TiVo Revisited

What a difference a year (and a half) makes! In January 2000, I bought a Philips HDR312 TiVo unit for $999. Two days later, I returned it to the store in disgust. See TiVo - Don't Buy One Just Yet for the gory details.

In August 2001 after hearing about several new developments, I decided to give TiVo another try with the Philips DSR6000. This time I readily decided to keep it.

Here's what changed:

  • Integrated TiVo recorders/DirecTV receivers had become available.
  • Four local San Diego TV channels were now available via DirecTV, including XETV (Fox 6). Channel 6's abysmal video quality through the analog HDR312 unit was the final straw that prompted me to return it.
  • TiVo prices had fallen dramatically. The older HDR312 cable TiVo unit had cost $999; the Philips DSR6000 DirecTV/Tivo unit was only $250.
  • The TiVo software had gotten (modestly) better.

    In addition to the local San Diego channels, DirecTV was also carrying NASA TV full time on its new satellite at 119W. I'd been frustrated for years by Time Warner Cable's on-again, off-again carriage of NASA TV (frequently interrupted at the worst possible moments by infomercials) so I had to have this new feed.

    But my old Sony SAT A1 DirecTV receiver and antenna (circa 1996) could not receive the satellite at 119W. For that I needed a newer "DirecTV Plus" receiver. As it turned out, every DirecTV receiver at Good Guys is now a Plus model, including those built into TiVo units. So, given that I already knew I needed a new DirecTV receiver and dish, it seemed reasonable to try the TiVo version.

    What A Difference!

    The DirecTV version of the TiVo unit doesn't need the MPEG encoder found in the cable version. The TiVo unit simply records the MPEG stream directly from the DirecTV receiver onto its hard drive. So when you play a recorded program, it looks exactly as it does direct from the receiver.

    Since XETV was now available via satellite, this solved the earlier problem I'd had with horrendous video quality on channel 6. (I've heard that the analog TiVo models still have problems on channel 6 and sometimes also channel 4, so beware.)

    New and Useful TiVo Features

    The DSR6000 came with a new dual-tuner feature that was enabled by a TiVo software download in early September. I had to run a second coaxial feed from the satellite antenna, but it was well worth the effort to gain the ability to record two programs at once. I find this especially handy to handle the little overlaps that occur when you have to start some recordings a minute early or end them a minute late. (Fox is the major offender here -- apparently they do this on popular programs like The Simpsons in order to squeeze in a little more high-priced advertising.)

    Other Comments

    The "oval" (dual satellite) TERK dish uses a slightly larger mount than my original single-satellite Sony. And the mounting holes in new mount were just slightly offset from those in the older mount. Argh! Rather than drill more holes in my roof, I used a piece of 1 1/4" schedule 40 PVC water pipe as a shim to adapt the old existing mount to the new dish. I sliced the pipe lengthwise with a hacksaw and tapped it into place on the mount with a rubber mallet before mounting the new dish.

    The original TiVo unit I tested in January 2000 took hours to process its initial download of program guide material. This was not the case for my new DSR6000; it was ready for use soon after setting up the satellite antenna. However, the program guide did not seem to "fill in" for a few hours after that.

    DirecTV apparently gets its local San Diego area feeds with off-air antennas located in east San Diego. On occasion, what appears to be power line interference gets into these antennas. Naturally, as Murphy would have it, this happens most often on channel 6. But most of the time the quality is acceptable. It's certainly better than Time Warner's analog cable feed.

    The TiVo software is still much more sluggish than it should be. Channel changing, even between adjacent channels, takes several seconds. This is long enough to make channel surfing very difficult. Rumor has it that the TiVo software makes heavy use of Tcl scripts, which could explain much.

    The program guide is also too slow to appear when scrolling through the real-time channel lineup. It almost looks as if the receiver has to wait for the appropriate program data to fly by on the satellite downlink. It seems obvious that this data should be continually cached in the receiver so it can be displayed instantly when requested.

    The DirecTV local channel lineup for San Diego does not include a UPN station. I have to record Star Trek Enterprise off cable with a VCR.

    The DSR6000 is advertised as having "up to" 35 hours of capacity. It seems to have less than that. Because it directly records the DirecTV stream, capacity depends on the data rates DirecTV chooses for the programs you record. Not much can be done about this.

    The unit draws a lot of power and gets rather warm (50C, according to the diagnostic page). There should be a "sleep" mode that spins down the hard drives unless the unit is recording or playing a program.

    It would sure be nice of the TiVo had an Ethernet jack on the rear panel, to permit Internet access by faster means than telephone dialup and to extract MPEG program data for playback or storage on another unit. Supposedly the new Replay TV units already have one.

    And it would sure be nice if this unit had a larger hard disk, or could be easily expanded to accomodate one. I've seen many web pages giving step-by-step instructions on how to add hard disk space to TiVo units, but all apply to the older models with analog inputs. I've not seen any first-hand reports of doing the same for any DirecTV model.


    The Philips DSR6000 TiVo/DirecTV receiver is a vast improvement over the HDR312 analog cable TiVo unit. Some of this comes from better software, but the big win comes from the elimination of tandem MPEG encoding associated with an analog video input. So I would still hesitate to buy even the newer analog input TiVo units -- especially as they are still reported to suffer from the video quality problems I found so objectionable in the earlier unit.

    On the other hand, the price has come down so far that I'm willing to overlook these faults. $999 was a steep price to pay for an imperfect piece of consumer electronics, but I already pay $250 for DirecTV programming in only a few months (yeah, I get all the premium channels). So I figure I can afford to tolerate the remaining imperfections of the DSR6000 while I wait for something better to come along.

    Last updated: 11 Oct 2001