Musings of an infosec nerd

Virgin Media TiVo Review

Now that I've got that rant off my chest it's time for my Virgin Media TiVo review.

We've had it in for 2 weeks now so I'm pretty sure that I've got to grips with the way they system works and can give it a fair review. If you've ever used a DVR in the past then you might find the TiVo a little alien . The main reason is of the way it treats programs. The usual way of recording content on a DVR is to find it in the EPG and press record or series link and when that programme comes on the box will record it and later episodes on the same channel if they have been flagged as part of that series. This is *not* how TiVo works.

TiVo has the concept of a program as an entity comprising all the episodes of that program as you would see it if you went to IMDB and looked it up. You can search for programs in the main menu or pick them from the EPG. You can still record a single episode or set up a series link from the EPG, which on the TiVo box goes forward by 14 days (7 more than any other DVR that I know) and *backwards* by 7 days, however the series link options are more granular than other DVR's that I have seen.

If you have been told that a program was on last night that you really should have watched then you can go back in time on the EPG and find the program. If the program is available on demand or via iPlayer, 4OD, Demand 5 etc then you can select "Get this program" and watch it there and then. You can also set up a series link to record this program in the future, and you can tell the series link to either record only "New" episodes, "New and reruns" or "Every Episode". I've not played with the "Every Episode" option as I've not had the need to but I suspect that this will record every unique episode of the program on all channels which would be very handy for someone coming into a program a series or two into it's run as a catch up. From using the "New and reruns" option it looks like the "Every Episode" option but restricted to the channel that you first picked it up from. I also mentioned unique episodes, this means that if an episode is shown 4 times a day, on a plus one channel, for 2 days every week then it will only record *one* copy of that episode so as not to fill your disk with children's TV.

The other unique selling point of the TiVo service is the recommendations. As you watch TV or browse the recommendations banner in the user interface you can rate a program between 3 thumbs down (Big Brother, East Enders) and 3 thumbs up (The West Wing, Myth Busters, Phineas and Ferb). The TiVo then uses these recommendations to pro actively record programs as they air if it thinks you would like them. In the 2 weeks we've had it in we have had 150 programs recorded and they are pretty much everything we like to watch. You may think that this would fill the disk in no time, but as it has a 1TB drive and will automatically delete any recommendations in favour of a program that you have explicitly told it to record then this isn't an issue. Our usage so far is 150 recommendations, about 10 assorted other recordings including a couple of feature-length programs, and 42 episodes of Man V Food (Thanks Good Food bank holiday marathon and TiVo "New and reruns" series link") taking up 17% of the disk. No space problems here. The TiVo also has 3 tuners so it can record up to three programs at the same time as well as allowing you to watch content off the disk or On Demand. If it is recording a recommendation and you tell it to record something else that will use all the tuners it will abandon the recommendation in favour of your explicit order to record.

TiVo also has "Wish Lists". If you really like a program, film or actor and you would like to see more of them, but there is no entry in the EPG for you to set a recording or a series link then you can create a Wish List. This tells the TiVo that if a particular program, episode of a program (that you may have missed) or actor appears in the EPG that it should record it or series link it. This is very good for discovering new content outside of the recommendation system and getting ahead of programs that you know are going to start without missing them if they happen to start without you seeing anything advertising them. Which with the on demand, superb fast forward and recommendations you will not get to see a lot of advertising.

Other than the unique features I've outlined above the system seems more polished than the Sky and V+ offerings. For example, you can rewind live TV Sky+ and V+ but only if you've watched the channel in question. The TiVo will record a 1HR buffer for the channel you are watching *and* the last channel you were watching so you can switch between them and still be able to rewind by up to an hour on both channels. It also does this in the background so even if you are browsing the main interface rating programs and setting links you can still go back to the channel you were watching and rewind. It even does this while you are watching content from the disk. When you fast forward you can hit a button to FF in 30 second increments, or jump forward in time to the next 15 minute segment as measured from the beginning of the program. You have three speeds of fast forward and I always use the >>> option. This would usually mean you overshoot where you want to play, but the TiVo takes into account human reaction time and automatically goes back in time by a factor determined by the fast forward speed to put you exactly where you wanted to go, brilliant! It did take a few days of re-training myself though as I am so used to "conventional" fast forward systems.

The icing on the cake is of course the remote record function. This is something Sky+ has had for a while and it's nice to be able to do it again. If you have access to the internet on a PC, or have the Virgin TV Guide app for Android and iOS, you can browse the full TV guide and order your TiVo to record either a single program or a series link from anywhere.

The only negative I have come across so far is the reliance on accurate EPG data. The "New and reruns" recording only works properly if the TiVo knows the information about an episode. Only one program we watch so far, Eureka on SyFy, has given us a problem with this as for some reason the EPG data has not been loaded and it cannot differentiate one episode from another. In this case it fails safe and records all of them, but you then have to start watching each one to see if it was the one you are after. The TiVo is so reliant on this concept of programs and episodes that you cannot set up a manual recording for a channel, date and time and turn it into a series link. So far this is the only program we have had a problem with, and it can be easily sorted at Virgins end by supplying up to date and accurate EPG data.

The UI is not slow by any means, but it looks so good that you expect it to run a little faster than it actually does. I'm not sure if this is something that can be improved with a firmware update or is simply a limitation of the hardware. To be honest it's hardly worth mentioning as it is hands down the best UI I've ever seen on a DVR, but it really is the only area I could think of that could be improved.

In short, it's what every DVR should aspire to be, and if you are a Virgin Media customer then there really is no hard choice here, get it. If you are happy with Sky HD but don't have their crappy ADSL then the on demand you get with this might be enough to make you switch. If you're like me and have been through piles of Sky boxes and are getting sick of call out charges and refurbished replacement boxes then I'd recommend you give it a go, it will not feel like a downgrade like the last generation of Virgin boxes have.

Any questions or comments? leave them below or hit me up on Twitter.

The personal blog of a UK based penetration tester