Survey: Do you want a TiVo? You have to be a "Member" to vote. Don't worry, it's free of course, you just sign up over to the left under where it says "Membership". Now that I've owned it for a week, it's time to write up my thoughts about my new TiVo. If you don't know, go here to learn what a TiVo is.

It's basically a stripped down computer, or a VCR on steroids, take your pick. It's a hard drive, modem, computer chip, TV-Tuner, and an MPEG processor, all in a nifty box running a stripped down version of Linux. All of that is completely transparent to the end user, however. My grandparents could use this thing, it's easier to use than your VCR, and it sets the time all by itself.

I bought the 14-hour model of the TiVo last week from my local Wal-Mart, it cost $250, but there was a $100 rebate available from TiVo's web site. I've already sent it in, I'll be sure to post here when and if I get the check. The 14 hour model is becoming harder to find, as it has been discontinued, but you can still find them in many stores. Amazon.com has the 30 hour model and the 60 hour model, both with free shipping right now. I bought the entry-level model, and I already want more space! I know you're thinking "How could I ever watch more than 14 hours of TV?" But first I'll have to explain some more about how TiVo works.

TiVo works like a convential VCR, in that you tell it what you want to record and it does so. But, it's a lot smarter than even your VCR-Plus ever was. Every day, it uses the built-in modem to download program listings for the next two weeks. You can either browse, or use a search function to find the programs you want to record.

The easiest method is to just enter the name with your remote control. That sounds tedious, but it's not, as the TiVo searches as you enter the name. For instance, I wanted to record Michael Moore's show, The Awful Truth, so I started entering the name of the program. When I hit A, it started listing all the programs that began with A, when I hit W, it brought The Awful Truth to the top of the list. You can usually find what you're looking for after entering only a couple of letters.

You can also instruct the TiVo to always record a show, this is called the "Season Pass". Two nights ago, I told my TiVo that I wanted a Season Pass for The Twilight Zone. The TiVo now records it every time it plays on the Sci-Fi Network, even if the show is rescheduled for another time of day. This feature has some caveats in its current form, namely in that it doesn't discriminate between first-run and re-run, or syndication episodes of the same program. For example, take The Simpsons. Our local Fox affiliate shows two episodes of The Simpsons between 5 and 6 every weeknight. The "new" episode of The Simpsons runs every Sunday night. If you simply hit "Season Pass", you get all of these episodes, not just the new ones. This feature will be revised in the next revision of the TiVo software, which is currently in beta testing, and will be downloaded to my TiVo at some point, as all of the software updates take place automatically.

The other problem which I've encountered is that many networks don't stick to their schedules very well, especially in football season. You may wind up with incomplete programs at times, just as you would with a VCR, but the TiVo at least knows about any programming changes that were made 24 hours ahead of time.

TiVo has literally changed the way I watch TV forever. When you have a TiVo, there is no incentive to watch TV live. If it's recorded, you can simply fast-forward through all of the commercials, saving yourself a lot of time. The fast-forward function rewinds a bit when you hit play, so if you're scanning through the commercials, you see your program, hit play, and it backs up a bit before it starts playing, so you don't miss the start of your program. This is such a useful feature, especially if you're weren't God of the Nintendo, and your reflexes are a bit lagging. I can't believe I haven't seen this feature on a VCR before, it just makes so much sense...

The fast forward speeds are 3X, 20X, and 60X. They're just about right where you want them. At 60X, you can zip around through a recorded program pretty fast, great for when you've already seen part of a program, or 60 Minutes chooses to re-run one of their stories, but the rest of the show is new...

If you are watching live TV, one of the newest features allows broadcasters to embed a signal in their commercials for TV programs which will alert your TiVo. Last night, during the preview for next week's episode of ER, a little signal popped up in the corner of my screen, telling me that I could simply push the select button now if I wanted to record that program. It basically enables impulse recording, you see a preview of something you want to watch, push one button, and you've got it!

So how do you find these programs you've recorded? In the "Now Showing" section of the menu, it lists all of the things that the TiVo has in storage. You can find not only the things you told TiVo to record, but also things that it thinks you may like, based on how you rated other things you've watched. There's a "Thumbs-up" system, that lets you rate shows from 1-3 Thumbs up or down, and it uses those preferences to guess at other things it thinks you might like. I watch Law & Order and ER, and the TiVo now sometimes grabs re-runs of those off of other cable channels. It's getting smarter, the first couple days I had it, it recorded Old Yeller and Beverly Hills, 90210. Definitely not my style...

One problem with the TiVo is that you can't easily watch one channel live while recording another. This isn't a big deal if you know your way around your entertainment system, there are several ways to work around this, using selector boxes, splitters, or different inputs on your TV.

But, as I said above, why would you want to watch live TV? What the TiVo can do, and your VCR can't, is record something from live TV while you watch something already stored on the TiVo. For instance, I watched Wednesday night's episode of Law & Order last night (Thursday), between 7:45 and 8:30 (I fast forwarded through commercials). ER started at 8:00, but the TiVo was set to record it. So, I finished Law & Order, deleted it, then started watching ER, even though the show wasn't over yet. I started at the beginning, fast forwarded through all the commercials, and was almost caught up to live TV by the end of the broadcast, but at 10:00, my TiVo switched to Comedy Central and started grabbing the Daily Show. I finished watching ER, then switched to the Daily Show, watched that, fast forwarding through commercials, until it was over, then went to bed. My TiVo still sat there, happily recording The Twilight Zone, which I'll probably watch when I get home tonight.

Confused yet? It's an extremely simple interface, and you don't have to be a genius to figure it out, just tell it the shows you want, and watch them whenever you want to.

But what about things you want to watch live? You don't want to watch the SuperBowl on tape! The TiVo works great here as well. It automatically records the last half hour you've been watching on whatever channel you're on. Don't go channel surfing, or you've lost it, however. In the middle of a football game when the pizza guy comes? Hit the pause button, pay the dude, and then hit play on your remote, you can catch back up to "live" during a commercial. Your bladder will thank you too. It's also great if you want to do your own instant replays, or you didn't quite catch what the announcer said, or missed a stat.

Now, what are the cons of owning a TiVo? Well, the price, for one, at $250-$300, they're a little steep, but assuming I get my rebate, the cost will be only $150 for mine. You also have to pay $10 per month for the programming information, or you can opt to pay $199 for a "lifetime" subscription, but note that this is for the lifetime of your unit, not of you! The advertised capacity of a TiVo is a bit misleading, since that is at the lowest quality setting (there are four). I generally record everything at second lowest quality setting, which is fine for almost everything, and gives my 14-hour TiVo an actual 10 hours of space. But wait! I can upgrade it! Any enterprising computer geek can easily add a second IDE hard drive and greatly expand their TiVo. The TiVo Hacking FAQ tells you how. When I get around to it, I'm going to drop another hundred bucks and put in a 30GB hard drive, which will expand my TiVo to 52 hours of capacity! This will also void my warranty, so I may wait a while on this one, but you can get all the requisite parts at this site. You just need a torx screwdriver kit, an IDE hard drive greater than 20GB in size, and some cable ties and rubber feet, or the nice mounting kit they sell.

My only other annoyance, is that since it uses a phone line, I had to stretch one across my apartment to my entertainment center. Other people have had good luck with the wireless phone jacks that you can buy at your local Radio Shack, however.

The TiVo does work with cable, antenna, and digital satellite dish systems, in fact there is even a version of it that is incorporated with the tuner device for the digital dish systems, and records the digital signals being broadcast, very cool! It also worked with my phone line, which I was a little nervous about, as I have to dial a 9 to reach an off-campus line at my university-owned apartment. It allows for all of that type of stuff, and the number it dials is a local one, or toll-free if no local one is available. There isn't a Waterloo/Cedar Falls number, so I'm using the toll-free one right now.

In conclusion, the TiVo is a great device! You'll have to pry mine from my cold, dead hands. It's opened up a lot more of TV to me, now I watch what I want to watch, not what happens to be on at the moment. I get to see shows like Politically Incorrect, which are on after my bedtime. I can watch Star Trek again! I get to watch more TV, in less time, and see more of what I want. I don't have to worry about missing a show, as I've programmed TiVo to grab everything that I generally watch. If you've even thought to yourself that a TiVo might be nice, don't fight the impulse any longer, buy one, you will not be disappointed.