Amazon-Tivo ecosystem works for me

Stumbling around Amazon’s Unbox video store looking for a movie to rent last night, I happened across “21.” It’s the film about a group of MIT students who beat the Vegas casinos to the tune of millions of dollars by counting cards at Blackjack as a team. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of Amazon’s Unbox service in combination with our two Tivos. There are currently almost 6,000 movies for rent, which blows away the selection at Apple’s iTunes store. And we can easily watch everything right on our TV sets because Unbox downloads directly to our Tivos (you select which exact Tivo from a handy drop down list).

So then I watched the flick. It was pretty fine as these sorts of mainstream movies go but I kept getting the strong sense that Hollywood had gussied up the story by adding all sorts of implausible story bits. Did one of the kids really get beaten up in a casino basement? Did someone really lose $200,000 in two bad hands? There are many more such incidents but mentioning them would give away too much of the plot.

Wanting to know more, I recalled that the movie was based on the book “Bringing Down the House” by novelist Ben Mezrich and that the book had been excerpted in Wired Magazine. Sure enough, a search on Wired’s site for “MIT card counting” pulled up just one result: Mezrich’s article. I tore through that in a few minutes but it wasn’t enough of the story to fact check the movie. So I flipped on my Kindle and jumped to the online Kindle store. For a mere $7.99 and a wait of about 3 seconds, I had the full book in hand, electronically speaking of course. I read about halfway through before it was so far past bed time that I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

As I lay in bed, visions of sugar plums danced in my head, or at least visions of the future of entertainment. It’s a groovy little ecosystem that Amazon has engineered and I can only hope it continues to expand.

Tivo tip: Shut down everything to transfer shows off a TivoHD

Notting Hill playing on my mac after a tivo transferFor a while now, I’ve been trying in vain to move a copy of the film Notting Hill off my TivoHD and onto my iPod. It’s all legit. The TivoHD allows such a transfer using a Mac and Toast’s Tivo Transfer software. The Tivo itself is networked with one of Netgear’s Powerline HDX101 adapters, which in theory run at 200 megabits per second. But every time I tried to copy the movie, the process dragged on for days (!!!) and eventually died without completing.

It’s especially weird because moving things off our older second-generation Tivo always works fine. That guy is also connected with an identical Powerline HD adapter and is considerably farther away in the house from my Mac. It was a total mystery. I tried rebooting the adapters and the Tivo and reconnecting all the cords multiple times. No help. I switched Netgear adapters from one Tivo to the other. Still no better.

Then, today, I was trolling around on the very fine Tivo users site Tivo Community and found this thread of people discussing similar problems. It appears that my hyper, super duper, fancy pants, third-generation TivoHD doesn’t like to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Tivo gurus recommended setting both channel tuners to non-functioning channels and making sure the Tivo wasn’t recording or downloading anything else.

So I tuned the tuners to a couple of music-only channels and, as Jerry Pournelle likes to say, Bob’s your uncle (actually, Bob’s my dad, but you know what I mean). Tivo transfered the entire movie, over 2 gigs, in a little under an hour. We’re still not setting any speed records but that’s totally acceptable. Now I’ll export for the iPod and have portable Roberts and Grant banter where ever I roam. Nice.

Tivo already connects your TV to the web content you want

TivoHD modelWe’ve been happy Tivo subscribers for almost two years now. We started with a Toshiba RS-TX20 model that also has an integrated DVD player/recorder. That was an awesome combination (just one remote!) but its been discontinued. Not just the model — the whole concept. So when we added a high-definition television set and Verizon’s FIOS service last year, we bought a true Tivo box, the Series3 HD.

The Series3 can record high-def shows and connect to the Internet to do all the brilliant Tivo scheduling tricks. But it also requires that we have a separate DVD player and its accompanying remote to watch movies on disk. Big drag. Plus we lost the ability to transfer shows to DVD, which might make some TV execs somewhere happy but seems like a big downer to us ordinary consumers who just want an easy way to let our kids watch their favorite shows while on vacation in hotel rooms and so on.

Lately, the news has been full of the latest boxes and schemes to better connect your television to whatever source of programming turns you on. Downloads and streaming and cable, oh my. There’s the new Netflix $99 box designed by Roku that lets you choose movies on your PC that are then streamed over the Internet to your TV via the box. Gizmodo loves it, but others, like Kristen Nicole on Mashable, less so. Then Sony announced it would be adding a cable industry developed technology currently going by the tag “Tru2way” to some of its high-end TVs obviating the need for a set-top box even for pay-per-view and on-demand cable programming. NewTeeVee is pretty optimistic though I found it — and almost all the media coverage, really — lacking the history and context of this technology and rather naive about the cable industry’s aims here. But that’s a subject for another post. Plus Apple rolled out its HBO deal for downloadable if overpriced shows and Jeff Bezos said Amazon would get into the live streaming biz soon.

At first, all this news had me depressed that so many competing players were battling over all these little pieces of the big picture. The forest and the trees and all that. After all, I just want to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it on the TV I like to watch. And just let me use a fairly simple and solitary remote control, please. But as I sat down to write some kind of screed against the industry, I started to mentally tally how we’d used our Tivos just in the past few weeks:

– Watched New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman’s five minute video podcast, which we gleefully follow every week.

– Realized we weren’t going to make it home on a Sunday night in time to watch The Tudors on Showtime, so we logged into our Tivo online account via a laptop and ordered one of our Tivos to record the episode, which it did.

– Rented “La Vie en Rose” from Amazon’s Unbox service web site and had it download automatically to our Tivo where we watched it a few nights later (We regularly rent two or three Unbox movies a month and would rent even more if the selection was better and/or the release dates matched the DVD release date).

– Watched all manner of recorded TV shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Battlestar Galactica.

– Pulled an episode of the children’s show Charlie & Lola off the Tivo hard drive and onto my iMac using Roxio’s legal Tivo Transfer program which then converted it to a format for the iPod for my daughter to watch later on a car trip.

– Watched some of the movie trailer promo ads featured at the bottom of the Tivo home screen. Full disclosure: as a boy, I even watched a few of the extended new car promos Tivo featured when my wife wasn’t around.

What am I trying to say? Tivo does just about everything I want and if the selection of rentable movies and web video was simply expanded, I don’t think I’d have much left to complain about — well, maybe they could add back in the DVD player. Send Sony, Netflix, Apple et al away. You’re not needed here.

p.s In the mea culpa department, I was all wrong about the Tivo-Unbox link up when it was announced last year. Oops.

Solving Tivo download issues

Tivo mascot

I’ve tried a variety of programs to get TV shows off our Tivo and onto my iPod, mainly so the kids can watch some of their favorites while traveling. The Tivo, which sits in our bedroom far from the nearest wireless access point, was connected to the Internet and our home net via a Netgear USB wifi doohickey that had been recommended by Tivo. Well, it worked fine for downloading program listings but the connection was never really strong enough for moving fat video files around. I had tried both the free TivoDecodeManager and Roxio’s Tivo Transfer program but both choked endlessly waiting for files to finish downloading. Whenever I checked the wifi strength, Tivo reported it was terrible.

Eventually, I realized that the problem was the snail-like transfer speed so I decided to go from wireless to wired. I grabbed an extra Netgear Powerline switch, which provides ethernet over electrical wiring, and plugged it in by Tivo. But when I went to run an ethernet cable from the switch to our Tivo, really a Toshiba RS-TX20, I discovered the Toshiba had no ethernet outlet. So I jumped over to Amazon and, after consulting the fine customer reviews to see which adapters would work with Tivo, orderd a cheap Belkin USB ethernet adapter. I plugged everything in today and it just works. Plus, my TV shows are downloading at a tolerable if not amazing pace of 1 gigabyte per hour.