It’s been over a month since my MythTV DVR committed suicide and I replaced it with a Tivo from my cable company. I think I’ve explored the features enough to be able to deliver a decent comparison of the two. Overall, I think I’d be very satisfied with a Tivo if I’d never used MythTV. Let me go into some more detail.
The MythTV operating system allowed me to set multiple recording profiles, specifying compression levels and video resolution. It also allowed me to create playback profiles, setting specific playback speed levels and jump sizes. For instance, I set news shows to play back at 10% faster than other shows, and cartoons recorded with lower resolution and higher compression than other shows. Shows I really liked got recorded at the highest possible resolution and the least compression.
There is also a post-recording processing system in MythTV, where shows can be further compressed beyond the ability of a realtime codec. Different profiles allow higher or lower compression rates there, as well.
My Tivo exposes none of those options. Although a vanilla Tivo supposedly gives options for different quality levels, the Suddenlink-skinned version doesn’t give me any such ability.
MythTV automatically found commercials in shows, based on very sophisticated algorithms that found blank spaces and logos and other indicators of advertisements. It worked pretty well, except for commercial breaks at the end of shows for some reason. Further, if you confirmed those commercial breaks before telling the machine to process the post-recording options, the ads would disappear entirely from the recordings. If the commercial-tagging process hasn’t run yet, you can still jump forward and back through the recordings (the default is 30 seconds forward and 10 back). This is a non-visual jump, so you don’t see the intervening ads, as opposed to Tivo’s visual fast-forward jumps.
The overall effect of this was that, for the past 6 years, I’ve rarely seen commercials at all.
Tivo gives me a single option for ad-skipping – the jump buttons. I jump forward 30 seconds and back 7 (these are configurable at least). That’s it. The ads are still visible while jumping, and you can’t remove them at all.
In MythTV, I could fine-tune recording schedules to a ridiculous degree. Specific shows could be set to “find once” or “any time on this channel” or “any time on any channel” or “once a week” or “in this timeslot” etc. I could also set how many minutes before and after a show to record, just in case the timing is off. I could set the DVR to save a specific number of episodes, and either auto-delete the older episodes to keep the most recent one available or stop recording once the set number of episodes were recorded. I could set priorities on a numerical scale per recording. These priorities worked with other priorities based on channel (Cartoon Network is lower priority than NBC, for example) and priorities based on recording types (“every time” is lower priority than “just this once” etc.). And, although all those options were available, they were all optional and didn’t get in the way of just setting up a recording.
Tivo has two major options: “season pass” or “just this once.” Within that, you can set how many episodes to keep and whether to keep “until I delete” or “until space is needed” but those terms don’t mean what they seem to mean. Although my Tivo has plenty of space available, shows get deleted all the time. What Tivo means by “space is needed” is actually “keep the most recent episodes.” This continual misuse of normal English terms will be addressed again.
In MythTV, my playback library was immense and organized. I had created categories of “Science” and “News” and “Alex” etc. Each show was either assigned to one of those or just “Default,” as well as the automatic categories found by metadata in the schedule (“comedy” or “drama” etc.). Then things can be sorted by date or chronologically within each of those categories, or you can look at all shows in the main “All Recordings” group.
Tivo has two options: “individual shows” or “individual shows in groups”. They can be sorted alphabetically or chronologically. That’s it, and the “groups” that Tivo has are non-configurable. They are not, in any normal sense of the word, groups at all. They are shows. So, Tivo keeps all my recordings in a giant list that cannot be set up hierarchically any further than “show” or “everything” levels. This is not going to be helpful when I end up with four hundred shows recorded.
My MythTV box had hundreds of recordings on it, and it also had dozens or hundreds of ripped DVDs or downloaded recordings besides. I could grab a video on the interweb and copy it over the network to the MythTV box without a problem, and frequently did. Also, I could copy recordings from the DVR back to my Windows machine, edit them and save them to other formats. The recording format for my MythTV machine was plain MPEG-2, and the compressed videos were a documented codec which I had a Windows viewer and converter for.
Tivo supposedly has similar abilities, but they don’t seem to actually work very well. While I can copy shows to my Windows box, they come with copy protection so I can’t do anything with them unless I convert them. The conversion software costs extra, and I went ahead and sprang for it. Unfortunately, it gives very few options and assumes the only reason I’d want to be able to play a Tivo video is on a tiny-screened portable device. There seems to be no way to get a decent-quality non-encrypted video from this thing. As for moving videos to the Tivo, that’s been a complete disaster. The same (affordable, to be fair) upgrade that allows videos to be stripped of their copy protection also is supposed to allow videos on my Windows machine to show up on the Tivo. This has never worked. I turned on the Network Applications option, which warned me that it was probably a bad idea to do so. Then, I saw my computer in the list. Even the files that the Windows Tivo Desktop explicitly said were compatible failed to show up in that list. Besides which, when the Network Applications option was enabled, the Tivo locked up repeatedly, even when I wasn’t trying to browse the Windows machine at all.
For some reason, Tivo is set to make noise with every single button push. Thankfully, you can turn that off, but why it is even there is a mystery. That iconic “bloop” for jumping forward? You can make it stop.
Tivo doesn’t seem to like using words to mean obvious things. Where MythTV would have “Scheduled Recordings” in Tivo I have to go to “To Do List.” It’s not a to do list, folks – that’s just a schedule. I’m not doing anything, the DVR is. Calling it a To Do List makes it sound like these are things that require my attention. “My Shows” is what Tivo calls “Available Recordings” but that’s not too egregious. The “Find Shows” area is particularly annoying to me, however. Sure, it has the various search options so that’s good, but that’s also where the “To Do List” is hiding. It seems to me that should be in the main menu, not hiding in a submenu. There’s plenty of room in the main menu, even with the advertisement for some show I’ve never heard of lurking at the bottom (currently, it wants me to preview “Wicked Tuna”). So, to find what is coming up later today, I have to go to “Find Shows” and then “To Do List” – neither of these would be instinctive to me. Maybe “Schedule” and then “Upcoming” would be reasonable, if they feel the need to stash one of the most common functions of a DVR in a submenu.
One thing in Tivo’s favor is stability. Although some commands are followed by a suspiciously long display of the “please wait” icon, the machine has only locked up three times. Since I turned off the network applications, it hasn’t locked at all. My MythTV box would lock up about once every few weeks, sometimes more. And, individual tuners would spaz out about as often, which could only be fixed easily by rebooting the machine.
The Tivo gives me four tuners and it can handle HD streams (my MythTV box was SD-only, and HD is apparently quite problematic to this day on MythTV – studios encrypt as much as they legally can and don’t give the keys to dirty Linux hippies) and those music channels. The MythTV box only had two tuners (although I could easily have put more in, two seemed enough at the time) and was analog-only. For these reasons, I’m not likely to dip my toe back in the DIY DVR scene. The advent of HD programming has caused the broadcast flag to become a de facto reality, even if it’s not a de jure one. Trying to use something not blessed by the studios is just too much effort for me. Keep fighting the good fight, MythTV users – I’ll miss you.