Tivo Home Media Option

I just achieved Nirvana in my living room.

No, not a higher state of being - well, that too, but I also experienced Jimmy Buffett, Shakira, and Better Than Ezra. All it took was a home network, a Tivo Series 2, and the new Tivo Home Media Option.

Let me explain. The new Tivo Home Media Option brings your Tivo into your home network, with the ability to play music (like the aforementioned Nirvana) and photos stored on your desktop computer, share shows with other Tivos in your house, and even pick shows to record on your Tivo - from anywhere, over the web. For those of you without a Tivo, think of it as a digital VCR without the tapes, only much, much easier to use.

Setting It Up

The Home Media Option (I refuse to use the abbreviation HMO for such a great product) is a $99 software upgrade available for Tivo Series 2 models. Also required, but not included, is a USB Ethernet adapter for your Tivo. Regular, off-the-shelf $30 USB network adapters are supported, as opposed to the specialized models required for Playstations. I tested with a Linksys USB100M, available from major computer stores for around $40.

Tivo's strong point has always been ease of use, and the setup here is another indication of how much work they put into making their products shine. Just plug the USB network adapter into the back of the Tivo and restart it. Users with simple home routers like Linksys or SMC won't have to do any configuration: the Tivo detects the new network card, grabs an IP address over DHCP, and reconfigures itself automatically. All daily calls are performed over the broadband connection instead of the phone line.

Static IP addresses, DHCP client names, and other more exotic TCP/IP configurations are also available, but those require going into the setup screens manually. I was able to set up a static IP address and netmask easily.

Wireless 802.11b network adapters and routers also supported, but not 802.11a or 802.11g as of this writing. Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP) can be used for security, but setup is a bit of a hassle there. Most homeowners will probably opt for wireless network adapters, since not many of us have an Ethernet jack next to our televisions. (I did. Don't ask.)

Playing Music and Photos

Photo 1

See Photo 1

Tivo integrates with your existing computer: rather than storing MP3s and photos on the Tivo drive, which would diminish available recording time, it accesses the files over the network and plays them directly from the computer. There's also a Tivo Online library of music and files, but the choices and costs have yet to be released to the public. Obviously, Tivo won't be making the mistakes Napster made.

Install the Tivo Desktop software on Windows or Mac OS X computers on the network that share MP3s. Tivo Desktop runs at all times in the background, sharing your MP3s with the Tivo. Users can pick which folders of music and photos to "publish" (share) on the network, and those folders are instantly shown on the Tivo - without any configuration.

Info for programmer geeks: I was initially surprised that Tivo required a client to be installed on the computer, and didn't just map available network drive shares. It turns out that some of the MP3 processing is actually handled in Tivo Desktop. The whole process is described in detail in their freely available developer documentation: Tivo is encouraging people to develop custom music & photo programs that plug into existing web servers, allow Tivo to play other file formats (think Ogg Vorbis), and Tivo Desktop-style apps for other operating systems. Wise move, since open source programmers will be all over this like white on rice.

I have a collection of about 400 CDs, most of which are stored in two places: a Sony 300-CD changer and on my desktop computer's hard drive in MP3 format. The CD changer is a pain to use because I have to spin through all 300 discs to find the one I want, the screen doesn't show much information, and I can't easily do things like "Play all my Better Than Ezra CDs, but shuffle the songs." The computer is much easier to use, but it's in my home office, where there's no couch.

I was instantly hooked by the Tivo's ease of use, but we all know what the real test is. I brought my girlfriend in, handed her the Tivo remote, and kept my mouth shut. Within thirty seconds, she was playing her favorite music. She turned to me with big eyes and said, "This is awesome! Ebay your changer!" She zipped around through the songs, picking one after another, enjoying the easy accessibility to any song in our collection with a simple remote and friendly on-screen menus.

Scheduling From Anywhere

Photo 2

See Photo 2.

The best way to explain this is with an example: I was sitting at Starbucks with my laptop when a friend of mine sent me an instant message that reminded me of a great movie I hadn't seen in a while. I couldn't remember the exact name, but I knew one of the actors. I logged onto Tivo Central Online via the web, searched for "Kevin Spacey", and it displayed the list of upcoming movies on my cable system with Kevin Spacey.

(You don't have to tell it who your cable system is - it's automatically integrated with your Tivo account.) I clicked on "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", clicked Record, and Tivo managed the rest.

The next time my Tivo connected for its daily updates, it received my scheduling request for the movie and processed it.

It even sent me an email saying that it would record the movie, but that it was going to skip "The Godfather" because it overlapped with my newly requested movie.

Photo 3

See Photo 3.Sharing Shows Between Tivos

The Home Media Option has one significant feature that I didn't explore: users with two or more Tivos in their house can watch shows on either Tivo, no matter where they're stored. If I had a Tivo in my bedroom, for example, I could access any of the shows that were recorded on the living room Tivo, provided both had network connections and the Home Media Option. While this feature doesn't interest me in the least, it does present a possible solution to a feature that isn't included.

Internet junkies that download movies from the Internet to their local computer will be disappointed, but you can't watch those on your Tivo. This is another way that Tivo tries to walk the line between pleasing users and annoying the recording industry. With the new ability to copy shows from one Tivo to another, though, hackers are going to make their best effort to have a computer act as a Tivo, and send DIVX or MPEG movies from the computer to the Tivo. That will undoubtedly take time, if it happens at all.

In summary, the Tivo Home Media Option is a no-brainer for Tivo Series 2 owners with a large music collection. If you don't own a Tivo yet, there's never been a better time to take a look. But don't ask the store clerks at large audio/video stores: ask a Tivo owner. They'll be overjoyed to show you what it can do.