TiVo exposed

A short insight into the TiVo service, what it offers and its competitors

What is TiVo?

For the last decade, TiVo has been the de-facto standard for personal video recorders (PVRs) in the US. At its core, it records digital TV broadcasts and saves them for later viewing, just like any regular PVR. What made TiVo stand out from the crowd of other PVRs was its ability to suggest — and automatically record — shows that were similar to the ones that the user had already flagged. This functionality is set to be unleashed on the Australian market when the TiVo service and accompanying set-top box are released in early July.

In Australia, TiVo's only real competitor is Foxtel — which currently enjoys a subscriber base of over one and a half million customers. Both systems have integrated program guides, offering show names and information seven days in advance. These guides can be used to set markers for programs, so that they will automatically be recorded.

Another contender — albeit not as large as Foxtel — is IceTV, which offers a comprehensive, interactive television guide service for free-to-air television. Its service can be integrated with several popular PVRs, as well as being supported by applications like Windows Vista's Media Centre.

Details are still slightly sketchy on the technical make-up of the Australian TiVo unit, but it has a few confirmed features that set it apart from many regular set-top boxes.

The Season Pass system automatically records the entire season of a TV series you've marked as a favourite. Some standalone PVRs also have this feature.

WishList is TiVo's term for its guide searching capabilities. If you're a fan of Hitchcock, just punch that into the search engine to see whether The Birds is coming up soon. This system integrates well with the automatic recording system, so you'll be able to easily schedule all those shows about gardening with hard-to-remember names.

These kinds of features aren't exclusive to TiVo — both the Foxtel and IceTV offerings are more than just television recording guides.

TiVo vs Foxtel vs IceTV

All three companies offer some form of online scheduling, though in Foxtel's case you need to buy the premium iQ package to access it. With it, you'll be able to view a comprehensive television guide via your computer, and remotely schedule recordings — great if you're on the road and have forgotten about tonight's screening of Lost.

If you want to watch Pay TV as well as the free channels, Foxtel is the clear winner. It offers up to 88 channels on its regular service, and has a On-Demand Box Office movie-streaming service. Foxtel HD subscribers get even more, with an additional four channels all broadcast in a high definition standard. With the TiVo and IceTV offerings, you're limited to what free-to-air TV has to offer.

In terms of program guide functionality, the competition isn't as clear-cut. Foxtel's guides cover both its subscription-based channels and free-to-air channels, with the option of recording desired shows — as long as you've got the pricier iQ package. TiVo's implementation has the support of the commercial television networks, so you can be assured that the guide will be correctly populated with information at all times.

With IceTV, the situation becomes a little trickier. An IceTV subscription, when combined with any of its supported set-top boxes or media centres like the Beyonwiz DP-S1, means you can view a seven day guide and set program recording timers. As an independent company that isn't in the networks' good books at the moment, it may be more susceptible to errors in the guide from last-minute programming changes.

Interactive functionality is the wave of the future, and this is something that all three competitors are focusing on. Foxtel iQ allows users to change camera angles during sporting events and view a huge range of up-to-date world news. IceTV's online social networking means you can rate shows and find out what other users recommend. While the full details about TiVo in Australia yet to be released, expect connectivity to various photo-sharing, video-sharing and social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.

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