Tech Talk with David Behrens: Welcome back, TiVo

Virgin's Tivo box

Virgin's Tivo box

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TiVo is a trade name that has become a household verb in the States. People speak of TiVo-ing a television programme in the same way as hoovering the stairs, or Googling Lady Gaga. Yet despite the fact that TiVo went on sale over here around the same time as in America, hardly any of us knows what it is.

That may soon change, because the gold standard in video recorders has at last been relaunched here, with the weight of Virgin and a considerable advertising campaign behind it.

A decade ago, TiVo was the first Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, on the market. It could pause and rewind live TV and it maintained its own database of programmes, recording entire series at the touch of a button and making intelligent decisions on which episodes were new and which were repeats.

But bizarrely, it flopped. It was ahead of its time and we Luddites couldn’t get our heads around the technology. In particular, we didn’t understand TiVo’s ability to guess what programmes we liked and record them without being asked. We also didn’t take to its pricing model, which involved paying a subscription fee even after you had bought the box.

The firm retreated back to the States around eight years ago and abandoned the UK to a new generation of Sky and later Freeview and Freesat boxes.

TiVo’s trademark ability to learn our likes and dislikes may have been a gimmick but its functionality and ease of use was peerless, and remains so. It can maintain wish lists of programmes you would like to see and tape them when they show up. And when the current run of a favourite series ends, it will keep a look-out for the next.

These benefits have evidently not been lost on Virgin Media, who have licensed TiVo to provide the insides of their new digital recorders. To the original TiVo functionality they have added the ability to view programmes already screened but not recorded, via the BBC iPlayer and other “on demand” services. And they have added a third tuner.

The rest is much as it was – including, sadly, the hefty price tag. Virgin TiVo costs around £240 plus a £26.50 monthly subscription – more if you don’t also take a Virgin phone line – and you have to live in a Virgin cabled area.

All of which means this is a toy strictly for TV addicts.

• EDIT August 4, 2011: Virgin has changed its prices for TiVo to £50 or £100, depending on hard disc size, plus £3 a month on top of the usual rental (up to a total of £24.50 a month). That’s conditional on also taking a Virgin phone line at £13.90 a month.

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