Editors' note: As of September 2008, the TiVo Series3 has been discontinued. While existing owners will continue to receive service and software updates on their units, new customers interested in this product should check out its replacement, the TiVo HD XL. That model offers all of the same features of the Series3, along with a larger recording capacity.
If you asked dedicated TiVo fans to design the ultimate version of their favorite DVR, they'd probably say, "Give me all the great features and excellent interface from past TiVo models, but add dual tuners and the ability to record high-definition video." And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much what TiVo has delivered with the Series3 Digital Media Recorder. Equipped with dual CableCard tuners (provided by your local cable company), the Series3 replaces your existing cable box and gives you the ability to record two channels simultaneously--any combination of high-def or standard-definition--from the full range of your digital cable lineup. Additionally, the Series3 offers all of the key DVR features that TiVo pioneered: Wish List searches, Season Pass recordings, and TiVo Suggestions based on the thumbs-up and thumbs-down viewing interests. And unlike almost all other DVRs on the market, the latest TiVo delivers home-network and Internet connectivity, which opens the door for downloadable video, podcasts, and online programming functions.
What's the catch? Those CableCard slots come with some heavy-duty encryption and rights management restrictions, so TiVo had to disable its network-friendly TiVo To Go and Multi-Room Viewing functions. That means you can't stream your recorded programs to another TiVo box, or transfer them to a PC or portable device. But the bigger gotcha for most consumers will be the Series3's princely $800 price tag. And that doesn't include the $13 monthly fee you'll need to pay--above and beyond your cable bill--in order to keep it working. Moreover, the Series3 isn't compatible with the video-on-demand and pay-per-view features to which many digital cable viewers have been accustomed. Those caveats and the high price probably won't deter the dedicated army of TiVo-tees who've been waiting for the Series3 for years. But when you consider that non-TiVo DVRs are readily available from most cable providers for "free"--or without an up-front cost, at least--it all comes down to whether or not you're willing to pay an enormous premium for TiVo's superior interface and value-added features.
On the outside, the TiVo Series3 box has been completely overhauled. Unlike the plastic look of its Series2 predecessors, the new TiVo boasts a sturdy, metallic frame (3.38 inches high by 16.5 wide by 12.6 deep) coated in a glossy black. The front panel boasts a centered OLED display and a small cluster of control buttons on the extreme right, all of which are enclosed by a silver frame. It's about as stately looking a home-theater product as we've seen, and it'll look great in your entertainment center next to any silver or black components.
The front-panel display will show the title of the show--or shows--you're recording at any given time; otherwise, it defaults to showing the time. Home-theater purists will appreciate the fact that the info display and clock can be turned off, leaving the front panel completely dark, save for a single dot that acknowledges button presses from the front panel or the remote. The front-panel controls are basic: TiVo, Live TV, Info, Guide, and pause buttons are arranged in a semicircle around a cross-shaped cluster of five-way directional buttons, but they'll let you navigate the TiVo's onscreen interface in a pinch if you've misplaced the remote. There's also a resolution button tucked away below the display so you can manually toggle the high-def output (from component or HDMI), which is helpful if you happen to lock into a resolution that your display can't support.
TiVo has tweaked the button layout on its trademark peanut-shape remote control, and the result is even more comfortable to use than before. That's high praise indeed, because TiVo's earlier remotes have been singled out as some of the best around. Video transport controls (play, pause, forward, rewind) are still centered, with a numeric keypad below and a five-way directional pad toward the top. Among the improvements and changes from earlier models: the Select button is now intuitively in the middle of the d-pad instead of just below it, and an all-important aspect-ratio button is present. A smart-setup system lets the remote command your TV's power and input selection, while the volume control can affect either the television or an A/V receiver.
Once you connect the Series3 box to your TV and cable line, it automatically commences a 30- to 45-minute guided setup routine. For the most part, the onscreen Series3 interface is all but identical to that of its Series2 predecessor. But that's a good thing, since the "classic" TiVo interface remains a major selling point for the company as it competes against a growing number of "generic" (non-TiVo) DVR offerings. Like the TiVo interface itself, the guided setup is largely intuitive and idiot-proof: the onscreen graphical interface takes you through the process step by step. The system verifies that your A/V cables are correctly connected and that your TiVo is online via phone line or broadband so that it can access the electronic programming guide (EPG). Once the guided setup is complete, things stay just as simple: TiVo's designers chose real English phrases, such as "watch live TV" and "pick programs to record," for menu choices, instead of the cryptic icons common to so many other consumer electronics devices. Text explanations were clear and timely, and we'd bet that even Granny could figure out the basics in a matter of minutes--once she gets over the shock of seeing live television on pause.
Like the last TiVo we tested, the Series2 DT model, the Series3 is completely network-ready and broadband enabled straight out of the box. (Earlier TiVos needed to plug into a landline for their initial setup, which left anybody with cellular-only phone service or voice-over-IP out of luck--TiVo couldn't interface with cell phones and had iffy compatibility with VoIP services such as Vonage.) With the Series3, you just plug an Ethernet cable into its network port and you're good to go. If you prefer the wireless route, you can purchase the TiVo Wireless G USB Network Adapter, which interfaces with your home's Wi-Fi network (it's currently compatible only with WEP security, but TiVo is planning to support the more-rigorous WPA standard through a future firmware upgrade). While the TiVo's built-in modem gets the job done via a phone line (it silently dials out in the middle of the night to keep the EPG up to date), the broadband connection is the way to go for anyone who wants to take advantage of TiVo's advanced networking and multimedia features, which distinguish TiVo from the rest of the DVR pack. For experienced TiVo watchers, we can cut right to the chase: the TiVo Series3 box finally includes dual-tuner CableCard and HDTV support. As such, it's the first TiVo model that can record HD cable programming. Yes, there was a previous "HD TiVo" model, the HR10-250, but that model worked only for customers of DirecTV's satellite service. By comparison, the Series3 HD TiVo should work for anyone who gets TV service via cable or an over-the-air antenna, or any combination thereof. Moreover, the Series3 model includes a variety of network-friendly home media features (described below), none of which are available on the DirecTV model.
But for those who aren't conversant in all things TiVo, let's recap: TiVo is, at heart, everything you've always wanted from your VCR. You can pause whatever you're watching for as long as 30 minutes. When you return, you can fast-forward to skip commercials. While viewing live TV, you're able to rewind in order to catch something that you missed, or you can watch the action in slow motion. Pressing the record button saves the program to the hard drive. But it's in managing your TV viewing schedule that the TiVo really excels. The TiVo service delivers a complete program guide for all cable and satellite providers. You can search the guide for upcoming shows by title, subject, actor, director, time, and channel. The box will record upcoming shows that match the search criteria (via TiVo's Wish Lists), and the Season Pass feature arranges to record all showings of your favorite series based on variables you set. For instance, you can record The Simpsons or Law and Order whenever they air, be they old episodes in syndication, first-run prime-time episodes, or both.
By default, TiVo also uses your TV downtime--overnight, when you're at work, and so forth--to record programs based on interests you express by using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down button on your remote. The more you vote on your viewing choices, the better your TiVo will get at finding similar, related programming, which it duly labels TiVo Suggestions. Some may object to this functionality as invasive or overkill (which is why it can be easily turned off), but for anyone who laments that there's never anything on TV, it's worth trying.
And for parents looking for an easier way to control their children's viewing options, TiVo's KidZone function creates a walled garden of family-friendly viewing choices; once engaged, the safe zone will let children watch only the shows and recordings you deem appropriate. Meanwhile, your episodes of Deadwood, Nip/Tuck, The L Word, and any other potentially offensive programs remain safely hidden from view until you disable the password-protected filter--presumably after the kids have been sent to bed. (The KidZone feature isn't yet available on the Series3 model, but--according to TiVo--it will be added in a software upgrade "in the coming months.")
Unlike Series2 TiVos, which were available at a variety of price points and storage capacities, the Series3 model is--at launch, anyway--available in just one configuration for a whopping $799. Its internal 250GB hard drive can record any combination of 25 to 35 hours of HD video or around 300 hours of standard-definition video. (Those capacities are mutually exclusive, so a drive half-full of HD video will be able to record only an additional 150 hours of SD video, for instance.) SD video can be recorded at four settings: basic, medium, high, and best. (You'll want to stick to the last two.) HD video is recorded is locked into its native digital format, so it'll look identical to live transmissions.
Older TiVos sat between your cable or satellite box and your TV, and needed to change the channels on those set-top boxes through a tangle of attached infrared (IR) or serial cables. By contrast, the Series3 TiVo replaces your cable box. (It's not compatible with DirecTV or Dish Network satellite services; those customers will need to get non-TiVo DVRs from their respective provider.) Ditching your old box is made possible by the Series3 support for CableCard technology, also known as DCR, or Digital Cable Ready. The Series3 has slots for two CableCards, and you'll need both of them if you want to record two cable channels simultaneously. There are a few caveats, however: you'll need to have your cable company schedule a visit to install and configure the cards--just like getting a new box--and the cable provider may charge just as much for the cards as they do for a full-on cable box. Moreover, while it should provide access to all the digital channels that your provider offers (both standard- and high-def), the CableCard's inability to support two-way communication means that you won't have access to pay-per-view, video-on-demand, or any other interactive services from your cable provider through your Series3 TiVo. (If you keep other cable boxes elsewhere in your home, they'll still work with such services.)
In addition to the CableCard slots, the back panel of the Series3 TiVo reveals some other dramatic changes from past Series2 models. Gone are the Series2's A/V inputs; thanks to the CableCard tuners, you need only connect the screw-type RF wire from the wall to the back of the Series3 box. The Series3 TiVo also includes an antenna input, so you can pull in analog and high-def channels over the air as well. But this TiVo does boast a full range of A/V outputs. You'll need to connect the HDMI and component outs in order to get a high-def picture, but the box also includes two full sets of composite A/V outs for pairing with DVD recorders or VCRs, or even older non-HD TVs. There's also a single S-Video output and an optical digital output (surround-sound is available via the optical out or--if your receiver supports it--HDMI). On the networking front, you can opt for Ethernet or use one of the two USB jacks to connect the aforementioned Wi-Fi adapter. There's also an external SATA port which should eventually give the Series3 the option for add-on hard drives to expand its recording capacity; until that capability arrives via a software update, however, the port remains inactive. Rounding out the back panel is a nearly silent cooling fan that keeps the Series3's innards from overheating.
Together, the CableCards, the antenna connection, and the high-def outputs combine to offer the TiVo faithful what they've wanted for years: the ability for cable customers to record and play back HD programming. Finally, your TiVo can record HBO-HD and Discovery HD--and do so simultaneously--without having to settle for the downconverted S-Video output from an external HD cable box. And the Series3 offers flexible high-def options that maximize its compatibility with HD sets: you can choose to output everything via component and HDMI at a set resolution (1080i, 720p, 480p, or 480i), so-called "hybrid" resolutions (all HD content at 720p or 1080i, all standard-def content at 480p), or "native" (everything is displayed at the resolution in which it was broadcast). The Series3 can be set for wide-screen (16:9) or standard (4:3) displays. Aspect ratio control--full, "panel" (pillar boxed), or zoom--is limited to content that was originally recorded in standard-definition, but it works no matter what resolution you're outputting. That means that even if you've set the output to 1080i fixed, you can still stretch or zoom a show, so long as it was originally broadcast in 480i. And control freaks will be delighted with the fact that you can set the sidebar colors to your choice of black or grey.
In addition to TiVo's TV-recording functionality, the Series3 supports the same impressive and expanding roster of networking functions found on the Series2 boxes. Notably, most of these features have yet to appear on DVRs from rival manufacturers; they're among the reasons that TiVo is touting the Series3 box as a Digital Media Recorder (DMR) instead of just a DVR. Previously a software upgrade that required an additional fee to unlock, TiVo's networking functionality is now bundled with the box at no extra charge above the normal TiVo monthly or prepaid fee. Once you download and install the TiVo Desktop software on your Mac or Windows PC--and get TiVo up and running on your home network--you can access digital photos and music stored on your computers and share recorded video programming with other TiVos and computers within your home network.
TiVo also supports a variety of Internet features that go beyond your home network. You can easily configure the box to access Yahoo's online photo, weather, and traffic services, all without needing to ever boot up your computer. You can also buy movie tickets through Fandango, listen to Live365 streaming Internet radio stations, and use the Podcaster feature to listen to virtually any podcast. If the 'cast you want is not already featured in TiVo's directory, just key in the RSS/XML address to add it to your Favorites list. Last, but not least: you can program your home TiVo to record shows remotely from any Web browser. Whether you're working late or vacationing halfway around the world, you can adjust your TiVo's priorities and schedule new recordings with a few clicks of the mouse. (The ability to program the TiVo from compatible Get It Now Verizon cellphones is scheduled to be added "in fall 2006.") A smattering of time-killing games--simple derivations of Scrabble, Bejeweled, and Connect Four--round out the interactive features.