You always remember the days that changed your life forever. Your first kiss. The birth of a child. The day you got a TiVo. I do, anyway. TiVo made me a cultist. "I don't know or care when a TV show will be broadcast or on what channel," I'd explain to anyone who would listen. "I just tell the TiVo what show or actor or director I like, and it records shows automatically. I bypass ads with the 30-second skip button. I can watch an hour-long show in 40 minutes!"
Wow, have times have changed. Cable companies can now rent you less polished but far less expensive DVRs. The monthly fee is usually about the same as the TiVo ($15). (You can also pay TiVo a one-time $500.)
People started watching TV over the Internet, too. Most people watch TV the old-fashioned way — from cable or satellite — but many don't want to be anchored to the living room. They want to watch from any room in the house, or even out of the house.
The TiVo is still out there ($150 to $400, depending on recording capacity). The latest models, the Premiere family, are smaller and better-looking than old TiVos; the high-end models can record from as many as four channels simultaneously. But the best news comes from the Department of Better Late Than Never: two new accessories that let you both time-shift and place-shift your TV shows. The TiVo Mini ($100) lets you watch them on another TV in the same house; the TiVo Stream ($130) lets you watch them on an iPhone or iPad, either at home or away.
They both work very well. Each upholds TiVo's reputation for simplicity and smoothness of operation. Video and audio quality are superb. Amazingly, someone can be using your TiVo even while you're playing back a different show remotely.
Unfortunately, there's enough fine print to fill an encyclopedia.
For starters, the setup is much too complicated. Your TiVo, your Mini and your Stream must all be connected to a wired Ethernet network in your house. (The company says that Wi-Fi isn't reliable enough to ensure stutter-proof high-definition video.) Depending on your tolerance for stapling new cables along the wall, this requirement could be a big drawback.
A workaround: You can buy Actiontec MoCa adapters ($115 a pair). These little boxes transmit Ethernet signals from your router to coaxial cables (the round cords that bring cable TV into the house). Once you've attached a MoCa box to a cable-TV jack in your wall, you can then plug an Ethernet cable or a TiVo Mini into it. Presto: no rewiring.
You have to "activate" each on TiVo's website. You have to permit remote access on the TiVo itself. There's a 20-minute period of downloading and processing. For the Stream, into each iPhone or iPad, you have to type your Media Access Key, a long string of numbers that's unique to your TiVo. That's an anti-piracy step, meant to appease the TV networks. But it feels paranoid.
Keep in mind, furthermore, that these new products work only with the TiVo Premiere. The Premiere requires a CableCard; cable boxes and antennas don't work. A CableCard looks like a metal credit card and it replaces the cable box (and its remote control) that used to clutter up your TV area.
From now on, you change channels and volume using the TiVo remote control. But exchanging your cable box for a CableCard means a visit to your cable company's office, or a visit from one of its technicians.
All right. Once all of those setup headaches are complete, how do these things work? The TiVo Mini, which became available this week, is a 6-inch-square, black, cheap-feeling plastic slab with sloped edges, like a pyramid sawed off close to the base. It's meant to be a satellite for a TiVo Premiere (4 or XL4 model) you already own; it brings that TiVo's screen to a second TV.
It comes with the same brilliantly designed TiVo remote control. It offers the same menus on the screen — including access to services like Hulu Plus, YouTube, AOL On, Rhapsody, Spotify, Live365, Pandora, PhotoBucket and Google Picasa — and makes the same distinctive sounds. But behind the scenes, it's operating your real TiVo in another room.
What's it lacking? A real TiVo's access to Netflix and Amazon Instant Video (TiVo says they're coming soon). It's also missing the To Do list and Season Pass-management features of the real TiVo. Remember, too, that each Mini monopolizes one of the TiVo's four tuners, which cuts down the number of shows the TiVo can record simultaneously.
The Mini's function — letting you watch either live TV or recordings in a second room — used to require a second, more costly full-blown TiVo, requiring a second $15 monthly fee. So you save a lot of money.
Incredibly, though, you still have to pay another fee for the Mini: $6 a month, or a one-time $150. Why? The fee you're already paying for your TiVo is already hard to justify; why should you pay more just to pump your legitimately recorded shows to a different room?
Unfortunately, "because we need the money" is the only plausible reason. (I suppose "because our arch rival, the Dish Hopper, also charges for its secondary-TV boxes" is also plausible.) Fortunately, the far more successful TiVo Stream doesn't require a fee.
This even smaller plastic box can play your TiVos shows, live or recorded, wirelessly on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch within the house. The free app looks great, and apart from a few seconds of a "buffering" message at the outset, the onscreen controls are responsive and familiar. Even the 8-second-replay button and the 30-second-skip button are available.
The Stream also lets you use your iPhone/iPad as a remote control for the TiVo. You can type on its keyboard instead of lumbering through the TiVo's letter grid. And you can make playback jump back and forth between your TV and your iGadget with a single tap — which is great when you need to run upstairs midway through a movie.
The best Stream feature may be the download button. It copies a recorded show from your TiVo to your iGadget so that you can travel with it. The transfer process is slow and eats up gigabytes of storage (although you can choose a lower quality setting to save space). But it is nice to watch your own shows on a plane, for example, or watch a movie in your hotel room without paying $17 for it. (By the way, there are other ways to perform that stunt that don't require a Stream or an Apple gadget, like the free TiVo Desktop Plus software for Windows, or the $25 TiVo Desktop Plus to convert them for phones and tablets.)
The new TiVo accessories still can't play your TiVo shows over the Internet, the way a Slingbox does ($178). With the Sling, from anywhere in the world, you can play video from any source at home (like TiVo, cable box, DVD player) to any portable gadget (Android, BlackBerry, laptop, whatever). The only sacrifices are video quality and some responsiveness.
Still, you might find the Stream and the Mini compelling, especially if you already have a TiVo Premiere. In particular, the way the Stream shows the familiar, deep-blue TiVo screens on a tiny phone or portable tablet makes jaws drop. But what about the future of the TiVo, and the DVR itself? Will the Internet one day become the ultimate TiVo, stocked with every broadcast on demand? Nobody knows. For now, if you're asked where TiVo is going, there's only one concrete answer: "Away from the living room." (David Pogue/The New York Times News Service)