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Tivo's Home Media Option Review

One of the key things I was looking forward to when I upgraded to a Series 2 TiVo was the opportunity to try out their new Home Media Option (HMO). The $99 optional package consists of several features that exploit a home network and let you connect to other TiVos and other computers. After setup and signing up, you can play music and look at photos on your TV, schedule recordings online through a web interface, and transfer recordings to other Series 2 TiVos in your house.

What follows is my full review of HMO after testing it out for the past month.

Getting your TiVo on the network

I've covered this integral part of setup in other posts, but the features in HMO require a home network. Ideally you'd have a broadband connection, either cable or DSL, going into your home, with a home router that offers either extra ports or wireless. The Series 2 TiVo has built-in USB ports that can accept either a USB-to-ethernet adapter like the linksys USB100TX or a USB-to-wireless adapter like the linksys wusb11 or wet11 (see also: TiVo's recommended adapters). Once your TiVo is on the network and can get an outside connection, you're ready to plunk down the extra $99 (now only $59) to get the HMO.

Getting your computers talking to your TiVo

After signing up for the HMO, I was a tad disappointed by the purchase process after finding the TiVo desktop package wasn't linked from the final purchase page, nor was it even mentioned in the confirmation email sent after I bought it. I had to search the TiVo site to find the page that has the packages for download. I installed the TiVo desktop on both a powerbook running OS X and a PC running XP pro. It was pretty seamless, with the TiVo desktop found on the start menu of Windows that launches a taskbar application. On my mac, it installed a package available only in the System Preferences. From reading about the TiVo desktop package, I'm under the impression they are using the open source zeroconf protocol that the mac OS has dubbed rendezvous. Part of me wishes the package itself was open source so other vendors could connect their devices to the HMO. At home I'm using a Martian netdrive as a backup device and it also stores all my music and photos from both of my other computers. The Martian drive has rendezvous running and can talk to my Mac, but not my TiVo directly. I ended up using Windows XP's simple network drive mappping to make the photo and music directories available to the TiVo desktop which worked fine.

Photos on your TV

I've been using digital cameras for going on six years now so I have a lot of photo archives, and I was looking forward to seeing how the HMO handled them. On my PC and backup drive, I generally manage my photos with a predictable folder naming convention. I start with the date, then a short summary, like "030211 Portland Zoo" to denote the photo set was taken on Feb 11, 2003 and consisted of photos taken at the Zoo in Portland, OR. Surfing through my directories on the TiVo was straightforward and easy to do.

On the mac side of things, I'm not really in the habit of making photo galleries for every single "roll" of shots I take, instead relying on iPhoto's simple "last photos shown first" interface. I've got about a thousand photos in iPhoto available in the default sort, and it's still quite easy to use, but in the TiVo interface it was rendered largely useless. Unfortunately, the HMO lists photos with three different sorting criteria, either alphabetically by photo name, photo date taken, or by date modified. The problem with iPhoto is that its internal naming convention for jpegs makes all three sorts identically ordered in the HMO. Basically, looking at my thousand pictures in iPhoto on my TiVo was pointless because it showed the oldest photos first, the opposite of how iPhoto works on my powerbook. I went back into iPhoto and made a few galleries of my lastest shots to get a feel for how it worked, but I wasn't happy to find that using the HMO required that I change my workflow in iPhoto in order to make it work.

The photo slideshows themselves are easy to launch and fairly simple to navigate. Once a slideshow is going, you can use the pause buttons to freeze on a photo as long as you want, and the fast forward and reverse buttons let you jump between photos, but the operation is a bit clumsy. I find I prefer to go through slideshows at my own pace which can be done by viewing the first photo in a set and using the channel up/down buttons to navigate between other photos in the set.

Viewing photos on a TV is pretty nice, and house guests have been impressed to see large vivid photos of what took place earlier in the day when I transfer images off my camera. If I ever get a giant plasma screen TV, I'm sure I'll enjoy this feature even more, as the higher resolution screen will likely make the photos all that more enjoyable.

TiVo offers some default photo sets each month that look like the average output of a stock photo agency, with no meta information about where they came from, so I don't know if they are promoting an agency or just using photos they licensed for distribution to users. If TiVo is ever short on available photos, it'd probably make sense for them to showcase online photography by using one of the several photo galleries licensed for commercial re-use by Creative Commons.

Music on your TV

The music features in the HMO are also straightforward, letting you play songs in a given (shared & networked) directory, with all subdirectories underneath. You can shuffle song order, making it fairly easy to say "play everything I have in a random order". On my pc, I follow a convention of making directories for artists and subdirectories for albums, which is how iTunes works, making the operation of hearings songs from either my PC or my mac identical. My TiVo is on a wireless lan, with pretty good network speed, so I've never had a problem with buffering or skipped data when streaming music.

For me, the biggest advantage to using the HMO's music feature was being able to finally listen to my music on my home theater system. In the past, I've occasionally dragged my powerbook over to my TV and connected a mini headphone-to-RCA cable up to hear music. I've also seriously considered picking up a SliMP3 device for the past few months, but could never justify the $200-$300 price tag to get my music wirelessly connected to my home theater speakers. The HMO basically gets me the same functionality (though it does require that I use the TV as an interface instead of a dedicated component).

Like the photo feature, TiVo offers built-in music from a variety of artists. My TiVo loaded up with Universal artists and included quite a few songs I hadn't heard before. I'd love to see this feature expanded to other music labels.

Oh, one tip for TiVo music users: hit the "clear" button to prevent screen burn on your TV.

Remote Scheduling

The HMO also offers a remote scheduling feature, which lets you login to tivo.com and scedule recordings, create season passes, and search for shows to record via the web. On the downside, it's not quite instant. Due to network configurations, your TiVo won't know about your new schedulings until it gets its update, though if you are networked it should be more often than once per night. You can resolve conflicts by either recording the program if nothing else is going or recording no matter what, and unfortunately since you can't connect to your TiVo live, you won't know what is conflicting (if anything) until you get a message on your TiVo or request an email notification. Ideally, it'd be great if you could completely control your Now Playing list and Season Pass manager online. I've heard it is recommended that you give your TiVo about 4 hours leeway before requesting a new recording on the same day.

Multi-Room Viewing

The HMO-equipped TiVo is the first one to offer the ability to transfer shows from one TiVo to another in your house, but unfortunately I didn't get a chance to test this out, as I've only got one setup at home. I know quite a number of folks with more than one TiVo in their house, so this will be a welcome feature, though it does have its drawbacks. Every TiVo in your house will have to be a series 2 model in order for this to work, which is a bummer since many multi-TiVo owners simply use their older devices elsewhere in the house. Another drawback is the cost, since it requires a $99 HMO subscription on the first machine and an additional $49 subscription on subsequent machines. Adding in the prices of multiple series 2 boxes and you can see how expensive it quickly becomes. The last drawback is due to the nature of networks. If you run a wireless LAN at home for the sake of convenience, you will pay the price on the time it takes to move a show from one device to another. Compared to a ethernet cable-connected TiVo system, you may find your times 2-5 times slower over wireless.

The first time I heard about the multi-room option, I figured it was only a matter of time before some hackers figured out how to share shows with any other networked TiVo, but apparently it is close to impossible. TiVo only allows transfers to other TiVos on your account, locked down by serial number. It would have been nice if TiVo gave users the option to use the features in the original ReplayTV devices (now removed).

Downsides

The first major downside is that the HMO is only available on Series 2 TiVos, even though it is possible to get an older TiVo on a network. Another downside of the HMO is that owners of Series 2 DirecTiVo units have all the hardware capabilities to run it, but last year's purchase of the entire DirecTV sector of TiVO by DirecTV has put them in charge of software deployment and they have so far refused to offer networking capabilities, the HMO, or the newest 4.0 TiVo operating system. Owners of new DirecTiVos are essentially trapped by the decisions of an even more hollywood friendly, hacker-phobic company in DirecTV.

One big feature I would like to see in the HMO was the ability to stream movies along with music and photos from computers. With things like The Animatrix available only online (at first), watching on a computer is less than the ideal way to enjoy it. While I can move my laptop over to my TV and connect its S-video output to my home theater system, it'd be nice if I could just stream it over the network to my TiVo directly for playback. Since the TiVo OS is linux based, I'd guess it's pretty easy to integrate the open source movie package Mplayer into the HMO codebase. While TiVo executives may think this feature would only be used for pirated movies, my digital camera takes quicktime movies that I edit in iMovie. I'd love to show off the finished videos on my TV, through TiVo.

Conclusions

The Home Media Option is a somewhat expensive add-on, in my case totalling 50% of my TiVo's original purchase price, but offers a nice set of features. For me personally, the price was worth it since I saved money over buying a specialized mp3 streaming device. The photo features look great as well and I get a lot of use out of them with my thousands of photos. The remote scheduling is great to have when you're away from home. Just the other day I saw an ad on the side of a bus mentioning the West Wing was coming to Bravo next week. When I got to an office, I fired up a browser and set my TiVo to grab a season pass. While I didn't get a chance to test out the multi-room viewing, if I had the means, I'm sure it'd be a great addition.

Overall I'm quite happy with the HMO, and now that they're selling it for $59, it's an even better deal.

by Matt Haughey August 10, 2003 in Product Reviews, TiVo

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