I’m a big fan of TiVo, that’s no secret. I think that TiVo is the best DVR available today, and I don’t hesitate to recommend it. But don’t for a minute think that means I believe they’re perfect and don’t have areas that need improvement. And sometimes those care about need a little tough love. So here we go…
One of my pet peeves is their handling of Over-The-Top (OTT) content aka streaming and downloadable video from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.
Let’s start with TiVo’s Netflix support. When it launched, back in December 2008, TiVo’s Netflix implementation was basically as functional as its contemporaries. There were some serious limitations – not being able to add titles to your queue, limited searching, etc. But those were limitations shared by all Netflix streaming implementations. Fast-forward two and a half years and TiVo’s implementation – is still pretty much the same as it was at launch. Meanwhile other implementations – on Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, streaming boxes, etc., have made great leaps forward. Roku’s new player on the Roku 2 line supports 1080p video, 5.1 surround sound, and subtitles – none of which TiVo supports. Not to mention features that have been in there previously such as searching the available titles and adding titles to your queue.
When the TiVo Premiere launched over a year ago, in March 2010, it was called “the One Box to Rule Them All”. Even then I felt that was undeserved hyperbole, and I feel that even moreso today. It was touted as being your one-stop-shop for content:
It’s the One Box: TiVo Premiere is your new cable box, movie box, web box, and music box; it’s the one box that gives you access to everything you want to get on your television and all with one remote. It’s a true one stop shop for entertainment.
Yes, the selection of content is respectable enough – Netflix (despite the horrendously out-dated player), Amazon Instant Video (despite still lacking streaming support), Blockbuster, Hulu (on the Premiere only, natch), YouTube, Music Choice, and web videos. But it is far from market leading. Most decent Blu-ray players and game consoles include a similar lineup these days, and often more. But this is hardly a market leading lineup. Let’s even include TiVo’s list of web videos. It still doesn’t measure up to, say, Roku’s content options. TiVo, while you’re updating the geriatric Netflix client, and implementing streaming for Amazon Instant Video so TiVo users can join every other platform with free videos for Prime members, how about MLB.com? Crunchyroll? Flixster? Movie Vault? NASA TV? You get the point. Oh, and fix the damn YouTube client too, some of the functions in there have been broken for what seems like forever.
To put it simply, if someone is looking for a DVR which also provides some OTT content, I’d recommend TiVo. But for anyone who is mainly interested in OTT content, I would never recommend TiVo. I’d probably recommend a Roku as their best option. TiVo isn’t even in the top five. I’d put connected TVs, gaming consoles, Blu-ray players, and other STBs like Boxee before I’d recommend TiVo to someone seriously interested in OTT content. Again, if they really want a DVR and would like the ability to access some OTT content, sure, TiVo is my first recommendation. But I could not in good conscience recommend TiVo to someone who had a serious interest in OTT.
I gave my now fiancee a Roku HD-XR, the high-end box from their second generation (the Roku 2 is actually the fourth generation), for Xmas 2009, shortly after we started dating. She watched Netflix streaming a lot at the time, but was doing it all on her 15″ laptop while she had an HDTV across the room. So I gave her the Roku to use instead. Since she moved in with me last fall I’ve set up the Roku in the bedroom, but it doesn’t get much use. We use the TiVo for most OTT content, with the PS3 as secondary, as they’re both on the main TV in the living room.
But I have played with the Roku just to experience it, and I think their ’tile’ interface is far superior to TiVo’s. And their content selection simply puts TiVo to shame. If TiVo is serious about playing in the OTT market, they really need to get more content, especially real-time content, on board. I’m increasingly tempted to move the Roku, or get a second one, to be able to access content like NASA TV, Crunchyroll, and other content on our main set – instead of using the TiVo. Or Amazon Instant Video’s free streaming for Amazon Prime users, which TiVo has promised but not yet delivered.
Any content TiVo offers I believe is also on Roku – and often in a superior format. TiVo’s list of officially sanctioned web videos is littered with cruft – stale podcasts that are long since defunct. Some of the podcasts they list are SD versions when there are HD versions available. They’re simply lacking real-time streaming content outside of the ‘big boys’ Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube. NASA TV would be a great addition. You can download the SpaceVidCast podcasts on TiVo – but on Roku you can watch the streaming live shows and access their premium content.
TiVo’s interface to select web video content has not aged well. The content is grouped in ways that often don’t make sense to me. I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with it over the years, as things that used to be ‘quirks’ have aged into ‘major annoyances’. For example, if you browse by ‘all’ why are some shows grouped – like NY Times content – but also listed individually? And why aren’t other logical groups also there? Why isn’t there a group for all CNET shows? (I don’t mean the one item where you can subscribe to them all, I mean a folder like the NY Times has.) Or Revision3 shows? It would be better for users and the content providers if it were easier to find all of their shows in one folder.
Why are there so many defunct podcasts still listed, cluttering the list. especially in the bunch at the end that require TiVo desktop to transcode? Some of them have been dead for a year or two now. Why are some podcasts listed only in HD versions, some in both HD & SD, and others only in SD? And I don’t mean those that are only available in one or the other, but those that have HD & SD options. Even among the HD podcasts from the same provider it seems sometimes different HD variants may be used.
It is a frustrating mess. Worse, it is a buggy, frustrating mess. If I scroll up and down too much, especially in long lists of podcasts, it will inevitably crash and kick me out to TiVo Central. Sometimes I’ve discovered ‘poison listings’ where if my cursor so much as highlights that title it will crash out to TiVo Central. And I can reproduce it every time I highlight that title. These issues come and go, it is a little bit of random fun – will it crash on me this time? Let’s find out!
And how about the pitiful RSS support? You can enter an RSS feed for a podcast that isn’t listed – but all that does is store the feed for you and you have to remember to manually check it to see if there is a new episode up. How is that at all TiVo-like? It is pretty much anti-TiVo. Why can’t it work like the ‘blessed’ podcasts and periodically check for new episodes and download them? That’s kind of what RSS is for. So you don’t have to manually check for new content on each site.
If TiVo is serious about being ‘the one box’ and remaining competitive with the explosion of connected TVs, Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, and cheap media boxes like Roku, they need to seriously re-evaluate their approach to OTT content, IMHO. Personally I’d love to see them license Roku’s platform. The UI would need some massaging to blend in better with TiVo’s HDUI, but it’d be a vast improvement – as would the explosion in content offerings. And TiVo would be in a unique position to integrate all of that content into their search platform. That would be truly powerful. (Or maybe TiVo can use some of their new windfall cash reserves to acquire Roku outright.) Beefing up their OTT offerings should make them an even more attractive partner for MVPDs who are facing cord cutters and those simply cutting back on their package levels, using OTT to fill in the gaps.
Offer content creators an API to publish their content on TiVo, without jumping through too many hoops or getting blessed. Create a system to sell premium content, subscriptions, etc, to the user – and TiVo can take a cut. Like Amazon and the Kindle – anyone can self-publish their book, blog, or the like to the Kindle. Amazon collects the fees and takes their cut, passing the rest on the the creator. TiVo should be able to do the same, with or without Roku. TiVo seems to be more and more Apple-like, acting like a walled garden and not the platform to end all platforms they claim to be.
You may have read about the Virgin Media TiVo in the UK and the way it integrates OTT content like BBC iPlayer and ‘catch up’ features into search and the guide. TiVo in the US could do much the same using OTT content – missed a show? Scroll back in the guide and it links to Netflix, Hulu, the network site, wherever that episode is available. Watching game you recorded? TiVo could pop up links to related content on MLB.com. Watching anime you recorded off Adult Swim? Maybe it suggests a related show from Crunchyroll.com.
Now that would be one box to rule them all – and not a pretender making unsupportable claims on the throne.
But that’s just my two cents. You may not agree.