TiVo – The Unit and the Customer Service

I’ve been through several HD set-top boxes in my time already. The first one was a Toshiba. Being my first I didn’t know what to expect, and was a bit shocked by some of the problems and bugs. For example, the display clock lost about 20 minutes per day. The only way it managed to record programs at the correct time was by turning itself on every few hours and re-syncing its clock with whatever channel it was last tuned to – and some of those didn’t even remember to switch themselves to daylight savings. And then there were frequent bursts of pixelation and occasional “lost” segments of 1/2 of minute or so in the recordings. These didn’t happen on the live TV – only on the recordings. But being so new I put up with that and enjoyed it anyway.

My next was a Foxtel iQ unit. This was much better. The recordings were no different from live shows – perfect quality, reliably labelled, easily accessible via the menu system. The only drawbacks were that it wasn’t actually HD and couldn’t easily record anything from the TV channels with which they had no commercial agreement in place. Another small gripe ws that the unit remained on permanently, and was always very hot to the touch – not so great in this era of global warming and need to minimise power usage. But again, I really enjoyed using it. I only gave it up because I decided that Foxtel didn’t offer enough content of interest to warrant continuing the subscription.

The third was a Sony unit. This one was a bit of a dog, I’m sad to say. When you recorded a program, there was no title saved with it. So you ended up with a list of programs identified only by date, time and channel. Great if you have a photographic memory of the TV guide! And navigating its menu system was a mind-numbing process – being both slow and convoluted. But it did work most of the time. Eventually though it developed a bad fault. It kept freezing during bootup – at least once per day, and required a tricky 20 second button push to reset it each time. Either that or just pulling the plug, which was quicker but didn’t sit too comfortably with me. It was this ongoing problem that led to the fourth unit – the TiVo.

In many ways the TiVo unit is bliss. By connecting it to the home WiFi, it downloads two weeks worth of coming program listings. And the menu system (although still with its quirks) is, by comparison with some of the others, a pure delight to navigate through. It even records various programs speculatively based on your previous preferences, so if you don’t like anything thats on live, you can browse through a list of what it recorded for you, and you might just be pleasantly surprised to find something you like in there. If not, nothing lost. They just get recorded over whenever you need the space.

But – all silver linings have a cloud, and the cloud here was that it started to reboot spontaneously within the first week of acquisition. The first contact with tech support (submitted via online form on their website) was promising – they suggested it might be due to corrupted files, and gave instructions on how to perform a “severe error” scan, which could fix the problem. An extract from the (fairly lengthy) set of instructions was as follows:

Reboot and keep the TiVo remote pointed at the front of the DVR so you can be prepared to do the next step as soon as the DVR begins to restart.

As the DVR restarts, all four LED lights on the front bezel of the DVR will be on at the same time. As soon as all four go out,  immediately (within 2 seconds) press and hold down the yellow Pause button on the remote. (If you are unable to catch the timing, you may also hold the pause button down continuously during the restart until only the yellow light comes on.) When the yellow light comes on,  release the yellow Pause button and then press 57 on the remote control. (You will have approximately 10 seconds to do this.)

If the numbers have been keyed in successfully, the DVR will restart.

I must point out here that rebooting takes about 4 minutes. So I sat there for 4 minutes, watching like  hawk, waiting for 4 red LEDs to appear. But they never did. Not even 1 red LED. I tried several times. But still no red LED.

Well, this led to a few more exchanges with tech support, and eventually they sent a modified list of instructions:

As the DVR restarts, keep your attention fixed on the front panel of the Tivo. After approximately 5 minutes you should see the green light go out for a second and then come back on. Following this the yellow and red light will be displayed also. Hold the yellow pause button down for 2- 4 secs and then press the number “57”.

The box will appear to be restarting and then “powering up”

I’m afraid that one was a bit off the mark too… After about half an hour of experimentation I finally found out how to do it, and wrote back to them with my (rather different) findings:

1) About 1 minute after reboot (during transition from first screen to “almost there” screen, the green light very briefly goes off and on, and the yellow light comes on. If you press the Pause button while the yellow light is on, the red light will also come on, and you can then release the Pause and enter 57.

2) Following this, there is no sign at all whether or not it worked – it appears to continue booting as normal. But after 15 to 30 seconds it then starts rebooting.

Phew! After all that it worked. It is to TiVo’s credit that they said they would use my feedback to update their help system – but I pity anyone else who may have got the same set of initial instructions that I got from them…!

But – although the reboot and “severe error” scan completed successfully, another spontaneous reboot occurred – so back to TiVo support. This time the only solution was to exchange the unit for a new one. And this is where I started to become really impressed with TiVo support. Firstly they sent a brand new unit to me via courier – arriving the next day. Then they sent an empty package with a courier form, and in my own time I was able to place the old unit into it, call the courier company, who promptly collected it. All free of charge, all simple and straightforward. No need for me to revisit the shop, or take the unit to a repair centre etc.

TiVo – take a bow! Too bad about the glitch, and the inaccurate instructions initially – but they were responsive and kept at it, never blamed me for anything, and got the problem fixed. Now lets just hope this meme spreads a little. This kind of service deserves to be contagious.

Virtualizing My World on an iMac

Having recently acquired an iMac, I find myself torn between the familiar Vista machine I use as my development machine vs the slick, shiny, performance-enhanced 24″ iMac. And I am wondering if this is what schizophrenia actually feels like.

Its hard to let go of so many years of sometimes painful Windows-based experiences, and the feeling (no doubt totally illusory) that I have somehow “mastered” PCs, and am therefore  optimally productive when I use one. And on top of that is the fact that so many of my essential and favorite software development and productivity tools are available only on Windows. But I do need the Mac to build iPhone applications. Can you see my dilemma?

So the glaringly obvious solution here is to move fully onto the Mac, and run a virtual copy of Windows as and when needed for the Windows-only stuff. But will it fly? What are the pitfalls? Is it a pipe-dream? Well I guess its time to find out!

First I installed VMWare Fusion onto the Mac. Quick and painless. My next step was to install VMWare Converter onto the PC, and use it to attempt to virtualize the entire PC, including 80GB used disk space. This bit already seem rather ambitious to me. Firstly I wasn’t sure whether an 80GB virtual machine could run with reasonable performance at all. Secondly I was using a wireless 802.11g network which could be something of a bottleneck in moving the virtual disk image onto the Mac. The latter issue was easily overcome by using an Ethernet cable to link the PC and Mac directly (no hub) – although I could only get this to work after I switched off the wireless link on the Mac. But it did increase the throughput by a factor of 10 – so well worth the experiment.

I set up VMWare Converter to run on the PC, convert the physical machine into a Mac compatible VMWare virtual machine file and write it via the network connection directly into the Documents folder on the Mac. Well, off it went, and (after a couple of hiccups caused by me foolishly switching the wireless connection back on during the process, and having to switch it off again and restart) the full conversion and data transfer took about 2hrs for the full 80GB file to be placed onto the Mac.

The next step was to start up VMWare on the Mac, and see if it would run. I should point out here that I only had 2GB RAM installed on the Mac (to get a quicker delivery), with the intention of upgrading to 4GB later if and when I needed it. Now was obviously that time, but being the impatient and perhaps over-adventurous person that I am, I gave it a go after setting the VMWare allowance to 512MB for the Windows virtual machine.

I was gratified to see that it did (quite slowly) start up. However, there were some glitches. For example I was informed that there was no known driver for device “IDE01” – perhaps the fingerprint reader? But basically it worked. The only problem was memory usage. Despite having installed 4GB physical RAM, and allocating 2GB to the virtual machine, Activity Monitor showed that things were getting very tight with only minimal applications open.

So my next move was to install a new OEM version of Windows XP Professional as a virtual machine. This started up and ran just fine even with 500MB memory allocation. Ramping that up to 2GB should allow me to run all the apps I need at once.

So now all I have to do is install all the development tools and utilities I need and am used to. However I will only install what I really need on Windows, and start to use more and more on the Mac. That will all take a while though – so I will report back later on to see whether the dream is becoming a reality or not.