Before I get into the good stuff that backs up my opinion, let me give you some background. I’ve used Windows my entire life and although I preferred DOS to Windows 3.1, I’ve always been comfortable with Windows. When I really started getting into computers around 2000, I started to explore Linux and in the process of using Linux on my laptop (Gentoo) for years, I started to despise many things about the way Microsoft conducted its business and because of the fact that the UI didn’t seem to keep up with the times — ie, Vista has almost the same task bar as Windows 95. The irony of course is that I earn my living as an MCSE, so while I still don’t prefer Windows on my computers, I recognize that there are a few problems, like corporate email, that Microsoft simply has the best solution for. As for TiVo, my first DVR was a ReplayTV, but after I discovered HDTV 2003, I was quick to pick up a DirecTiVo HD for the low low price of $1000. So having been anti-Microsoft for a few years and a TiVo fanboy for almost five, enjoying a MS product so much more than TiVo, feels very backward to me.
Believe it or not, TiVo cost me much more than my Vista Media Center PC with CableCARD. Of course this isn’t apples to apples, and I owned the more expensive version of the HD TiVo, but looking back I had $2302 invested for a two room system with 750GB of storage over 2 years. While at the same time VMC cost me $1900 — but that includes a Blu-ray drive and software. Of course if you were willing to settle for the two TiVo HDs, then you could get a two room setup for $1100. The big difference between the two in price is the service, TiVo gets $300, per box, for three years, Microsoft doesn’t charge for guide data at all, no matter how many TVs you have.
The multiroom capabilities of Vista Media Center are easily the biggest upgrade for me over TiVo. The up front cost to add a room is $250 for both, but again TiVo will cost you an additional $300 every three years. But price isn’t everything and the reason why VMC still out paces TiVo is because TiVo can’t stream shows between units and it can’t combine the tuners from all the TiVos in the house to automatically resolve recording conflicts. Of course with the TiVo you get another two tuners for every one you add, but I don’t think most people need as many tuners as they need ways to watch enjoy content, so the added $7 a month, plus CableCARD rental fees, just aren’t worth it.
Pictures and Music
Over the past few years I’ve had about four devices that would allow me to look at my photos and listen to my music collection on my HDTV, and while they’ve all been pretty good at music, pictures seem to be tricky. The TiVo isn’t bad at pictures, but it isn’t great — the worst part is the super small thumbnails and the TiVo Desktop that must run on your computer and who’s OS X version won’t serve up HD pictures. The VMC picture and music experience isn’t perfect, but it’s the best I’ve tried. All I had to do was copy my iPhoto Originals and iTunes Library folders over to corresponding folders on the VMC, and I was enjoying my content. The biggest bummer is that a lot of metadata doesn’t make it over, but if you really want a truely seamless experience, you can pick up MCE Tunes. But even without it, I find myself listening to music and browsing through my pictures more than ever and that includes with my Apple TV — but I will say that the music experience on the ATV is better, but without the rest of the cool stuff on one box it isn’t worth switching inputs.
If I wanted to list all the things that VMC could do with add-ons and registry hacks that TiVo can’t — like play Blu-ray movies — I’d never have time to do anything else. Seriously, the sky is the limit and as hard as it might be for some to believe, Microsoft’s open architecture and development kit, really makes it easy for anyone to make VMC do whatever you want. Of course when you consider the amount of time it takes to set everything up — assuming you don’t buy a Nieveus or the like — all the bonus features you forfiet on the TiVo, you can almost be made up for with ease of setup.
For me at least, the main purpose of switching was to have a better DVR expereince, and while there are some die hard TiVo fans who will refuse to believe this, Vista Media Center offers the best DVR exerience availble today. But I don’t mean to say it is perfect, in fact there are few things that Microsoft can learn from TiVo, but there are more things TiVo can learn.
- The list of recorded shows is so much more enjoyable than TiVo, sure thumbnails aren’t super useful, but the vertical view is nice, and the grid of show thumbnails is just so cool. Combine this with the smooth transitions and you have a UI that makes you really notice how old and unresponsive the TiVo UI is.
- I really love the fact that you can watch a recorded program or live TV while you work in the menus or the guide, but for those times when you don’t want to watch anything, the stop button comes in handy. As if having the ability to watch TV while taking care of a few DVR housekeeping tasks isn’t cool enough, the fact that the UI is transparent in many cases, is just so cool it’s hard to explain.
- The scrub bar includes the time, so you can hit one button to see how much longer the show is and the current time.
- I really have to say, mini guide rocks. Why TiVo doesn’t have a mini guide, I’ll never understand, I guess it’s for the same reason as TiVo doesn’t show you what is set to record (or not) in the guide.
- The conflict resolution is really cool, it’s hard to explain exactly why it’s better than TiVo, but I just find it’s much easier to choose which shows I want to record — also, there are not many conflicts when you have four tuners.
- Default recording preferences, seriously, how can TiVo not have this? How did I get by configuring that I wanted to keep all recordings until I delete, on every single season pass for the past 5 years of my life? Being able to set defaults, combined with one touch recording (seriously, one press) makes the task of scheduling recordings so drop dead simple that maybe I won’t have to setup all my wife’s shows for her anymore — yeah I know, I’m dreaming.
- It’s nice to be able to preview each channel when you’re editing which channels will be in the guide, but you should be able to turn it off, ’cause it it can really slow it down. You should be able to direct dial a channel, finding channel 852 to remove, can be a lot of page downs.
- Movie info is really cool, too bad it isn’t easier to use with non-VOB movies.
- If watching a program live that will eventually be interrupted by a recording, there is an ! mark and a note, to let you know — nice touch.
- Repeats are very clearly marked in the guide, no need to dig through and find the original air date like TiVo.
- Ability to customize just about anything, like how long the scrub bar stays up for example.
- Clear should delete the selected item anywhere in the UI, like in the “series” menu.
- There should be a deleted items instead of confirming to delete all the time.
- When you cancel a series in the “series” menu, it should return you to the closest series of the one you just deleted instead of taking you to the top again. It is annoying to delete series number 25, only to be returned back to number 1.
- There should be a preference that allows you to disable the fact that when navigating menus and you hit the bottom of a list, your selection becomes the current playing window — but you do get used to this.
- “Wish Lists” are called a custom “Keyword” recording and are very similar to TiVo, but not quite as powerful. Haven’t figured out how to only keyword search one channel and HD needs to be a category.
- Don’t seem to be able to change the size of the current playing window? Seems small on my TV.
- Should be able to create your own guide “categories” so my wife and I could have our favorite channels listed.
- I miss skip to tick on my TiVo, but the super fast forward is an okay replacement.
- If you exit VMC completely before stopping the playback of a recording, it doesn’t remember where you left off on the recording that is playing.
- VMC takes longer to launch Live TV from the main menu, this is something TiVo does almost instantly. VMC also takes longer to start playing back a recording, luckily almost all of the UI elements are more responsive than TiVo. MS should consider adding a DVR mode that would record all the tuners all the time and prioritize Live TV etc, to speed this up and to keep a buffer of all the channels.
- Can’t edit much about a single recording in a series, only ‘keep until.’
- Should be able to list Series recordings by date, instead of just either by series or date.
- No resolution pass through, so all video is converted to say 1920x1080p60.
- Grid guide should be able to take up the entire screen.
- Info should just show info instead of a menu, but it doesn’t take long to get used to hitting an arrow button instead to access the awesome mini guide.
- Can’t go back and view what you missed in the guide.
No list view guide. Chris told me how to access the list guide.
- Should be able to control the buffer when switching tuners, unlike TiVo you sometimes — not sure why it’s not always — lose it on one tuner.
- Thumbnails should be 16×9 instead of letter boxed.
As fantastic as my Vista Media Center experience has been, it isn’t prefect. Other than the defective ATI tuner I received (which was replace 3 days later by Dell) I think that the setup will be overwhelming for most. Even if you don’t connect the VMC directly to your HDTV, there is still a considerable amount of setup that I wonder if less experienced computers users would be able to accomplish. That being said, if you’ve ever built your own computer, then you won’t have any problems — or if you aren’t scared to call support — for me this isn’t a problem, as I find this tinkering very enjoyable. In fact one of my biggest problems is that I can’t stop tinkering, which has led me to break my setup in a few cases. Now that I have everything setup, I plan to leave things be, create an image and enjoy.
To anyone out there dealing with a cable DVR, or find that you wish you could do more on your HDTV than TiVo allows, I wouldn’t hesitate to upgrade to Vista Media Center. The Media Center product has come a long way over the past few years, but I can honestly say it is ready for prime time and am confident it will only get better.
List of series recordings, no jokes about my wife’s favorite shows and yes they are higher priority than mine.
Scrub bar with total length, current position and time.
Shows I have recorded in the small view. The missing thumbnails are shows I transfered from my Series3. The samll window in the bottom is currently playing and in this case is playing a recording.
This mini guide can be viewed during Live TV or when watching a recorded program, and can be navigated by using the arrow keys.
Here I’m accessing the main menu while watching a recorded program.
Viewing the transparent guide while watching a previously recorded program — no it doesn’t force you to Live TV like TiVo. It is very easy to see my series recordings with the multiple red circles, if there were conflicts, there’d be an ! mark on the show.
This is the option DVD Library feature that shows my ripped DVDs and recorded movies. You can also see the show continuing to play in the small windows on the bottom left.