Virgin Media TiVo £199.99
29th Mar 2011 | 13:02
Does the Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo box get three green thumbs?
Virgin Media powered by TiVo box: Overview
Virgin Media powered by TiVo has been a long time coming, with the cable giant finally taking the plunge and updating some ageing hardware with an exciting, fresh and powerful set top box that takes advantage of the growing world of on demand video and internet television and provide credible competition with Sky.
For those not familiar with the TiVo brand - the US personal video recorder specialists are the brand that took time-shifting to the masses in North America, bringing a host of recommendation features that became a huge hit and featured heavily on shows like Sex in the City.
A brief foray into the UK years ago and in partnership with Sky ended in acrimony, and now where many say "I'll Sky Plus it" in Britain, Americans will be talking about "TiVoing" programmes.
The time was ripe for Virgin Media to move from its old V+ HD box and software and look for a fresh approach, not only because the box and its software was showing its age, but also to take full advantage of the company's enviable instant on-demand service.
TiVo has always prided itself on 'surfacing' content - making it easier to find your favourite programmes and the television you weren't even aware you would like - so it made a huge amount of sense for Virgin Media to agree a partnership.
That news was welcomed to a small but vociferous group of TiVo fans in the UK who have kept hold of their boxes and still give the service three green thumbs up, and you can see why.
But, from the outset, one thing is clear, this is not a perfect product, it lacks the polish and finesse that would have made it a darn-site better and although the sheer power of the box makes it a seriously tech-friendly piece of kit, it comes at the risk of making it a little over-complex for less tech savvy people.
However, if you have Virgin Media, or are thinking about upgrading, this is the box you should be demanding. Once you get used to it (and, wonderfully, once it gets used to you and your viewing habit) this is a piece of kit you will be showing off to your visitors and talking to people about in the pub.
This is not so much a step change for Virgin Media's offering as a bound up a fairly steep staircase.
Virgin Media powered by TiVo: Box and remote
Box and remote
Make no mistake about it, those people who get their hands on a Virgin Media powered by TiVo box (we're going to call it Virgin Media TiVo from now) will be trying to tell you why it's better than Sky's best offering, and Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson told us that it was not only a weapon against the satellite rivals but that it would convert thousands of people.
The box is made by Cisco – to be exact it's a CT8685DVB – and looks-wise it's a very different looking box to its predecessor. The V+HD box was bedecked with a fairly pointless on-box screen and the shape could probably best be described as, well, boxy.
But the Virgin Media TiVo box is much closer in looks to the popular Virgin Media router – which in turn looked a lot like a PS3 – although a wise decision to go with matte black rather than piano shine means that you won't be quite so aware of the finger prints.
Virgin hasn't gone the whole minimalist hog and taken physical buttons off the front of the box. On top of the power button there are also buttons for 'Home' 'TV' 'Back' four arrow keys, 'OK' and a record button. There are lights for your connection, one for remote control action and one for power.
We still don't advise losing the remote though – because it's a nice piece of kit in itself.
Curiously peanut shaped, and very similar to the well loved TiVo version, Virgin Media's remote cannot be accused of being short on buttons. In truth, Apple man Steve Jobs would probably have a field day with just how many options are given rather than allowing the on screen menus to do the work.
To that end, on top of volume and channel up and down there is also a Home button to get to the main menu, a TV button to get back to the TV programme, a self-explanatory guide button, an info button, a text button (not in use yet) an expand picture button (more later) a sub titles button, a record button and TiVo's thumbs up and thumbs down.
And that's just the top half of the remote. We've heard of being thorough but quite honestly, there must have been a way to simplify the remote. The expand picture button, for instance, offers functionality that surely could have been rolled into other buttons and pressing the Home button twice takes you to My Shows (or once to the menu and then down one place).
It's a minor criticism, but on a box that is offering great power, a little simplification on the remote might have been a nice option.
Of note are the coloured thumbs up and thumbs down buttons on the remote, which allow you to grade programmes with up to three thumbs up or down. This is a key addition and we'll explain why when we get deeper into the functionality of the Virgin Media TiVo box.
The bottom half of the remote has, as you would expect, a numerical keypad, a slow button to slow things down, a skip back button, which take you back eight seconds or skips back a screen if you are in slow mo, a skip forward, play stop, fast forward rewind and, in a lurid yellow, pause.
This is an indication of just how powerful this box is as a PVR. For people who like live pause, who like skipping back to see something again (and in slow motion) or who want to not feel constrained by linear broadcast this is a fine, fine piece of kit.
It's also a good place to talk a little more about what having three tuners and a big hard drive does for this box. As opposed to Sky's double tuners, Virgin Media's three tuners also provide you with a neat multiple-buffer which means that you keep the rewind live TV option functioning not just on the channel you are currently watching, but also on whatever is running on another tuner.
That means you can be watching a couple of sporting events, for instance, and flicking between channels but still have the capacity to rewind on both to catch things you may have missed. It's a neat trick.
The back of the box is packed with various ports; the cable in (duh), SCART, HDMI, Optical Audio and USB and Ethernet ports that are not used for anything (yet). The card is inserted here and there is a power switch.
Virgin Media powered by TiVo: User Interface
On to the user interface, and we see just how different the TiVo experience is. This is a flash UI modelled strongly on TiVo's US interface, and it's a big part of why Virgin Media decided on a partnership.
It's a beautifully thought out UI, not perfect by any means, but more powerful than anything else on the market.
Finding content is the key to the new box, and from the first press of the home button, you will begin to see why.
The home screen immediately includes some of the big ticket offerings of TiVo. At the top is a bar filled with television shows. This is called the discovery bar, and as you move through various options it will be ever-present.
More impressively it will dynamically change depending on what you are looking at. The offerings are a mixture of shows that have been plucked out by the Virgin Media team and choices based on what you are watching and recording.
Pressing the up button on the remote will highlight a show and tell you why it is in the discovery bar (expect to see a lot of 'We love it, we hope you will too' when you start). If you watch a lot of sci-fi, for instance, you are likely to get a sci-fi flavoured recommendation – and the explanation of 'It is similar to other shows you enjoy.'
Pressing the okay button brings you to the show's 'hub' allowing you to decide if you want to record the show, check out the cast or set up a series link. These hub pages are central to TiVo's UI; you'll arrive at them every time you get to a programme, and options are grouped in.
There are hub pages for every show, every movie and ever actor; every page acts as a conduit to other hub pages and programmes and it's at the heart of the TiVo experience
From that hub page you can choose recording options, see what episodes are coming up, see an episode guide and cast list and see bonus features that include YouTube search results. There is also an 'If you like this...' option to check out similar shows.
Back to the home screen and you can see a now familiar mini-television screen showing whatever is playing or showing on the last linear channel you were on.
Virgin Media powered by TiVo: TV Guide
The first option on the page is the TV guide – you may think that this needs little mention in these EPG enabled days, but actually this guide does have a very cool trick; namely you can move backwards as well as forwards and see what shows are available in on demand catch-up.
Obviously, not everything can be viewed from the past seven days, but as more and more catch up TV channels arrive, expect this feature to become a familiar and welcome site.
You can also narrow down your channel choice to favourites that you set, HD or genre.
Next up on the menu is the Catch up and on demand menu – taking you to an alternative way of looking through what is available to instantly watch courtesy of the always impressive Virgin Media on demand service.
Third down is the search and browse section, allowing you a powerful search engine for your television shows and access to YouTube.
Tapping in a search brings up the most popular options – a bit like Google Suggest – which means that the mainstream your tastes, the less likely it will be that you are having to type in more than a couple of letters.
Once you have run your search you then have the option of setting up a 'wishlist' search. Every time you pick out, say, an actor or director you have the option of making it a wishlist search – namely one that you can quickly run again from this section or, you can tell TiVo to record everything that appears in that wishlist search.
You'll never miss a Tom Cruise film or interview again…
Having someone or something selected in your wishlist searches also helps TiVo decide what you would like to watch.
Which brings us neatly to TiVo's suggestions. We called the hub pages the heart of TiVo, but it is the recommendation engine that is the brain of the operation.
TiVo learns what you like. It looks at what you record and it asks you to mark programmes with those thumbs up and thumbs down buttons and then it uses other (anonymised) user data and meta data to make (generally) sensible decisions on what to record for you.
These TiVo recommendations live in their own folder in your 'My Shows' and, don't worry, they are the first recordings to be sacrificed if you manage to fill that terabyte with your own recordings.
In essence, as you go through grading programmes with thumbs ups and thumbs downs even as you just use the box, Virgin Media powered by TiVo learns the kinds of things that you like and starts to record programmes that you might like.
You may look at the screenshots, and read about all the features (including YouTube and apps) and begin to worry about how this will affect your internet connection.
But fear not, with a built in modem, the box and the mass of data it pulls in to give you a fine experience is not going to clog up your broadband. With Virgin's cable offering a nice fat pipe, all that data arrives quickly and, only occasionally, does the box take a little while to process it.
Virgin Media powered by TiVo: Apps and iPlayer
Given the popularity of the BBC's iPlayer on the Virgin Media service, it's important to look at another of the TiVo box's features: the apps.
That's because the Apps section is home to the BBC iPlayer app - which neatly showcases the on-demand content from Auntie Beeb in a neat and obviously iPlayer-branded way.
It's a feature that is still in beta - and occasionally quirky - but it's a straightforward UI that is easy to use.
Other apps include social networking functionality through Twitter and Facebook, as well as another way to access YouTube.
There's an eBay app and news feeds for celebrity and weather. They are all perfectly okay, but perhaps not enough to discourage you from getting your laptop out and using that with the convenience of a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad.
Virgin Media powered by TiVo: verdict
The Virgin Media powered by TiVo box is a wonderful piece of kit and it ultimately wants to be held up as the best of its kind not just in the UK but globally.
Bringing TiVo's UI on board was a master-stroke by Virgin Media, but just as its US cousin is still a flawed product, the Virgin Media box is not quite there yet, something that could be fixed.
It's fair to describe Virgin Media TiVo as a triple threat. First and foremost it is a lovely bit of hardware – three tuners, modem and a big, big hard drive.
Next, the user interface is brilliant at making it easy to find what you want to watch, quickly. It brings together material and groups it in an obvious and straightforward way and blurs the boundaries between what is on demand, recorded or live.
And last, but not least, it makes it easier to find things that you *might* want to watch. It can tell you if your favourite actor is about to make his television debut, it can tell you when the new seires of Dr Who is on and it can tell you that most of the people who love your favourite show also love something on a channel you've never venture on to before.
It is without doubt the most powerful set top box around, but with that power comes, no, not great responsibility, but complexities and that is either a wonderful thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.
The huge amount of things that you can do are well laid out and simple enough, but it's still more complicated to do simple things than its closest rival; the Sky+HD 1TB box.
Like any powerful system, there are still issues. Digging into the menus quite often brings you to some ugly standard def interface screens that are clearly not on the same Flash UI that is so gorgeous through the rest of the experience. It's a crying shame, if not a critical one, because it's like being in a beautiful hall and opening a cupboard to find a mud floor – and it surely could have been easily avoided.
The box is, by and large, quick and impressive, but there are points where it slows down. And remember that the money you pay does not mean you own this box, merely rent it.
Will it keep the TiVo fans and television nuts happy? Yes. Is it the most powerful box on the market? Yes. But is it better than Sky's flagship 1TB Sky+ HD box? Not yet. And it won't be until it's given a much needed polish.
We hope that the blips will be quickly wiped out as Virgin Media gathers feedback and improves its product, and we're always impressed by a product that gives you the power to do something seriously cool.
Perhaps the most important point about the TiVo box is that it takes the best points about being on cable – fast internet, instant HD on demand and the capacity to quickly suck in data, and makes them more fun, more usable and more powerful.
Sky's deep pockets, greater range of context and simpler user interface remain a powerful force in British pay-television, but finally we have a challenger with the power and the hardware to genuinely mount a challenge. And with a bit of polish, The Virgin Media powered by TiVo box will become the finest PVR on the market.