Tivo in Canada

I had originally planned to post about TiVo and other PVR options but this post is pretty long in just talking about my TiVo experiences so I’ll split the topic into a couple of posts. Stay tuned for future posts about using a PC based PVR solution as well as using an Xbox (the first one) to view these recordings.
Tivo logo
A number of years ago, I visited a friend in San Jose that showed me a wonderful device.

We had just gotten back to his place after a day out and were about to have some dinner. At the same time, there was a hockey game on that we both wanted to watch (he is originally from Vancouver and was still a big Canucks fan). With our stomachs rumbling, we needed to make dinner asap but the game was about to begin and we couldn’t do both due to the arrangement of his kitchen/living room.

What he did next blew my mind – he paused live tv so we could make dinner! He did this with his TiVo unit. Just a simple black box with no buttons on it that sat on top of his TV. It had a happy little tv mascot icon with rabbit ears. How cool was that?

Unfortunately, TiVo was only available to US residents at the time and at that time there wasn’t any way to make it work back home in Canada.

Fast forward to another visit to my friend about a year later and he had upgraded to a newer TiVo box (a dual tuner DirecTV model) and was going to get rid of his original TiVo that I had been amazed by previously. After doing some online research, it appeared that I could at least use it to pause live tv back in Canada without subscribing the unit (still unavailable in Canada). So I dragged it onto my flight home as my carryon. I was surprised nobody seemed to care that I was carrying a large black box onto a plane.

So I get the TiVo (a Series One model with a 30 hour recording capacity) home and set it up. It worked! For like a day…it then rebooted and was stuck at the boot screen. Online research seemed to confirm the TiVo’s hard drive had died or was somehow corrupted.

Bummed, I had to unplug the TiVo and it sat on a shelf for months.

Then, as it tends to, the internets yielded the answer to my problem in the form of some instructions on how to replace the hard drive and get things back up and running again. I was also able to track down a disc image of a working TiVo install. I happened to have an extra hard drive laying around and once I put all the necessary ingredients together, ended up with a fully working Series One TiVo with 190 hours of recording time! The site that I got my info from no longer exists otherwise I’d link to it but I’m sure it’s mirrored in a million other google-cached places. If you are trying to do the same thing, be prepared to do a lot of reading and learn as much as you can about the model you have as each one has it’s own set of intricacies.

My ‘new’ TiVo still wasn’t subscribed but it worked great as a tapeless VCR in that you could do manual recordings (ie. record channel X at time Y for 1 hour). My wife uses this to record a couple of shows that air daily (a talk show and a soap opera) so it’s pretty easy for her to see the date/time/channel.
Tivo UI
The main reason why TiVo is great is it’s user interface. It has an incredibly clean and simple interface for recording and playing back your favorite shows. One button clicks on the unique remote makes for very simple operation.

This whole experience is even better if you are a subscriber because you get all the guide data on screen and it’s very easy to set up things called “Season Passes” that basically allow you to record every episode of your favorite show with one button click. The service also learns what kinds of shows you like, using a simple set of buttons on the remote to indicate your rating of a particular show. The green thumbs up or the red thumbs down. Again, simple one click feedback on a show that is remembered. Based on this feedback, it can record other shows based on your preferences that it think you might like.

I just wish they had a his and hers option so that TiVo doesn’t think I like something my wife does and vice versa.

So we used this unsubscribed TiVo for awhile and loved it.

Then in 2005, it was announced that the TiVo service would soon be available in Canada. There was even rumors of the local electronics retailers having units for sale. Sadly this turned out to be false. But as luck would have it, I was in Seattle for a conference and there was a sale on the TiVo boxes (a 40 hour Series Two model) so I picked one up for $99 at CompUSA. I took it home and set it up and as before, live tv paused and it couldn’t do much else.

A few months passed and the TiVo service was finally available in Canada (well to Canadians at least). I signed up as soon as it was possible to. Ironically, a few of the people that I met (or crossed paths with) at Northern Voice had also discovered this at the same time and blogged about it. It really can be a small world sometimes.

The process of getting an account for the TiVo service seemed really strange, bizarre even. You had to put in a fake address instead of your real one in order for the account info to work which seems really weird. I didn’t care as I was just happy it was available to me. Rob has a detailed list of the steps which are also now documented on TiVo’s support area.

About a year ago, I added another TiVo to the mix as i stumbled across a local Ebay auction for an unused Series Two TiVo that was priced right. The person selling it didn’t know you could use it in Canada so it had sat unopened in a garage for awhile after they won it in some contest.

The current setup we have is two TiVo’s in the bedroom – the 190 hour Series One (not subbed) and the Ebay purchased Series Two (subbed). The other Series Two is in the living room and is also subbed (you get a discount for having multiple TiVo subscriptions). What’s cool about this is that you can record something on the living room TiVo (which in our case also has access to digital cable channels) and then stream it to the bedroom (non-digital) TiVo or vice versa. This has come in handy many times.

While the TiVo UI is fantastic and has to be used to truly understand why it’s great (there is a nice flash demo on Tivo.com), there are some shortcomings with the TiVo or at least the service in Canada.

The main one for me is the transfer speed between TiVo’s or to your desktop PC or Mac. Despite my TiVo’s being on my LAN via a fullspeed wired connection, it still takes ages to move a file around. The files the TiVo records are quite large depending on the quality setting you used to record it but it should still transfer faster than it does. I’m not sure of the exact reason why it’s slow but it is definately slower than simply transfering a large video file between computers on the same network.

Another issue with the service is the sketchy Canadian content support. In the US there are a number of interesting features and services that seem to stop at the border and aren’t available on my TiVo. Amazon.com has it’s Unbox service where you can download or rent movies and they magically appear on your TiVo. I had a free credit to try it out with my US Amazon account and it all seemed to work on the Amazon site but nothing ever showed up on my TiVo. Also some of the podcasting content doesn’t work on my TiVo unless it was setup prior to subscribing.

These are relatively minor issues though so it’s not a big deal as I have a bunch of other ways to deal with that kind of content (which I’ll get into in a future post)…and certainly not the primary reason for getting a TiVo.


  1. David says:

    We had a TiVo back in the US, and after moving here, got one as a gift from my brother. It all worked surprisingly well, but you’re right, that file transfer time is ridiculous. I started to try and schedule the transfers by setting them to go at night. No such luck: typically, it would ‘time out’ at night and not ever make it over. BTW, when you do move a file over, it’s worth drag-and-dropping it on the TiVo decoder, which will remove the nasty DRM and allow you to either play it on something else besides the app that comes with Toast (VLC, mainly), or – better still, convert it to another format with VisualHub or some other app for doing video conversions. Many manual steps, but I suspect an Automator script could take care of it, making it possible for everything on your TiVo to show up on say, the iTunes on your laptop.

    I also know what you mean about the sketchy Canadian content support as well. No Unbox service, and now I understand there’s some ‘swivel’ search feature that they sent me a message about. I tried it out and it looks like another ‘not in Canada’ feature. At least the Yahoo weather works (but forget about Vancouver traffic; you might as well be on Mars).

    I wish that TiVo would get their act together and truly support Canada. This means selling the box to the north of the US, and bringing parity to the content. But I suspect that they aren’t going to any time soon. Thank goodness that what we do get (Jeopardy and John Stewart when I want to see them rather than planning around them) is a great thing in and of itself.

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