There are a lot of misconceptions about what Tivo is, and their recent ad campaigns are not doing much to clear things up. Tivo is being billed as "interactive television". It is interactive, just not the way you'd think.


Tivo is a digital VCR, with an underlying operating system and UI written on top of Linux. It downloads two weeks of schedule information every night, so it always knows what shows are on when. This has several huge, extremely liberating advantages over tape-based VCRs:

  • you don't have to remember to have a blank tape handy to record a program.
  • you don't have to remember to record the program in the first place. You just tell it which shows you like to watch, and it records them whenever they're on.
  • There's lots of space on a 30GB hard drive (30 hours of video at lowest density, comparable to VHS LP mode, and 8 hours at highest, indistinguishable from broadcast) to record programming. This is the best part of Tivo: if there's room left over from recording what you said you wanted to watch, it starts to record other stuff it thinks you might like, based on your preferences, which it learns the more you use it. The idea is that there should always be a full hard drive of programming to choose from when you turn on your TV.

The Pause That Refreshes

The way Tivo is marketed you would think that the whole point is that you can pause live TV. The machine does indeed enhance the experience of watching live TV, since you can hit pause, and even "rewind" a bit if you missed something (Tivo buffers 30 minutes of whatever you're watching automatically). There's a frame-by-frame slow motion button, and a button that skips back 7 seconds (the latter feature is extremely handy if you missed a line of dialogue). You can also overlay program information onto the video: what you are watching, the episode title (nice for sorting out reruns), cast names, running time. Tivo has all this information because you hook it up to your phone line, and it dials the mothership once a day, typically in the middle of the night, to download two weeks of programming schedules, software upgrades, and reset its clock (another nice feature; the clock never drifts).


Once you use it for a while, though, you begin to understand that the whole point of Tivo is that you should never watch anything live ever again. In fact, even when you watch "live" TV with Tivo you really aren't, because the machine is compressing and buffering the video and re-displaying it for you with a delay. The point of Tivo is that you watch what you want to, when you feel like watching TV, and you stop caring about when it's on.

This is incredibly liberating. I bought one because I was tired of the following scenario: I get home and I am (1) too mentally tired from a long day at work, or (2) too full of beer/wine/drink of choice from a long night out to read or do anything useful. But I'm also too wired to sleep, so I'd like a little passive entertainment to help me relax and then collapse. It's 10 or 11 o'clock at night. All that's on is Seinfeld reruns, local news, and bad movies. I watch them anyway, because I'm too tired to do anything else. I'm also not at my best, to say the least, in the morning, so I frequently forget to set a tape to record the one or two shows I actually do want to watch. If any of this sounds familiar, you should think about a Tivo.

The other reason not to watch things live is commercials. Tivo has a clever fast-forward system that, once you get used to it, allows you to skip over commercials extremely quickly and accurately. You would be amazed at how much of TV is commercials. I can watch 3 episodes of The Simpsons in an hour. Even if I can't wait to see a show (e.g., the X-Files season premiere) I routinely wait until I'm a good 15 minutes into the broadcast. Then I start watching and gradually "catch up" to the broadcast by zipping past the commercials.

Everybody's a Critic

Tivo lets you specify two levels of preference for shows:

  • Tivo has something called a "season pass". This is the highest form of commitment to a show. It means that whenever, e.g., The X-files or The West Wing is on, you want the Tivo to record it, at the expense of anything else. This is the core benefit of Tivo: you tell it what you want to watch, forget about when it's on, and it appears.
  • Tivo also provides a "thumbs up"/"thumbs down" rating system for shows. There are buttons that correspond to this on the remote that comes from the unit. This is the other half of Tivo's brilliance: the more you rate the shows that you watch (or don't watch), the more Tivo learns what you like. The operative principle is that whenever you turn on your TV, Tivo has a full hard drive of stuff to watch. So if Tivo has recorded only 6 hours of season pass programs, it will attempt to fill up the rest with programming it thinks you might want to watch based on your preferences. The more you rate shows, the better it gets at this.

Quality of life

Once you get used to the Tivo paradigm, your quality of life w/r to TV improves vastly. Several friends of mine have expressed the fear that if they get one, they will actually watch more TV, and they would like to avoid this. From personal experience, you will watch more initially because of the "neato factor", but you will eventually settle down to the level you were watching before, or even less, because you stop surfing and watching junk to veg out. Tivo strikes a nice psychological balance here: it removes the investment in watching and recording television programs. With a VCR, if you are interested in watching something, you have to: (1) remember to set the VCR, (2) scare up a blank tape, if you even have one, and (3) navigate whatever Byzantine interface your VCR has to program it to record your program. Once you have jumped through all those hoops, you are invested in that program, and you feel a need to watch it. With Tivo, there's no guilt: you expended no effort, so there's no particular reason to watch something if you don't want to (the episode sucks, it's a rerun, etc). The investment becomes an investment in your time, which is, after all, as it should be.

If your Tivo only contains one hard drive, you can upgrade it by merely adding another. Of course this voids every warranty the thing's got, but Tivo doesn't seem to officially discourage it.
The process boils down to:
Selecting a good hard drive (must be fast enough to avoid compression artifacts)
Format and Bless the drive, so Tivo can recognize it (done with downloadable utility)
Backup the original Tivo hard drive (optional)
Installing the drives (which requires some bracket fabrication, or buy one from

There's about a million that boast Tivo hacking tips, here's one.

BTW: A friend of mine saw my Tivo and described it as "Tivo... It's all your shit, only different. "

Apart from hacking a TiVo to increase its storage capacity, it is also possible to add additional features to the unit by getting a bash prompt on the machine and loading additional scripts onto the machine. Because the TiVo provides TCL, such special pieces of magic like TivoWeb exist, letting you view and manipulate the program guide, season passes, scheduled recordings, and available recordings from a web browser. You can also hack the TiVo to use a serial or network connection to phone home instead of tying up a phone line.

Other hacks include adding caller ID support (showing who's calling on the TV as a system message), remote control emulation, video extraction, and even running a web server. Note that video extraction is a taboo topic on some discussion boards and forums, and most definitely annoys TiVo, Inc.

A TiVo is truly a hacker's dream.

I also feel compelled to add that the DirecTiVo, a DirecTV satellite receiver with TiVo guts and software, is pure bliss due to its ability to record two channels at once (while still counting as only one receiver for the bean counters at DirecTV), and only costs $5 a month instead of $10 like the "regular" TiVos do.

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