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