I want to record high-def cable TV, at full resolution. So there are only a few choices: TiVo Series 3, a Vista Media Center PC with CableCARDs, or a rental box from the cable company. I realize that this list has a price spread of a few bucks a month to rent the cable company DVR to several thousand dollars to get the PC, but let's ignore that for a second.
I compared the TiVo and Vista machine with CableCARDs this week. And I think you'll be surprised to know that the Media Center PC has a better user interface when it comes to recording shows, channel surfing, and watching TV. And playback of music, videos, and photos. The TiVo's OS just feels aged compared with the slick Vista Media Center interface. Did that surprise you?
I just wrote that Microsoft's interface is better than the TiVo's. Madness, I know.
The Media Center is better by almost all measurements. But for reasons I don't fully comprehend, I used the TiVo more. It's mysterious, but maybe I can shed some light on why:
For one thing, TiVo didn't crash. But it's more than the issue of stability that pushed me to TiVo (it's a big issue for TV recording, I know). Despite the OS being aged, it made me enjoy watching TV. I liked that it would recommend shows based on my viewing habits, and I liked that it didn't feel like I had too many other things to play with while I had it on. (A benefit to the TiVo sucking at most other things?) The main thing on the TiVo is that all my efforts were funneled towards couch potato non-action. The Media Center made me want to start using the keyboard, playing with the photos slideshow, and constantly switch between everything. The TiVo wasn't faster than the Media Center, and it wasn't slicker, but it was effortless. I don't know why.
Here's the breakdown on both:
The Guide and Flipping Channels
Media Center wins. The Media Center's guide is the fastest thing ever. Like TiVo, you can flip through by channel or by page. But scanning is ultra fast, without any refresh display.
Pressing up and down on the d-pad shows a mini onscreen guide, which shows guide detail of current shows, one channel at a time, without changing the channel until you select it. Massively useful.
Although the TiVo's UI has aged, it's still brilliant. The guide's listing is laggy, but it has the neat listing of a particular channel's shows on the right-hand side, show by show, instead of in half-hour increments. That way, it fits more on screen at once. If they fix that speed issue on the guide, the sensation of channel flipping would be a lot better.
Both show the current channel through the guide's transparent background.
The Media center is faster. The Media Center can record with one click, and record a series of shows with a second click.
TiVo wins for being smart. There's some lag here, when shows are set to record, but that's not a big deal, merely an annoyance. TiVo's season pass just picks up the shows I want, knowing which are dupes, etc. MCE, I haven't developed that trust that it'll pick up the right shows.
Searching for shows
Media Center wins...if you have a keyboard, or not. Searching for shows is faster.
The TiVo's lag hits every time you click on a new letter, basically so that the TiVo can poll for matching shows as you type.
Photos and Music
Media center DESTROYS TiVo. TiVo desktop allows a PC or Mac to stream photos and music to the TiVo, but it's UI can't match the Media Center's handling of each. You can sort and create playlists and slideshows, and even edit photos. It's all thumbnailed and extremely slick. Using it makes me think about divorcing myself from iTunes, iPhoto, and make a Vista living-room PC my media server. (See the gallery for more understanding of why I love this system.) There's also a hookup for your online Yahoo's photos (not Flickr), but MCE has this too (not in the main photo menu, but under online).
Media Center can basically be loaded up with any codec...and double as a torrent machine.
TiVo wins for ease of use. TiVo has their website, and MCE has an underdocumented MSN plug-in that allows it via the Web. TiVo has a Verizon App. But chances are a phone with a decent Web browser can sludge through the MSN site and remote schedule.
Recommendations, Movie Listings, Sports Features and More
TiVo's recommendation system is amazing. You give shows you're watching or have recorded between one to three thumbs-up or thumbs-down signs. And TiVo uses your spare space to get shows it think you might like. Amazing to find new shows this way, even if some people have voiced privacy concerns.
Media Center has a neat feature that grabs art and metadata for all the movies playing now or soon, and tiles them on a movies page. It's an easy way to find flicks.
TiVo has a movie rental hook in with Amazon's Unbox. Last time I checked, Unbox has ~5,000 movies. I'd like to see HD movies here. Movies expire 24 hours after you hit Play. MCE has all sorts of hook-ins for movie rental from services like Movielink. It's a PC, after all.
TiVo has weather and traffic maps via Yahoo, as well as a ticket-buying feature via Fandango. I like both.
TiVo continues to release new features, like their Swivel search last week, which let's you search through a show's metadata to find similar content. But the Media Center's plug-in community is pretty extensive. There's tons of stuff for iTunes, Netflix, YouTube, weather, and more. Chances are, there aren't many partner features TiVo has that MCE can't somehow replicate, via plug-ins or via Windows itself.
Stability and Messes of Cables
It had to be said, but it's obvious. The Vista Machine is a Windows PC. It crashes, and sometimes the external USB tuner needs to be restarted. The Dell I'm testing lost connection with its ATI external tuner several times, needing to be rebooted, and crashed a few times over the week, too. Fantastic machine or not, a DVR has to be alive to record shows. And to match the twin HD tuners of the TiVo, you need 2 external ATI tuners, each using a USB port, power plug, and a cable coax. Very annoying. (Velocity Micro is shipping internal tuners in their boxes now.)
Media center can sync to Plays for Sure devices. TiVo can use TiVo to Go. I'm sure there are differences here, but it's pretty much a wash.
A new, Cable Labs certified PC costs several thousand dollars, a TiVo Series 3 costs $600 plus ~$15 a month, and a crappy DVR from your cable goes for about $15/month, too. The TiVo and PC in these situations are luxury for the people insane enough to spend a lot of money on gadgets. The TiVo wins, but you already knew that.
I like the idea of the CableCARD PC a lot. So if the prices were closer together, I'd recommend it over the TiVo. But given the undeniable fact that I used TiVo 85% of the time (and I'm not a TiVo fanboy), and that its cheaper, I'd recommend that for couch potatoes, and the PC for ultimate media geeks. I just wish its fans would stop whirring. I feel like this thing uses a lot of juice to run 24/7.