Friday, January 9, 2004

TiVo Series 2 -- Testing all patience (and it's still cool)

I remarked the other day that I got the Toshiba Media Server for Christmas. It’s a TiVo Series 2 machine as well as a progressive scan DVD player. And, in spite of what I’m about to write, it’s a great machine. I love it.

Of course, that I haven’t thrown it out a ten story window is nothing short of a miracle. (Read the full post for all the glorious details.)

After unwrapping the box, I realized that my first challenge was to get the TiVo working with my DirecTV system. In my family room, I had a DirecTV/TiVo dual tuner machine in the family room and an RCA single-tuner receiver in the study. The Toshiba needed to be in the family room, so I needed to swap out the DirecTV receivers.

I disconnected all the wiring, got the receivers to the right rooms, and figured out that the TiVo needed to control the satellite receiver in order for the whole thing to work. Toshiba includes an infrared “blaster” cable which sends the infrared signals necessary to change the channel on the satellite.

More on that in a minute.

So everything’s hooked up. And TiVo needs to make its first phone call to get the local numbers, then the longer call to download its first program guide. That takes a while.

By the first night, I was up and running on “TiVo Basic” — this is a stripped-down version of TiVo that I’ve come to know. It lets you pause and rewind live TV, record by channel and time, and see three days of programming. No season passes, no wish lists. In other words, I realized the first step was to buy the “upgrade” to TiVo Plus, which is really just the normal TiVo service. $300 for the lifetime subscription.

Friday morning (day after Christmas), I headed out to Best Buy. TiVo Series 2 includes the Home Media Option which lets you hook up the TiVo box to your home wifi network. And the TiVo website recommends (scratch that — requires) that you get the Linksys WUSB11 adapter. So I did. $99 for Home Media Option, $50 for the adapter.

Except that TiVo (which, at its heart is just a Linux box) only has the drivers for version 2.6 of the WUSB11, not version 3.0 (which is what Best Buy had). That took about an hour on the phone with tech support to determine.

But not to worry: TiVo support told me that there were five other adapters that could work. I took down the model, and version, and anything else that might identify the magic adapter. The only one I found was at Circuit City — which, thanks to its online inventory checker, was able to tell me they had one available at the store less than two miles from the house. $70 for the new adapter.

I got home, plugged in the new adapter, and… nothing.

Another hour on the phone with tech support, only to discover that what the first guy failed to tell me was that in order for any of the five adapters he gave me to actually, you know, work, I’d need the beta software from TiVo that included the appropriate Linux drivers. Fortunately, he assured me, that would only take a few hours.

So I dutifully forced a TiVo download every couple hours, to no avail. Saturday, same.

Sunday, after a few attempts to get the new software, still no beta download. I called tech support again. Another hour on the phone, only to get informed that it’s not a “few hours” but instead “five days”. (Surely I just mis-heard the first guy.)

Monday afternoon, I got home from work. I checked the system, still no update. But wait! A phone update was in progress, and was taking a long time… maybe this was it.

The download took close to an hour. And sure enough, it spent the better part of the next thirty minutes unpacking and installing the new software. When I saw this on my TV, well, I nearly wept:

Upon reboot, it found the wireless adapter, and instantly found the wireless network, obtained an IP address from the router, and we were in business. Two clicks on the remote, and I was wirelessly browsing pictures of my kids from my wife’s computer. When stuff like that works for the first time, it’s a very cool feeling.

Two clicks later, we were listening to a Wynton Marsalis CD I ripped on to her computer. Slick.

Done? Nope. Not by a long-shot.

A couple days later, my wife reported that several of the kids’ shows were in fact just 30 minutes of a blank screen. This is when I found the TiVo Community Forum, an unofficial TiVo support site that is remarkable.

Had I known about the site early on, I would have seen this post which is actually from a guy at TiVo which spells out exactly what I needed. Would have solved the whole wireless adapter problem right away, saved me three hours on the phone, and made me much much happier.

Oh well. At least I found it now, when I was dealing with TiVo appearing to incorrectly change the channel. And I found threads like this, and this . In other words, lots of people had tried hard to find ways of making their infrared controller work. Turns out that (a) TiVo isn’t great at controlling other devices via infrared and (b) the RCA is notoriously flakey when receiving infrared signals via a blaster cable. And after a little searching, I found Roger Cadenhead’s post on a similar subject. He concluded that you really need a data cable to control the satellite receiver.

Fortunately, the RCA receiver I already had has an input for a “low speed data cable”. I wasn’t prepared to give up. Oh, no.

This part should be easy, right? Just head to Best Buy and pick up a “low speed data cable.” Except that Best Buy doesn’t sell them. No worries. Radio Shack. Nada. Circuit City? Nope.

Called TiVo again. (We’re close.)

Only they sell the control cable. $7, plus $5 shipping.

Five days later, the cable showed up. Plugged it in, took the infrared cable out, and PRESTO. It changed all the channels. Flawlessly.

At this point, you’d think that we’re done. That despite every obstacle thrown in my way, I’d shown the machines who was boss.

Nah, didn’t think so.

Sat down with my wife last night to watch Wednesday’s West Wing, which I saw Dave Winer say was quite good. Cool. Pull up the program guide, click “play” on West Wing.

Ready for this? Imagine my surprise, when I saw… nothing. Blackness. I felt like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation: “Russ, we checked all the connections, right?” “Uh, yeah Dad. I’m sure we did.” I checked every cable. And then tuned to NBC on live TV, only to see that, sure enough, the satellite receiver was telling me that the channel wasn’t available.

So now I call DirecTV. And their first suggestion is to reboot the receiver. Which I do. Still the same thing. The helpful tech asks if I can get the signal if I click “Guide” then go directly to a channel. Nope. “What if you hit ‘channel up’?”

Presto — I’m getting a signal.

“OK,” she says. (Get ready: this is when things get bizarre.) “This is a known issue with some RCA receivers.” I ask what, exactly, is “known.” Turns out, DirecTV has known since September that if you dial into a specific channel, the RCA reeiver chokes. Of course, the only way TiVo can know that the receiver is on the right channel is to dial in the specific channel number, not just send a “channel up” command.

Expected fix date? January 12.

I ask for a credit — both for my wasted time and for their failure to tell me about the problem. She says no, that since I never called them they don’t have an obligation to do anything. I politely asked to be escalated. The first question from the supervisor was, “Which RCA receiver are you having the problem with?”

Huh? I only own one RCA receiver.

TURNS OUT, they’ve been overcharging me for a year. (I know, I know. I should read my bill. But who does that anymore?) So we resolve that issue, and turn to the issue of the fact that they’ve known about this RCA-can’t-tune-to-a-channel problem since September. How, she asks, could we have handled this better? I recommended that they just send me an e-mail: DirecTV is always sending service notices via e-mail (you get a little envelope designation on your screen when you have new messages). Why not just do that for RCA owners? I explained that if they’d been over-inclusive (apparently not all RCA receivers are affected), I could have checked to see; if it affected me, I would have known about the problem. If it didn’t affect me, I’ve wasted (at most) five minutes to verify.

Long pause. “That’s a really good idea.”

So the supervisor does the right thing and offers to credit me $10/month for the next six months against our HBO bill.

I’m not out of the woods yet. Still have to wait for the RCA receiver to download the update. If the update doesn’t take, DirecTV has pledged to replace it with one that does.

But I think the worst is behind me. How could it not be?

And today’s announcement that TiVo is coming out with a TiVo to Go. This will give me the ability to transfer TiVo programs to my laptop and take them with me when I travel. I disagree with Cory Doctorow, whose response to TiVo’s announcement said that this was deliberately broken. Two days ago, I was chatting with a co-worker (time to update the blog, Dave) who agreed that what we wanted was a way to offload recordings on the TiVo to our PCs. And this gives us exactly what we described.

Now, I won’t see it until the fall, so it’s entirely possible that the UI won’t be what I want. But I think I’ll be over this experience by then and wiling to put in a few more weeks worth of effort to get it working.

Come to think of it, maybe I should try to wifi-enable my Sony DirecTiVo box. Anybody want to help?


  1. Classic! I wouldn't have the patience to troubleshoot this sort of problem, much less write about it after enduring it. I'm excited about the Tivo to Go option, which I hope will work with Macs too (didn't see anything about it working with Macs). If it does then I don't have any complaints. I also don't get Cory's objection. This sounds like a cool feature.

  2. I think Cory's complaint is that you've already paid for the program, so why pay for it a second time to watch it on a different device? In other words: you pay for the satellite service, and the TiVo service exists just to time-shift the recording.

    But in order for TiVo to Go to work, you need to purchase the TiVo Security Key. Which in effect charges you twice to watch the program.

    (Maybe I'm wrong. I also detect a certain DRM-is-just-plain-bad element in Cory's argument.)

    Whatever the case, I see this as a situation where TiVo is delivering something that I want. It's something I'm willing to pay for (after all, as I proved above, I get my money's worth on tech support). And it will undoubtedly add value to my investment.

    With the current setup, as I add new TiVo series 2 boxes in the house (yes, I'm a glutton) I'll be able to share recordings to any other box. At that point, I'll be able to wirelessly stream music anywhere in the house, share video from any one TiVo box to any other, offload recordings to PC for when I travel, and burn DVDs to archive the video from my PC.

    Honestly, that sounds about ideal.