Category Archives: HDTV and Home Theater

DirecTV gets FCC approval to move DIRECTV5

Good news: DirecTV got the Feds’ approval to move DIRECTV5 to 72.5°W, which means that Toledo locals are just around the corner. This follows their previous announcement by about six weeks– not too bad! Now all I have to do is figure out how to get DirecTV to come install the additional dish I’ll need to get the locals.

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FCC approves TiVo-To-Go

Great news! Despite objections from the MPAA and the NFL, the FCC today approved TiVo’s TiVo-To-Go gadget for recording shows on a TiVo and playing them back on a PC or DVD player.

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Busy few days here at the ranch. I got a DCT6100 from Buckeye for their HD service, had them come out and install a cable modem (3.5Mb/s down, 384Kb/s up, at half the cost of my 1.1Mb/s up/down SDSL from Speakeasy), and just got done flattening and rebuilding my firewall box with ISA Server 2004. The most remarkable aspect of these changes is that so far, they’ve all gone flawlessly (except for a bad cable box, which was easy enough to fix). The boys and I are looking forward to watching Robbie Knievel’s big jump in HD on Saturday.
Update: this morning, no Internet when I awoke. Turns out that, contrary to the installer’s advice, the NIC connected to the cable modem must not be set to DHCP. Oops.

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Filed under General Tech Stuff, HDTV and Home Theater

Media Center Eye for the TiVo Guy

Welcome /. readers! I added a section on customization because I somehow forgot to mention that in the original article.

Summary: “It’s pretty good except for a few bugs, right, Dad?” — David, my 9-year-old son
Connected Home asked me to write an article on Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Edition (MCE). Through the generous help of the MCE PR team (thanks, Tom!) I recently spent a month with a Gateway 610XL, a nifty all-in-one PC with a 17″ widescreen LCD display, 802.11g, and a DVD burner. This unit took the place of my bedroom TiVo, the trusty Sony SVR-2000 I’ve had for about four years now. It’s been hackedenhanced with a larger drive, TiVoWeb, and TyTools. I’d been reading a lot about MCE, and wanted to see how it stacked up for casual consumer use. Unfortunately, Connected Home is cutting back their publication schedule, so they don’t want my article. Instead, this is a more informal version of my thoughts after using MCE for a month. I’ve had a TiVo since 2000 (and that’s after writing an early review of the units right after they shipped), so I can’t help viewing MCE in comparison with TiVo.
First, a note on the hardware: MCE is sold only with computers from selected OEMs. This is to provide an Apple-like experience: the hardware and software should Just Work™ without any descents into driver or DLL hell. Gateway did a great job stuffing lots of functionality into the 610XL, and I was generally pleased with it. Except as noted, all of my comments would pertain equally to MCE machines from any other vendor.
Setup was very painless. I’m accustomed to the lengthy TiVo process of running their Guided Setup utility; this requires a long phone call and an even longer (nay, interminable) pause while the TiVo digests the initial set of program guide data. With MCE, the process was trivial: set it up on my wireless LAN, then click the button to download program guide data. I did hit a snag with setting up the 610XL to control my Philips DSX-5000 satellite box, but it was easy to work around (and, as it turns out, the MCE remote did the trick just fine). It was easy to make the Media Center machine see pictures and music from my home network, although the MCE machine can’t be joined to an Active Directory domain [ed: I got this wrong. MCE 2003 couldn’t domain join; MCE 2004 and later can]
Microsoft refers to the MCE interface as their “10′” interface, because it was designed to be usable from that distance. The interface is clean and well-designed. It doesn’t have as much background motion as TiVo’s interface, which I consider to be a plus. One of the coolest interface features is that every element can be operated via keyboard, mouse, or remote, so you can do things like remove redeye from digital photos using only the remote (more on that in a minute). In addition, third-party programs like Sonic Primetime and Napster can use the same interface. Other developers have created add-ons, too, including the elusive “MyWeather” that provides local weather data with the cool 10′ look. Since the first thing my wife usually asks me in the morning is what the forecast is, this would be a valuable thing to have.
The MCE remote worked well enough; it features separate buttons for live and recorded TV, stored photos, and music. It lacks the brilliant industrial design of the TiVo “peanut” remote, though (but who cares; so does my Sony unit.) The Gateway’s remote sensor had a pretty narrow receive angle, which was a little frustrating but not MCE’s fault.
The TiVo can record from two sources: cable/antenna and S-Video. This means I can use one unit to record cable and satellite channels. Unfortunately, MCE can’t yet do this. The 610XL has digital audio inputs and outputs, but I didn’t test them; my satellite receiver doesn’t decode Dolby Digital, so I also didn’t test MCE’s surround sound functionality. As with TiVo units, the inputs and outputs you get may vary according to what kind of MCE hardware you buy.
Live TV and guide
We didn’t watch much live TV on this unit, for two reasons: a) it was in the bedroom and b) we have a TiVo so we don’t have to watch live TV. However, the MCE unit handled this quite well. I prefer the MCE program guide format to TiVo’s; it’s much easier to read from across the room. As with the TiVo, the MCE box would occasionally misfire when changing channels on the satellite box. This is an unfortunate consequence of the IR dongle used to send channel-change commands, but it can be minimized with careful positioning of the IR blaster “eyelet”.
Recorded TV
It’s easy to find programs to record by title, time, or category, and it’s easy to set up recurring recordings to get all episodes of, say, “I Spy“. When I set up conflicting recordings, MCE let me know and asked me how I wanted to handle the conflict. Oddly, all recordings defaulted to starting five minutes before the scheduled time. I was able to adjust this easily.
I did experience two problems with recorded TV. One was a consistent bug: hitting the fast-forward button while replaying live TV would cause the image to freeze. Audio worked fine, but the only way to unstick the image was to go back to the recorded TV list and hit play. Fortunately, the MCE remote has a “skip” button that skips ahead 30sec. This is just the thing for skipping commercials. You can activate a similar feature on the TiVo, but I don’t usually bother because TiVo’s “overshoot” correction is so good. The other was inconsistent: sometimes recorded programs would end earlier than I expected. This only happened twice, but both times it was during a movie I’d recorded to watch with my wife… not so good for the WAF.
Scheduling, season pass, and suggestion functionality
TiVo put a lot of effort into the three “S”s: scheduling recordings, their Season Pass feature, and recording suggestions. The MCE did a competent job of scheduling, including notifying me of conflicts. It’s more difficult to skip individual recordings in a series than it is with TiVo, and there aren’t as many options for choosing which episodes to record, which ones to keep, and how long to keep them for. In addition, there’s nothing like the TiVo Season Pass Manager for reprioritizing conflicting recordings. MCE also doesn’t record suggestions based on your input. Some people dismiss this as useless, but it’s found a lot of interesting stuff for us in the past. I’d have to say that overall this is MCE’s weakest area compared to TiVo.
Video extraction/DVD burning
One area where MCE really shines is in taking programming to watch on other machines. I want to be able to watch recorded programs while I’m on the treadmill, on my Tablet PC while stuffed into an airplane, or in a hotel room in Redmond. MCE makes that much easier than TiVo. As a bonus, my test unit came with Sonic Primetime, an extremely easy-to-use program that burns recorded MCE shows to DVD. This worked about 80% of the time in my tests– way better than TyTools or TyStudio on my TiVo. Being able to quickly burn educational shows to DVD for use in the minivan was a huge WAF bonus. (To add insult to injury, when TiVo does eventually ship this feature, which they’re calling TiVo To Go, it won’t work on either of the TiVos I actually own!) The MCE can also spit out video that can be synced to Portable Media Center devices or even to Windows smartphones. I don’t currently use either of these, but I’d certainly consider buying a PMC to provide easier access to recorded content when I’m on the road.
One really cool feature of MCE was its ability to play music. If you had an MCE as part of your home theater, this would be a nice addition, provided your music was ripped at a reasonable quality. The 610XL has decent built-in speakers (plus a subwoofer). One thing I particularly liked was that Windows Media Player was smart enough to go out and fetch album art for songs I had in my library that didn’t already have it. TiVo offers some roughly similar functionality as part of its Home Media Option (HMO), but I can’t use HMO on my bedroom TiVo (it’s a Series 1) or the one in the living room (it’s a DirecTiVo). Advantage: MCE.
MCE’s ability to capture, display, and edit digital photos was a surprise bonus. I know people who use MCE to provide background photo/music shows at parties; since our unit was in the bedroom that wasn’t something I tested, but all three of my kids loved watching slideshows of family photos. The slideshow component includes a cool Ken Burns-like pan/zoom effect that adds motion to the pictures. You can easily resize, flip, and de-redeye pictures; with a compatible printer, you could also print instant snapshots. We’ve done this before using Arlene’s camera and its printer dock, but MCE offers a way to let more people see the pictures in the process. Advantage here: MCE.
Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF)
As almost any home theater enthusiast will tell you, the WAF is a critical part of building a usable home theater. (I’m sure there are female home theater nuts too; I’ve just never actually met any. My mom, aunt, and sister are all TiVo fans, so maybe that counts.) The MCE was more stable in everyday operation than my hacked-up TiVo (which is in the basement, driven by an X10 Powermid that sometimes flakes out), and it offered a great deal of extra functionality that my wife liked. However, the fast-forward problem cost some WAF points. Would an MCE device make it in the living room? At my house, probably, especially since I have an MX500 remote that can use macros to automate most complex tasks.
Customization and expandability
MCE wins big-time here. There are a wide variety of commercial and free add-ons that do things like make MCE act as a DVD jukebox (rip your DVDs once and play them any time), alarm clock, streaming audio server, and so forth. Because you can run any Windows program, the MCE is hugely flexible. With different hardware (e.g. the kind with slots and a case) you can do all kinds of cool things– for example, Omar has a custom front-panel display. You could fairly easily write your own plugins for the main MCE screen to display important email, stock quotes, etc. In fact, the fine folks at NewsGator have a Media Center version of their RSS aggregator– it’s very slick. Of course, as you start adding stuff to an MCE or TiVo box, you run the risk of reducing its stability.
Other stuff
The MCE box is a general-purpose WIndows XP machine, so you can use it as a web browser, email terminal, and game machine. However, I got a better experience from sitting with my Tablet PC instead of trying to read the 17″ from across the room. Don’t discount this feature if you’re using MCE with a larger screen, though. Of course, the downside of this is that you have to keep your MCE up to date on patches and fixes– something that might be an unwanted hassle for people who don’t live patch management every day.
TiVo has clearly placed their bets on consumer electronics companies. It’s unclear what the future of their relationship with DirecTV will be, and it’s uncertain how their recent pricing model changes will affect the availability of future services. On the other hand, they have a good track record of shipping stable products (including their recent HD-capable unit), and they have an extremely active and dedicated evangelist community. In the other corner, MS is backing MCE big-time, and they have a long history of improving functionality over time. They have some heavy OEMs backing their platform, but it’s actually the smaller guys that are doing the coolest stuff. The MCE future that I’m most excited about is the concept of a set-top (or Xbox) that can remotely stream MCE content: the Media Center Extender. This looks like it would give me what I want: a centralized store for all digital content that can be streamed or played on any TV anywhere in the house.
The bottom line
Microsoft positions MCE as a home entertainment hub that can deliver all kinds of digital content to your TV, stereo, projector, or whatever. In that role, it did a solid job for our family; admittedly, I didn’t test it with a fancy plasma screen or high-end stereo equipment, and I didn’t use it extensively as a hub. The extra functionality comes at a cost, though: MCE machines are much more expensive than TiVo units. The ultimate test is whether I’d buy one with my own money. The answer, for now, is no, but it’s also true that I’m not buying the HDTiVo I’ve been lusting after until I see how Microsoft plans to support HDTV– that’s because the MCE platform displays a great deal of expandability and potential that I think will make it more interesting as time goes on.


Filed under HDTV and Home Theater, Reviews

Transparency revisited: Mark Cuban’s blog

A lot of people have been talking about this Business Week article, “Blogging With the Boss’ Blessing“; it discusses the idea that businesses gain mindshare by revealing more details of their internal operations, or becoming more “transparent”. As Doc Searls points out, Mark Cuban is setting the bar for business transparency with his blog. It’s no surprise that folks like Scoble are noticing and commenting on the fact that Cuban is completely transparent, but there’s one interesting aspect of Cuban’s blog that I haven’t seen widely mentioned: where are his posts about HDNet? HD programming is a nascent market segment, and HDNet is doing some big deals (including rebroadcasting NBC’s Summer Olympics coverage). Could it be that his good business sense prevents him from airing his dirty laundry in an area that’s still highly competitive? Maybe he’s more interested in the Mavs (always a possibility!), or maybe he thinks no one’s interested in HDNet except for a few geeks. I don’t know, so I asked him.
Update: Wow, that was fast: an almost-instant response from Mark. Short and to the point: “Not much new or interesting to say about HDNet… we get the best programming we can, we play it…” Fair enough. Thanks, Mark.

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Toledo local satellite channels

Finally, we’re getting locals! Dish turned on their Toledo locals last week sometime, and DirecTV has announced that they’ll deliver them as soon as they get FCC approval to move the DIRECTV5 satellite to 72.5°. Of course, this might take a while, especially since DirecTV is already in trouble with the FCC for moving DIRECTV3 without permission. Still, I’m hopeful that this will happen before the fall TV season starts, since most of the shows I want to TiVo are local broadcasts.

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Interesting PVR patent

TiVo gets lots of press attention because of their broad patent portfolio, even though they haven’t been overly aggressive about using it for leverage. However, they’re not the only ones with interesting PVR-related patents. Time-Warner has a patent that covers inter-scene tagging and playback. Scenes within a broadcast program can be tagged with codes that indicate their content; through an unspecified interface, the user can selectively play back or omit certain types of scenes. For example, I guess you could use this to implement a V-chip-like device that would do on-the-fly editing of the program stream at the PVR, skipping over the naughty bits during playback. The patent also mentions that it could filter content from live TV broadcasts (paging Ms. Jackson!) Interestingly, it was filed in January 2000 and approved in February 2002, but I can only find one later patent that references it.

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DTV in 2007?

Bob Thompson asks what’s going to happen with digital TV in 2007. Here’s the situation as I understand it. Bear in mind that DTV ≠ HDTV: local stations are free to broadcast digital signals with standard-definition programming, and many of them do. (See this FCC page).
There are (I think) 18 different DTV formats , all of which fall under the rubric of the ATSC (advanced television systems committee)– a sort of grandchild of the NTSC. These formats range from ordinary standard definition (SD) TV to the “enhanced” 480p format to full-blown 720p or 1080i, 16:9 signals. The big push behind the use of digital signals is bandwidth: the spectrum allocated for one NTSC TV channel can host several DTV channels. For example, my local PBS station is using its channel allocation to simulcast four different PBS feeds (including PBS Kids), plus the national PBS HDTV feed. The local CBS affiliate simulcasts sports– the other night, when I complained that the Duke game took over from the GT-Kansas game, it turns out that the Tech game was simulcast on the other digital channel. Of course, what’s likely to happen (at least in some markets) is that affiliates will continue broadcasting their existing SDTV signal, then simulcast shopping channels, which they can be paid to carry. This is exactly parallel to the claims by DirecTV and Dish that they carry 160+ channels, when 8-10 of them are shopping channels that no one wants to actually watch.
Anyway, broadcasters currently have to be all-digital by 31 December 2006. The FCC has wiggle room to push this date back until 85% of the people in a given market area have the ability to receive digital signals, either because they have cable or satellite or because local penetration of DTV tuners has increased. By July 2007, TV manufacturers will have to include digital tuners in all of their TVs; 36″ and bigger sets will have to include a digital tuner by July 2005.
Note that this says nothing about HD tuners, just digital tuners. All of the cost estimates I’ve seen are wildly speculative; for example, this WaPo article says that a digital TV will cost $800 in 2007. It’s hard to understand how adding a digital tuner to an existing $250 27″ set is going to triple its price, especially once the low-end, high-volume manufacturers get into the act.
As far as Ron’s original question about how this affects PCI tuner cards, it’s hard to say. There’s already an effort to make all TV sets plug-and-play compatible with QAM-based digital cable systems; it seems likely that ATI, or someone, will make a compatible tuner card that will offer the same functionality. (Right now, the FCC says that cable systems cannot encrypt retransmitted signals from local stations, so even without buying premium channels you should be able to get your local broadcast signals this way). It’s certainly possible to do DTV tuning with a little combined hardware and software; for example, the VBox DTA-111 works quite well with Microsoft’s Media Center for tuning and decoding HDTV channels, and it’s not that expensive (about $200). Economies of scale will drive these prices down.
A parenthetical note: what’s currently not clear is what will happen with satellite retransmission of local channels once they go all-digital. Right now, neither major satellite service retransmits HD network signals, with the exception of the CBS national HD feed. It’s pretty clear that they don’t have enough bandwidth to carry all of the locals, so that opens the question of what happens with SHVIA’s upcoming revision.

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Render unto Caesar

Tough choice for a Sunday night: do my taxes, or watch The Ten Commandments in HD. Hmmm.
Update: it’s not in HD. Drat.

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Filed under HDTV and Home Theater, Spiritual Nourishment

Cue the fight song

I’m almost ready to forgive WTOL; their broadcast of the Georgia Tech-Kansas game today was flawless (especially the 5.1 surround!), and so was the outcome. What a great second half. I vividly remember the last time Tech went to the Final Four, since I was just finishing my degree. Now they’re back in. Sweetness. (Personal to all Duke fansr: I was rooting for Xavier to beat Duke, and now I’m rooting for Duke to lose. I’m just sayin’.)

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The switch is done

Yesterday, I spent about two hours giving Dish the boot. I pulled down the two-LNB Dish 500 dish and replaced it with a so-called “phase III” DirecTV dish. That was easy; it actually took me about 15 minutes to hang and align the dish to receive good signals from all three satellites. Then I spent the next 45 minutes (no kidding) on the phone with DirecTV, activating my two receivers. There’s a Philips DSX40 TiVo in the living room and a generic Philips DSX5500 down in the basement. Why the basement? Well, since it’s connected to the old TiVo, the new receiver can feed a signal to the bedroom TV or to my flat-panel, which faces the treadmill. Voila! Instant treadmill entertainment. What do I like and dislike so far?

Continue reading

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HDTV options in Toledo

At last night’s party, a few folks were asking about HDTV in this area. They were a mix of satellite and cable subscribers, some with TiVos and some without. I thought I’d write up a summary to cover the bases, since I didn’t want to bore them all with the details during the party.
So, if you want HDTV in Toledo, here are your choices.

  • Get it with an antenna. The local ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox stations (along with WBGU-PBS) all broadcast HD programming at least part of the time. With a tuner like the Samsung SIR-T151 (or the newer SIR-T351, which adds DVI output) and an appropriate antenna, you can get this programming for free. Total cost: $200-400 for the tuner, $50-300 for the antenna. With this approach, as long as you get an adequate signal, picture and sound quality are excellent. You don’t get any premium channels like ESPN or HBO. This is what I currently do, and I’m putting up a better antenna this week– my little indoor unit doesn’t cut it.
  • Get it on cable. Buckeye Cable has HD service. For $10/month, you can rent the box (I think they’re still using the Motorola DCT-5100); $4/month gets you the two local networks they carry– CBS and Fox. Another $11/month nets you Discovery HD, Mark Cuban’s two HDNet channels, and ESPN-HD. I had their service and liked it, but the lack of ABC was a deal-breaker. However, Buckeye does throw in HBO-HD and Showtime-HD if you subscribe to them already.
  • Go orbital. Dish and DirecTV both offer satellite HD feeds. They have almost identical channel lineups: Discovery HD, ESPN-HD, HDNet and HDNet Movies, and InHD. Both services offer CBS-HD, but we can’t get it in this area because WTOL isn’t owned by the network. Prices vary; for existing Dish customers, you can get an 811 HD receiver for around $150, then you pay another $10/month for the HD content. However, the 811 has tons of bugs in it. Some of them are minor annoyances; others, like the notorious dark picture bug, are more serious. I’d avoid them until they get the bugs fixed. DirecTV has a $99 deal for existing subscribers, and their receivers work fine. Not all of them have DVI out, so if you want to use a projector or TV via DVI, make sure you pay attention to what you’re getting.
  • VOOM. There’s a new HD provider: VOOM Stupid name, cool idea. They offer an integrated satellite and over-the-air tuner that picks up locals and their HD channels. Besides ESPN, Discovery, et al, they also have about 15 original channels (a cartoon channel, a couple of movie channels, and so on) that are all HD. Plus, they throw in some standard-definition channels like CNN. Two problems: they’re expensive (MSRP of $749, although there are various rebates that push the price closer to $400), and they don’t carry the same range of channels that Buckeye, Dish, or DirecTV do. Most particularly for us, they don’t carry BYU-TV, which guarantees that I won’t replace my existing satellite service. (Augment, maybe, but not replace).

For TiVo lovers, the picture is complicated by the fact that existing TiVos don’t record HD, and that the only TiVo that will is a) also a DirecTV receiver and b) not actually shipping yet. Dish has an HD PVR, the 921, and VOOM has promised one for later in the year, but I want the genuine article. I don’t watch that much HDTV because I’m no longer willing to set my schedule around when programs are on TV; it’s really hard to go back once you’ve used a TiVo for a while. So, Garrett, if you want HD and TiVo, you need a new unit. You can always add a second box with HMO and copy shows from box to box, though; that way Tiffany can have her “reality TiVo” and you can have your own.
As for me, I think I’m going to take DirecTV up on their $99 offer for one DirecTiVo and two regular receivers. I’ll put a receiver in my office, one TiVo in the bedroom, and one in the living room, and keep my OTA receiver. Iif I can wire it right, I might be able to put our existing TiVo in the basement and feed its signal to a couple of places; that way, we can distribute programs between boxes without a lot of hassle. When the HD-TiVo ships, I may or may not buy one, depending on how stable it is at first release. These guys can experiment, and I’ll wait to see what they find out; when I do get one, I’ll sell my OTA box since the HD-TiVo has a dual ATSC tuner in it too.

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TiVo to stream XM

According to this press release, TiVo will be offering an extension to their Home Media Option (HMO) service that allows you to stream XM Radio from an XM PCR, through your Tivo, over the network. This is cool, except that I probably won’t have HMO when this feature releases: it doesn’t run on my old faithful series-1 TiVo, and there’s no HMO available for the DirecTiVo boxes (including the HD-TiVo, now only a month from release). Drat.

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With press like this…

Yow! TiVo got two stories on the front page of the Marketplace section in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Neither of them were exactly favorable, although they did spell “TiVo” correctly 🙂
The first, by Nick Wingfield and Jennifer Saranow, points out that (gasp) TiVo gathers viewing data. There’s a quote from Richard Smith (summary: TiVo is saying “you have to trust us”, duh), and a counterbalancing quote from TiVo’s chief privacy officer. The article points out that the satellite- and cable-based PVRs are capable of gathering this data, even though none of them currently do, and the closing paragraph summarizes my feelings exactly:

Some users, such as Jayne Spiegelman, 48 years old, say they’re willing to put up with some monitoring because of the benefits they get out of the technology. “If it starts invading my privacy,” the Atherton, Calif., technology executive says, “yeah I’ll have a problem with it. But right now, I’m so infatuated with the TiVo service itself.”

The other column is by Lee Gomes. Most longtime Mac users well remember his numerous (and wrong) “Apple is dying” columns from the early-to-late 90s, and this is pretty much in the same vein; he dismisses the filing as “somewhat cheeky” and doesn’t present any real technical detail on the merits of TiVo’s claim– understandably, I guess, since the suit is still in its early stages. The patents are interesting reading, though.

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Well, I’m keeping mine

My friend Bob Thompson asks a reasonable question about TiVo:

Why would I buy a product that allows the manufacturer to keep track not just of what programs I watch, but the details about how I watch them?

My answer: why wouldn’t you? Every system other than OTA broadcasting has the ability to track individual viewer usage. If you actually read TiVo’s privacy policy, you’ll see that TiVo can’t pull any identifiable data on shows that you have watched, recorded, or rated unless you opt in. They can pull some anonymous data. Their policy says that

“This information allows TiVo to know that a TiVo service user from a particular ZIP code watched certain programming but we are unable to associate those viewing choices with you. If you use the TiVo Plus service, you may request that TiVo block the collection of Anonymous Viewing Information from your TiVo DVR.”

I’m OK with that; in part, that anonymous data allows them to develop inferences about program relationships (e.g. if I record 24, I might also like MI-5 or Alias.) Since there’s a way to opt out of having identifiable data sent to TiVo (and since that’s off by default, IIRC), I am willing to allow the anonymous information to be collected. Hands down, the $600 ($340 for the unit, $250 for the lifetime service) we paid for our TiVo four years ago has been our best technology investment ever.

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