2004 October 28

"It will change the way you watch television."

     It's just a consumer-electronics box that looks like any other consumer-electronics box. It's gray with a gray remote control and it will change the way you watch television. So why am I writing a web page about something whose sole raison d'etre is to change the way one watches television?

     Because it's the first time in a long time that I have seen a computer system really done right.

     Usually, once a gadget crosses from consumer electronics to computers it becomes hopelessly a pain in the ass to use and all hope is lost. This happened when the compact disk (CD) and the video cassette recorder (VCR) spawned the digital video disk (DVD).

     TiVo is different. I want you to imagine a hardware gizmo that can

receive and record a single stream of digital video from an analogue receiver from its input,
send a digital stream out as analogue television from its output, and
download data over a telephone line with a modem.

What would you do with it? What would you want it to do?

• It should allow you to record a specified channel and time like a VCR. TiVo does that.
• It should use its modem to download a local television schedule with a reasonable, practical, non-rocket-science menu to choose television service provider (cable company in my case) and access telephone numbers. TiVo does that.
• It should let me select what to record from the television schedule, both individual shows and all shows with a given name and channel. TiVo does that.
• It should allow me to prioritize my recording request list, it should inform me of conflicts, and it should let me edit the schedule of recording channels and times. TiVo does that.
• It should have no trouble playing one show while recording another. TiVo does that.
• With only a single receiver, it can't record one show while letting me watch another. (I rectified this with a TV-cable splitter.) It should let me change channel and interrupt its recording of a show but only after warning me and getting a confirmation. TiVo does that.
• It should keep a running buffer of the last half hour so I can go back to the beginning of a show (or a half hour earlier if the beginning was earlier than that). TiVo does that.
• It should use its video buffer of live TV to make the PAUSE and fast-video-zap buttons work as if I were watching a recorded program. TiVo does that.
• It should present my recording and playback choices so it is clear what I am choosing, which programs to record, which programs have priority in recording, and which recorded programs are being deleted. TiVo does that.

     What I really like is that anything I can think of that I would do with my TiVo box's resources is something my TiVo box actually does without making me spend twenty minutes groping around mislabeled and confusing menu selections.

     Somebody told me there's a genuine Linux computer with some well-thought-out, well-written, well-supported software inside my TiVo box. What I can tell from firsthand experience is that my TiVo is a joy to use mainly because the engineering decisions of what choices to offer and how to offer those choices were done seriously well.

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