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Gadgets, Technology

Tech Lemmings, Part Deux

June 12th, 2007 by Jeff | 1 Core Dump

I mentioned in the last post a new toy that my wife and I bought each other recently for our anniversary. Well, I got a bit distracted (funny how they expect you to do actual work at your job) and didn’t get a chance to post about it again until now. But here it is. Following the technology lemming trend once again, we’ve added a new gadget to our arsenal: We’re now the proud(?) owners of a TiVo.

I guess we watch more television that we really should… or at least we used to. I think our TV is always on whenever somebody is home, if nothing else for background noise. Back before we moved from North Carolina (and before my art desk was moved from the living room to a dark secluded corner of the dungeon… I mean, basement), I’d often scan the channels for something interesting but safely ignorable to have on while I was at the art desk or on the couch doing the digital half of the strip. Nowadays, it’s still on almost ninety some percent of the time during the day, but it’s constantly tuned to Noggin. (I’ll give you three guesses why.) Needless to say, my wife and I have been craving entertainment where the target audience doesn’t consist primarily of drooling preschoolers, but the actual window of time where we can watch TV without the little guy around is pretty small. We have to take those opportunities when they come. And since I haven’t got a clue when we bought our last blank VHS video cassette (I think they’re all still packed up from the move, almost a year later), the old VCR hasn’t been getting a workout. (In fact, we’ve seriously discussed completely unhooking it, if it weren’t for the fact that we have a number of hand-me-down tapes especially for Ben.)

Like the cell phones, Palms, and the iPod, we’ve discussed getting a DVR for years but never got past the “we should really try it out” discussion phase. Naturally, being cheap, we first discussed getting DVR services from our cable company. One box on top of the TV, one bill in the mail. Simplicity is always good. I think if we were still in NC and still had Time Warner as our cable company we might have actually gone that route. However, our current cabler (who shall remain nameless in fear that I might accidentally promote them) has a completely useless website that contains absolutely no information beyond the generic non-local sales pitch. I couldn’t find anything about DVR services on their site, and not once did I see any kind of price guide. The only local information available was a channel guide and a service phone number. In fact, the only reason I know they offer DVR services is that my in-laws have it. At this point, their mediocre service is already annoying as it is (our cable modem is often hit-or-miss), and if it weren’t for the high-speed Internet services (I’m not a DSL fan), I’d almost be tempted to go with a satellite dish.

But I digress. Our cable’s website was a joke, so I couldn’t find anything useful to form a comparison with. TiVo, on the other hand, had a wealth of information on their site so I was well aware of all the goodies and pitfalls we’d be getting into before we even placed an order. Needless to say, you can guess who won. We bought their current low-end box and a pre-paid year of service and I watched the UPS site rather obsessively for the next week as the box slowly made its way from Texas to West Virginia. It took a day or so to finally get the time needed to set it up, but having already read all the details online I found setup was mostly a snap. I did have a few problems integrating it into our wireless network, but that ended up begin my fault. (I consistently kept picking the wrong networking option and couldn’t figure out why it couldn’t find our router.)

And now the mini-review. In general, it gets a hearty thumbs-up, maybe even two. (Fellow TiVo owners should get the mild pun.) It’s a cinch to use and very intuitive. I probably wouldn’t have even needed most of my online research, although some of the connection setup could have been daunting if I weren’t a closet A/V nut. Ours is a Series2 dual-tuner model, so we can record two programs at once or watch one channel live while another show is being recorded at the same time. You can even watch the beginning of a show while it’s still being recorded. And, of course, the “pause live TV” feature that is much touted has actually come in very handy. (I think my wife got to rewind and watch an episode of Scrubs while it was still airing and I was bathing Ben last night.) The Season Pass feature is handy, and now I can finally get caught up on all those episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise that I missed during its original run. I have yet to use the online scheduling feature, but I’ve used it to scan for programming. I’ve used the TiVoToGo feature to transfer at least one recorded show to Diana, our primary Windows desktop, but have not yet managed to do anything useful with that recording there. (More on that in a bit.)

And now, some negatives. Probably the freakiest thing is TiVo Suggestions. Users can rate programming they like or don’t like with the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons. TiVoservice then takes this information and processes it, coming up with suggestions of what they think you might like based on your ratings. These suggestions are displayed on a screen in the GUI so you can see upcoming programs that you may not have known were on the schedule. I have some mild privacy concerns about this, but they’re only minor. My TV watching habits aren’t like my bank records or e-mail, so I’m more willing to give up a small measure of privacy in exchange for some useful features. So far, the Suggestions menu list has actually grown pretty smart (after a few binge thumbing sessions to feed it some seed data), and if it weren’t for the fact that I don’t have time to watch all these suggestions I might have actually been tempted to record some of them myself. But what’s really spooky about it is when the TiVobox begins recording theses shows for me automatically, without my approval. Now I know there’s a setting to turn this “feature” off and Suggestion recordings are always flagged as being the first shows to be deleted if it needs more space (so I don’t lose my manually scheduled records to make room for Suggestions), so it’s not like it’s really that big of an imposition. However, turning the TV on in the morning to find several episodes of Star Trek and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron recorded on my DVR that I didn’t schedule is the slightest bit unnerving. Fortunately I was able to train it to stop recording Martha Stewart Living after a while. It started doing that after my wife scheduled a mass recording of Good Eats. I was immediately remind of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “Couch Potato”:

But I only watched “Will And Grace” one time one day
Wish I hadn’t ’cause TiVo now thinks I’m gay

The next gripe: content protection. You know, as a content creator myself, I can appreciate the desire and need for protecting one’s content from unauthorized reproduction. I’ve been in a constant battle with comic rippers and “inliners” for years who insert my comics into their websites and essentially cheat me out of desperately needed ad revenue. These tactics actually impact my bottom line and seeing as GPF has a very limited budget and thin profit margin it’s something I take very seriously. That said, I’m also very much in favor of consumer’s rights. I have no problem with my readers visiting my site, loading both the comic and the ad (so I get my 0.001¢ in revenue), then saving the comic to their hard drive as part of their personal collection. From there, you can do whatever you want with it… so long as you don’t post it online for others to see (thus taking traffic and ad revenue away from me) or otherwise sell or earn money from it. This content owner vs. consumer’s rights advocate battle is one I constantly wage with myself, and I’m always looking ways to enable you guys to enjoy my strip in new and inventive ways while still scraping up enough cash to buy my meager art supplies.

TiVoservice does allow you to copy content recorded on the TiVobox to your home computer. Sure enough, I copied one of my wife’s Good Eats episodes and it played just fine in Windows Media Player. The problem comes in, though, when I try to do just about anything else with it. What I really want to do is load it into my favorite video editing app and trim out the commercials (more as a space saving issue than anything else) then burn several episodes to a DVD. But TiVoToGo files are encrypted with a codec that prevents modification or conversion… without buying the appropriate extra software that keeps the DRM intact, of course. My video editing app can’t read these files and my current favorite video converter, FFmpeg, can’t read the codec to convert the file to something the editor can read. I have no intention pirating Good Eats and redistributing it illegally; quite to the contrary, I want to support Alton Brown and encourage him to create more entertaining content. I just want to archive content that I recorded on my personal recorder to a more permanent form (a DVD) so my wife can watch it later, say if she wants to make Alton’s famous chewy chocolate chip cookies. I did do some Googling and found an app that “frees” the raw MPEG-2 video from its DRM shell, but (a) I hate feeling like I’m doing something shady with a process that I feel is within my rights as a consumer to legally do and (b) I have yet to successfully convert the “freed” video into a format I can work with and edit. So it looks like I’m either going to have to pony up to buy TiVo Desktop Plus to convert my files to other formats (but still not edit them) or buy an upgraded version of my editor app that can actually read and edit MPEG-2 files. This makes for one annoyed customer.

Well, that’s probably enough blogging for today. I have no idea if you guys actually enjoy these little mini-review posts. With comments currently disabled, I’ve been feeling like I’m blogging into a black hole with no feedback lately. But I’ve at least found them somewhat interesting and thought you might like to hear from my experiences, especially if you’ve been considering similar purchases yourself. Of course, if you just come here for the obscenely cute baby pictures/stories, I apologize. I’ll have to start posting some more of those soon to counterbalance the geekiness.

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