Virgin Tivo-Digital Personal Video Recorder

It's been a very long time coming but it's here in time for the NaTiVoity: Is it a Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down from Mark?

by hodg100
Home AV Review

26

Reference Status
Virgin Tivo-Digital Personal Video Recorder

You certainly couldn’t accuse Virgin of being backward in coming forwards when it comes to their promotion of TiVo; seemingly every advert break features at least one glimpse of Hustle Actor, Marc Warren, delivering his knowing looks and confident sales pitch that may make you feel you’re living in the dark ages as a non-subscriber. The fact we now skip through most commercial breaks using the ‘Peanut’ – Virgin’s nickname for the remote control – lends a slight irony to proceedings but the message is still clear, even at those speeds. Of course the market for subscription based PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) is heavily dominated by Sky, in the UK, and Virgin have a real fight on their hands to gain a bigger piece of the pie. Indeed the launch of Sky+, in 2001, largely put paid to the original TiVo box - manufactured by Thomson and launched in 2000 – in this country. With Sky producing far more of their own content and possessing strong branding in the likes of the Sports and Movie channels, Virgin are making their assault based on ‘superior‘ technology and a more interactive experience for the viewer. Quite simply, TiVo can do more but is that enough to turn the tide? Will the nation one day be saying, ‘Oh I’ll TiVo it’ – as is common in the USA – or is the inclination to ‘Sky plus’ something too deeply entrenched?

We’ve had the unit for some time, much longer than we normally would with other hardware types, and the reason for that is two-fold. Firstly, there’s something about PVRs that mean you really need to live with them for a while to assess both the usability as well as the all-important reliability. The other reason we’ve taken so long is that we knew of the recently delivered software upgrade some time in advance and we wanted to give TiVo every chance to impress considering we’ve (ok, I) have coveted its charms for so long. It’s been a long time coming and naturally technology has advanced greatly since we first clapped eyes on the promotional material sent out by one of Virgin’s cable predecessors – we can’t remember if it was Nynex or Cable and Wireless – and we’re presented with a box featuring 3 hi-def tuners (and its unique ‘tri-recording’ capabilities) as well as a terabyte of hard drive storage, built-in. In this day and age we’ve come to expect internet features and widgets and TiVo also comes well equipped here too, even featuring its own dedicated 10Mb broadband connection so as not to interfere with the rest of your home network and internet connection.

As Virgin’s TiVo approaches its first birthday and as we’re about half way through the chocolates in our NaTiVoity Advent Calendar (we kid you not), it’s a good time to reflect on just how this particular black box recorder is doing. Sorry, but the temptation to use this line is just too strong- will it be Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

The full in-depth review follows the summary and scoring.

Design and Connections

The unit is designed and manufactured by Cisco Systems, the US based company that made its name through various networking products, and gives the impression of being a fairly serious bit of kit. Going forwards, Virgin has awarded future manufacturing duties to Samsung and we think they’d do well to produce something that at least inherits the robust matte black appearance of the current unit, if not mimic it. The rounded edges and curved surfaces remind us slightly of the PS3 Slim’s looks, only without the consoles’ unsightly connections panel spoiling the symmetry.

Virgin TiVo

The front panel features seven LED lights – 3 to the left and 4 to the right. From left to right; the first LED can illuminate red or green and indicates whether TiVo is on or in standby; the neighbouring two green LEDs show whether the unit is connected for online services and when the unit has received a command from the remote control. To the right hand side there are four further red LEDs – 3 of which will tell you when a recording is in progress and the other when a download is active, all will illuminate red when in action.

The connections panel to the rear features a HDMI port; a RGB Scart; a LAN port; Digital Audio Out (SPDIF); the Smartcard slot; cable connection terminal and a hard on/off button. Some may lament the lack of stereo outs and component video but, there you go, times are a changing and analogue options are fading fast.

Virgin TiVo

It's the nature of the beast that there’s such a lot of interaction with the remote control, so it’s an important feature for Virgin to have got right, and they mostly have. The ‘Peanut’ - as Virgin have termed it – bears more than a passing resemblance to a Harmony 885 and its shape means it fits comfortably in the hand. Those that use the EPG or channel skipper’ to navigate to channels will rarely find the need to move their hands away from the middle of the handset which makes for a very ergonomic experience but the Home and numbered buttons may require a little light prestidigitation. Below the playback controls there are skip forward and back buttons, which are very useful for zipping through ad breaks. The skip forwards button will move the action on 30 seconds whilst the Back button will take you back around 8 seconds, in case of overshoots. Although we used this technique for missing ‘sponsored messages’ initially, the Fast Forward mechanism works even more efficiently and those with even modest reactions will get through the breaks quicker at top fast forward velocity, and it has an automatic skip back a few seconds function built-in.

Unusually the remote doesn’t feature an Exit button and you’re encouraged to use the directional keys to back out of the various menus but the Clear button behaves as one, in most situations, which is good to know if you ever get yourself in to a location you didn’t want to be in (this WILL happen in your initial dealings with TiVo). One important thing to note about the Clear button is that it also acts as a delete button when viewing the recorded content under My Shows, so don’t go pressing it willy nilly in that situation, although it is very useful for deleting entire series/folders rather than having to do all recordings individually. Something we’ve not seen many reports of - but has happened with our review sample’s remote - is that the printing on the buttons has all but worn away on the majority of the most used; meaning the members of the household (everyone else) who haven’t learned by heart the buttons layout will often call in the members of the household that have (yours truly) to rectify the resultant televisual catastrophes – quite frustrating and we hope our sample is not representative. Thumbs down for the paint job but thumbs up for the design.

Menu Structure and Navigation

Much of the navigation and content of the Menus will be covered in the sections below so here we’ll just try to give you an outline, whilst pointing out a few important options. Let’s get this out of the way, there’s an awful lot of options in the menus that take time to get used to. Coming from, say, a Sky or V+ box it all might seem a little overwhelming and it may seem that performing various actions takes longer than it should. It’s understandable given the multitude of options on offer, and there’s a certain period of acclimatisation required but, overall, they’re brightly and clearly presented and the all-important EPG is a synch to view and navigate around.

There’s definitely more than one way to remove the fur from a feline when it comes to accessing content and features with TiVo and many will prefer to take some shortcuts, where possible, but the Home screen provides initial access to all features and content. From the Home screen there are six menus - TV Guide, Catch Up & On Demand, Search & Browse, My Shows & Recordings, Apps & Games and Help & Settings. The TV Guide option is fairly self-explanatory and gives the user the choice of displaying either all the channels on the EPG or in 11 different categories (Kids, HD, Documentaries etc.). It is also possible to set up a favourites list and toggle the categories by using the blue button on the remote, whilst in EPG view.

Virgin TiVo
Virgin TiVo

Just about everything else from the Home screen will be covered in subsequent sections but the Help & Settings menu area houses some useful options. The Help item does what it says, and provides useful information on how to use the system; Settings is home to such things as Favourites List, Subtitle Control, Video Window settings (Note: Video window can be toggled on/off using the Slow button on the remote) and various network, reset and diagnostic functions. We’ll deal with the Video Output options in the Picture Quality section.

To streamline access to the EPG, users can elect to use either the Guide or OK buttons of the remote control. The former brings up a full screen guide, whilst the latter a 3 channel view mini-guide that is useful if you just want a quick browse whilst not losing too much of what you’re watching. Pre the winter update, the mini-guide was a bit throttled – you couldn’t bring up program information, for example, but since, almost all functionality of the Full EPG has been opened up.

Virgin TiVo

A press of the Info button of the remote brings up the ‘Info Banner’ and as well as all the Audio, Subtitle and program descriptions we expected, the bottom icon gives information on the activity of all three tuners. What makes that useful is that both other tuners are accessible from here so it’s possible to turn over to them and rewind back through the action, should you wish, if you spot something you would have like to have viewed. It’s even possible to rewind back to the start of a show and begin recording from there and, as far as we’re aware, this triple buffering trick is unique to TiVo although we’ve seen a dual buffering Freeview PVR.

Almost constantly present above the menu screens hovers the ‘Discovery Bar’, providing recommendations based on your EPG activity as well as popular and suggested content from Virgin. We have to say that although it provides a nice graphical feature, it does seem to slow menu navigation down whilst loading the content and the suggestions don’t seem to be as a honed as those that appear in your Suggestions Folder. The TiVo Premiere in the US apparently uses more of the user data, but we guess its functionality will be improved in time. It’s presence is certainly no bad thing, however, it just needs a little fine tuning.

Virgin TiVo
Virgin TiVo

For a second revision to a brand new platform that contains so much potential for going wrong, the menu system is a very worthy effort but we’d certainly like it be a bit slicker and there’s perhaps a touch too much duplication, here and there. Virgin seem receptive to user feedback so we’d expect refinements and improvements will come and, perhaps, just the odd thing some will detest. Sorry, just being realistic.

Recording Options and Features

Virgin TiVo

For new users unused to all the personal attention TiVo provides, it’s important that the heart of the machine, i.e. its ability to reliably make recordings, is solid and we can report that in 6 months of testing, our review sample has barely skipped a beat, with only one solitary scheduled recording missed, which was due to a local signal problem so not the unit’s fault. Recordings can be initiated in a number of ways with the most simple being just to hit the Record button from the EPG view whereupon three options will be presented: ‘Record this Episode’, ‘Express Series Link’ and ‘Explore this Show’. The first two options are fairly self-explanatory but Express Series Link is new in software version 15.2 and allows for a much speedier ‘series linking’ experience than in the previous firmware. Choosing the Express option will net the recording of both new and rerun episodes, a 1minute buffer, at the beginning of recordings, and a 4 minute end buffer and a maximum of 10 episodes to be retained on the hard drive. Should those options not suit, users can manage their Series from the My Shows & Recordings Menu and could, for example, alter the parameters to new shows only, change the buffers to a maximum of 15 minutes early and 3 hours late and keep all recordings. It’s very customisable but we’d like to see an option somewhere to set the default recording buffer (I prefer 5 mins pre and 15 mins post) but it’s a minor complaint really. Opting to ‘Explore this Show’ will bring viewers the further opportunity to get a series link, record the next episode or find in the on-demand catalogue (when available). Upcoming episodes can also be seen as well as an episode guide - with programme synopses; biogs of the cast list are also often available and the semi-mysterious Bonus Features option generally just seems to bring up a YouTube search. Finally, the ‘If you like this..’ feature should bring up suggestions of similar programming but occasionally doesn’t.

Of course Virgin’s major selling points, with TiVo, are in its unique properties and one of these lays in its ability to record three programmes simultaneously. We honestly thought we’d never have need for the third tuner – how often are there 3 good things on at once, after all? Well the answer to that is, surprisingly, more often than you’d think, at least for us. Given that you can allow the box to auto-record the suggestions it makes and the fact that ‘Wishlist’ recordings can be created, there can be an awful lot of recording activity going on that you won’t necessarily know is happening. TiVo isn’t going behind your back, it just has it covered!

Virgin TiVo

Wishlist recordings actually emerged as one of our very favourite features during testing and it can be quite a handy tool to have in the armoury when you absolutely do not wish to miss a show or film you particularly hold dear. Those with very little spare time (*cough hello!) might not get the chance to browse through the EPG on a regular basis or miss out on trailers for upcoming programming so it’s an excellent way of making sure you don’t miss out. That’s not the only way you can use them, of course, for example my eldest caught the animated 'James and the Giant Peach', half way through, one day and there was no rerun scheduled within the scope of the EPG. Simple solution create a Wishlist recording and, hey presto, 3 weeks later it appears in the My Shows archive. Wishlists are accessed through the Search & Browse Menu and are set using any combination of actor, director, category, keyword or title and from there you can either just view upcoming matches or set them to auto record. As well as the aforementioned animation, we set up a number of these wishlists and it seemed to work very effectively indeed. You can also modify the wishlists to exclude a term from the search or make a term optional in the search. For example, you might want to set one for football but exclude the words Italian or Scottish (no offence Ed!). Warning: setting a wishlist on the term ‘Football’ will fill a 1TB hard drive very quickly!

Although incorporating a search facility isn’t quite unique to TiVo, it’s abilities to search on person, keyword, show and movie make it more far-reaching and versatile than implementations on other machines. Once a match is returned, all the usual record and explore suggestions become available and the fact the on-demand archive is included in the search just makes it all the more useful.

Virgin TiVo
Virgin TiVo

Before we forget to mention it - and we probably don’t need to – TiVo possesses all the usual transport functions (FFWD, RWD, PAUSE), that wowed us all when VCRs hit the market a generation ago, in addition to the ability to skip through content in 30 second increments and back in 8 second chunks. Using the transport controls will bring up a status bar showing a one-hour period, so you can keep track of where you are, and how far behind live TV you are. The green line displays how long you’ve been viewing the channel. The thick white line shows the current point in time and the smaller white tick marks show 15 minute intervals. That description probably makes it sound a little more complicated than it really is and it is, actually, extremely intuitive to view and use.

We appreciate that some may find the array of recording options a little overwhelming, at first, but it’s worth sticking in there to reap the rewards as TiVo truly outclasses all the competition in its combination of versatility, personalisation options and reliability.

Catch-Up and Video On-Demand

If for some reason there’s nothing in your recordings or suggestions folder you fancy watching then Virgin’s service provides what has to be the market leading number of catch-up and on-demand services. It’s worth pointing out that owners of the V+ Box, and on a qualifying subscription, have the same content available although it’s nowhere near as integrated as the TiVo implementation.

From the Catch Up & On-Demand Menu on the Home screen, users are presented with a series of choices, including ‘Catch Up TV On-Demand’, ‘Movies On-Demand’, ‘Music On-Demand’ and ‘TV Choice On-Demand’ and we’d advise users to explore all the options as it’s easy to miss all that’s on offer here. The Catch Up & On-Demand option brings only content from BBC, ITV and Channel’s 4 and 5 as they interact with the corresponding standalone players for those services. Delve a little deeper into TV Choice On-Demand and you’ll be rewarded with a whole new array of on-demand video from more than 20 providers including ESPN, Discovery, Comedy Central, WarnerTV and History to name but a few.

Virgin TiVo
Virgin TiVo

Sky Anytime customers are also now catered for with their subscribed sports and movie channels available - as well as the Living, Arts, News and Sky 1 Channels to view, well, anytime. A recent discovery that had us surprised is the amount of free (some only to XL customers) 3D content that is hidden away in the Movies On-Demand tab. It’s all side by side material but anyone that receives a 3D display for Christmas will be pleased at the amount of demo material on tap. There’s more too, much more. Hitting the ‘More TV On-Demand’ option will bring up another selection of free content with even whole series ready for viewing instantly - I just found Fawlty Towers series 1 as I was writing this section, joy!

The amount of on-demand programming is truly mind-blowing and we’re really only scratching the surface. We’ve yet to mention the ability to scroll ‘back in time’ through EPG to see what you’ve missed; with the really clever ability to access some of the old content directly through the catch-up services of BBC, ITV, C4 and Channel 5. It’s Time Shifting taken to the next level and if you can’t find something to watch on TiVo, you probably don’t like TV. What we would ask of Virgin is that they find a way of streamlining the menus so content isn’t so deep in to the menu structure and, as a result, somewhat difficult to find and easy to miss.

Recommendation Engine

A lot of the advertising has centred on the thumbs up/thumbs down buttons of the remote control that act like a quick rating tool for programmes and each can be given a rating between 1 and 3. The higher the number of thumbs given both gives priority in the suggestions made as well as appearing to dictate the criterion for making them; so, for example, a three thumbs up would not only create suggestions on the show rated, it will also begin to make suggestions based on genres etc. Obviously the thumbs down works the same but in a negative vein, although it’s slightly disappointing 3 thumbs down doesn’t obliterate any traces of the show you can’t abide from the EPG. We actually never really found much need to ‘3 thumbs down’ a show but it’s fun to do so nevertheless.

Virgin TiVo
Virgin TiVo

Information is gathered not only by your ratings but also by what you choose to record. You can also tune the suggestions in a couple of ways. A list of upcoming suggestions will appear under the Browse All TV option from the Search and Browse menu and from there you can rate TiVo’s suggestions with the Thumbs Up/Down buttons. Alternatively pressing the My Shows button and then scrolling to the bottom of the Suggestions Folder will give the option of ‘Improve My Tivo Suggestions’ allows for already rated shows to be re, or indeed, de-rated. The quality of suggestions made is quite dependent on the user managing their ratings so to get the most out of the system, some work is required but if you’re willing to put in the time, you’re likely to be rewarded with a suggestions folder full of the material you are actually interested in and not full of seemingly random suggestions. Point of note for two other members of the hardware review team – the first suggested recording my TiVo made was for Family Guy, do I sense some senior editorial intervention? Speaking of family guys, readers with kids may not want to advertise the existence of the Thumbs Buttons, for the potential consequences - see above.

Other Features

In the Apps & Games Menu, there’s a total of 15 apps available from the likes of Twitter, CNBC, and Ebay. Newly added is Spotify but that’s only of use if you’re a premium subscriber or, as 3 month introductory offer, for new TiVo customers. We don’t fall in to either category but reports from Forum members would suggest it works well enough, although there’s no ability to search for content. Since the update many have reported a deterioration in both the performance of the YouTube and BBC iPlayer services and our experiences mirror this. In all honesty the iPlayer streaming was never as robust as it was for the V+ Box that used to sit under the TV but, post 15.2, it is at times unusable. The iPlayer app used to run from Virgin Media servers but is now direct to the BBC and during busy times it can be a stuttering, stalling mess. Hopefully things will improve rapidly here as it’s a key service for many and the same can be said of YouTube, post update. Even if you can get something to play (and we’ve given up on it for now), the new app doesn’t allow you to log in to your YouTube account but there is a workaround to that problem, at least, as the old app still runs if selected from the All Apps option. Two Thumbs Down here TiVo: Must do better.

Whilst we’ve got on our Worzel Gummidge ‘complaynen 'ed’ we’d like to see a little more networking options available. For one thing the ability to stream video or photo files would have allowed us to get an accurate calibration against the TiVo’s output signal, and for another, it just seems like it’s missing. It’s not that many existing PVRs offer that kind of functionality, it just seems slightly anachronistic in this day and age. It is possible to stream content from a TiVo but the caveat to that is that you can only do it to another TiVo on your home network. Keep it in the family, eh?

Virgin TiVo

Last - but not necessarily least – owners of smartphones and anyone with access to the interweb can take advantage of remote recording apps. I’ll admit I don’t own a smartphone (for shame) but we did make several successful - and two not so successful – attempts at recording from the web interface, even though I work mostly from home. Just for research, you understand.

It seems a little churlish to complain about the quality of ‘extras’ available through TiVo, after all it still has far more than the average PVR but, if they’re going to put them up there, they might as well get them right. TiVo still has some way to go in this area but you can bet your shirt that they will improve and expand.

Picture Quality

We didn’t originally plan to have a Picture Quality section for this review but we did have some initial concerns. The quality of scaling for the Standard Definition channels was definitely below the standard of the other V+ boxes we’ve seen and although we were unable to run our standard pattern based tests to provide objective proof, we’ve seen enough good scaling to know when it’s the opposite. We’re happy to report that since 15.2 things are now on a par with the other V+ boxes and scaling is now of a very acceptable standard.

One thing we’d advise owners to experiment with, in their own set-ups, is how they’ve got the TiVo outputting its video signal if they have a HDTV. With both 720p and 1080i options checked TiVo will default to a 720p output for SD 576i signals. In our experience – tested with a multitude of 1080p TVs – we had better results leaving 720p unchecked and allowing only a 1080i signal through as the deinterlacing abilities of the box leave something to be desired when compared to the average TV. Although we have no native 720p displays on the premises at the moment – it is 2011 after all – we suspect that 1080i may be preferable for HD ready sets too, so please check with yours.

Energy Consumption

We are somewhat surprised that in these energy consumption concious times, the option to disable the channel buffering, whilst in standby, doesn't exist. As a result there's very little difference in consumption between the on and standby states. It's less than 1w, in fact, with TiVo drawing an averaged 20w whilst on and 19.3w in standby.

Verdict

10
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

The Good

  • Three tuner recording
  • Wishlists
  • Recommendation engine & suggestions
  • Search facility
  • Enormous on-demand catalogue
  • Reliability
  • Build quality
  • Skip facilities
  • TV & movies database

The Bad

  • iPlayer and YouTube Apps Broken at Present
  • Sometimes Sluggish Menu Navigation
  • No Option to Disable Buffering in Standby
  • No home networking
  • Unable to play external media
  • On-demand catalogue is confusing to navigate
  • Remote control symbols wearing off

Virgin Tivo-Digital Personal Video Recorder

We’ve deliberated long and hard over our final verdict with TiVo, teetering between top marks or a ‘Highly Recommended’ and, ultimately, we’ve settled on an extremely rare 'Reference' badge. And the reason is simple, in essence, TiVo outperforms any of the competition in terms of the flexibility of recording options available and the near seamless integration of Virgin’s, market leading, catch-up services means you have virtually countless hours of content just a few button presses away. Add in the recommendation engine, with its ability to make suggestions of content your viewing habits would indicate you’ll enjoy, and it really is like no other Digital PVR available in the UK. Quite simply, if you like the sound of all that’s on offer, TiVo is the only show in town.

Build quality of the unit is excellent and TiVo looks like the serious piece of kit that it is but although we liked the design of the supplied remote control, it’s disappointing the printing on the buttons has already largely worn away on the most used. Menus and the GUI are, for the most part, well planned but there are instances of sluggishness and the on-demand content is tortuous to navigate. We’d certainly like to see Virgin further streamlining the interface(s) and the newest software (15.2) does show they listen to user feedback so we’re optimistic going forwards. We’d certainly like to see an expansion of networking possibilities beyond the ability to stream to or from another TiVo in the household and the option of some limited media file playback would be a bonus. That being said, it’s not as though TiVo owners should ever be short of something to watch.

Just because we think it’s top dog doesn’t necessarily mean TiVo is for everyone and nor does it mean it’s perfect. Sky customers might well point to their platform’s larger channel portfolio – particularly with HD content – and that’s certainly a consideration when deciding between the two. Some may say that TiVo’s interface can be a little busy and slightly sluggish and we’d find it hard to disagree with that, also. To get the most out of it, you’re required to put a little effort in and we’d perfectly understand some may prefer the simplicity of say Sky - or even Virgin’s own V+ Box - but what we would say about that is, don’t knock it until you’ve tried and, although it took some time, we’d find it difficult to go back. Could we live with out it? Sure, but we’d rather not.

Reference Status

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Design

.
.
8

Connectivity Audio/Video

.
.
.
7

Remote Control

.
.
.
7

Ease of Use Menus/GUI

.
.
8

EPG

.
9

Recording Flexibility

.
9

Recording Reliability

.
9

Picture Quality HD

.
.
8

Picture Quality SD

.
.
8

Catch-up/VOD Services

.
9

Other Features

.
.
.
.
6

Verdict

10
10
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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