The one thing I can guarantee you regardless of which system you decide to go with if you decide on a PVR is that either one will change how you view and indeed how you approach TV in the future after the use of either. In fact, if you do watch TV to any degree really either of these devices will change your life and that is not an exaggeration by any means.
What can be said about TiVo that hasn’t already been said? TiVo is (or was) a hi-fi sized silver box with a mere two LED’s on the front to indicate the state of the box and an IR window and, ehm, a TiVo badge! Not very exciting stuff and when they were launched without the sales people having virtually any clue as to what TiVo was I doubt this hampered sales greatly since it looked nothing at all.
But what a box of tricks! This thing quite simply rocks, it is a true PVR (Personal Video Recorder) and after using one for a week you will be totally in love with it. PC based systems simply cannot compare to TiVo at all and I have yet to hear of any homebrew system that can even come close to touching the functionality and ease of use that TiVo delivers.
The user interface is a joy to use and it’s so simple even total technophobes can use it with impunity, the “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating system is a stroke of utter genius allowing you to easily tailor and “teach” TiVo what you like and dislike on TV. TiVo “learns” from this and will record shows that you may have an interest in, known as TiVo’s Suggestions which can be set to off if desired or TiVo will fill spare space on its hard drive/s with those suggestions for your consideration.
All the recordings are in the “Now Playing” area, simply move to the show you want and press play, that’s it!
But the killer feature of TiVo is the “Season Pass”, this is where you select a show and TiVo automatically records every episode of it for you, no need to program it to do this, you simply tell it to book a season pass and TiVo does the rest for you. This can be customised to record all shows, new shows only or one-offs quite simply it is a stunning feature.
I was one of the first people to get TiVo about two years ago and it’s been a solid performer since I got it. Okay, yes, it missed a few programs and I could only watch one Sky channel at a time but that is a silly insignificant argument in my case as no-one else had access to Sky other than me. The TiVo was dedicated to doing it’s job which was recording TV shows for me alone and, like most TiVo owners apart from the news, I more or less forgot what live TV actually was as if it didn’t appear in TiVo’s “Now Playing” I simply didn’t watch it as a general rule. That’s the whole point of TiVo though!
You can upgrade TiVo fairly easily as I did by adding bigger hard drives and internet/LAN capabilities to it reasonably easily and cheaply. This does involve some messing about and is not a two minute job though, you will also need to access a PC that you can boot to a Linux OS or use one of the various TiVo boot discs to upgrade with.
You have a choice of subscription with TiVo, either £10 a month or £200 for a lifetime subscription which covers the TiVo box you own, NOT the customer.
Okay so I finally got a hold of and got installed a Pace manufactured Sky+ box. My initial impression is that the front fascia is a bit tacky but I can live with it since I’m never going to touch the thing really. There are some pretty flashing LED’s which can be set for demo, normal operation and off. Again nothing screams out that this box is special really to an uneducated customer but at least there is some extra buttons and lights on the front panel which should help sales.
On installing you find some things that are a bit different from the normal Sky box in the way of menus, there is the Sky+ Planner that appears in the TV Guide and a couple of extra bits in the services menu and that’s about it. but Sky+ has two tuners in it taking two LNB feeds from a quad LNB so you can watch one Sky program whilst recording another, a nice feature if you have a need for it.
To find something to record you peruse the guide as you would for normal Sky stuff then press the record button and that’s about it. The recording will then appear with its current status in the Sky+ Planner for you to watch, delete or keep. Also in there you can select to put a “Series Link” on the show/s to record the next episode of it where this information is available and Sky+ will record all the episodes of that series for you.
There are no official upgrades available, as per TiVo, for Sky+ but to give more recording space a standard IDE hard drive is installed and this is very straightforward to do, much more so that upgrading TiVo. There is no connectivity upgrade nor do I think one would be possible although the serial port may be able to be utilised in some way for this but extraction via any other method than SCART to VCR or DVD is totally impossible from what I can see here.
Okay, Sky+ does have the edge here with an optical digital out as well as allowing Sky’s Dolby Digital broadcasts to be decoded, but for mainstream TV that’s not really an issue right now and only applies to some movie channels. This may well be a future issue and I realise that some people feel that a digital out is some great advantage but, personally, I don’t think it deserves the importance that it is often given. The sound from the analogue outputs for normal Pro-Logic is just fine, so if you have little or no need for the Dolby Digital feed from a few Sky movie channels then it’s not an issue.
That said, Sky+ does sound slightly better even off of normal RCA leads, so it does have the edge on TiVo in this department. TiVo will only give standard Dolby Pro Logic at best or NICAM where available.
Noise, the bane of every AV setup, fan noise, drive noise you name it but in the case of the PVR’s the only concern is fan and drive noise as mentioned and this can be a major factor for some people. The fan noise from the Sky+ box is greater than that from TiVo but only slightly and it’s really not a huge issue.
In the way of drive noise it is unfair to compare, especially if the box is upgraded in any way at all but Sky+ did seem slightly louder overall.
So, the comparison…
Well, its horses for courses here a lot of the time but both boxes do things you wish the other one did. But let’s start with a little bit about UK TV, TV in the UK is Sky if you want the latest shows as soon as they are available and a lot of shows can be seen only on Sky, likewise with certain sports and movies. This means that if you are a TV addict o you want to see the latest shows, sports or movies you really need Sky. This can be from a third-party like a cable supplier or direct from Sky, but effectively they are the same thing, so we’re all stuck with Sky as there is no real alternative in the UK.
So, let’s get down to business and dispel the first thing that people want to know. Yes, Sky+’s picture quality is superior to TiVo by a country mile! Quite frankly Sky+ totally trounces TiVo here of that there is no doubt, even from S-Video against RGB>YUV on TiVo Sky+ romps home with the better picture. But then you would, or should, expect that as Sky+ records the raw MPEG stream straight off the satellite feed whereas TiVo has to make do with, at best, an RGB feed off of a standard Sky receiver and then re-encode the stream to record. Which is a point, Sky+ has an S-Video out on the box although there is no widescreen switching on it, but at least it’s there as TiVo lacks that, but then TiVo does have an extra SCART.
So there you have it, the picture quality of Sky+ is superior to TiVo, but…
Here’s where Sky+ falls down and falls down badly. The user interface is absolutely rank in comparison to TiVo and we’re not talking by any small measure either. The recoding process is cumbersome by comparison, as is the playback and the menu system to find a recording you’ve already made as it seems to just be a tack-on to the original Sky menu system and all that appears is the “Sky+ Planner” at the bottom of the menu for the TV Guide, not ideal!
When you do get into that you can see the recordings and the scheduled recordings all on one screen, again not ideal. Series Links are shown as simply the next episode of the season on, you cannot see any further than the next episode unlike TiVo where you can access the season pass information and see as far ahead as TiVo has guide data for. You will also find that the information on offer about recordings is poorer than TiVo offers from its comprehensive menu system.
There is no facility whatever to downgrade the recording quality on Sky+, as there is on TiVo, to reduce the disk recording space needed.
Live TV on both machines is very similar but Sky+ can be recording one Sky channel whilst recording another, obviously TiVo cannot do this with only one input from a Sky receiver. TiVo can however, record from Sky, terrestrial TV or cable and record another source as the same one you are watching.
There is also the promise of being able to record two channels at once on Sky+, something TiVo cannot and will not be able to do in its current guise.
Anamorphic or not…
Both machines can record in widescreen (anamorphic, 16:9, etc.) but to my shock and awe, neither operate natively in this aspect for menus etc. and in this day and age of widescreen sets I find this staggering! Both companies really need to address this problem for the next round.
Widescreen recordings from both are fine with the caveats about the picture quality from both.
Then there’s the upgrades…
TiVo is a bit of a pig to upgrade, especially if you are unfamiliar with the Linux operating system, but once done it is as if the upgrade was intended to be there. Sky+ meanwhile refuses to see the new larger capacity correctly although the graphical indication seems to be correct whilst the numeric representation is wrong.
But upgrading Sky+ is just so easy, pop the new larger drive in, reset the box and you’re off a few minutes later. If only upgrading TiVo were that easy!
However, TiVo strikes back with a Turbonet card which allows LAN/internet connectivity as well as program extraction over a LAN, very nice and not too expensive either at about £60-70 from www.laser.com in the UK. And you can upgrade the memory to speed things up as well if you’re brave enough!
Also, TiVo can be made to run third party applications like caller ID displayed on screen, xAP, xPL and YAC, so from an HA standpoint TiVo wins hands down as Sky+ cannot touch these features as it doesn’t even have a LAN capability.
TiVo can also take two 120Gb drives, with the option now of up to four drives, whereas Sky+ can only take a single 120Gb drive. Not that, unless you record a ridiculous amount of TV that this is a major problem, but TiVo does have the edge here.
So on the upgrade front, TiVo wins hands down almost.
If picture quality is your primary concern the Sky+ is the clear winner, not that TiVo is a poor relation and it’s certainly not. On best quality TiVo will rival or perhaps even better an S-VHS recorder for quality so the vast majority of people will be fine with that, but for those with big screen TV or in particular, projectors, will appreciate the extra that Sky+ gives here.
If you want “set and forget” as well as maximum flexibility and a decent interface, buy TiVo! Or you simply want the better upgradeability, again TiVo is for you.
As for the sound, well that’s very much a personal choice and I see no great disadvantage if you do not need or want Dolby Digital from a few Sky channels, although that may change in the future.
Sky+ though has some serious flaws, the main one being the very poor season pass, or series link feature which, in my opinion, is woeful in comparison to TiVo. It also lacks the ratings system, or any ratings system employed by TiVo to great effect. Sky+ will also not record anything you do not tell it to record, bar the series link programming. Those aside, again I say that the operating system and menus are way behind TiVo in almost every respect.
One big thing to remember is that you can buy a lifetime subscription for TiVo which you cannot for Sky+. For TiVo this equates to £200 and that’s it, you get guide data forevermore whilst with Sky+ it’s £10 a month for life with no other option although some people on the full Sky package have got this charge waived in some circumstances. TiVo also offer the £10 a month option as well, but the lifetime subscription is a far better bet in my opinion.
So, which one is better then? Well that very much depends on you’re point of view and both have their strengths and weaknesses as illustrated here I hope. For me it comes down to picture quality and this is the reason I’m probably going to stick with Sky+, but were I a normal user on a TV at about 32″ or so, I’d go with TiVo for sure as it is a far more capable machine in my opinion. But, as I have, on a 7ft wide screen TiVo just falls down too badly on picture quality and I have to run with that, much to my disgust as I love TiVo!
What do I want? I want Sky+ with a TiVo operating system!
There may be alternatives in the near future, in fact I’m reliably informed that there will be, but time will tell if these can truly compete with either of these two systems.