The box that knows what's on the box

Charles Arthur tries out a TiVo digital television recorder and is impressed by its ability to deliver Rugrats on demand
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The Independent Online
How badly do you need another box lurking beneath your television? You're probably already thinking that things are bad enough with a VCR and DVD player down there. And now there's another coming. But personally, I'd happily swap either (maybe at a stretch both) for a TiVo - which can record TV programmes on to a hard disk and also recommend programmes you might like to watch from as many channels as you've got available.

How badly do you need another box lurking beneath your television? You're probably already thinking that things are bad enough with a VCR and DVD player down there. And now there's another coming. But personally, I'd happily swap either (maybe at a stretch both) for a TiVo ­ which can record TV programmes on to a hard disk and also recommend programmes you might like to watch from as many channels as you've got available.

Adverts for TiVo have been plastered all over the place, showing people caught mid-action as they freeze-frame some piece of live TV. This is the aspect of the machine which TiVo is promoting as its "unique selling point" ­ or USP in marketing speak, the thing that makes it an essential.

In fact, my experience is that freeze-frame is nice, but what is really fantastic about TiVo is that it's an instant-access VCR. You can go from the TV picture to a programme you want in three button presses. No more rewinding or wondering whether you've taped over that old programme you wanted to keep.

This instant access can mean the difference between sanity and madness when, at 6.30am, your young child is insisting on watching Rugrats, which isn't on for another hour. Click, click, bang. OK, you can criticise my parenting skills, but for the company to produce something instantly operable at that time of day is quite an achievement.

The TiVo is essentially a hard disk, which stores a compressed version of the TV signal. It uses the Linux operating system ­ not that you would ever know; you never see any sort of computer-like screen. As appliances go, this is one of the best-designed interfaces I've ever come across. Setting up a "season pass" to record a particular programme repeatedly ­ such as, say, Rugrats ­ takes four presses. Try that on a video.

Every night it makes a freephone call to check the programme listings. A monthly subscription fee also means that if you have been telling it which programmes you like and dislike (using a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" button) then it will also recommend programmes for you to watch.

I was perplexed by some of the films it was recommending, until I realised they all starred Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex and the City, which I had praised. If you only have four channels to choose from, you may not be impressed ­ but if you've got the multiplicity of Sky or OnDigital, then it could dig out things you never knew you were missing.

There are only a few things that Tivo can't do, but they're the same faults as a video. It can't tell if earlier programmes overrun, though the nightly phone call does mean it knows about late programme changes. Nor can you record a programme on one channel and use the TiVo to freeze-frame another.

There is another big plus for anyone with a young family. The TiVo box is a monolithic silver thing. Unlike a VCR, there's no place to insert, say, a Marmite sandwich, to see what that looks like on TV. Anyone who's tried to extract crumbs from their own machine will tell you that this makes a big difference.

In the end, the measure of the success of any product is how well it insinuates itself into your life. The TiVo managed it perfectly. The only problem now will be explaining to everyone that it has to go back.

¿ TiVo recorders cost £399 direct from Sky (08702 41 84 86) but are also available at other electrical retailers. The TiVo service costs £199 for a one-off 'lifetime' subscription or £10 a month

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