The ‘Series3 Lite’ revealed – TiVo HD
Copyright © 2007 MegaZone
Version 1.5, Last Revised Saturday, August 4, 2007 06:06 EST
I previously reviewed the original TiVo Series3 last fall, and much of what I covered in that review holds true for the new TiVo HD. The TiVo HD is a member of the Series3 family, but it differs in several ways from the original unit. TiVo’s main objective in producing the new unit is to lower the cost of the box, allowing for a lower retail price. While the original Series3 has an MSRP of USD$799.99, the new unit is only USD$299.99.
So, what did TiVo sacrifice to lower the cost of the unit? Actually, not a lot. And what they did drop will probably not be missed by most users – especially when their wallet is $500 heavier. Contrary to various rumors, the TiVo HD is still a dual-tuner, high-definition unit. It handles analog and digital cable as well as analog and digital antenna signals (NTSC and ATSC). Functionally, the TiVo HD is pretty much just like the Series3, only with a 160GB drive instead of 250GB.
The first thing the user is going to notice is that the unit itself has a less fancy case. Instead of the piano-black (fingerprint collecting), shiny case of the S3, the TiVo HD has a plain, matte case. The OLED front-panel display of the S3 is gone, replaced with simple, fixed LED indicators. And the TiVo HD lacks any on-box controls, relying exclusively on the remote. There is one exception, the ‘Format’ button on the front of the unit which will rotate through the different video output formats for users who have sets that have input limitations.
The remote is the next thing the user is likely to notice. Instead of the shiny, back-lit remote of the S3, the TiVo HD remote is based of the S2/S2DT remote. Same layout and finish, no back-lighting. In fact, the only apparent difference between the S2DT and TiVo HD remote are the labels. The ‘Window’ button is now labeled ‘Aspect’, and there is a dash (-) above the ‘Advance’ button, indicating the use of that button to enter HD channel numbers with dashes in them. There are some other, minor, labeling changes. I do prefer the ‘Glo’ remote, but you can still buy it separately from TiVo and still save a lot of money over the Series3.
On the back of the unit, the ports are in a different configuration, and the secondary A/V connection (composite video and stereo audio) is missing, but that’s all. Otherwise the unit is the same size as the S3 (16.5"w x 12.625" x 3.375"h), but a but lighter. The different port configuration and the lighter weight hints a some internal changes – but we’ll get to those later. First, let’s take a step back.
TiVo HD packaging
I got a little ahead of myself, but I figured the first thing people would wonder is what the major differences were when compared to the S3. The first difference the user is really likely to notice is the new packaging. The new carton for the TiVo HD is colorful and eye-catching. I think it will be much more noticeable on the shelves than the old packaging. The TiVo-guy is also rendered in a softer style, friendlier. The back of the packaging also clearly shows the connections available on the unit, which is welcome. The side and top of the box clearly list the features and requirements. Overall I think the packaging is well done and will attract attention at retail.
Unpacking the TiVo HD
OK, enough about the packaging, time to open the box and see what we’ve got. The accessories package is right on the top. Inside are the remote, two ‘AA’ batteries, cables, and documentation. The TiVo HD doesn’t include all of the cables the S3 came with, rather it only has component video, composite video and stereo audio (combo cable), a phone cable, and the power lead. No coax cable to connect to your feed – it is expected that the TiVo HD will replace an existing device and use the existing cable. And no HDMI cable for the simplest connection – you supply your own. (I suggest Monoprice.com.) You’ll really want HDMI for full digital audio and video, or at least an optical audio cable to use digital audio with component video.
The documentation includes the TiVo HD Viewer’s Guide, a ‘Start Here’ poster, Instructions for CableCARD™ Installers, and a sheet entitled Getting Your HD and Premium Digital Cable Channels, which basically explains getting CableCARD for those who aren’t familiar with it. I’ve scanned the CableCARD instructions (front and back) and the consumer one-sheet. As a reviewer I also received some review materials, which includes a one-sheet for the TiVo HD. I’ve scanned that as well front and back.
Finally, we get to the unit itself. As we saw above, the unit is simpler than the original Series3. I know some people haven’t been happy with the new design, based on the previously leaked photos. I wasn’t that keen on it at first, but it has definitely grown on me. I do think it looks better in person than in the photographs. It is a very simple, understated design. The TiVo HD uses a simple monochrome TiVo logo to go with the understated look.
As you can see from the logos on the lower-right of the unit, the TiVo HD supports everything the Series3 does – with one exception. You’ll note there is no THX logo. Another cost saving cut TiVo made with the TiVo HD was foregoing the THX certification. I don’t think most users will miss it.
A nice design change from the Series3 is the relocation of the CableCARD slots from the rear of the unit to the front. On the TiVo HD the slots are located side-by-side behind a door. The lower, angled bit of the front of the unit hinges downward to expose the slots. This should make the installation of CableCARDs simpler, especially for units installed in a cabinet. Once the unit is in place, there is no need to move it to access the cards. One slightly confusing aspect is that the slot on the right is slot one, and the slot on the left is slot two. Most folks think of the left-most slot first as slot one, so make sure you install the cards in the right order. This is especially important if you’re using M-Card, which must go into slot one.
Which brings us to one feature the TiVo HD has that the Series3 does not, yet – M-Card support. A quick explanation – there are two types of CableCARD. S-Cards are single-stream cards, and what we’ve been using for a while now. You need two S-Cards to enable both tuners for digital cable. M-Cards are Multi-stream cards, which can handle up to six streams. Therefore, only one M-Card is needed to enable both TiVo HD tuners. However, M-Card only recently began rolling out so your cable provider may not have them available yet. The Series3 is expected to get M-Card support in a future software update. Before S3 owners get up in arms over this, it makes sense to develop a new feature while developing a new box. Now that the TiVo HD has launched they should be able to port that support to the S3.
The back of the unit retains all of the connections from the S3, save for the aforementioned secondary A/V connection. Yes, the eSATA connection is still there, despite rumors to the contrary. eSATA support, as on the S3, is not yet activated. However, TiVo tells me that they plan to activate support for external storage this fall. Word is that the ‘Kickstart 62′ back door to enable eSATA support, discovered on the S3, does not work on the TiVo HD.
Also like the S3, network video transfers (TiVoToGo, TiVoToComeBack, and Multi-Room Viewing) are not yet enabled. I also talked to TiVo about this, and I was told that they’re planning to enable these by the end of the year. So, by the end of 2007 we should have both official eSATA and network video transfers if they can execute to plan.
Now we come to the part of the review I’m sure some of you have been waiting for – opening the case. Grab your trusty Torx #10 and follow me.
As hinted at by the changes in the port layout, we see that the internals are all new. This is not a simple re-spin of the original S3 or just the same design with some components removed or replaced by lower cost chips – this is an all new design. The motherboard is completely new, and all of the major chips have changed.
But before I get into that – something very interesting caught my eye the instant I opened the case. Check out these photos:
Yes, that’s right, the system was designed with A/V inputs. There are traces on the board for A/V inputs and the I/R and serial control ports! The case even had the holes for them in the metal – they’re only covered by the label sheet that spans the back of the unit. Clearly some thought went into designing this unit for other applications. While the TiVo HD shipping today obviously does not support A/V input, the design appears capable of supporting them. I asked TiVo about this and they simply said that one goal in designing the platform was to make it as flexible as possible. They say they have no plans to enable the functionality at this time, and they intend to continue to sell the S2DT for users with satellite receivers and analog cable.
Personally, I suspect that as they ramp up production of this model and work out any production kinks, this platform will replace the S2DT. It appears that this platform is fully capable of completely replacing the S2DT, and even the original S3, simplifying TiVo’s production lines. Perhaps that’s the leaked TCD653080 model? A unit with an 80GB drive and A/V input, to replace the low-end S2DT? Definitely something to keep an eye on.
Look closely at the last picture above, notice anything else? How about a closer look? Yes, that is a 3rd SATA header on the board. It is not currently populated, but it looks like the platform was designed to handle three SATA connections.
The internal drive, the eSATA port – and a third. There is plenty of room for a second drive mounted across the front of the unit, next to the existing drive. Perhaps they’re planning ahead for higher capacity units? Maybe a SATA optical drive? (Though there is no opening in the current sheet metal for one.) Certainly it isn’t there just for laughs. Actually, after more discussion and study of the board, it looks like that ‘third port’ may be a testing artifact. The main chip, a BCM7401, only has one SATA channel while the chip used in the original S3, the BCM7038, had two. If you look at this empty SATA header on the board, there are traces running back to the BCM7038, so it looks to be connected to the SATA controller there. But then those same connections continue from the empty header and lead to a Silicon Image SiI5723 Storage Processor. This chip has one SATA ‘uplink’ and two SATA storage ports.
The former leads to the empty header, and the latter connect to the two current SATA connections. So it appears that the empty header was used in development and is not a future port. It would have allowed developers to use the SATA controller on the main chip directly without relying on the SiI5723, and later it would also provide an easy way to tap into the communication between the BCM7401 and the SiI5723 for debugging. So the best current theory is that this port could not be used for an actual third drive.
There are two unused mounting ‘bumps’ on the bottom of the unit where another drive bracket could mount to hold it. Seems like a perfect opportunity for WeaKnees and DVRupgrade to design a L-shaped bracket and re-purpose the eSATA port for a second internal drive. How about a 2TB TiVo without an external drive?
Both WeaKnees and DVRupgrade are already offering the TiVo HD for pre-order. Both the basic 160GB unit for $299, as well as expanded units, up to 1TB. It looks like DVRUpgrade has better pricing on the larger models, and purchasing from DVRupgrade through these links supports the site.
There is also a simple communications port, like the one found in the S3. Most likely this is used for testing during manufacturing. It is a 4-pin connector, but only three pins are labeled – receiver, transmit, and ground.
The tuners are now all surface mounted components, covered by RF shields. There aren’t any identifiable chips under the shields, I checked. The shields themselves carry a label: SLBL-00132-000A1. It doesn’t mean anything to me – let me know if it means something to you.
The drive is a 160GB Western Digital WD1600AVBS SATA hard drive. Hidden under the drive are the demodulators, ADCs, and the encoder for analog video. In a break from the past, and counter to previous rumors, the TiVo HD does not use Broadcom encoder chips. The QAM/VSB demodulators for digital channels are ATI Theater 314 chips and the analog-digital converters for analog channels are Philips/NXT SAA7138CHL chips. I asked TiVo about this, somewhat surprising, change and was told that it was a cost-based decision. Using the components saved cost, as well as saving space on the board (they’re smaller) which also contributes to the overall cost savings. Cost was certainly an overriding criteria in the design of this unit.
The ATI Theater 314 demodulator chips handle digital channels, while the Philips/NXT ADC chips handle analog channels. They run in parallel, feeding a ViXS XCode-2115. This appears to be a dedicated encoding/transcoding chip. ViXS doesn’t appear to have a product sheet on their site for this chip, but it would seem to fall between the 2111 and 2121 in the product line. TiVo confirmed for me that this is a dual-MPEG encoder, and it appears that it handles the encoding for all analog channels. The TiVo HD does still record analog content into MPEG-2 video.
Interestingly, this chip seems to be quite capable. It can also do transcoding of digital content between MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, as well as other formats. It also has the CableCARD M-Card interface. There has been a lot of speculation since this was uncovered yesterday that the chip could be used for other tasks, such as transcoding HD video to SD video for MRV to S2 units. It could possibly transcode other video formats for playback on the TiVo, or even conceivably handle built-in place-shifting. It is certainly fuel for speculation.
The ViXS XCode-2115 has two associated Nanya NT5DS8M16FS-5T chips, which form a dedicated 32MB RAM bank. The main system memory consists of four Nanya NT5DS32M16BS-5U chips, 64MB each, for a total of 256MB RAM. The original Series3 has 128MB dedicated to the main BCM7038 and a separate bank associated with the BCM7411 MPEG-4/VC-1 decoder. The TiVo HD consolidates both of those chips into the BCM7401 and the RAM has been consolidated into one bank as well. (I believe I was originally reading the part numbers incorrectly, halving the actually capacity. User bkdtv from TiVoCommunity.com pointed out my error compared to the NANYA Component Part Numbering Guide. I now believe the NT5DS8M16FS-5T is a 128Mb, or 16MB part and the NT5DS32M16BS-5U is a 512Mb, or 64MB part – for 256MB total RAM.)
There is also a Xilinx Spartan-3 XC3S200 FPGA chip hiding away beneath one of the CableCARD slots, as on the S3. I don’t think the purpose of this chip has been determined as of yet, though it has been the subject of a lot of speculation.
The board has a number of unpopulated jumper traces, and at least one trace that looks like it is for a surface mount chip. These could be part of the ‘flexible’ design, to support functionality not enabled in the current unit. Or they could also be remnants of the development and testing process. I’m sure they’ll provide fuel for speculation.
The main processor is hidden beneath a heat-sink, but TiVo informed me that it is a Broadcom BCM7401. This is a system-on-a-chip processor which contains decoders for MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, and VC-1/WMV9. This isn’t that surprising as TiVo has been using Broadcom MIPS processors since the second spin of the Series2, so continuing to utilize chips from the same family simplifies development.
The software is version 8.1.7a1. While this is a lower version number than the Series3′s 8.3.1, it simply reflects the software branching from 8.1.x for development. The feature set of the TiVo HD is basically the same as on the Series3.
The software encoding for analog recordings has been tweaked, but with the smaller drive the capacity is lower than the Series3.
The TiVo HD can store up to 20 hours of HD content, compared to the S3′s 32. Since all digital content is recorded as-received, capacity will depend on the compression of the source material. This table compares the storage capacity of different units:
Since some of the drive is reserved for the OS, TiVo’s use, swap space, etc, a direct comparison based on the drive size isn’t really accurate. However, it does provide a general overview of the differences in encoding between the units. It appears that the TiVo HD uses a lower bit-rate than the Series3, but it is still a higher quality than the normal S2/S2DT units. The table represents GB/hour based on the raw size of the drives, not on the actual storage space used for video.
Guided Setup is basically the same as on any other TiVo, with only a few screens changed to reflect the new hardware. If you’ve used a TiVo before, there really isn’t much new to see here. Setup is simple and direct, and it should be easy even for new TiVo users. Normally the unit is setup without CableCARDs first, and then the cards are installed later.
There is a new opening animation, which is cute. The TiVo guy jumps ‘into’ the video stream, and jumps from show to show, setting things to record along the way. I’m sure it will be posted on YouTube – and now it has been, thanks to Dave Zatz.
One of the differences is the settings for the front panel lights. You can set them all on, all off, or just turn the format LEDs off – which is the default setting. And when you set them all off, they’re really all off – no indication that the unit is on. When the unit is in standby the LEDs turn off too – even the red recording light, which stays illuminated on the S3.
There are a couple of things that struck me as odd when I set up the unit. The aspect correction mode defaults to ‘Full’, which stretches a 4:3 image to fill a 16:9 screen. I would’ve expected it to be ‘Panel’, which does letterboxing or panelboxing. My unit defaulted to 16:9 display and 1080i fixed output. I don’t know if that’s how it always behaves, or if it auto-detected my display, which is connected over HDMI. The panel color defaults to gray, as on the S3.
The TiVo HD has the same display modes at the S3, and adds one more:
- 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. The standalone Hybrid mode added to the TiVo HD converts 1080p and 1080i to 1080i, 720p stays 720p, and 480p and 480i are both 480p. That’s interesting as all broadcast HD content is 720p or 1080i – so they must be planning on 1080p content from other sources. Perhaps via Managed Copy from Blu-ray or HD DVD? Curious.
Another little addition to the TiVo HD software is in the CableCARD screens. Now you can easily switch between CableCARD 1 and 2. When on the screens for ’1′ you can press ’2′ on the remote to switch to the second card, and vice-versa. This is a simple addition, but welcome.
One important change with the TiVo HD – for WiFi the TiVo HD only supports the TiVo branded adapter. With this new unit TiVo has dropped support for all of the older adapters that are still supported on the S2DT and S3. Yes, this means that if you want to use WiFi with the TiVo HD you must use TiVo’s own adapter, or an external WiFi bridge connected to the wired Ethernet port.
So the TiVo HD has most of the features of the Series3, for 3/8 the price. I think this is a great product, and just what TiVo needed to produce. The Series3 is a great product, and I love mine. I’ve had it since I did my review last fall. But it is very expensive, and that’s kept most people from buying one. The TiVo HD drops the barrier to entry to an acceptable level, and I’m sure it will be available online for less than the MSRP, just like the Series3.
I asked TiVo and they currently have no plans to drop the price of the Series3 from the $799.99 MSRP. Personally, I think they’re going to have to do so soon. With the TiVo HD they’ll have units at the $99.99, $199.99, and $299.99 price points. The jump to $799.99 is simply to great, and with the TiVo HD providing most of the features of the more expensive unit, sales will surely suffer. I think they’ll need to drop the price of the Series3 to $499.99, at most, or simply discontinue it.
The new platform provides the basis for a product family that could replace both the S2DT and the S3. Personally, I think the S3 will cease production and they’ll just sell through the existing stock, then discontinue the unit, replacing it with a higher-capacity TiVo HD, perhaps offering the ‘Glo’ remote in a bundle.
I’d love to give the TiVo HD an unreserved recommendation – but I’m afraid I can’t do that just yet. I’ve had a few minor glitches with my review unit. Some of the time when I access an HME feature, like TiVoCast, the background fails to load and I get a flat gray background. Once I begin using the application the background will fill in. There are sometimes video glitches such as macroblocking.
These are some examples of TiVo HD macroblocking on digital channels with CableCARD. All six of these were captured from my local digital Fox channel, which was being received as a 720p signal, within a single 10 minute window. These were captured under software revision 8.1.7b1-01-2-652. I have Charter Digital Cable using Scientific Atlanta S-Cards. There were a few other, minor, glitches during this time that I didn’t bother to photograph. Note that these glitches happened as bursts – just a second, less than a second really. Most of the time the image is OK, then there will be burst of macroblocking, and back to normal.
TiVo released 8.1.7b1-01-2-652 on August 1st, 2007 to correct some of the video issues. However, as you can see from these images, there are still some issues in this release. TiVo is aware of the issues, and they continue to work on updates to correct them. Based on user discussion on TiVoCommunity.com, it seems that the problems occur primarily with Scientific Atlanta CableCARDs, especially S-Cards. Users with Motorola cards and M-Cards don’t seem to suffer the issues with the same frequency.
If you’re experiencing these issues, do note that TiVo is aware of them and is working on additional updates to correct them. You should still contact customer support as more data points may help find a solution. Keep in mind that you have a 30-day window to return the unit, so try to be patient. If the problem isn’t fixed near the end of your return window, you can still return it before the 30-days is up.
If you haven’t picked up the TiVo HD yet, you should consider these issues first – especially if you live in an area that uses Scientific Atlanta CableCARDs. If you don’t want to risk experiencing the issue and you can’t live with it until TiVo issues a patch, you may want to hold off on picking up a TiVo HD until the final fix has been issued.
In the past other units, including the S3, have had some early issues that were resolved via updates. I see that Gizmodo is also reporting some video issues in their review, and PCWorld noticed some audio sync issues. So this is still a bit of a diamond in the rough, but I think it is acceptable for many users.
Based on the pricing and features, I will give the TiVo HD my recommendation with a few reservations due to the current video issues. If you’re looking for a perfect unit immediately, you might hold off until the software updates hit. But if you’re looking for a decent, feature-rich, high-definition product for a reasonable price, definitely give the TiVo HD some consideration.
If you have any questions, leave a comment on this post in the blog.
And, as always, if you decided to pick up a new TiVo HD, the TiVo Reward Referrals are appreciated.
Version 1.5, Last Revised Saturday, August 4, 2007 06:06 EST