Me and TiVo: The end of a wonderful, tumultuous relationship

I usually hate impulse buying, and I am usually strong-willed enough to resist that last second impulse purchase in the checkout line; the candy bar, the pack of breath mints…okay there was that one time I bought a magazine simply because of the girl on the cover, but, more often than not, I am able to say ‘No’ and get on with my day.

The one exception to this rule is/was how I came to discover TiVo.

It was a non-descript Saturday afternoon in October 2003. I had to run to Best Buy solely for the purpose of purchasing an extension cord and a power strip, so as to make my computer layout in my bedroom more efficient, with less cables strewn across my bedroom floor. I went there and figured I would be in the store for ten minutes tops. I’m usually a tactical shopper. Get in, get what you need, get out as quickly as possible. This trip was different.

Walking past the TV department en route to cables and power strips, I saw a big screen display touting TiVo. Now, if I’m being honest the reason I stopped by the display and didn’t keep going was because the TV show they used to demonstrate TiVo’s ability to pause and rewind live TV was an episode of ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’, and the screen was temporarily paused on a picture of the always beautiful Alyson Hannigan. [So, I guess  the reason I bought TiVo was really because of my love of redheads. Never really thought about it like that but it sounds about right.]

So, I watched the fifteen minute taped presentation and learned all about TiVo, Season Passes, Wishlist Searches and not having to sit thru commercials. Sure, the purchase would require an upgrade to digital cable, but I was gonna do that anyway eventually.

That day, I walked out of Best Buy with an extension cord, a power strip, and a big box that had a TiVo Series 2 DVR.

It was a wonderful time. TiVo allowed me to go to functions, concerts [at that time mainly concerts by Pop Culture Casualties, a band I manged for a time], all the while, TiVo would tape that ‘special episode of 24’ or that important baseball game, and I could watch it after I got home. It truly changed the way I looked at TV. There was no going back to regular TV, no sir!

The Series 2 DVR served me very well. It was very reliable and stable, very rarely having any issues with drives or performance. It’s still the best unit TiVo made, and it was ultimately a lesson that TiVo failed to follow. The one drawback to the Series 2 DVR was that it did not allow for HD programming. By 2005, HD was becoming more prevalent, particularly on channels like HBO and STARZ. Soon after the networks followed. I wanted HD, but I wanted my TiVo too. There had to be an answer to satisfy both needs.

Enter the TiVo Series 3 HD DVR, released in September 2006, literally two weeks after I started my current job. I rationalized it as a reward for gainful employment. I knew part of my money was going to pay for student loans, so I figured, ‘Why not get a Series 3 DVR and upgrade the cable again to HD? Life is short.’ Ah, the only drawback in my mind at the time was that the TiVo Series 3 HD DVR was compatible only with cable, which at that time meant I had to stick with Comcast. I was okay with that. Comcast had the MLB Package like DirecTv, so I went ahead and got the HD package from Comcast and the HD DVR from TiVo.

That first weekend was a revelation. HDTV really shines when you watch sports. I mean, I found myself watching an ABC College Football game between two mid-level schools I didn’t care about, all because the HD picture was absolutely stunning! The biggest surprise though was NASCAR. I had never had the patience to truly sit through a race broadcast from start to finish until I saw a race in HD. I truly looked forward to races on TV, all because of this thing called HDTV. Now I’m a race fan who will travel anywhere to see a NASCAR race, so you can’t tell me HD hasn’t won over fans to the sport because, even though I followed the sport in the 1990’s, I was now a true NASCAR convert, and I am better for it.

That autumn and winter, TiVo, HD and I all got along fantastically. I was a fan of the technology and raved about it to any and all who would listen. ‘Yes, Cable and DirecTV have a DVR, but there is only one TiVo, trust me!’ I was a walking testimonial.

Why couldn’t the good times last?

The summer brought on a problem. The TiVo began to freeze and pause in the middle of recordings and playback of recorded shows. TiVo support at first said it was a cable problem, Comcast said it was a TiVo issue. Finally, after going round and round with TiVo support, I was on the phone with them one day when the unit just…stopped…cold. Normally when TiVo turns on, you see a screen with a colored background screen and a menu of options. One day, while talking to TiVo Support, the screen options disappeared and only the background remained, and the remote commands weren’t moving anything. After several reboots, the same thing happened each time. Finally, TiVo admitted that the issue was with the unit. There was really no way to ‘fix’ the unit, but I could send it in and get a ‘refurbished unit’ as a replacement. I only had to pay for the shipping.

So, in the Summer of 2007, there were ten days where I didn’t have TiVo. I then realized that I was an addict with a problem. Admission is the first step, right?

Ten days later, a box arrived at my door. It was a ‘newly refurbished’ [which is a fancy way to say ‘used’] TiVo Series 3 unit. I hooked it up, and all seemed well.

Fast forward to early January 2009. Looking at my schedule, I realized I was gonna have to work on the day of the Inauguration, so I knew I wanted to TiVo the proceedings. [I mean, regardless of your political leanings, it was an historic event]. Afraid that recording no less than seven hours of the festivities in HD would cause my unit to either crash halfway through the day, or erase shows I had not yet had time to watch, I bought a TiVo sanctioned Expandable Hard Drive to add recording space to my DVR. Now, even if I only recorded in HD, it would be nearly impossible to run out of space, if I managed things right.

TiVo recorded everything wonderfully, and I was able to get home late on Inauguration night, order a pizza, and watch it at my own pace. As an aside, I want to say thanks to my co-worker Mark C. who had a black and white TV he let me borrow during the actual swearing in portion, so I got to see that live. I work in a call center, and even the person who was on my phone went silent for a moment and we ‘watched’ the moment together, took a breath, then went on with our day. It’s still one of my favorite work memories and proof that current events can draw us together, no matter where we are or what we might be doing.

Ok, so TiVo with the new Expander Drive seemed to be moving along well, handling the workload with no freakouts or reboots. I did have to turn off the ‘suggestion’ feature that allows TiVo to record programs it thinks you might like, because when the drive would get crowded, it would start to have issues. It was a feature I enjoyed, but a small price to pay for a working, happy TiVo.

I guess things started going downhill a month ago. I would TiVo SportsCenter from 6 to 7 every morning and watch a portion of it when I woke up and got ready for work. I started to get programs that were only partially recorded or skipped entirely due to a reboot of the system following a screen freeze. When that started, I knew it was the beginning of the end.

I have Comcast for my TV and my Internet. I haven’t had a land line for years so no need for the ‘triple play’ they offer that includes phone service. Like I said before, this TiVo unit was only compatible with cable when it came out [it is now also compatible with FIOS]. My bill for Comcast has continued to go up and up and up, and once I saw the writing on the wall that this once valued TiVo unit was going to die, I knew I wasn’t going to get talked into getting another refurbished unit. That’s not a solution to the underlying issue that the drive[s] in the TiVo unit have a very short life expectancy. So, suddenly, I found myself seriously considering DirecTV.

I talked to friends about FIOS, DirecTV and DISH Network. In my mind, DISH Network was ruled out from the start because the only time they make news is when they are negotiating a new contract with local networks and viewers are left powerless if NBC or FOX are pulled from the air before the suits can come to an agreement. The same thing may very well happen with DirecTV, but if it does, it remains quiet.

FIOS had my interest, and I think it’s a good product. It just didn’t excite me, and I was a bit wary of Verizon, having dealt with their phone department back when I was office manager at a recording studio. Suffice to say, the experience I had trying to change a landline’s monthly bill rate did not bode well. I would hate to experience the same trouble when trying to fix a TV issue.

The number one issue I have heard and experienced with DirecTV is loss of picture, seemingly for no reason whatsoever. ‘Oh, a bird just flew by the house and now the picture’s out’ was the kind of running joke I heard and made when talking about satellite television, and DirecTV specifically.

Tonight [07.09.10] was the last straw. While watching the fourth inning of the Braves/Mets game, the TiVo suddenly rebooted. No screen freeze or screen pixelation, it just crashed. I let out an expletive and waited for it to reboot. Ten minutes later [which is the normal amount of time] TiVo appeared to be back online. I had the menu of options and chose ‘Live TV’ so I could get back to the ball game. I pressed ‘Live TV’ on the remote…nothing happened. Well, the remote signaled that it got the command to move to live TV, but nothing happened. Then, TiVo crashed again.

This happened four times in a row. Somewhere between reboots three and four, I went outside to the car to retrieve my XM radio so I could at least listen to the end of the ballgame. [Tuned in just in time to hear Cabrera and Infante hit back to back home runs as the Braves won 4-2.] Once the game ended, I called TiVo support and told the agent that I wanted to run a diagnostic test to see if my TiVo box was bad or if it was simply the Expandable Hard Drive. I knew how to do most of it, but the online instructions left out one crucial step, hence the call to Tech Support. Robbie at TiVo support was a great help and he did indeed get me to the ‘mainframe screen’ that is hidden behind TiVo’s interface. It looks like your classic DOS prompt screen and it scans drives for errors. Once I got to the screen, Robbie hung up and I saw a clock in the bottom corner of the screen that read: Estimated Time of Scan: 150:00 Minutes

I was gonna be here a while.

After both the TiVo box and the External Drive passed the first three of five tests, I was wondering if I was gonna learn anything about what’s causing all of these reboots. If it was simply an External Drive issue, I could buy a new one at Best Buy Saturday morning and, problem solved, right?

Well, on test three, halfway thru the entire 150 minute scan, I suddenly saw, in bright pink font, the word FAIL under the TiVo Box column. So, something was wrong with the actual box, and the solution is to ‘call support to get a new box sent to you.’ Nuh-uh. I’m not playing that game again.

It’s quite possible my TiVo will never successfully function again. If that’s the case, I’m saddened, but ready to move on to a new television service provider. I’ve decided to go with the Miami Heat, uh, I mean DirecTV to start, after I have a long detailed conversation with someone at DirecTV customer support to get some specific answers to questions I have, mainly about the DVR DirecTV uses. I certainly hope the same ‘dead DVR’ fate doesn’t await me with whomever I choose.

The one bummer in this is the fact that the shows I now have on my TiVo are lost for good if it doesn’t reboot. The one TV moment I will miss the most is of Steven Colbert singing Elvis Costello’s ‘Cheap Reward’ with Elvis on guitar. That aired the Wednesday before  Thanksgiving and I’ve watched it at least once a week since then. I’ll have to find that online somewhere and download it to my iPod. Most of the shows I haven’t seen yet I can see on Hulu, and I think I actually own all of the Taylor Swift TV stuff I recorded. I hate watching TV shows on a PC screen, mainly because I stare at one all day at work, but for the short term, I can do it.

So long TiVo. It was a fun ride for the most part.

As always, thanks for reading,