Tivo on the Home Network
Thu Feb 17th 2005, 2:45pm
This project's been in the works for a while (it began with Home Wiring Project last May), but with the master bedroom finally networked, I'd been anxious to try out Tivo's abilities to share recordings between units, as well as play music off iTunes and view photos from iPhoto. This required retiring my trusty Series 1 downstairs and replacing it with a brand new Series 2. Too bad, it's served me so well for years. I considered Ebay'ing it, but they're only going for about 30 bucks, and I figured I owed it a more dignified end than to send it off to some chop shop to be sold for parts. Here you can see my old Sony Series 1, and sitting on top of it Tivo's latest Series 2 model.

Once again I went through the ol' rigamarole of slapping a larger drive into the new unit. Since I previously covered this in Supersize Your Tivo I'll skip the gory details, but this time I used a slightly different approach and managed to get some better pictures. Compare and contrast the insides of the two units, the Series 2 is much smaller and more streamlined.

This time I wanted to make a proper backup of the new unit's factory image over the network, so I thought I'd either load up Linux on my PC, or better yet, just use a bootable CD-only distro like Knoppix to do the job. But instead of Knoppix I found a neat distro called BeatrIX that seemed very nice, with an emphasis on being small and simple. Their mascot, Beatrix, is a sable Burmese cat that looks a lot like mine, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Sure enough, with BeatrIX I was able to copy files around my network over NFS, and when I was done the $130 ($70 Tivo + $50 120GB drive), 40 hour unit now had a 132 hour capacity.

Unfortunately the multi-room viewing feature didn't just work out of the box. I finally checked the Tivo site, and discovered you have to activate the multi-room viewing feature through your account on the Tivo web site. So I did this, and forced the units to phone home, at which time Tivo Central instructed them that it's okay to unlock this feature and share their programming. I guess this is a holdover from the days when they charged $100 for this feature. And sure enough, at this point, I could browse the programs on one Tivo from the other Tivo.

So how is it? I'll start with the bad: it's definitely a hacked, peer-to-peer solution. Transferring "Best" quality programs can barely keep up with the speed of live playback, meaning a one hour show will take 55-58 minutes to transfer. So basically this means you can't skip commercials, unless you let it transfer for 15-20 minutes before starting to watch it. Consensus on tivocommunity.com is that this is because Tivo stupidly doesn't have USB 2 software drivers for its USB 2 hardware, although now there are rumors that USB 1 might not be the real bottleneck. Secondly, once you're done watching a program, when you delete it, it doesn't delete it off the originating unit.

On the good side however, if you have the luxury of doing a bit of planning ahead of time, it's nice to watch shows that are upstairs on the downstairs unit if you're all relaxed on the couch. Or you can start transferring something, and then watch something prerecorded locally, and by the time you're done watching that, the transferred program will be ready. We've done this several times already. It's really great.

And the playback of music from iTunes and photo slideshows from iPhoto just works, as you would expect it to, so in a weird way it's almost unimpressive.

Summary: So was it all worth it? Definitely. Of course, instead of peer-to-peer the right thing would be a hub-and-spoke model, where a centralized computer had multiple tuners and stored all the content. Then thin nodes at each television would pull content over the network. And, of course, the do-it-yourselfers at the MythTV project are doing just this. But for now at least, the appeal for me with Tivo is its ease of use and bulletproof reliability. Oh, and the fact they're dirt cheap. So despite its limitations I still give Tivo's multi-room viewing a heartfelt thumbs up.