Logitech Harmony One Remote Review

I’ve been pretty content over the years with my Sony RM-AV3000 universal remote. However, a couple of my buddies have been really going on and on about the Logitech Harmony One Universal Remote. So I decided to give the Harmony another try. This is not my first Harmony remote. I had one of the earlier models and I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t very forgiving if anyone turned on or off a device by hand. It just seemed like it was more work than it was worth. This remote is much improved over the earlier models in several ways.

 

How do you set it up?

I’ve always dreamed of a remote that would be 2/3rds touch screen and 1/3rd physical buttons and the touch screen would actually look exactly like the original remote for the device you’re trying to control. Think of an iPhone like experience as a remote. This way no matter how many devices you bought or got rid of, your remote would never be outdated. The Harmony One is the next closest thing to my dream remote. There is a small touch screen at the top of the device with the rest being physical buttons for common things like volume up/down, channel changing and things like Play, Pause, Stop, etc. The buttons are uniquely shaped which makes it easy to operate it without having to look at it. It also feels much better in my hand compared to the rather large footprint of the Sony remote.

The Harmony One comes with the remote, charging cradle, Lithium Ion rechargeable battery, USB cable, setup guide and software CD. That’s right, you configure this remote from your computer which downloads the latest and greatest device profiles from the internet. This offers a huge advantage over other remotes that make you enter codes or learn every function manually.

The setup is quite simple actually. You start by just listing the make and model of each of your devices. In my home theater setup, I wanted this remote to control my Epson HD projector, TiVo HD, Apple TV, Sony PS3, Bose Lifestyle 28 sound system and my Lutron Maestro Lighting Control. The Harmony One is IR only and doesn’t control RF or Bluetooth devices. So in theory that would rule out the Bose which is RF based and the PS3 which is Bluetooth based. However, the Bose systems now include an IR receiver just so you can use universal remotes. I also solved the PS3 problem (so that I can watch Blu-ray and DVD movies) with the Nyko Playstation 3 BluWave Remote which adds IR remote capability to the PS3 via a USB dongle. This is child’s play for the Harmony One because Logitech has the device information on over 5,000 different consumer electronic devices.

In theory after you input your devices all you would have to do is then configure your "Activities" such as "Watch My TV" or "Watch a Movie". Activities are designed to be one button macros that automatically turn on the right components and switch to the right inputs. Although the Harmony One software seemed to know about all my devices, there were still several issues that I had to fix manually. For example, my projector just didn’t come on. I had to whip out the original remote and manually program the power buttons using the "Learn IR Command." Also it seemed that no matter what, it insisted on switching the input from HDMI to PC on my projector. I finally had to setup a NEW button called "HDMI1" and then I mapped my activities to use that input. Once I did that all was fine.

My three activities are "Watch TV/TiVo", "Watch DVD/Blu-ray" and "Watch Apple TV". The only one that worked first time with no modifications necessary was Watch Apple TV. I found it odd that the Harmony One software warned me that the PS3 couldn’t be controlled via IR and offered the Nyko remote as a solution, but didn’t offer to set it up that way since I already had one. I just set it up manually.

 

Switching sources

Although my projector stays on HDMI 100% of the time, I use an Octava HDMI and Optical 4 port switcher to switch each device to the one HDMI cable going to the projector and the one Optical Audio cable going to the Bose. The Harmony software knew of this switcher and I was able to easily incorporate it into my activities. For example, if I’m watching a movie and after the movies is over I decide to switch to watching TV, all I have to do is press the "Watch my TV/TiVo" on screen button. This will automatically switch the Octava box back over to input 1 which has my TiVo on it.

 

How does it work?

Once I got everything tweaked to exactly how I wanted it (a couple of hours later), the Harmony One worked beautifully. I must admit that it’s easier to use than my Sony. The reason for this is that I can customize just about ever aspect of it. For example, with my Sony remote there was no preset button or activity for controlling my lights. So I had to use one of the other functions namely the CD player. Since I don’t use a stand alone CD player, I used that button and screen for my lights. Not very intuitive! This is not a problem with the Harmony One. I not only have the exact components I need setup, but I can name the Activities, Devices or even the onscreen buttons to whatever I want. For example, the Lutron Light system uses one predefined light level that is referred to as "Scene1" on the Harmony One. I renamed it "Low Light".

I was also amazed that not only could you setup your Favorite Channels for TV stations, but you could even use custom graphics as the buttons that show up right on the remote!

Although the Harmony software lets you use custom graphics for your Favorite Channels, they don’t provide the logos. They had a few sample ones from FOX, but that’s about it. So I found this site that had all the ones I wanted. Another very cool feature is that this remote has a motion sensor in it. When you pick it up it comes to life and lights up the touch screen and the keys. After a few moments of no activity it goes back to sleep to preserve the battery.

 

 

The Bottom Line

I’ll have to agree with other reviewers in that the only thing keeping this remote from being perfect is the lack of RF and Bluetooth support. Luckily for me my setup doesn’t require this, so this remote is perfect for me. So far I can’t really find anything wrong with it. I love the fact that it recharges when it’s in its cradle. Once you get it setup the way you want, it just works!

It’s pricey at a list price of $249, but Amazon has it for $187.08.

DirecTV responded to me!

DTV Logo


You may remember my issue from a week ago regarding a $35 Pay-per-view charge that was added to my account that I never ordered or watched. Well it turns out that my blog post made its way to Will from DirecTV and he contacted me:

“I’m a tech-blog reader who happens to work for DIRECTV. Your recent post about your account (https://terrywhite.com/?p=623) was brought to my attention earlier today and I’d like to offer my help in resolving this situation for you. I’d like to find out where the pay per view charge came from and of course make sure you’re not being charged for something you didn’t order. If you’re interested please email me hisemailaddress@directv.com or call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you. ”

Of course I responded to him and the charge was credited to my account within hours! I’m happy to have the credit on my account and that’s all I asked for in the first place was to not have to pay for something that I DIDN’T ORDER! However, I’m still saddened that it took me blogging about it to get results. Hopefully, they will have a talk with their customer service folks and loosen up a bit.

“Thanks again Mr. White, I’ve located the account and the PPV charge in question. I’ve put in a request to have the pay per view charge and the phone transaction fee removed, you should see a credit on your next bill. I’m also looking into why these charges appeared on your account and will follow up with you in the next few days.
Thanks for the chance to resolve this; I hope to have more info for you soon.
Let me know if you have any questions.
Will”

Thanks goes out to all of the folks that responded to my original post. I’m sure your comments also had an impact on this getting resolved too.

Never underestimate the power of ONE!

Has my DirecTV account been hacked?

I happened to open my DirecTV bill this morning just because it was sitting there and well, I had nothing else to do in that moment. I expected to see the normal monthly charge and since my bill is on auto pay, I was about to toss it in the "to be filed" pile. However, I noticed a $34.95 PPV (Pay-per-view) charge on there for Boxing Chavez/Loriga – LIVE. The date was 4/26/08 (the day I was flying back from Portland). While I do enjoy a good boxing match every now and then, I haven’t ordered a PPV in a year or two (maybe longer). Even when I have done PPV’s in the past it was via my remote, never over the phone! So I hopped on the phone with DirecTV "customer service" to get this obvious mistake taken off my account. That’s when the fun began (NOT!):

 

Has my account been hacked?

Apparently when you call to order a PPV, DirecTV verifies account information. Things like the billing address, account holder’s name, etc. While I don’t think it’s too far fetched for someone to come up with this info, what makes this whole ordeal even more strange is that DirecTV then sends the signal to a specific receiver ID (the box in your house) to watch the PPV. So even if someone knew my account info, they wouldn’t be able to watch the event unless they were sitting in my living room OR unless they found a way to fake receiver ID’s in DirecTV’s system. So I asked for a supervisor and the supervisor came on the line and told me that the caller had everything they needed to place the order and she even gave me the phone number that the call was placed from (602)-575-2077. Well gee, that’s not even my area code, let alone my number. "Let’s call it now while I have you on the phone shall we?" Of course when I dialed the number, I got a recording saying that "the call could not be completed as dialed" which leads me to believe that this person/hacker did this intentionally. Even though I have been a loyal DirecTV customer for YEARS, and I’ve never called with any kind of account problem before. They still would NOT issue me a credit for this. After all, I must be lying because the person who called this in from a number not my own and not on my account had my information and therefore it must be legit! I went to my DirecTV TiVo and checked purchases and it doesn’t even show up there. I also verified the receiver number and it was the one used. The mystery continues…

 

Needless to say, I’m PISSED! For now, I have setup a password on the account and nothing else can be ordered or looked up without it. It would have been nice to see the fight that I’m having to pay for. Too bad the criminal/hacker didn’t have a way to record it for me on my box. DirecTV, I will be looking to move OFF of your system in the not too distant future (I almost yelled, “WELL CANCEL MY ACCOUNT THEN!”, right on the spot)! Thanks for the trust, customer service and the love you’ve shown me today. I’ll never forget it. I’ll also be sure to let everyone know how great you guys are (starting here and now!)

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 UB HD Projector Review

In October of 2004 I decided to convert a storage/server room in my home into a home theater. This room used to be the catch all for empty boxes, discarded computer equipment, my web and file servers as well as the place that old papers and software seemed to go to die. At one point it was almost impossible to walk from one end of the room to the other, because of the amount of crap that was in the way.

 

So I decided it was time to turn this:

into this:

 

At the time I spec’d out the latest and greatest sound and video gear. I settled on the Sony Cineza VPL-HS20 1080i HD Projector. My friends were telling me this one was the one to get and the good folks over at projectorcentral.com had this GREAT REVIEW. So it was a done deal and I’ve enjoyed that projector for the past 3+ years. However, my cravings for "higher Def" lead me to want to experience Blu-ray at its best which meant that it was time to upgrade from 1080i (interlace) to a true 1080p (progressive) projector. I started asking around and my colleagues at Adobe (Kevan O’Brien and Dave Helmly) were both quite impressed with the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 UB projector. I’ve always been a fan of Epson projectors for data/business presentations, so it didn’t take much convincing to look into Epson to replace my Sony.

I also turned to ProjectorCentral.com once again to see what they had to say. They had not only reviewed the pro version of this projector, but they gave it their highest honor of Editor’s Choice! That’s all I needed to hear. My mind was made up! I figured I’d get it in the next few weeks when my schedule settled down a bit. However, I noticed that B&H Photo and Video had it and also alerted me to the current $200 rebate that is in effect until 3/31/08. So that pushed me to order it now instead of waiting. After all, $200 is $200 right?

I ordered it so that it would arrive in time for the weekend. That way I’d have time to set it up and enjoy it before going back to work and back on the road. Setup was quite easy. I used the same universal mounting bracket that I had used with my Sony projector and I ran a new HDMI cable to replace the DVI and Component cables I was using with the Sony. Although they (Epson) offer a ton of different configurations for getting just the right color and picture, the defaults produced STUNNING image! Yes, I might go back and play with the settings to compare, but out of the box I was blown away by the picture quality. It wasn’t like I looked at it and said, "well it’s a little too green or it’s a little to contrasty." It was dead on right out of the box. I can’t imagine it being better!

 

Comparing the old to the new

The Sony VPL-HS20 has a power zoom and focus. The Epson relies on a manual focus and zoom ring. So I sat right under it and just reached up and adjusted it until I was happy. There is also a "Pattern" button on the remote that allows you to throw up a pattern on the screen to make sure you have it aligned properly. The lens will shift up/down and left/right so that even if your mounting location is not dead on, you have some wiggle room (which worked out great for me!) This way I didn’t have to move the mounting bracket since the Sony’s lens is centered and the Epson lens is off to one side. It would have been a major pain in the butt if I would have had to relocate the mounting hardware in the ceiling. Luckily I didn’t have to.

The Epson is better in just about every way over my almost 4 year old Sony. It powers on and starts to display your image almost instantly. It powers off quickly too. There are a few little things I like about it: for example, there is a separate on and off button on the remote instead of just one power button. This makes it nice for programming universal remotes and macro sequences. In other words with a single power button, if the projector were already on and someone accidentally hit the power on macro, it would power the old projector OFF! Then we’d have to wait for it power all the way down before being able to bring it back up again. Although I’m only using a single HDMI cable to it, I like the fact that the Epson remote has buttons for each source. With the Sony I had to cycle through several sources to get to the one I wanted. Epson also allows you to diable the projector’s control panel so that kids or other people don’t mess with your settings. There is even a "Child Lock" that prevents small children from accidently turning the projector on.

I will have to hand the overall styling to Sony though! The Epson projector doesn’t win any awards in my book for design of their cases. The Home version is white and the Pro version is black. The latest Sony projectors look like something right out of War of the Worlds. Their home theater projector designs set themselves apart from standard business projectors. Epson could learn a thing or too here.

A scene from War of the Worlds where the alien probe has a look around. This bears a striking resemblance to the Sony Bravia VPL-VW40.

 

Back to the Epson…

Epson also does the right thing by standing behind their products if something does go wrong. Rather than making you take it into a service center, they will advance ship you a replacement! You just send the defective one back when the new one arrives. However, in my over 10 years of using Epson projectors, I’ve yet to have one break down!

I did find it funny that in the literature when they were bragging about their service, that they used the example of if your projector goes down before the "big game", they’d send you a replacement. I had a simple question and I thought I’d give them a call only to find out the service is open Monday through Friday only. So if the big game is on the weekend, you might be hosed 🙂

 

What about Blu-ray playback?

Now it was time to try out the one thing that I upgraded for. I wanted to see a Blu-ray movie in true 1080p high def. So I fired up the Playstation 3 and loaded up a movie. Believe it or not, Rocky Balboa was the closest so that’s what went in. I’m glad that it was, because that particular Blu-ray disc starts off with an opening ad for Blu-ray movies with clips and scenes from several blockbuster movies. I had seen this ad before, so it was a great comparison. My mouth hit the floor. I had never seen that ad with such clarity and depth. I was stunned by how much better the quality was. I also set my Apple TV to 1080p output and the photo slideshows are even more spectacular!

 

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a true 1080p Projector Experience, you can’t go wrong with the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 UB. If you’re not technically inclined and want someone to set it up for you and calibrate it, then you’d want to go with the Pro Cinema 1080 UB version which is only sold through Home Theater companies. Now I know what you’re thinking: "what are you going to do with your Sony VPL-HS20 HD projector?" Well, if you hurry, you can get a great deal on it here 🙂



Apple TV (take 2) vs. TiVo HD for Movie Rentals

It would be nice to have ONE device that does it all. However, in reality it just doesn’t exist (yet). I have 3 set-top boxes in my home theater. Those 3 boxes are TiVo HD, Sony Playstation 3 and Apple TV. Each device has some overlap in functionality to the other two, but not enough to be eliminated. My focus here is on one aspect of entertainment and that’s movie rentals via electronic download. Since your budget may not allow the purchase of two devices that do a lot of same things, I thought I would compare the two that are the most alike.

 

Apple TV (take 2)

Apple provided a FREE software update to the existing Apple TV. So no new hardware is required. While I’m an early adopter of Apple TV, I was never behind the whole "buy movies from iTunes thing." It just never made sense to me. I said it from day one, "If I really like a movie enough to buy it, I’d rather own it on DVD (now Blu-ray)." There wasn’t really a cost advantage in buying a movie from iTunes and they tie up space on your drive. So my reason for buying an Apple TV was mainly to showcase my photography to friends and family, watch video podcasts, watch purchased TV shows, music videos and home movies. Well the Apple TV just got a lot more useful in several ways and of course the main new feature is support for Apple’s iTune Store movie rentals. I rent movies all the time. My main rental source is Netflix (and after you read this entire post, you’ll see why it will remain my main source for a while longer).

The new Apple TV interface is as you would have guessed, very slick! It’s so inviting and easy to navigate. Apple has blurred the line between what’s stored on the Apple TV’s hard drive and what’s stored on your Mac or PC’s iTunes library. So if you go to "My Movies" for example, it shows the movies from both places (the built-in hard drive and your iTunes library) all together. Pick a movie to watch and it plays it no matter where it’s located. This applies to music too. Apple has also gone a few steps further with photo slideshows by implementing direct support for .Mac gallery and Flickr online photo albums. This makes it so easy for you see photos from friends and family right on your TV. Another big improvement is the ability watch podcasts directly from Apple TV regardless of whether you’re subscribed to them or not. It will stream them right from the source. You can even bookmark your favorites such as my Creative Suite Podcast.

This is all GREAT, but what about movie rentals? The good news (make that GREAT news) is that no computer is required. You can use the Apple Remote right from your sofa/theater chair and browse movies, do searches, watch previews and RENT them on the spot. If you choose to rent a movie your iTunes account will be charged and the movie will start to download immediately. Once enough of it has downloaded, you can begin watching the movie (in my case after about 4 minutes with an HD movie). Movie rentals are priced from $2.99 to $4.99 depending upon the age of the movie and quality. Older movies are $2.99 in standard def and $3.99 in HD and newer titles are $1 more in their respective formats. Sounds great so far right? It is! However, doing my best to always do a balanced review, there are some downsides: The biggest downside for me and the reason I won’t give up Netflix is that Apple won’t get new releases until 30 days (yes one month) AFTER they come out on DVD. I’m sure this was done intentionally by the evil movie Hollywood houses, but it is what it is. Another downside is that (to the best of my knowledge) you only get 5.1 surround sound on the HD rentals. Also unlike renting from iTunes on your computer, if you rent a movie directly on your Apple TV it CAN’T be moved to any other device. This last one isn’t a big deal, but I thought you should know so that you can plan accordingly. Just like renting from iTunes on your computer, you’ll have 30 days to start the movie and then 24 hours to finish it/watch it as many times as you like. Like many of you, I feel that 24 hours is just not enough time. They should do it like they do at the rental stores. If it’s a new release you have 24 hours. If not, you have a few days. Or they should do it like Netflix, offer a monthly subscription to have a set number of movies out (downloaded) at one time to take as long as you want to watch them or watch as many times as you want. Another one of my pet peeves hasn’t been resolved in this update and that is the ability to play a playlist of music videos. Just like the original Apple TV, the first video plays and then stops returning you the list of videos. There is no technical reason that I can think of as to why it just can play one right after the other!

The Apple TV works exactly as described and is way more versatile than the original model. Apple also dropped the price down by $70 to $229 for the 40GB model. Speaking of which, a lot of people were really complaining early on about the original Apple TV ONLY having a 40GB drive. With the new software, and they way it seamlessly blends content from your computer and its built-in hard drive, the size of the internal drive is really irrelevant for most people. The only time it would be a concern is if you didn’t want to keep your computer on for live streaming of content that didn’t exist on the Apple TV’s hard drive. There’s even a new option in iTunes to have iTunes automatically figure out what content should be sync’d giving priority to newer items. However, the streaming works so well that this really isn’t an issue especially if you have an 802.11n network.

 

Moving back and forth

Just like before the update you can sync content from your computer to an Apple TV. You can also MOVE rentals from your computer to your Apple TV, but not the other way around. If you PURCHASE music or movies on your Apple TV they CAN be transferred to your computer so that you can sync them with iPods and such. So if you RENT a movie on Apple TV, you are only going to be able to watch it on Apple TV. Everything else goes both ways. Also if you have multiple Apple TVs there is no way to move (or watch) content between them directly.

 

AirTunes Bonus!

Apple also threw in an AirTunes bonus. Since you will likely have your Apple TV hooked up to your booming sound system, you can now direct your Mac or PC to stream music from iTunes directly to your Apple TV and out through your stereo. No need to buy an AirPort Express just for iTunes streaming. It would have been nice if the Apple TV was also an AirPort base station, but I’m guessing that was too much to ask for for a FREE update.

If you want more info and to see an actual demo of Apple TV, check out this guided tour. Check out the complete specs here.

 

 

What about TiVo HD?

How does TiVo HD compare? Apple has an advantage in that they make both the hardware and the software. So it will always be hard for hardware manufactures to out do Apple when it comes to user interface and user experience. However, TiVo’s user interface is legendary and should be the model for all DVRs! When it comes to movies though, TiVo has hooked up with Amazon.com (Amazon Unbox). Amazon Unbox provides movies for purchase and movie rentals with direct download to TiVo HD boxes, Windows PCs and portable devices like the Archos and Creative Zen, but NOT iPods. Although you can choose to rent movies from the website OR directly from your TiVo, trust me you’ll want to do it from the website. The TiVo interface to Amazon Unbox is nowhere near as slick or fast as Apple TV. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried it I remember saying that "I’ll never do it this way again." It works, it’s just SLOW!

Amazon Unbox links up with your TiVo Central account. Since your TiVo connects to the internet every 30 minutes or so, it will see the request/purchase from Amazon Unbox within 30 minutes and start downloading your rental. Of course if you want it sooner you can either rent directly from the TiVo HD or force an immediate connection. Like Apple TV, once enough of the movie has downloaded you can begin watching it.


Although the TiVo HD outputs an HD quality signal (up to 1080i) to your HDTV, the movie rentals themselves are NOT in HD format. They are in widescreen format and seem to be in the original movie aspect ratio. So you will get even more letterboxing than you do with a DVD. The quality is decent, but the Apple TV/iTunes quality is BETTER!

Amazon Unbox rentals can cost less too. They often run 99¢ rental specials. The first movie I rented (Shooter) cost me only 99¢ and that was certainly cheaper than going anywhere else to get it. Amazon Unbox seems to also be restricted by the movie houses in that their movies come out well after the DVD versions. Movie rentals from Amazon Unbox cost from 99¢-$3.99. They also sell TV shows for the same $1.99 as iTunes.

Although TiVo HD doesn’t hold up as strong for movie rentals, the one thing that it has that Apple TV doesn’t is DVR functionality. Not only can I play back my purchases and computer generated content, but I can RECORD TV shows and move those TV shows to my computer for viewing or downloading to my iPhone/iPod/Apple TV.

 

Feature Breakdown

  Apple TV TiVo HD
Movie Rental Costs $2.99-$4.99 .99¢-$3.99
Movies Available in HD Yes No
AirTunes Streaming Yes No
iTunes Purchased Music support Yes No
Watch Rented Movie on another networked box No Yes
5.1 Surround Sound Only on HD rentals Yes
Component Video Yes Yes
HDMI Video/Audio Yes Yes
Optical Audio Yes Yes
Max Resolution 720p for HD content 1080i
DVR No Yes
Ethernet Yes – 10/100Base-T Yes 10/100Base-T
Wi-Fi Built-in Requires $59 adapter
Max Wi-Fi Speed 802.11n 802.11g
Expandable storage via an external drive No Yes (eSata)
Monthly Fee No Yes
Requires Cable service No Yes
Base Price $229 $299

 

Apple TV 40GB Model $225 at Amazon ($229 list price), 160GB Model $329

TiVo HD 160GB $254.49 at Amazon ($299 list price)

 

The Bottom Line

When Apple TV first came out, it was exactly the same price as TiVo HD $299. That coupled with the limited functionality it was pretty much a no brainer to go with TiVo HD if you were going to pick one device. Now Apple TV costs less and has a lot more functionality than the original model so you would have to decide which features are more important to you. For me, I need BOTH devices. If Apple TV were a DVR, I’d potentially be saying good-bye to TiVo. If TiVo HD improved in the areas of movie rental interface, streaming from Macs, etc. I could live without AppleTV. However, neither device is strong enough to run solo in my theater. Since I still need disc playback capabilities the Playstation 3 isn’t going anywhere either. It makes a great Blu-ray player.

 

Netflix still wins the bulk of my business

Why? Netflix offers me something that Apple TV/iTunes and TiVo HD/Amazon Unbox don’t and that is I can watch my rentals whenever I feel like it, anywhere I like with an all-you-can eat price. The movies are available immediately when they are released on DVD. I can take my time and no have to watch a 24 hour clock. There are no late fees and as their commercial suggests, "there’s always something to watch!" I usually have two DVD’s that I haven’t watch at home almost all the time. So I’ll probably only do iTunes/Apple TV rentals when it’s a spur of the moment kinda situation OR if I’m already on the road and want to watch something for the flight home. Netflix has also promised Mac support in 2008 for their online movie stream service. So things should really start to heat up when that happens.

Take your DVR with you – Slingbox Pro Review

I’m late to the party on this one! Slingbox has been out for a couple of years now and while I had heard about it in passing and kinda knew what it was, I was never that interested in it. What I surmised was that Slingbox was a device that hooks up to your TV setup at home and lets you stream live TV over the internet to your computer or your PDA. I was right. I wasn’t that interested because I rarely have time to watch "live" TV. However, what I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just limited to "live" TV. Sometimes it takes a good demo to get someone excited and that’s exactly what happened to me. A friend showed it to me at Macworld Expo and I was floored. Not only was she able to show me what was playing live from her NY home, she showed me what was on her DVR. This 5 minute demo was all it took and I couldn’t get to Best Buy fast enough to get one (could have saved money by ordering online, but hey I was excited!)

Although there are a few different Slingbox models, I was really only going to choose between two: Slingbox Solo and Slingbox Pro. There is a Slingbox AV, but it’s limited to just Composite and S-Video ports so it wasn’t even in my thoughts. The Slingbox Solo allows you to hook up to one source such as a Cable Box, DVR/TiVo, Satellite box, Coax Antenna Cable/Antenna, etc. The Solo has Composite, Component and S-Video connections. My other choice was the Slingbox Pro and the difference between the Solo and Pro is that the Pro can allow up to 4 sources to be connected at once. So it has the full complement of ports (Component can be added for $39-$49 via a dongle) and you can plug multiple devices into it. Although I could have gotten by with the Solo, the Pro wasn’t that much more in price so I went for it (I hate those "I should have bought the next model up" regrets).

The main connection I wanted to make was to my Comcast DVR or my TiVo HD. Since the Slingbox has to be connected to an Ethernet connection, the most convenient spot was on a TV with a Comcast (Motorola) DVR on it. This particular TV also has an older DirecTV TiVo on it and having the Slingbox Pro allowed me to connect both of these. Overkill? Yeah probably.

 

How does it connect?

The Slingboxes have both in and out ports. So no matter which connection method you you use, you’re connecting out from your source (such as a DVR), into the Slingbox and out of the Slingbox back to your TV. So it sits in between your source and your TV and therefore you don’t need any extra ports which is great. I connected my DirecTV TiVo via S-Video and my Comcast DVR via the optional Slingbox Pro HD Component dongle along with the appropriate audio ports. Unfortunately none of these units have HDMI yet. I was impressed and pleased that all of the necessary cables were supplied. As I mentioned above, you will need an Ethernet connection from your router. If your router is NOT close by, they do sell a SlingLink Turbo which allows you to route the necessary Ethernet connection through a standard electrical outlet by just plugging in one near your router and one near your Slingbox. I didn’t need this accessory, but it is getting good reviews on Amazon, so I assume it works. No drilling holes through your walls to run Ethernet cables. The last part of the setup is placing the IR emitters over your existing boxes. This allows you to control your devices from your onscreen SlingPlayer remote.

back of a Slingbox Pro

the optional Slingbox Pro HD Component connection

back of a Slingbox Solo

 

After you get it all connected up, then what?

There is a CD in the box for PC users to install the SlingPlayer. For Mac users you just download it from their website. Once you download the SlingPlayer, it walks you through setting up your Slingbox to be accessed over the internet. Although the setup assistant claimed to be able to configure my router automatically and claimed it did so successfully, it didn’t work when I tried to access my Slingbox from outside my network. So I just opened up the necessary port on my router myself and it works like a charm.

 

How well does it work?

Your ability to watch YOUR TV or DVR while you’re on the go is going to greatly depend upon available bandwidth. As you might imagine, streaming live video requires a pretty beefy internet connection. So your mileage (read picture quality) will vary depending on how you’re connecting to the internet. Some public/pay-as-you-go internet connections expressly prohibit this kind of use. For example, Verizon’s EVDO service prohibits streaming of live video and some users have had their accounts permenantly suspended as a result. Someone told me that a hotel they stayed at had high speed internet and right in the terms of service they spelled out "No Slingbox use". However, if you are on a speedy internet connection and you are not restricted from this kind of use, then slingbox performs extremely well. My connection at home is Cable Modem with very good throughput and I tested connecting back to my Slingbox over a DSL connection that was much slower (and under heavy use at the time) and the experience was more than adequate. I was also happy to see that it played nice with the different aspect ratios of my sources. My Comcast DVR is setup for 16:9, but my DirecTV TiVo is 4:3 and it remembers that in the player.

Also if you have a compatible Palm Treo, Symbian OS or Windows Mobile PDA, you can buy a SlingPlayer Mobile app for those too. They have also announced a SlingPlayer for Blackberry due out later this year. I have high hopes that once Apple releases the SDK for the iPhone next month that Sling Media will develop a SlingPlayer for iPhone! Fingers crossed.

Also keep in mind that while the Slingbox has to be connected to Ethernet, your computer that you’re running the SlingPlayer on doesn’t. So I can stream over my Wi-Fi connection with no problems. This would also allow you to watch TV in rooms that you don’t have a TV in in your own house via your laptop.

 

Having access to my DVR makes all the difference in the world

I wouldn’t call myself a TV junkie, but there are a few shows that I really like to watch. I can remember a few times last year of being on the road and getting back to my hotel room too late to catch "24" or "LOST". Now with Slingbox, I would be able to fire up my MacBook Pro, launch the SlingPlayer, go to the "My DVR" menu and start playing the episode that I recorded at home. What’s even better is that I would be able to fast forward through the commercials and pause it as needed. DVRs allow you to "Time Shift" your TV viewing. Slingbox allows you to "Place Shift" your TV viewing. Forgot to set your DVR to record something before you left the house? No problem, fire up the SlingPlayer on your laptop and just use the onscreen remote to setup the recording remotely.

my Comcast DVR showing through the SlingPlayer on my MacBook Pro. They even match the remote. The little squares at the bottom of the screen are station presets that you can configure to jump to your favorite channels.

 

my DirecTV TiVo showing through the SlingPlayer on my MacBook Pro. Complete with an onscreen TV Remote.

 

How much does it cost?

If all you want to control or watch is one device such as a DVR or cable box, then I would go with Slingbox Solo which Amazon has for $144.99 with free shipping (regular price $179). If you want to have two or more sources, then you want Slingbox Pro which Amazon has for $179.99 (regular price $229.99). Keep in mind that with Slingbox Pro, if you want to connect via Component cables you will need the optional Sling Media HD Connect Cable for $38.99 at Amazon (regular price $49.99). If you just want a basic unit with composite connections, then you could go with the Slingbox AV for $109.72. Sling Media did announce a Slingbox HD that will be coming out in Q3 of this year and will go for $400. I’m not sure it would be worth the wait for most. I have the Slingbox Pro connected right now to an HDTV and there is no downside that I can see. Since bandwidth will be an issue, I’m not sure how effective you will be streaming HD anyway (outside of your home network).

There are no monthly service fees or contracts involved. It’s just a box that streams over your existing broadband internet connection.

 

The bottom line

If you not only want to watch TV on your schedule, but also in the location of your choosing, then there is no better solution that Slingbox! For me it was a no brainer and it works as advertised. I would have gotten one of these a year ago if I had seen it in action. Sling Media, you need better marketing!

TiVo-to-Go on TiVo HD

The gift that just keeps giving. I love my TiVo HD boxes. I had always been a DirecTV TiVo user and therefore missed out on all the Series 2 coolness of things like TiVo-to-Tivo transfers and TiVo-to-Go. Well I came home from a business trip to find a message waiting on my TiVo HD indicating that the long awaited software update had been applied (automatically over my Wi-Fi network) and I now have TiVo-to-Go among other nice features.

TiVo-to-Go allows you to transfer recorded shows to your Mac or PC. From there you either watch the shows, burn them to a DVD or more importantly you can convert them for playback on iPods, iPhones, Apple TV’s and PSPs. This is what I was most interested in because it would be nice to take my favorite shows with me to watch on the plane or in other situations where I have time to kill.

So last night I did a couple of tests to see how it would all work. First off on the Mac, the solution is to use Toast 8 Titanium. It is the officially sanctioned software that enables TiVo-to-Go on the Mac. There are other shareware utilities out there, but since I already own Toast, I decided to start there.

Toast is the app that let’s you actually burn the content to a disc, but it comes with another component called "TiVo Transfer" that you can enable during installation or after the fact from the Setup Assistant under the Help menu. TiVo Transfer sees your networked TiVo Series 2 or Series 3/HD DVRs and will allow you to transfer the recordings of your choice to your Mac (if you’re a Windows user you can download TiVo Desktop). TiVo Transfer works exactly as advertised. It found both my TiVo HDs on my network and showed me a list of the current shows on the drives of each one. I could transfer the shows I wanted, to my Mac and even setup a "Auto Transfer" to automatically transfer a particular show and all of its future episodes. You might really want to do this considering how big these files can be and the time it takes to transfer them. The first show I did as a test was an episode of South Park which is 30 minutes in length and NOT HD. So it was 680MB in size on the TiVo. Not bad. It took about 15 minutes to transfer it to my iMac G5. However, an episode of The Unit which was in HD was 7.5GB and took close to 3 hours to transfer. Once this 7.5GB file was on my iMac it was still in HD format and can be watched at it’s full size and resolution which is cool, because you’ll get that full-screen super clear experience on your laptop provided you’ve got the extra space. Now of course the other option is to simply burn it to a DVD with Toast. There is a "Toast It" button right in the TiVo Transfer window which will launch Toast and add the show to your Video DVD window for burning. Toast will handle the DVD creation and encoding for DVD. In theory if you had a Blu-ray burner you’d be able to keep it in high-def and make a Blu-ray disc.

The next option is to not burn it to disc, but to "Export" it from Toast to an iPod/iPhone/Apple TV or PSP format. This is great, but there is a restriction here. You can only export at a resolution no higher than 320 pixels wide. Which is kind of a bummer since the iPhone and iPod touch have higher res screens. Also it takes time to convert the files into iPod format. However, once the conversion is done Toast automatically adds the shows to iTunes as TV shows with their complete descriptions so you’d be ready to sync with your device. The resulting size for South Park was 221.8MB and The Unit was 364MB as a 320 pixel wide iPod video.

 

The Bottom Line

I welcome this FREE update to a DVR that I was already enjoying. Now I have a few options to take my shows with me and as a person that is constantly on the go, this is very cool. I still wish the process were faster and it prohibits the last minute "I’m heading out the door and wouldn’t it be cool to take a couple shows with me to watch?" kind of situation. However, with a little planning the night before, I could have a MacBook Pro or iPhone loaded with a couple shows ready to go. TiVo HD simply blows away the Comcast supplied DVRs.

TiVo’s NEW HD Box

I’ve been waiting for a long time for a cable compatible HD TiVo branded DVR. When TiVo first announced the Series 3 HD DVR I cheered until I saw the price! At $1,000 I thought, "they must be nuts." There was no way that I was going to spend that kind of money on a DVR. So I waited. Now I’m glad I did! TiVo recently started shipping their New TiVo HD. I’m a Comcast digital cable customer and have suffered through more Motorola branded DVRs than I care to think about. Not only is the Moto box no where near as elegant or as full featured as the TiVo branded DVRs, it’s also no where near as stable. My Comcast DVRs lock up regularly (not as much lately as in the past, but I have a funny story about a recent lock up that I’ll cover further down this post). You might think I’m crazy, but I also have DirecTV service too. Why two services for digital TV? Because I got hooked on DirecTV plus TiVo years ago and have never wanted to give that up. So my main recording happens on these ancient DirecTV TiVos (which are no longer being produced) and my HD recording happens on the rented Comcast boxes. I could have gone HD with DirecTV, but at the time I considered it, they didn’t have local stations through the dish and they also had their own DirecTV branded DVRs (not TiVo). So I decided to just do HD through Comcast for now which is also my internet provider.

I started hearing rumors that TiVo was coming out with a lower cost HD DVR. Well that rumor came true. The New TiVo HD is just what the doctor ordered. It goes for $299 and connects directly to your cable service without the need for a cable box. However, in order to receive your digital channels, HD channels and premium channels (like HBO), you will need not one, but two CableCARDs. You could get by with one CableCARD, but then you would only be able to record one show at a time. With two cards you can record two shows on different channels at once. You will have to get your CableCARDs through your cable provider and if that is Comcast, that means scheduling an installation appointment (at least last time I checked, they don’t give these out over the counter).

Why TiVo?

That’s like saying, why Macintosh? Why BMW? Why an iPhone? Although you can get pretty much the same basic functionality out of any DVR, the TiVo interface (experience) is second to none. They pretty much invented the category and I haven’t had a single issue out of YEARS of use of my TiVo branded DVRs. They just work and the interface is both elegant and well thought out. If you have no appreciation for an elegant UI, then any DVR will probably do you just fine.

 

What’s the difference between TiVo Series 3 and TiVo HD?

About $700! 🙂 On the serious side the price of the TiVo Series 3 has steadily dropped in price, however at my last glance over at the great folks at Weaknees.com, the Series 3 box is still going for $649 which is still too much for a DVR even if it is a TiVo. The main difference between the Series 3 TiVo and the New TiVo HD is the Series 3 TiVo has an OLED digital display on the front, it’s THX certified, has general navigation buttons on the front and a better remote control. The Series 3 also does 30 hours of HD recording as opposed to 20 hours of HD on the New TiVo HD and the Series 3 includes an HDMI cable (see a complete side-by-side comparison here). The differences are not worth twice the price – to me!

TiVo HD sitting under a PS3, Mac mini, HDMI switch and Apple TV.

 

My installation experience

This TiVo is for my home theater. My TiVo HD arrived a couple of days ago and I immediately called to schedule Comcast to come out and do the CableCARD installation. I knew from previous experience with a CableCARD install on one of my HDTV’s that I better plan plenty of time for this as the folks at Comcast don’t seem to have their act together when it comes to CableCARD installs. In the meantime I opened the box to check it out and it’s a good thing I did. I read the setup card and it takes about 30 minutes total to get the TiVo setup BEFORE the CableCARDs get installed. This way I was able to have it ready to go when the Comcast guy showed up. Installation is really simple. I basically plugged in my HDMI cable, digital audio cable to my receiver, the Comcast coax cable and I also opted for the TiVo Wireless G USB Adapter which allowed me to put the TiVo HD on my Wi-Fi network instead of having to plug it in to Ethernet or worse, a phone line. Everything worked perfectly and the menus walk you through every step of the setup.

I was up and running with basic cable and just had to wait for the CableCARDs to come. The guy showed up in the timeframe that Comcast setup (at the tail end of it, but within the timeframe nonetheless). I could tell that he was visibly annoyed by this job. These guys HATE installing CableCARDs for a couple of reasons, one they don’t know much about them and two they really don’t have any control over whether they work or not. After they plug them in they are at the mercy of the home office which has to configure them remotely. Having to get TWO of them working only frustrated this guy more. You would think it would be an easy process, however it literally took TWO HOURS to get them working! The first card showed up and they eventually got my digital channels working but not my premium channels. Of course during this process you try removing the card and re-seating it and switching cards and slots. We learned that it’s not a good idea to remove the card. When you remove the card it changes one of the configuration numbers and each time we tried removing, reseating the card the office wasn’t aware of the change in HOST ID numbers. So that probably made this install take longer than normal. Once we left the cards in place and the call was escalated to their "last resort" guy, he was able to successfully configure both cards and get all channels working.

FUNNY STORY – The installers are mandated to also check out your existing Comcast digital boxes before they leave to make sure that you can receive ONDEMAND programming. So he goes to my living room set. I turn it on for him and hand him the remote. Although there is a show going and sound, the box doesn’t respond to the remote. I look down at the clock on the display and it was frozen. Sure enough the box was locked up. I just started laughing and said "this is why I’m replacing your boxes!"

 

A lot has changed since DirecTV TiVos!

I was floored by the array of options on this new TiVo. Keep in mind that I skipped the whole Series 2 line. So much of this is new to me. The TiVo HD has everything the Series 2 had except TiVoToGo. I’m a little bummed by this, but I knew it going in. TiVoToGo would have been nice to move shows to my iPhone in an easy manner. However, I didn’t have this with my older TiVo’s either, so nothing has changed in that regard. Currently I just record the shows I want to take with me using an attached DVD-R recorder and away I go.

I’m also impressed with the Amazon Unboxed option which allows me to rent or buy and download Movies directly to your TiVo from Amazon.com. Although I’m pretty happy with Netflix, it’s nice to know that I can grab a movie online in a pinch. The biggest new feature for me (not new for Series 2 users), is the ability to program the TiVo HD from the internet to record shows. There have been times when I’ve been on the road and forgot to set the DVR to record something. If there was no one home to do it for me, I was just out of luck. Now it’s as easy as going to the TiVo.com page and logging into my account which displays the guide. From there I can set a show to record or even setup a Season Pass. I even tested this from the iPhone and it worked. I love it!

my home theater with the TiVo HD guide on screen

 

The Bottom Line

Although this NEW TiVo HD DVR is less than the ridiculously priced TiVo Series 3, it’s still not cheap and faces the competition from Cable and Satellite providers that either rent or give away their DVRs. Granted I was paying $10/month to Comcast to rent their crappy Moto box, I’m still having to pay them $10/month ($5 each) for the CableCARDs. Also I now have to pay for TiVo service which at the lowest price (pre-paying $299 for 3 years – 1 year free with current promotion) it’s still $8.31/month. So this on top of the Comcast cable service and you’re paying a small fortune for the convinence of TV in HD when you want it. However, TiVo is that good and I don’t mind the cost. As a matter of fact I’m eyeing the DirecTV TiVo box in my bedroom as the next spot for another TiVo HD box. It is the last room in my house that still has a CRT standard def TV. I’ve been wanting to replace it with a LCD HDTV, but waiting for a decent DVR has been holding me back. Now I can move forward. Oh oh, another visit from Comcast on the horizon – yippee!