First Look: TiVo Series3 Sees the World in HD
At a Glance
Whenever I sit down in front of the TV, the few high-definition programs that are playing at that moment don't seem to appeal to me. The new TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder, however, can record two high-definition programs at once to create a rich library of HD programming. If that sounds good to you, be prepared: The Series3 is a pricey $800, so you may have to be rich to afford one.
The most important upgrade from TiVo's Series2 is the ability of Series3 to record cable HD, thanks to the addition of two CableCard slots. Previously, you had to use your cable company's DVR to record in HD--but with two CableCards from your cable company, the TiVo can now decrypt scrambled cable programming (to which you subscribe). Without CableCards, third-party recorders such as TiVos have to work with a cable company's set-top box, which always exports HD signals through either component or HDMI connections; since no DVRs have these connections as inputs (only outputs), they can record HD programming only in standard definition.
The TiVo Series3 does an excellent job of recording HD and SD programming. I connected the device to a 50-inch Samsung plasma display via HDMI, which is a new port for TiVo (it also has component outputs). I set it to record two programs simultaneously, nonstop, over a couple days, and the device performed like a champ. TiVo says the unit will record up to 52 hours at its best-quality setting (thanks to the 250GB hard drive), but that's for standard-definition programs--you can record only 25 to 35 hours of HD programs. You cannot vary the quality setting for HD content, though you still can for SD programs; like previous models, the new device has no gauge that indicates how full it is. The Series3 features an external SATA port on the back that TiVo says is "for future use"--meaning you can't connect an external hard drive for additional storage just yet.
Of course, the recorded image quality depends on the source, even in HD. Programs that were obviously captured with HD cameras looked phenomenal, though occasionally I spied areas in skies or dark shadows that looked dithered. The best-looking video I saw was 2005's Sin City, a visually and thematically dark movie with high-contrast black-and-white footage that's occasionally highlighted with color (imagine Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, but with flaming-red lips). I watched the entire movie mostly because its rendering was so gorgeous. Older films may not look as good: A recording of the 1982 movie Pink Floyd: The Wall on the INHD channel appeared pretty grainy; I could even see what looked like dirt from the film-to-digital transfer. But blame the original print, not the TiVo. No SD recordings look all that hot on as big a display as I was using, but the ones I watched seemed as good as I'd expect from any recording device. On the whole, I think most people would be pretty pleased with the Series3's recording quality.
The box carries THX certification, which is supposed to indicate that it can generate high-quality sound. It will output 5.1-channel sound via the HDMI port or the new optical-out port. We did not have a surround-sound system available for testing, so I can say only that programs sounded fine through the Samsung set's speakers.
A New Look
The peanut-shaped remote control that TiVo's known for has been restyled, but I don't like the update. With its backlit buttons and piano-black finish, it looks swankier, but the rubberized buttons require much greater force to actuate than those on the previous remote. The Select button is now located in the center of the remote's four-way directional navigation button, which is less of a reach for your thumb if you're using the directionals, but the forward and back buttons are smaller and placed farther outward than on the old remote. The TiVo functions that the remote accesses--pausing live TV, WishList (which makes the box record, say, all mysteries or all Humphrey Bogart films), and Suggestions (in which the box records programs it thinks you might like, based on your viewing habits)--are all still there.
The Series3 box itself sports an update, too, with a piano-black paint job and an OLED display that looks pretty sharp; some of the remote's buttons are now duplicated on the front of the box. But the unit doesn't respond very quickly to commands issued from the remote or the front-mounted buttons. I had hoped that the use of CableCards would speed the recorder's operation, because the tuners are inside the box. Changing from one live HD channel to another, however, took 3 seconds (TiVo says a 1- or 2-second lag is "more typical")--longer than a standard cable box takes. Any time-shifting DVR will impose some delay just because it has to switch from recording one channel to recording another, but 3 seconds makes the Series3 seem extremely sluggish. Likewise, some other TiVo operations are noticeably slower than they were on a Series2. For example, the Series3's Now Playing menu, which lists recorded shows, often scrolled line by line, rather than page by page as on the predecessor.
But my biggest hang-up over the Series3 HD is its price: At $800, it costs...well, $800 more than a DVR from a cable-TV company. Sure, you must pay a monthly fee to rent a cable company's DVR, but TiVo charges roughly the same ($13 per month) for its guide data (and buying a TiVo is pointless without it). I'd be willing to pay a premium for the Series3 HD, but the price difference between it and a cable company's box is far more than I'm willing to fork over.
TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder
Well-equipped device records two HD programs at once, but its price seems far out of line compared with the cost of most cable-company options.
Price when reviewed: $800