Product Review: Page (1) of 2 - 09/12/06

TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder

Long-awaited HD PVR with two CableCards now available

By Charlie White

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TiVo has released its long-awaited Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder ($799.99, available now), a dual-CableCard-compatible high definition PVR (personal video recorder) that's been in the making for over three years. The company sent a prerelease model to Consumer Electronics Net's Midwest Test Facility, and we've been putting it through extensive tests, carefully evaluating its performance and closely inspecting its 720p and 1080i high-definition capabilities.

Upon first inspection, it's obvious that this TiVo Series3 HD is a high-quality unit, with its impressive piano black finish on the top and sides, accompanied by a matching shiny black remote. The out-of-box experience with this unit is akin to opening up a fine box of candy, where you uncover layer after layer of delights. I immediately noticed that the company had spent significant time and effort on the packaging alone. The kit is remarkably complete, too, and except for an audio optical cable, all the cables you'll need to connect this unit to just about any type of multimedia device are included.

Taking a look at the back of the unit, theres the telephone jack that's been a fixture on TiVos since the beginning, and then there's an optical digital audio port sitting above an S-Video port. Unfortunately there's no coaxial audio input, which offers the same quality of digital audio output, but only needs cheaper RCA plug-tipped video cables. There are also component outputs and a pair of audio and video outputs. There's an Ethernet port as well as two USB ports, an HDMI output and then, the stars of this show, two CableCard slots that will allow you to record two HD cable programs at the same time while watching a third recording. Finally, there is an E-SATA output to which you can attach external storage, giving you more than the stated 35-hour HD recording capability of the unit's internal hard drive.

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The first order of business was to have a technician from Time Warner Cable (who the company gladly sent to our facility, unlike previous reports of Time Warner's reluctance to support cable cards on TiVos) insert and activate two CableCards (the unit can actually work with just one CableCard). It's a simple process, where after plugging in and starting the unit, the installer first inserted the bottom CableCard, wrote down the associated serial number, called the home office which authorized the card, and it began working immediately. After a quick repeat of that process for the second card, the CableCard installation was done. It was a distinct advantage to have Adam Jahnke, an expert Time Warner cable technician, on the premises, though, because he was able to measure and adjust the incoming video signal levels to a remarkable level of precision. Kudos to Time Warner for sending such a competent installer to ensure that the CableCard activation went smoothly. The experience simply couldn't have been better. 

Another advantage of this unit is its ability to also tune in the over-the-air signals as well. In all, this TiVo unit has four tuners, so that you can mix and match cable and broadcast media. Whichever acquisition format you're using, you're able to record two programs at the same time while watching a third.

Next I plugged in the wireless-G USB transceiver supplied to us by TiVo, before I knew it the unit was conversing fluently with our network. The ensuing software setup of the TiVo was nearly effortless. The TiVo quickly contacted the mother ship at TiVo and immediately began downloading scheduling information, which lies at the heart of the TiVo service. In just a few minutes, I was quickly and easily navigating around the TiVo interface, a gorgeously user-friendly experience that I've sorely missed since being stuck in the special kind of hell that is the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD PVR supplied by Time Warner Cable. Welcome back, TiVo.

I immediately noticed how quiet the TiVo is, and I certainly couldn't hear its cooling fans running from a few feet away, and only a faint hum can be heard even when you're standing very close to it. I plugged its HDMI output into one of our 720p LCD monitors here at the Midwest Test Facility theater, and after adjusting the video output settings for 720p, I immediately was impressed with the superb video quality of the TiVo Series3. It was absolutely clean and glitch free, with not a single dropped frame and scarcely any visible compression artifacts. I plugged the optical digital audio output into our Dolby Digital-compatible receiver, and it immediately sprang to life, delivering crystal-clear audio that was certainly exactly what had been delivered by the program content providers. TiVo says this is the world's first and only THX-certified DVR, and judging from my evaluations of extensive amounts of its playback, I can attest that it indeed is of THX quality.

Another big plus is that the TiVo's famed interface doesn't suffer at all from being delivered in high definition. Its response is still sprightly, and moves from screen to screen quickly. Beyond its basic responsiveness, the user interface is by far the best in the PVR industry. With its Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down features, Season Pass, excellent program guide, suggestions and search features, it is as near-perfect as any television-based interface that must be controlled with a remote could possibly be. The only slight flaw I noticed was that in 16:9 format some of the screens appear stretched, apparently created for standard definition 4:3 use. That's a small nit to pick, though, because the only result is that some of the circular icons appear slightly elongated. 

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Related Keywords:TiVo Series3 HD Digital Media Recorder, dual-CableCard, high definition PVR, personal video recorder, 720p, 1080i, high-definition

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