waiting for this all to settle down. My cable company has some real quality control problems (especially pixilation from some damn underground cabling – you can see the interference watching analog). So it's 4 vcr's until I can get many rooms of HD, without paying more than $100/month, including broadband. My wife prefers the non-HD because she finds the audio/video out of sync annoying – I've seen it more than a second.

    As it is, I only have one box that can get HD, and the kids already fight over that, cartoon network v. mythbusters. With my commute, I have to time-shift, sometimes for years (I'm not kidding, I have a stack of half-watched videotapes, and I do eventually get to them).

    On the other hand, it is a good thing to be able to limit the kids watching hours beyond just yelling at them about it.

    I'm seriously considering over-the-air, if only to avoid single point of failure.

    Dominos… uuuuuurp.

  8. I'm a Tivo fugitive. Loved it but alas a move to DirecTV HD made a move to the DirecTV DVR necessary.

    I'm not complaining too much though; it's not half bad (see similar example: Windows 95 vs Mac System 7).

  9. Love Love Love my Tivo. Had a series2, upgraded to HD with the lifetime warranty. I do nothing cool with my Tivo, I don't care about games, I still use a phone line to download data and yet it works like a dream.

    I was happy to increase my storage from 40 hours and get HD (and HBO) with my last upgrade. I have said often that Tivo is the best invention of the last 20 years, in my life it is equal to the remote control and far surpasses things like wireless networking and digital cameras (which I love).

    My only hope is that Tivo does whatever it takes to not go out of business. I want them to survive. I don't care about the Pizza but the Netflix integration sounds awesome to me. If Tivo doesn't make it I will have regrets similar to my loss of WebVan.

  10. I was a huge fan of the Interface on my cable providers first HD-DVR. It even won an Emmy. Unfortuantely, the hardware was suspect and after going through 2 of them, it was replaced by a regular HD-DVR. I do miss a lot of the TIVO features, but it has enough to not make we lay down the cashishmo on a Series 3.

  11. That's surprising to me. Every cable DVR I've seen has a janky version of TiVo's UI on it. They haven't done much to improve it, but then again, I only have a handful of ERs that I'd like to see.

  12. My brain was sputtering this morning. The HD DVR in question was called the Moxi ( . I really liked the UI and most of the features. It got to be a bit sluggish though, over time, and again, hardware issues:

    I think you'll see more innovation and quicker adoption in this space as the TV/Video content battle heats up between the Telco's and cable companies (and I'm hoping new players come into the mix with IP-based solutions not tied to either).

  13. TiVo charges for that PC software? I tried it years ago, and it was free. And disappointing. I hope they spruced it up before charging for it.

    The last TiVo I bought maxed out at 3 year's subscription, which will be up soon. I hope they'll allow me to re-up into the lifetime version.

    I suppose you're not awake when your brother watches your TV, or do you have the Slingbox on a TV you don't watch much? During the short time I had mine functional, I scared the crap out of my wife by fiddling with the TV while she was watching. Fun for me 😉 I may hook it back up, especially now that my networked Series 2 boxes can dependably see each other, allowing recording transfer.

  14. Yeah, the second Series 2 I bought has an internal splitter, unlike its early siblings (e.g. my other Series 2), but surprise, DirecTV wasn't supported. So, I can record 2 shows at once, with 2 TiVos. I may invest time to see if that's been fixed, but meh.

    I've also held off on HD, if only because the technology is moving too fast for me.

  15. the PC Software (Tivo Desktop) is free. What you had to originally pay for was the plug-in for Sonic to burn content to DVD. I believe there is now a regular add-on to Tivo Desktop called Tivo Desktop Plus (…) that gives some additional functionality:
    * Transfer compatible web videos to your TiVo DVR for viewing on your TV
    * Convert shows for playback on your iPod, PSP, or other compatible device

  16. What happened to your old TiVo? You could still use it for recording non-HD shows. Or crack it open and reformat the drive and use it as a computer.

    DirecTV made you move? Didn't want to try the TiVo HD? I hear it's pretty nice.

  17. Spoken like a true TiVo lover. I'm with you on all points, and as I mention above, I wish I'd jumped on the lifetime service transfer to the HD box last year.

    Your point about the best invention of the last 20 years is interesting. Might have to put that to a vote.

    Ha, WebVan reference, very nice. TiVo was on shaky ground for a while there, but I think they'll make it, possibly acquisition bait. They've proven the DVR market and still are ahead of the curve.

  18. I still have my Tivo box, haven't re-purposed it yet.

    I could have stuck with Tivo HD but the new box would have been $300 or so, whereas the DirecTV box was free.

  19. I think there are two different pieces of software we're talking about. There's the free one that allows your PC to talk to your Tivo hardware. The other one I'm talking about turns your PC into a DVR using the Tivo interface. That one is $99 alone (assumes you have a TV tuner card for your PC), or $199 with Nero's TV tuner hardware for your PC. See

  20. I wonder if TiVo can continue to compete with that cable/satellite model. They do have name recognition in the vernacular, e.g. tivoing a show, but still it seems like an uphill battle.

  21. The Slingbox and Tivo are on a TV that we don't watch much. It's mainly got the kid's programs, so it doesn't conflict with my brother-in-law at all. The way the Slingbox controls the Tivo can be a bit creepy. If my brother-in-law changes channel on his end while I'm watching, it's as if he were standing in front of my Tivo with a Tivo remote in his hand.

  22. I know that's exactly what I did to my wife. I was out of town at a friends, and we decided to mess with her. I called her later and asked about the TV. She said it was doing weird stuff, but I didn't get the freak-out I was hoping to get. Oh well.

  23. You should definitely move to HD. Just like Tivo, once you try it, you wont' watch anything else. I'm a total HD snob now.

  24. Been using Snapstream's BeyondTV product for about 5 years or so, and very happy with it. Until the “digital revoultion” I used to recycle old Pentium3's into DVRs, just add a dual-tuner card and software (bundles can be had for $100-150) and you're all set. No monthly fees, either. Only PIA is the lack of an integrated DVD software, but other than that it's great, and both my wife and even my mother-in-law are very happy with the interface.

    With HD, it's still great, but you need a bit more gear (QAM-capable tuners and bigger HD) but the quality is stellar. The new version of BTV even has Streaming and Placeshifting built-in for free (like Slingbox), and you can easily connect other TVs in the house to playback from the main server.

    Unlike a dedicated box, the you can also use the PC to play your MP3 collection and/or online radio stations. Also unlike a dedicated box, you can easily get your recodings OFF the box and onto DVD, your laptop, or even use the integrated iPod transcoding/podcasting to push them to your pocket. And you can easily add hard drive space…or extra tuners (I have 4)…

    If you're really adventurous, SageTV makes a very similar product – the UI is not as pretty, but they have a great developer community with tons of plugins. Or there's always MythTV if it absolutely has to be Linux.

  25. Wow, that's pretty hardcore geeking. I have to say you lost me somewhere “add a dual-tuner card”. I may give this a try soon, when my wife finally admits that our deskop from 2000 has finally seen it's EOL. Would be great as a DVR because I added a ton of extra, internal disk space.

    Thanks for the knowledge.

  26. I have a ReplayTV 5000 with lifetime subscription, a Roku Netflix player, and a Oppo DVD player. I'm looking for something that will replace all three but have come up empty. The XBox will support Netflix (soon), but no Blu-Ray. The PS3 has the best Blu-ray, but no support for Netflix. I'm not sure either will provide true DVR functionality either. I suppose I could built my own, but I'm not sure how to support Netflix streaming. Roku open-sourced their code, but I doubt that includes the necessary decryption. I guess I'll keep waiting.

  27. I think the bar is pretty low for non-TiVo boxes, but their price points are much lower. I'm not sure many new players will emerge, at least not in the current climate.

  28. It will take time. I guess several years ago, you couldn't really get even two capabilities out of a single box. So, some convergence is better than none. Not to mention that oustide factors like standards (e.g. Blu-Ray) and agreements with studios to stream movies constrain the innovative technology.

    Sadly, it's probably going to be a while before there's a single box to rule them all.

  29. And yet another service provider Scientific Atlanta dvr bites the dust with many hours of unwatched programming on it.  Techs say they can’t load the already recorded content on the new one because it would violate copyright laws. What bs.

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