A Review of the TiVo® Series3™ HD Digital Media Recorder

I apologize for the delay. I got a bit busy at work and couldn’t get free to post at 9AM. Then I got an email from TiVo with some answers to questions I’d sent in last week, so I took some time to make a quick revision before posting.

Review behind the cut…

A Review of the TiVo® Series3™ HD Digital Media Recorder

In The Beginning

Copyright © 2006 MegaZone

If you’re looking for quick answers to your Series3 questions, read
this review later – head over to the Series3 FAQ
first! And if you’re just eager to see the unit, check out the 195 companion

This all started on Wednesday, August 9th, when I
received an email from Bob Poniatowski, aka TiVoPony, asking me to
give him a call. No fool I, I called him immediately and he explained
that they were sending out Series3 review units to the press and the
like, and they were also looking for people from the blogosphere to do
reviews. Would I be interested in doing a review? Well, I managed to
avoid doing my best Freakazoid! impression and shouting
"WOULD I EVER!", but that’s what I was thinking. A chance
to get my hands on a Series3 and really check it out before its
release? There is no way I’d turn that down. If not for the pesky
non-disclosure agreement and such, they may as well have just shipped
me a box with a note saying "Review this, and don’t talk about it
until September 12th."

So Pony passed my information on to the folks handling the review
distribution, and on Tuesday, August 15, I received an email from
Krista Wierzbicki with the program information and the paper work I
needed to fill out. You know, promising my soul to TiVo if I said a
word about the Series3 before the NDA was lifted. The surprising
part, to me, was the date – the aforementioned September
12th. I’ve been saying, for a while now, that I expected
the box to be out in October, maybe early November. So I thought I’d
have more time to play with it to do the review. It was clear things
were coming sooner, not that I have any complaints about that.

Now, there was one issue. I didn’t own an HDTV. 100% of my
television viewing is time-shifted, so there was never a point in
having HDTV without a decent way to time-shift it. (I’ve seen the
cable DVRs, note I said ‘a decent way’.) So I’ve been waiting for the
Series3 to make the switch to HD. I figured the longer I waited, the
better sets got and the lower the prices dropped. Now, suddenly, I
have good reason to upgrade. So, starting just after my conversation
with Pony, I dove back into HDTV research to find a set. Fortunately
I’ve been keeping loose tabs on the market in preparation for the
Series3, so I wasn’t going in cold. On Monday, August
14th, I ordered a Samsung
, a 61" 1080p DLP set. While I was waiting for it
to be delivered, I starting out on my 12 year old, 32" Panasonic
CRT. But, hey, it gave me a reason to play with the S3 (I felt silly
typing out ‘Series3′ all the time) in a couple of different

The shipping box

On Friday afternoon, August 18th, the UPS man brought me
a present at work. A large, plain white box from TiVo. Inside was
the new S3 packaging – a sharp, black box that will certainly set it
apart from the bright Series2 boxes. Along with the unit was some
literature for reviewers, and that gave me my first surprise. The S3
is THX certified. The first, and only, DVR to be so certified. Oh,
sorry, that’s another thing. The S3 is not a ‘DVR’, it is a ‘DMR’ -
Digital Media Recorder. The change in nomenclature reflects the shift
to not only televised content, but broadband content and other forms
of media. Yeah, OK, so we’re all still going to call it a DVR.
Unfortunately, I was at work, so I had to put the box aside. It sat
there, taunting me, for the rest of the day.

Oh, I’m sure you’ve probably heard by now if you’re reading this
review, but the MSRP on the S3 is $799.99. That’s not pocket change,
but it is a quality product. Service pricing is the same as with the
S2. Currently you can pre-pay for one year for $155.40, two years for
$299, or three years for $299 – which is a special price. Normally
that’s $399. Monthly remains $12.95, and the $6.95/month
Multi-Service Discount (MSD) also applies to the S3.

First Impressions

New Packaging

I know I’ll probably lose geek points for this, but I actually
started out by reading the enclosed literature before I unpacked the
unit. I wanted to see what they had to say to reviewer’s before I
dove in.

First things first – the name of the product is the "TiVo®
Series3™ HD Digital Media Recorder". Just the ‘Series3′ for
short, or the S3 for shorter. As I mentioned above, the S3 is "the
world’s first and only THX certified DVR". That was a surprise to me,
and a nice one.

There were some not-so-nice surprises in the documentation,
however. I’ll talk about those below.

The packaging for the S3 itself is nicely executed. I think the
understated black box befits a high end component like the S3. I
know, that’s completely subjective. But somehow I feel the bright
orange, cheerful Series2 packaging just wouldn’t be right for the
Series3. This is TiVo dressed up for a fine night out.

Inside the box

Inside the box there is the smaller box with the documentation,
remote, and the cables. Right on top is the guide for installing
CableCARD, to make it easier on your installer. (Or yourself if
you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where they allow self-install.)
There is also a Series3 version of the quick-start poster that has
been included with the S2 for a while. One side for those with
digital cable, the other for those without. And, of course, the S3
Viewer’s Guide.

The Cables


There are two bags of cables included with the unit – "HD
Video Cables" and "Basic Cables". The HD bag holds
component video cables and an HDMI cable. The basic bag holds the
power cable, a phone line, phone splitter, composite A/V cable, and
coaxial RF cable.

I was very slightly disappointed that they didn’t include an
optical audio cable or an S-Video cable. Well, S-Video not so much,
but I do think they should include an optical cable. Considering a
lot of people are going to be connecting this HD box to HD sets
without HDMI, most likely with component cables, the optical audio
cable would give them everything they need to connect it with the best
video and audio ‘out of the box’. Even those using HDMI may want
optical to feed an audio receiver for surround sound. Considering the
high end market for this box, and the high price, a few dollars for an
extra cable isn’t much to ask. Note I did say ‘very slightly
disappointed’, I don’t think this is a big deal. But it’d be

The Remote

The remote

The remote looks much like the prototype displayed a CES2006, with
improvements. Unlike the prototype, the production remote does have
the DVR 1-2 switch to control multiple units. The colors have also
been changed slightly, while the prototype had light grey buttons the
production model is all black. While the prototype had 4 distinct
directional buttons and a select button in the middle, the production
remote has a circular directional pad with a central select, aka a
5-way navigator familiar to many PDA users, etc. The pad is larger
than the 4-way d-pad on the S2 remote, making it easier to use. The
thumb buttons have also been de-emphasized, sliding down the remote
while the volume and channel controls have been moved up to be closer
to the top of the remote. I think that makes sense, you use volume
and channel much more than thumb buttons.

S3 remote compared to DVR-810H remote

The remote is roughly the same size as the current S2 remote. You
can see it compared to the remote for my DVR-810H. There is a subtle
change to the shape and it has a good hand feel. It has a very
different finish – much shinier and smoother. The only problem I can
see is fingerprints, the polished surface doesn’t hide smudges

But beauty is more than skin deep. One of the complaints about the
TiVo peanut has been that it is too symmetrical. That in a dark room
you can pick it up backwards and never notice. Both the shape and the
weight of the peanut are fairly symmetrical, and until you put your
finger, or thumb, on the buttons it is hard to tell which way it is
facing in your hand.

Ridged bottom of remote
Different batteries

Well, TiVo listened. There are two major changes to the S3 remote
designed to alleviate this problem. First, and most obvious, they’ve
ridged the bottom of the unit. But only the rear is ridged, while the
front remains smooth. So you have immediate tactile feedback when you
pick it up, as to the positioning in your hand. The second change is
more subtle, and, I think, clever. The S1 and S2 peanuts use two AA
batteries inserted along the keel of the remote. The S3 uses four AAA
batteries, which, being shorter than AA, concentrates more of the
weight in the rear of the remote. You can feel the difference. It
isn’t a huge one, but it is noticeable.

Backlit remote

There is another big change to the S3 remote. It is backlit. Now,
I’ve known since CES that the production remote was supposed to be
backlit. So when I unpacked this remote and put in the batteries the
first thing I did was hit a button to check it out. Only I didn’t
notice anything. I actually thought maybe the remote wasn’t
backlit. But, no, the Reviewer’s Guide says "backlit remote
control". So I turned out the lights – ah, there it is. Using
the remote I noticed it lit up some of the time but not all of the
time. Experimenting it seems that if I cover the IR window it will
always light up. So it seems the remote has a light sensor and only
lights up when ambient light levels are low. Clever.

The back-lighting isn’t as aggressive as, say, the keyboard on my
Treo, so it isn’t noticeable in a well lit room. Just the text and/or
symbols on each key light up – not the entire key. But it works and
it is quite effective.

The key feel has also changed. There is now a definite
click feeling when you press a key on the remote. There is
even an audible click. You really know when you’ve fully depressed a
button. It is a small, but appreciated, change.

Overall, I think the S3 remote is a stylish evolution of the TiVo
peanut with some welcome changes. If you like the TiVo peanut, I
think you’ll like the changes on the S3. If you dislike the peanut,
well, the S3 will probably not change your mind. Personally, I think
it is nicely done.

Oh, and just one more thing – it is a learning remote. Yes, you
read that correctly, it is a learning remote. For the first time you
can program the buttons on the TiVo peanut, so if your TV or A/V
receiver isn’t in the known list you can still use the peanut by
training it from the original remote. See, it pays to read the
manual, you learn interesting things.

As you might be able to tell, I really like what they’ve done with
the remote.

The Unit

The Series3

The unit itself is unlike any of the TiVo designs of the past. It
is very sleek, and so shiny it has a mirror finish. A very sharp
looking box. Little, if anything, has changed from the prototype
displayed at CES 2006. The only thing I’ve noticed on the front is
the addition of the THX logo. On the back, more of the text you
expect from a production system. It is an understated design, mostly
black with a silver bezel. Front panel controls are grouped in a
cluster on the right, with a hardware ‘Format’ button tucked away on
the lower panel. The center of the front panel is occupied by the
OLED display.

The unit I received is a model TCD648250B, made in Mexico on August
10, 2006. So it was in my hands 8 days after being produced, they
must be sending these out to reviewers as soon as they get them

The Series3 Back Panel

The back panel is, of course, filled with I/O ports.

  • Power
  • Phone Line
  • Digital Audio (Optical)
  • S-Video
  • Component (Y, Pb, Pr)
  • A/V 1 (Audio L/R and composite video)
  • A/V 2 (Audio L/R and composite video)
  • Ethernet (10/100baseT)
  • USB 1
  • USB 2
  • HDMI Out
  • First CableCARD
  • Second CableCARD
  • External Storage (E-SATA)
  • Antenna In
  • Cable In

The Series3 Inputs

NOTE: The Series3 works with cable and antenna input
only! It cannot be used with satellite. It cannot be
used with any external A/V source. All of the A/V ports I listed are
output, except the antenna and cable input ports. So do not
expect to feed the S3 with a satellite receiver, cable box, external
tuner, etc.

That said, the S3 is capable of tuning NTSC (analog) and ATSC
(digital) antenna signals, as well as analog and digital cable
signals. For encrypted digital cable channels you’ll need to have
your cable provider install CableCARDs in the TiVo. You need one card
per tuner, so two cards to get dual-tuner digital cable.

Inside the S3
The SATA drive

I know what all the geeks are wondering. Yes, I did open the unit
up. I debated doing that, but I’m a geek, how could I not? At CES,
when I asked about the internal drive, I was told it was still
IDE/PATA. Well, it isn’t, it is SATA. Which does make sense since
they have a SATA controller for the E-SATA port. Of course, I think
this means no dual-drive upgrades. Unlike IDE, there is no second
channel to use for an additional drive. Still, the standard drive is
250GB, and I expect it won’t be long before there are 3rd party
upgrades available for larger SATA drives. They’re available in sizes
up to 750GB now, and we’ll probably have 1TB drives before long, so
there will still be a market for S3 upgrades, I’m sure.

Mystery Connector

The one thing I’m curious about was the little three-pin connector
I spotted on the board. At first I thought it was a fan connector,
since that’s what it looks like. But the pins are labeled Tx, Gnd,
Rx, so it looks like some kind of communications port. Perhaps
something used in manufacturing or a diagnostic interface. Or maybe a
vestigial design component. Curious.

The main CPU is hidden under a heat-sink, so I couldn’t get the
exact model. Speculation is that it is a Broadcom BCM7038, but that
has not been confirmed. What I was able to see is that the S3 is
using a BCM7411KBP0PDF,
which is a high-definition decoder. It also has two BCM7042KBPPDF
encoders for analog recording. These are the same chips used in the
S2DT. (The link is to the product sheet for the BCM7041, a similar
chip – I can’t find any mention of the 7042 on the site.) The chips are labeled:

HN0615  P40
779828  N3
CC0620  P20
783234  P

Input block
Tuner block

The external antenna and cable inputs connect into a sealed unit
which is labeled "MDSW3Z701A, 651605G-US, MADE IN JAPAN".
This appears to combine the antenna and cable signals, as it has two
output cables which feed into two identical sealed tuner blocks, which
are labeled "SAMSUNG, DNVS355JV351A, 060601 MVT". I haven’t
been able to find details on either of these devices.

The Ethernet port is 10/100baseT, and USB WiFi adapters are
supported, of course. I asked TiVo about the memory and they said the
S3 has 128MB of RAM shared by the CPU, decoder, etc. And there is
additional RAM dedicated to the encoders. That’s a big jump from the
32MB in the S2, and 64MB in the S2DT.

Needless to say, performance is improved.

The Bad News

I figured I may as well get this out of the way early, because
there are going to be people who are just looking for the ‘downside’
to the S3.

I noticed the first disappointment while reading the Reviewers
Guide. There was, apparent to me, a careful avoidance of mentioning
TiVoToGo (moving shows from the TiVo to a PC), TiVoToComeBack
(moving shows from a PC to the TiVo), or Multi-Room Viewing (moving
shows between TiVos in the home). I’d been warned that some
features may not be enabled in the software initially, and it seems
these are the first I discovered. I asked TiVo about this and was
told that they are currently disabled due to Cable Labs CableCARD
certification requirements. TiVo is still investigating the situation
to see what they can provide while retaining the certification.

To make sure this is clear, the Series3 does not have TTG, TTCB, or
MRV at this time. At all. TiVo very much wants to offer these
features and they are actively working on determining what they can
offer while still complying with the CableCARD restrictions. Since
they’re better safe than sorry, the features have been disabled until
the restrictions have been sorted out. There is a slight chance that
these features will never be enabled, but TiVo has a lot of incentive
to enable them and it seems likely that some version of these features
will eventually be available. I asked TiVo for an official statement,
and this is what they replied with:

As always, TiVo’s goal is to make all of our service
features available on all of our hardware platforms. The Series3 HD
DVR has unique requirements. Because this DVR is able to directly
record digital standard definition and high definition channels, we
work with Cable Labs on this functionality. Cable Labs has their own
rules about what content can be taken off of the DVR and in what
form. We are working with Cable Labs and our own engineering team to
enable both Multi-Room Viewing and some form TiVoToGo in a future
release. However, we are working with a third party, so we can not comment on if or when these features will be available.

The next thing I noticed is that the E-SATA port is labeled ‘For
Future Use’ on the diagram of the back of the unit. I also asked
about this. The external expansion capabilities are not yet ready, so
you won’t be plugging in extra capacity just yet. And with TTG also
disabled, it means you won’t be able to make room by moving shows to a
PC. This will definitely be enabled in a future release, but there is
no sold time frame for that as of yet.

Several features currently found on the S2/S2DT are not yet
available on the S3. The current software version on the S3 is
8.0.1a, which is similar in functionality to the 7.2 software branch
from the S2. TiVoCast (broadband video downloads), TiVo KidZone,
Recently Deleted, One-Touch Delete, and similar recent features are
scheduled for an update release in late 2006.

Also coming later this year, an HD update to the photo viewing
application. Right now it is still the SD version found on the S2, so
your photos won’t take advantage of an HD display. So we’ll have to
see how this update improves things.

After going through setup, I discovered another issue. There
didn’t appear to be a way to tune digital cable channels without a
cable card. Many cable systems will have some digital channels that
are in-the-clear – unencrypted and tunable with a QAM tuner without a
CableCARD. However, one of the setup questions asks if you have
CableCARD or not. If you answer ‘no’, then the lineup selection
automatically selects your analog cable lineup. You’re not given the
option of the digital lineup.

Upon further investigation, subsequently confirmed by TiVo, it is
possible to tune clear QAM channels directly. You can also schedule
recordings based on time and channel. However, there is no guide data
for these channels – hence no Season Passes of Wish Lists. There is
currently no way to manually map these channels to their correct
channel numbers, but TiVo is looking into solutions for that.

There is another ‘gotcha’ which may catch users unaware. You
really need to use no CableCARDs or two (or a single Multi-Stream
card). Why? Because the S3 cannot operate in an asymmetric mode,
like the S2DT. If you insert only one (single-stream) CableCARD, then
the entire unit reverts to single tuner operation. That means
you lose the dual-tuner capabilities for antenna and analog cable, not
just digital cable. With no CableCARDs installed you have dual-tuner
operation for antenna and analog cable, two CableCARDs gives you
dual-tuner digital cable. I was surprised by this, having used the
S2DT I really expected the unit to operated in the same way. I don’t
think this is a huge issue, most users are going to have none or two,
but it may surprise some. I asked TiVo about this and they said that
they are investigating asymmetric configurations as a possible future

Of all of these, the one that bothers me the most is the lack of
TTG/TTCB/MRV. Even if the CableCARD compliance precludes fully
enabling TTG and MRV for all programs, I would hope that there would
be no restriction on TTCB. Being able to publish video content from a
PC to the TiVo is a nice feature. And, as far as TTG and MRV, even if
the CableCARD recordings cannot be transferred, I’d hope that antenna
recordings, even analog cable and unencrypted digital cable (which
don’t need CableCARD) recordings, would be transferable. It’d be a
major loss if CableCARD restrictions extended beyond actual CableCARD
enabled recordings. And TiVo is already able to block transfers on a
recording-by-recording basis.

There was also a close call. At first I thought that support for
Multi-Stream CableCARDs may have been dropped. Unlike the prototype
at CES, the production box doesn’t mention Multi-Stream on the back of
the unit. And it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the setup posted, the
screens in the unit, etc. Finally, on page 102 of the Viewer’s Guide,
I found a mention of them. They are, indeed, supported. They’re just
not mentioned because they’re not readily available at this time. I
confirmed with TiVo that the support is in there. I’m glad I read the
Viewer’s Guide cover to cover.

EDIT Saturday September 23, 2006 00:45 EST: Unfortunately, I
was right the first time. Multi-Stream CableCARDs, or M-Cards, are
not supported by the S3. While the Viewer’s Guide has the
following on page 102: "Note: A single multi-stream CableCARD
decoder installed in the bottom slot on the back of the DVR enables
dual tuner functionality.", this is incorrect! I
spoke with Bob Poniatowski (aka TiVoPony) of TiVo by phone on
Thursday, September 21st and he clarified that. He also
later made
a post at TiVoCommunity.com
which contained the following:

There is currently no certification process
for multi-stream cards (MCARD) in uni-directional devices such as the
Series3. We are tracking the creation of the certification for this
very closely and will work with CableLabs as this certification is
finalized and becomes available. In the mean time, you will need two
cable cards in your Series3 to enable dual tuner functionality (MCARDs
in a uni-directional device act as SCARDs).

So, for the time being at least, you will need two
CableCARDs, no matter which type they are.

The Good News

Closed Captioning

I’m sure you expect me to jump right into the HDTV aspects. But
that’s what everyone expects. Instead I want to point out something
that was unexpected, but a very nice find. The S3 has a built in
Closed Captioning decoder. I’m sure this was done because many HD
displays lack decoders of their own, but it is a nice addition. Over
the years I’ve seen a few requests from deaf, or hearing impaired,
TiVo users for a decoder in the box. So this will be a nice addition
for them.

THX logo

For anyone who has used TiVo before, the Series3 is really more of
the same – just more-so. The interface is still very much the same,
except for the aforementioned missing features, everything is still
there. The menus are largely unchanged. There are, of course, some
new screens to go along with the new HD functionality. And the THX
certification is nice to see.

Existing TiVo owners with product lifetime subscriptions have a
special opportunity. TiVo is offering, for a limited time, to
transfer lifetime from your existing box to a new Series3 for $199.
Additionally, you’ll receive a free year of service on your old unit.
To qualify for this offer you must buy the unit from TiVo.com
before December 31, 2006, and complete the transfer by January 31,
2007. All of the details can be found at http://www.tivo.com/vip.

CableCARD Setup

As I said above, I did my first setup on my old SD TV. Since I new
my HD set was on the way, I didn’t spend a lot of time re-cabling my
entertainment center. I used S-Video and RCA audio cables to connect
it to my receiver. Guided Setup was done using a TiVo 802.11g
adapter, and, aside from my stupidly mis-entering my WEP key on my
first try, setup was simple and painless.

One of the first things I noticed about the unit is how quiet it
is. TiVo says it has been specially designed to dampen sound and be
the quietest DVR available. I believe them. I’ve never felt that my
TiVos were especially loud, but this one is whisper quiet. Very nice

I didn’t have my CableCARDs yet, so I set it up for analog cable
and antenna. TiVo sent me an ATSC antenna to try during the review.
Unfortunately, I live on a hill in Worcester, MA and my house is
between two three-story homes. All of that means my OTA reception is
poor. The only channel I could receive well was my local Univision
channel, which I believe broadcasts from a local tower. I could pick
up the Boston network channels intermittently, but it was hit or miss.
I may try a roof mounted antenna for the longer term.

Combined Channel List

Attempting to use the antenna did allow me to see what the Channel
List screen would look like for users using both sources. The design
is very similar to the S2DT, which indicates if a channel is on the
internal tuner or an external box. On the S3 there is a column with
‘cbl’, for cable channels, and ‘ant’, for antenna. You can (de)select
channels if you want to force it to always use one or the other. The
Favorites list is also integrated into the same screen, by using
Thumbs Up on a channel.

I had my CableCARDs installed a few days after I starting using the
unit, on the 24th. I have Charter Digital Cable, in
Worcester, MA. I simply called and said I needed two CableCARDs
installed and they scheduled the appointment. They never asked what
they would be installed in, I’m sure they presumed I had a couple of
TVs. The installers were a little surprised when I said they were
going in a TiVo. I fibbed when they asked if the office knew, and
said yes, so they went ahead and installed them. Well, they actually
handed me the cards and I put them in the TiVo. (What did I need to
pay for again?) The install was completely painless and it worked

My new TV arrived the next day, but I didn’t have time to set
everything up until the weekend. In the new setup I’m using the HDMI
cable to feed the Samsung TV directly from the S3. Then I have an
optical cable from the TV’s optical out into the receiver to continue
having surround sound. I’m also now feeding the DVR-810H into the
receiver via component video cables and optical audio, and the
receiver feeds the TV via component video. I have the 810H set for
progressive output. So I can do comparisons between the images from
the 810H and the S3. When I re-did my Guided Setup I also left off the
antenna, so I’m using it purely with cable currently.

Since I know people are wondering – yes, the 30-second skip and
on-screen clock backdoors are still present and accounted for on the
S3. For those who don’t know, entering Select-Play-Select-3-0-Select
while watching video will toggle on 30-second skip. With this on the
Advance button (->|) becomes a skip button. Entering SPS30S again
toggles it off. Similarly, SPS9S toggles a clock and elapse time
indicator in the lower right corner of the screen.

Digital programs, be they ATSC from antenna or digital cable, are
recorded as received. Digital signals today are MPEG-2 data, and the
S3 simply records those data streams to the drive as-is. There is no
additional compression on the box. So watching a digital recording on
the S3 is just like watching the program ‘live’. This is the same way
the DirecTV TiVo systems have always worked, only they record the
digital satellite data, of course. The S3 officially supports up to
32 hours of HD recordings. The actual capacity will vary, depending
on the compression of the source material.

Recording Quality

Analog programs, NTSC from antenna or analog cable, are still
encoded on the box, just like with previous generations of TiVo. As
indicated above, the S3 uses the same BCM7042 encoders used on the
S2DT. However, that does not mean the image quality is the same.
Quite the contrary. Image quality on the S3 is much improved, even
for analog recordings.

I’ve used many different model of TiVo, and right now I have a
Pioneer DVR-810H, Toshiba RS-TX20, and TiVo Series2DT in my home – as
well as the Series3. The DVD units have always had different
recording quality settings than the non-DVD units, differing in both
resolution and bit-rate. Non-DVD units record at 480×480 resolution
for Best and High, and 352×480 for Medium and Basic. DVD units are
720×480 for Best and High, and 352×480 for Medium and Basic, with
different bit-rates. While Best on a non-DVD unit is around 5.6Mbps,
on a DVD unit it is around 9.5Mbps. I’ve always found High on a DVD
to be about the same as Best on a non-DVD.

That little digression was to set the groundwork for the
comparison. As I said earlier, my main TiVo to date has been the
Pioneer DVD-810H, a DVD unit. Comparing the image quality from the
810H, via progressive component, and the S3, via HDMI, the S3 is
clearly superior at the higher quality settings, to my eye. I was
hoping to provide the bit-rates and resolutions being used, but with
TTG disabled I can’t transfer anything to a PC to check. I’ve asked
TiVo for the info, but they haven’t supplied it as of yet.

However, we can still do some deduction. By comparing the S3′s
recording capacity to that of other boxes, it’ll give us some idea of
the extent of the bit-rate changes. Times are Hours:Minutes.

TiVo Series325052:0076:24120:12303:50
Humax T250025085:54137:41181:23301:51
Toshiba RS-TX20120324694141
Pioneer DVR-810H8016306293
TiVo Series2DT8025:2040:0552:3286:51

You can see the most direct comparison, with the T2500, shows that
the run times on the S3 are greatly reduced at all but Basic. That
means that the bit-rates are higher, using more space per unit of
time. Some of the space on the drive is used by the OS, etc, so the
entire drive is not available for recordings. Since that space can
vary between models, size of the drives (larger drives reserve more
space), etc, it is hard to do a direct comparison. However, as a
rough comparison to simply show the general differences we can use the
size of the drive. This table shows GB per hour

TiVo Series32504.813.272.080.82
Humax T25002502.911.821.380.83
Toshiba RS-TX201204.502.611.280.85
Pioneer DVR-810H805.002.671.290.86
TiVo Series2DT803.162.001.520.92

Frankly I believe the 810H is underreporting capacity at Best,
capacity is more like 17-18 hours. The bit-rates on the Toshiba and
the Pioneer should basically be identical since they both record using
the same DVD specifications. 5GB/hour is definitely too high, since
Best is one hour per DVD, and that’d won’t fit on a DVD. Otherwise, I
think those are fair generalizations. You can see that the S3 uses
more GB/hour than even the DVD units, and noticeably more than non-DVD
units. (Interestingly, it looks like the S2DT may have a small boost
as well.) So it should improve picture quality for SD as well as

On a subjective basis, if I really look for it, I can see some
compression artifacts on Best. But it is definitely not something I’d
notice normally. After trying the different settings, I decided to
default to using High on my S3. There are a very few more artifacts,
but the picture is still extremely good. Dropping down to Medium I
started noticing more, and Basic was still artifact heavy to me. For
comparison, I’ve always felt that Medium and Basic were unusable on
all units. On non-DVD units I have always defaulted to using Best,
and on my DVD boxes I use High. With the HD set I might have bumped
the 810H to Best for the larger screen. The bottom line – I think the
S3 improves image quality across the board.

As far as the video output goes, the S3 supports several

  • Native
  • 720p Hybrid
  • 1080i Hybrid
  • 480i Fixed
  • 480p Fixed
  • 720p Fixed
  • 1080i Fixed

Native means that the S3 outputs the video in whichever format it
was received in – 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i. Hybrid modes convert
all HD content to the resolution specified, and all SD content to
480p. Fixed modes convert all video to the resolution specified.
Since my set supports all of the formats, I’m using Native.

If you have a set that only supports a fixed input mode, setup
could be problematic if there were no way to set the resolution
without going into the menus. Fortunately, there is. On the lower
front panel of the unit, there is a hardware ‘Format’ button which
will cycle through the formats on the output.

Grid Guide

The OLED front panel display has an indicator for 480i, 480p, 720p,
or 1080i so you can check the output format at a glance. Program
guide data will state ‘HDTV’ for HD programs. And during playback the
channel banner will also generally indicate the resolution of the
program – 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i. The Grid Guide also has ‘HD’
labels on all HD programs. Unfortunately, the TiVo Live Guide does
not have such an indicator.

Now Playing List

There is no indication on individual recordings in Now Playing
indicating if they are HD or SD. However, if you turn on Groups,
there is a special ‘HDTV Recordings’ group which will contain all of
the HD recordings currently on the unit. That includes

The S3 also supports different aspect ratio screens:

  • 16:9 Widescreen
  • 4:3 Smart Screen (4:3 SD, 16:9 HD)
  • 4:3 Classic Screen (4:3 only)

It can also tailor the image to your display. For example, if you
record a 4:3 program and watch it on a 16:9 display, the S3 can
pillarbox it for you. Or if you record a widescreen program broadcast
with letterboxing on a 4:3 channel, you can zoom in to watch it on
your 16:9 TV. Conversely, a 16:9 program can be letterboxed for your
4:3 screen. There are three options:

  • Full, which will stretch the image to fit your screen.
  • Panel, which uses letterboxing/pillarboxing.
  • Zoom, which zooms in on the image. Used for widescreen content broadcast with letterboxing in a 4:3 signal.

These photos show three examples:

Aspect Panel
Aspect Full
Aspect Zoom

The one change I’d like to see is making the zoom level
adjustable. Currently there is one fixed zoom setting, and it can
crop some programs, while others could stand to be zoomed a bit more.
But it is still a nice feature and I’ve found myself using it

For the letterboxing, or pillarboxing, you can select black or gray
bars around the image. The grey bars are most useful if you’re trying
to determine the source of the bars – if they’re being generated by
the S3 or if they were part of the broadcast. I set them to gray in
the above image so you can see the pillarboxing in the Panel

Music, Photos, Products, More

In Native mode the TiVo menu screens are sent to the display as
720p. The applications in Music, Photos, Products, & More also
appear to be 720p. The current exception is the aforementioned photo
viewing application, which is still SD at this time. Again, it is
slated to be updated to HD output later this year.

Switching from video to audio for a moment, the S3 normally outputs
Dolby Digital on the HDMI and optical outputs. However, it is also
capable of converting Dolby Digital to PCM if your setup requires
that. Remember there is no coaxial digital output, only optical and
the HDMI.

Oh, and one triviality. Season Passes now have a double check-mark
with a purple background instead of yellow. I asked about this,
thinking it might signify something. It doesn’t, it is just a
stylistic change. Probably to help distinguish them more from the
manual recordings, which still have a single check mark with a yellow

The Future

In addition to the hoped for enabling of TTG, TTCB, and MRV, and
the planned additions of eSATA, the missing software features like
KidZone, etc, the S3 has some more potential for the future. The
decoder used in the S3 supports more than just the MPEG-2 format used
to date in all TiVos. It also supports MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 and
VC-1/WMV9. These are more advanced codecs used for the majority of
online content, as well as by most download services. They’re also
the two advanced codecs used on both Blu-ray and HD DVD. So the
possibility is there for future updates to support advanced content.

The Bottom Line

Clearly, the TiVo Series3 is aimed at the high end of the market.
The MSRP of $799.99 is going to price it out of the reach of most of
the market. However, we all know that prices come down over time. If
the price is too high for you, I say just wait. The rumors going
around are that retailers are paying $500 for the boxes, which means
that when they find their way into the hands on online resellers
they’ll be available for much less than MSRP. When I got my DVR-810H
I paid just over $700 for it, and it was still at an MSRP of over

Others may wish to hold off due to concerns about the availability
of TTG, TTCB, or MRV. If those features are important to you, buying
now is a calculated risk. Personally, I believe that TiVo will do
everything they can to bring those features to the S3. And I think it
is likely to happen. But it isn’t a sure thing.

CableCARD 1.0 is unidirectional, and the Series3 will not support
bidirectional card, if and when CC 2.0 is ever finalized. That means
no OnDemand, no Pay-Per-View, no support for cable systems using
Switched Digital Video. If these are concerns for you, then you need
to think before buying. You would need to retain a cable box to
access these features independently of the S3. Personally, I have
never found my cable providers’ OnDemand offerings appealing. And
with TiVo I already have access to more content than I can make use

Overall, the Series3 is everything I’ve always liked about my TiVos
- and more. The picture and sound quality are both superior. The
integration of antenna and cable, with HD, is seamless and couldn’t be
easier to use. For the first time in, well, ever, I’m
considering looking at antenna solutions to be able to use ATSC
signals as well as my digital cable.

It hasn’t been a perfect experience. I did suffer a couple of
reboots. One SD digital cable recording reboots the box every time I
play it, at the same point. I caught a later airing of the same
program which presented no trouble. TiVo will be evaluating that
recording when I send the box back to them. I had one other reboot,
which I reported and was told it is a known bug that is already fixed
and the update is already going out to S3 units in the field.

I’ve been an early adopter, repeatedly, with TiVo products. I
ordered the S2 the week they went up on TiVo’s website in 2002. I
purchased HMO as soon as it was available. I purchased the Pioneer
DVR-810H the fall that it was offered. And I’ve been using the S2DT
since it came out. Out of all of those, I think the Series3 is the
most polished new product release I’ve seen from TiVo. I expect some
minor issues with pretty much all new products, and I was prepared for
more rough edges than I found.

After using the S3 for the past three weeks, I don’t want to give
it up. The quality of my recordings, especially my digital cable
recordings, is markedly improved. I have digital audio surround
sound, which I haven’t been able to enjoy from TiVo in the past. (DVD
units only do surround from DVDs, not recordings.) And, of course, HD
recordings look stunning. And all of this comes with the easy-to-use
TiVo interface.

I’ve been planning to purchase a Series3 for ages, which was only
reinforced after seeing the prototype at CES 2006. My experience
using the unit has only strengthened that decision, I was definitely
be buying one. And probably transferring my lifetime subscription
from my RS-TX20.

I can’t recommend the S3 without reservations. I’d have to cover
the above caveats concerning TTG/TTCB/MRV, OnDemand, etc. But those
are the only reservations I would have in recommending the unit, and
if you can accept those issues, I do recommend the Series3.

Additional Information

Thank Yous

I wanted to thank a few people:

  • Bob Poniatowski, aka TiVoPony, for recommending me as a reviewer and giving me this opportunity.
  • Krista Wierzbicki, Public Relations, for coordinating everything and answering many questions.
  • Andrew Morrison, Product Manager, Next Generation Platforms, for answering many questions.
  • The members of the TiVoLovers.com and TiVoCommunity.com forums, for giving me a great many ideas of things to test and questions to ask.

Your Friendly Reviewer

Just so you have some background on me, to better understand the
perspective I brought to this review, I figured I should introduce
myself. I’m currently the Director of Information Technology
Operations for Cyphermint, Inc – a small company in Marlborough, MA.
I’ve been a network engineer, software developer, web developer,
technical writer, and a few other things over the years. So yeah, I’m
a geek and I love tech and gadgets. For the past three years I’ve
attended the Consumer Electronics Show as a vacation, and I
already have my reservations for 2007.

I’ve been been following the DVR market since 1999 or so, when I
first heard of TiVo and ReplayTV. I held off on buying anything until
I was more comfortable with the products and had a chance to see them
as some friends picked them up. In 2001 I decided I was going to buy
a TiVo, but the Series2 was coming so I waited – and when it finally
shipped in February 2002 I ordered one within days of it going up on
TiVo’s website. The friends I was living with at the time were a bit
upset that I put it in my room, and I was so impressed by it that I
snatched a Series1 off eBay for the living room. (Both my my friends
ended up buying their own S2 boxes as well.) I’ve been a TiVo user
ever since, four and a half years or so now.

In that time I’ve used pretty much every stand-alone TiVo model
except the Sony boxes and the Toshiba SD-H400. I’ve owned and sold a
number of boxes as I’ve upgraded. I’m very familiar with the TiVo
software and hardware features, and the quirks and issues in the
product. My main TiVo is a Pioneer DVR-810H, and it is my favorite so
far. The Series2 DT gives it a run for its money though. I also have
a Toshiba RS-TX20 currently. But the Series3 is what I’ve really been
waiting for.

I’ve also tried ReplayTV and some of the cable DVRs. I’ve been
able to try out some of the other DVRs are the homes of friends or
relatives, and even more at shows like CES. I’m also active on a
number of TiVo & DVR online communities and lists, and a few years
ago I took over running the ‘TiVo Lovers’ community on LiveJournal,
which has evolved into the TiVoLovers.com website.

So, to be clear, I am a long time TiVo user and a fan of the
product. But I’m no sycophant. TiVo isn’t perfect, and my Request For Enhancements (RFE) list is infamous. I don’t have a problem
criticizing TiVo when I disagree with their decisions. This review is
an honest evaluation of the product as I see it, including any
warts I found.

If you decide to get a new Series3, I’m open to referral points. Just use tivo at megazone dot org as the address. Thanks!

Version 1.2, Last Revised Saturday, September 23, 2006 00:45 EST

The review, with slightly better formatting since LJ has limitations, also lives here: http://www.gizmolovers.com/Series3-Review.html

About MegaZone

MegaZone is the Editor of Gizmo Lovers and the chief contributor. He's been online since 1989 and active in several generations of 'social media' - mailing lists, USENet groups, web forums, and since 2003, blogging.    MegaZone has a presence on several social platforms: Google+ / Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / LiveJournal / Web.    You can also follow Gizmo Lovers on other sites: Blog / Google+ / Facebook / Twitter.
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  • krellis

    Excellent writing, thanks for such a comprehensive review! It’s nice to see companies like TiVo acknowledging bloggers as a true, valid part of the “media”.

  • mhaithaca

    I think the none-or-two CableCard requirement IS a big deal. Since you’ll have to pay a rental fee for each one, I can imagine a lot of users would want to get one, and then be able to record just one digital cable show at a time… but anything else they want from analog or antenna. Since TiVo’s whole premise behind this product is that the whole market for it is cable and antenna users, I imagine a LOT of what the average user needs to record is from analog or antenna. (Especially when you consider that the vast majority of “digital cable” isn’t.)

  • megazone

    Well, the target market for the S3 is HD users – not their overall market. TiVo said they expect the majority of buyers to want to use the dual-tuner functionality, and therefore get two cards.

    CableCARD rental ranges from free to $5/month it seems, so it isn’t too harsh.

  • krellis

    As I understand it, many (most?) cable companies consider the rental fees for the CC to be “per device” – so if you have one device with two cable cards, it’s just one additional fee. Obviously that will vary from cable company to cable company, but it seems, from what people have been reporting over on TiVoCommunity so far, that the companies that consider it to be two devices have smaller fees per cablecard ($2/mo or so) than the ones that consider it one device (or outlet – $8/mo or so). Probably a good idea to call your cable company first and find out what they consider it, if that makes a difference to you.

  • mhaithaca

    Yup, and I’m hoping, like you, that it’s something they can fix in software.

    Thank you very much for this excellent review! I’m still not done reading, but I really appreciate all the work you obviously put into it! And, I’m really jealous. I won’t get to use this product.

    So do you have to send the thing back? :-)

  • megazone

    Yep, it goes back. I’ll be buying one.

  • mhaithaca

    I feel your pain. :-)

    Eventually got to a point in the review where you mention that, too. Can’t wait to hear what they say about the magic rebooting SD show.

    I keep looking at Time Warner Cable and wincing. I just can’t bring myself to switch. Maybe Verizon FIOS TV will have a decent lineup, but I’m not holding my breath. My part of town doesn’t even have DSL.

  • anonymous

    Awesome review and info. It spanks all the other reviews. You rock!

  • megazone

    You’re welcome, mystery person. :-)

  • anonymous

    With the Series 3 Tivo could I take advantage of its dual tuners with only OTA HD (no cable provider)? If so, would I need to connect one OTA Antenna or two?

  • stile99

    *eyes MZ warily*

    Aha. So this explains the looking for recording times on the Humax boxes…


    You are one sneaky devil.

  • megazone

    Yes, you can use antenna without cable. And there is one antenna input, the signal is split internally.

  • megazone

    Bingo. ;-)

  • aizjanika

    Thanks for the fantastic review. I’m still a bit sad that I’ll probably never be able to use a Series 3 since we have satellite and are unlikely to ever go back to cable.

    Instead I splurged and bought two standalone Series 2 (for the other TVs in the house) and upgraded my Humax DRT800. We’ll probably be upgrading to HD TV in at least one of the rooms soon, though, and eventually in all the rooms. I wonder if that will be a waste of time since the non-HD pictures don’t look as good on an HD TV and I watch almost no live TV.

  • weaktwos

    Excellent review! Thanks for all the hard work. Wow, you actually have to return the unit? Couldn’t they give you a discount on the test box?

  • megazone

    If they gave viewers free, or discounted, boxes then it could taint the reviews.

  • weaktwos

    Well, a used unit should depreciate, shouldn’t it? Couldn’t they sell it at a “refurb” price?

  • anonymous

    Please pardon my ignorance, as I’m fairly new to TiVo. I’m a bit confused about the access to the channel guide. I have Cox digital cable with their (pos) SA 8300 HD unit. One of the things that I’ve always despised is their faulty recordings, and their lack of ability to deselect channels that I do not have (nor want). If I remember correctly, I could remove those channels from the tuner within my old Series 2. But my main issue, is the use of the guide. From what I’ve read of the review, I just wanted to clarify the availability of using the guide feature. Will I no longer be able to see what shows are coming on at a later time/date? If so, this completely negates the overall usage of a Series 3 for me. I’m also thinking this wouldn’t be a good solution for me, since I would lose the wishlist/season pass feature. = /

    Thanks for any insight.

  • megazone

    The guide has exactly the same functionality that you had on the Series2. If you use both antenna and cable then the channels are integrated and interlaced in the guide. So if you had cable channels 2,3,4 and antenna ATSC channels 2-1, 2-2, 3-1, they’re listed in the guide as 2,2-1,2-2,3,3-1,4. You can select and deselect any of the channels in the channel manager screen, just like before.

    The only exception is if you try to use digital cable WITHOUT CableCARD. Without CableCARD the S3 has guide data for antenna (ATSC & NTSC) and analog cable. No data for digital cable. WITH CableCARD, you also have guide data for digital cable.

    Most digital cable channels are encrypted, so you can’t use them without CableCARD anyway. However, some digital cable channels, usually local channels, are sent in-the-clear. The S3 can tune these, but you have to manually enter the right number. And you can record, but only by time & channel since there is no guide data without a CableCARD.

    There is a reason – the channel numbers we use, say channel 200, aren’t the actually channels the digital tuner needs to use. That could be, say, 85-1. Cable boxes, and CableCARD, map those channels. So the S3 would know that channel 200 is on carrier frequency 85-1. But without the CableCARD the S3 doesn’t get the mapping, and cable companies can, and do, change the mapping at whim (to optimize their system). There is no centralized source of these mappings, like there is for guide data, so TiVo doesn’t have a good way to do the mapping without CableCARD, which provides it automatically.

    It shouldn’t be a big deal, most users with digital cable are going to want to use CableCARD to access all of their channels anyway.

  • shiftless

    The new Series 3 is awesome. Sadly, mine came defective. What’s worse is that their tech support this time around has been rude and horrible. They said they’d have an engineer connect to it only to later find out I’d been inexplicably taken off the list. Come on, this thing is $1,000 dollars (incl. lifetime) and you only have 30 days to swap a defective unit!

  • anonymous

    I just called the VIP Offer phone number and verified that you do not have to buy your Series 3 tivo @ tivo.com to qualify for the VIP upgrade. All you need is the service number of your old tivo and your new tivo, and they’ll make it happen.