My little Hughes HR10-250 Tivo HDTV vs. Microsoft’s Media Center Edition Review (scroll down to the review if you want to skip the history)
I’ve updated my thoughts on MCE 2005 with a review here.
MCE vs. Tivo – My Story
A little history. (Scroll down if you want to skip the history and get right to the review)
I was doing my typical surfing through the channels on DirecTV, frustrated, when I came across an interesting infomercial. It was by Phillips and it was for this new thing called Tivo. As only crap was on the rest of the tv and I’d already gone through five or six complete loops on the 200 or so stations, I stopped and watched for a while…. And all of a sudden got really excited.
It was weird. Pausing live tv. Recording tv. It looked really really cool.
I kind of filed this information in the back of my mind and forgot about it.
Jump forward to 2000. I was walking through Costco up in Novato and, wham, what did I see but a Tivo box. Not knowing anything at all about it beyond my first infomercial I impulsively just put it in my basket. I think it was selling for $299, which I thought was a lot of money, but hey aren’t the best impulse buys always the most expensive. When we were checking out at Costco my wife said, “why are you buying that?” I replied, “I don’t know.”
I got home and began to unpack the Tivo box. I was really excited – until I scanned through the program manual and did one of those, “what the f, you mean I can’t use this thing unless I pay a fee every month?” My Tivo experience was turning out to be more expensive than originally thought as I quickly figured that I didn’t want to be indebted to anyone and would rather shell out the $200 extra for a lifetime subscription (good move). I have to say I never probably would have bought it if I thought it would cost me $500 plus tax…. But I’m really, really glad I did.
The Tivo was fun. There were so many little features and settings and cool little things to play with and, wow, the channel surfing stopped. It ended permanently in my life. This was an amazing thing. There was always something on to watch on television and NO commercials. And the searching and the movies and all my favorite shows and wow.
We had our first child and I thought this is even better. As anyone with kids knows you operate on their schedule not on yours. They will not wait to be changed or fed or held or rocked or whatever until the commercial. Tivo was amazing – truly amazing.
Soon though, once I had mastered the Tivo, I began to get bored with it. I started to see all of these faults. Somehow I had screwed up the suggestions and there was no way to go back and undo it. My wife blamed the housekeeper for giving a bunch of Spanish television stations thumbs up and it kept recommending Spanish broadcasts to me. I couldn’t undo it. Grrrrr. And the space just wasn’t enough. My shows kept getting little yellow dots next to them and I was always extending recordings and things I wanted would get deleted and I had fully explored every nook and cranny of the interface. I was bored with Tivo and wanted more.
We sold the house in Marin and moved to the East Bay. The second child was on the way as I set the Tivo up at our new house. My wife and I would argue. She’d want to record Will and Grace, which I hated, when something I wanted to watch was on. Our tastes were very different and the conflicts seemed endless… “what have I gotten myself into?” I asked of myself (my Tivo, not my marriage).
Our second son was born. I was feeling constrained, tied down, restless. I needed something new, something more. I needed to explore, to not be tied down by the limits of a finite user interface… and I was spending more and more time on my computer anyway. With two new kids digital photography had taken off as a hobby of mine and the whole music mp3 thing was much more interesting to me than television. My CD collecting had taken a back seat to the mp3 and I was spending the free hours while my two children slept on the computer instead of in front of the television… and then while internet surfing one night I read about this upcoming thing called Media Center Edition in early 2002… and once again got really, really excited.
So excited, in fact, that googling (or was it yahooing back then) the phrase “media center edition” became a daily occurrence. Articles would pop up. It seemed so perfect. All my television, all my pictures, all my music… As Kris Kristofferson said in his timeless classic, To Beat the Devil, “you’ve been reading my mail…” or was it the endless echo of “you’ve got mail,” that I just couldn’t seem to drown out of my consciousness two years after abandoning AOL. Whatever the Case, this machine was just right for me.
It was about this time that I bought the first plasma at, yes again, Costco. Another impulse buy I might add (I may have a problem here as I’d also Costco’d a Sony laptop about a month earlier. I’m not quite sure but I have a feeling that the guilt after spending the money is somehow good for me).
I hooked the laptop up to the plasma. I turned on the slideshow screen saver on XP. I bought a little cord that would go out of my headphone jack and turn it into a red and white cable that could be connected to my receiver and speakers. I then would run my mp3s in Windows Media Player. It was kind of weird. If I accidentally touched the mouse pad I’d lose my pictures, but it sure did look pretty on the plasma. Tivo for tv, my laptop set up… all was working well… but I kept on googling “media center edition.”
Finally I found a release date, October 31, 2002. Oh wow… it’s finally really going to happen I told myself. This just intensified my search online about this new all powerful home media experience from Redmond. I was so bored of my Tivo and so thrilled at myself with my little bootstrapped laptop running media on my great big plasma.
Early October 2002 arrived — I began calling HP on an almost daily basis. Isn’t there some way to get it before the end of the month? I kept asking them. “Please help me out here…” “I’ll pay extra…” I had to have it.
Newsflash, early October 2002, CompUSA selected as one of the retailers to sell the new MCE. Quickly I hopped into my car and sped down to the CompUSA in Emeryville… “Do you have it?” I demanded. “Give it up, I know you have it. It’s sitting there in the backroom right now. I know it. Don’t hold out on me.” The salesperson responded back, “you want a what, Earl, you ever heard of a what’d you call that thingy again?”
Then the routine started, internet search, one call to HP, one call to CompUSA. Every day until October 17th, 2002 (about 2 weeks prior to HP’s official release) bamm! There it was on the CompUSA website. I phoned them. Book it! Where can I get it? Now, not delivered, today, this afternoon. They referred me to the Emeryville store and I printed out the item and number and sped down there.
After arriving at CompUSA and spending the obligatory 15 minutes arguing with the three sales guys about how they really did have it and we could call the 800 number together to prove it, etc. etc. It was wheeled out. There she was – and she was a beauty. I quickly shelled out the $1,700 and sped home to hook her up. CompUSA scooped HP on their own machine.
Hughes and DirecTV announce upcoming model to record HDTV, due out late in the year. Hmmm… interesting.
My relationship with my Media Center is re-shaping the fabric of my mind. I’ve become addicted to posting the internet — user groups, the Green Button, anywhere, anyplace, that I can find to talk about it. My media consumption is also growing. All of my vast CD collection has been ripped. My jpgs now number over 35,000. I’ve tinkered and tinkered and tinkered and tinkered. I love the machine…
My wife hates the machine… it takes time from the family… the picture quality was always better on the old Tivo… she hates the rebooting part… the freezing up part, the control – alt – what did you say to press again part, etc. etc. With baby number three now here and screaming in the background she has no patience for the television set’s regular tantrums.
It’s now spread though… it’s part of a vast 4 PC network in my home. Pulling media from four separate 250 gig Maxtor external drives. A terabyte… if that isn’t something to celebrate I don’t know what is… The whir in my home office is getting louder and louder, two fully maxed out tricked out PCs humming at full bore, ripping, mixing, ripping, mixing, Photoshop, art, It’s all soooooo amazing, so so amazing… and yet this quiet little nag keeps popping up again and again (the January Hughes DirecTV release, not my wife), “couldn’t the picture quality be better?”
Grabbing television shows off of my MCE, transferring them to my IBM ThinkPad, laughing my ass off at Adam Sandler on the BART ride into the city while the rest of the world sifts through boring stale newspapers or torn paperbacks. Watching the child look over at her mom and say, mom that man’s watching tv on the train as Jerry Orbach delivers his dry one liner as he arrives at the crime scene.
But couldn’t the picture quality be better?
And there it was — the next impulse buy on eBay. Buy it now… Hughes HR10-250… I paused… did one quick last “MCE” HDTV Google search…. Nothing of substance. No announcement from Redmond. I couldn’t wait anymore. I reflected back. The Tivo picture was always clearer, sharper, more vibrant… This had been explained to me a long time back as better compression technology. I had lived with the inferior television quality for almost two years. I knew my wife always had liked the Tivo better and tried to use this as justification at first. But I knew the truth. Deep down I wanted that awe and wonderment that I felt the first time I had walked through the Sony Metreon and cast my eyes on that huge big plasma broadcasting Discovery HD Theater. I had to have it… but I loved the promise of convergence with my MCE. Yes I’d heard background noise about some new Tivo home media option, but I’m a Microsoft fan, almost a fanatic. This urge… it was so unfaithful. Sure it’s one thing to think about infidelity, but to actually act on it. Linux, back in my living room… Nooooo. And then I did it. A single click and the rush of adrenalin swept over me like that first kiss that that I got when I was 15. Exactly the same way it felt when I’d wheeled that first MCE machine out of CompUSA almost a lifetime earlier back in 2002.
To sum it up, the picture quality on the Hughes HR10-250 is so wildly superior to anything that ever came out of my MCE box that nothing, yes nothing, else matters. End of review.
No, seriously. It’s beautiful. I almost cried. I’d seen HDTV in the store before, but to sit there at 9:12 p.m. after the kids were all in bed and start up a time shifted HD version of Six Feet Under on high def. This was cool. I turned the lights down, turned the new Onkyo home theater sound on, and watched as the flicker from the new Pioneer 43 inch plasma (screen burn ruined the Sony due to being forced into a 4:3 aspect ratio by my MCE machine) came to life.
I pushed play on my forgotten old friend that wacky peanut shaped Tivo remote. This was something. And right there at 9:12 p.m. in my living room was the most beautiful picture with the best sound I had ever experienced in my life.
Now back to the review.
Picture quality just can’t be beat on the Tivo, it’s really 85% of the equation. This point cannot be overstated. Microsoft has yet to announce support on the MCE machine for HDTV. I’ve seen little leaks here and there, which I suspect may be coming from inside Microsoft, but nothing of substance. Tivo wins.
Multi Tuner support.
Wow, Tivo wins. With four tuners (two HDTV, two regular) I’ve yet to run into a recording conflict yet. The single tuner on my MCE machine is a dinosaur. Although multiple tuner support might be added to MCE in the future, it is here now, today, at market, on the Tivo box.
Archiving, transferring and the portability of content.
MCE wins. There is no way to get my shows off of my Tivo box and this sucks.
However, back to the 85% of the equation statement…. unfortunately archiving, transferring, and portability is only a mere 5% of the equation.
I will miss television on my laptop, transferring Letterman to my office PC and stripping out the audio track on a Lyle Lovett appearance and making a homemade mp3 through my soundcard, making DVDs from “PBS KIDS!” for the kids in the car, etc., etc., but you win some you lose some.
I’m not sure how much having major ownership by some content and media providers influences Tivo/DirecTV’s decision to not allow you to get the content off of your box. We’ll leave this one up to the conspiracy theorists but it is worth noting that AOL, NBC Multimedia and a few others seem to be ummmm… investors.
MCE by a nose. First, the guide layout is a little cleaner than the Tivo. Second, the Tivo is confusing. Tivo actually has two guide types. The default is a really, really slow guide that is similar in style to MCE’s but actually pulls data from the satelite (which is why it is so slow). You can change the guide style to a much faster guide (changing this feature is not intuitive but I’m sure in the manual) but it is not as clean a style as MCE.
Interestingly enough, I did not have to pay Tivo another lifetime fee for this box, or even a monthly fee. I had been expecting to pay this when I bought the box and I guess the pleasant surprise of not having to pay Tivo a subscription or lifetime fee makes up for the surprise when I had to pay back in 2000. I do have to pay DirecTV a $5 a month fee to use the PVR functionality of my box.
Music and Pictures
I’ve yet to try Tivo’s home media option but I’ve heard that it is not available on this product. I will need to investigate this. So for now I’d say MCE wins. I will say this about “my music” in MCE, however, it quite simply cannot handle large media libraries effectively.
I gave up on having my entire mp3 library on my MCE machine. It was too slow to load “my music.” It could take over 5 minutes at times. Instead I painstakingly took my 5 star list on my home office PC and did an advanced tag editor function to label the phrase 5 Star in the comments section.
I then did a search, letter by letter, with Windows Explorer for all music. In a given lettered folder (I keep my mp3s sorted by band or artist last name in folders, inside their respective album folders as ripped by Windows Media Player) I then sorted my search by the comments field and selected all the 5 Stars in a row and copied these files to my laptop. (I had originally tried to do a search for all music on a given drive instead of letter by letter but found that Windows Explorer was unable to sort by the comments field due to the number of files. I even let it run overnight to find it still frozen the next morning).
Once this was done I had all of my 5 star music on my laptop. I then copied these same 5 star mp3s from my laptop to my MCE hard drive where it loads much faster than my older much larger full mp3 library. Yes I miss the vastness of the entire music library in my living room but not as much as I hated the 5 minute load time to get my music up and running.
I will also say that it’s kind of chump that I have to pay a third party $10 lousy bucks (in my case I chose Intervideo) in order to get an mp3 decoder for Windows Media Player. Yeah I know wma is really really great but support for mp3 seems kind of basic.
I use filesync (shareware app) to synch up my photos on one of my office PCs to my MCE machine.
Tivo wins, hands down. The Tivo operating (read Linux) has always been far, far, far, more stable than the MCE machine ever was.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor)
Tivo wins. I will not miss the calls at work with something like, “how do I get this tv to work,” right about the time All My Children was ready to start.
Tie goes to the… I mean MCE. On my MCE box I was using a 250 gig external Maxtor drive which got me about 70 hours of televsion. The Tivo box has a built in 250 gig drive so both drives are the same size today. Tie goes to MCE as hooking up a larger external hard drive in the future when they are available will be much easier with a USB 2 cable than oppening up my Tivo box and swapping the drive out.
Tivo wins… for me — although anything would look better than the big boxy tower HP 873N that I have in my living room today. I do need to recognize though that there are other more beautiful MCE boxes out there on the market today that were not on the market on October 17th, 2002 when I bought my 873N. Perhaps with other models MCE wins.
Ease of setup
Tivo wins. MCE takes too long to set up and the instructions are not clear and if you make one wrong turn you are screwed. The HDTV Tivo pretty much sets itself up for you while you sit by enjoying a nice glass of white burgundy(read: chardonnay) while wearing your slippers and smoking jacket.
Two way tie for last. HP has some of the worst technical support I’ve ever experienced. First. I purchased, on my own nickel, the extra 3-year warranty from HP when I bought the MCE machine as I understood that would provide phone support beyond the one year standard. Every single time I call HP they insist on trying to tell me that my MCE machine is not covered under warranty. I have to go through a whole sales process about a warranty that I already own until I can talk to a first level support rep who is generally terrible and the hold times are very very long. Even the second level tech support people are pretty bad once I can finally get to them 90 minutes after the initial call.
This being said, DirecTV is equally terrible. When I was setting up my machine the picture was green. Really green. (it turns out my monitor had been set to receive RGB signal not component video). The first tech support person had never heard of the new HDTivo machine. Ok, so I can understand, it’s new. The second level tech support person (60 minutes later) was awful. He kept putting me on hold (I presume to go ask someone else my question… I asked to speak with whomever he was talking to and he refused). I would be on hold for 10 minutes and he’d come back with some totally useless piece of information. I was googling like mad in the background trying to fix it myself to no avail. Finally frustrated I was (mysteriously) disconnected. Yep you got it — back to the start of the line. 60 minutes later back to 2nd level tech support again I was once again (mysteriously) disconnected when the 2nd level tech did not know that DirecTV made a HDTV recorder. The third second level tech couldn’t trouble shoot and sent me out a new box (which still had the same problem). Finally, giving up on DirecTV I contacted Pioneer who showed me how to change the setting on my plasma. Whew. Done.
The ability to do email standing up in your living room, work on excel 3 feet from a 43” inch display, write a letter to mom in Word in really really big screen type, etc. etc.
MCE wins. Irrelevant though. If I want to do this I do it on my Thinkpad as I sit in the living room on the couch.
MCE wins because the Tivo unit doesn’t have one. But I will say this. I have never, never, ever gotten the DVD player on my MCE unit to work right. Yes, now I know that I do have young children who treat our DVDs like Frisbees, but we never have these problems with the dvd player in the car. I would much rather go out and buy a simple $50 add on machine than rely on the terrible, terrible performance I have experienced on my MCE machine.
UI and remote
Tivo Wins. Aesthically I still have not decided which UI I like more. Both are highly intuitive and work fine. I do like that fact that I can program my television’s on/off button as well as my audio center’s volume control on the Tivo remote though.
Community and general excitement
MCE Wins. Fan sites like The Green Button provide excellent dialog on the product, it’s future direction and community help. I’ve seen a few Tivo user groups but nothing that is as good as The Green Button.
MCE Wins. I got a year parts and labor with my MCE machine stock with the machine. I was able for $99 to purchase a 3 year parts labor. My Tivo comes with a one year parts warranty but only a 90 day labor warranty standard. Very cheap on their part. There may be other warranty providers out there but I’m not sure that DirecTV offers an extended warranty option. I hope it doesn’t break.
Service Provider Flexibilty
MCE Wins. I mean it’s kind of a trick that DirecTV and Tivo made the box together. I’m stuck. I don’t really have an option to do anything but DirecTV. I sure hope they don’t raise those fees on me baby. Yes I know Tivo has other boxes that are stand alone, but not with HDTV yet.
The Will They Be in Business Factor
MCE Wins. Microsoft has a market cap of $301 billion. I mean how much cash can Tivo burn before they go out of business? On the other hand, wasn’t it Microsoft who brought us Ultimate TV? Microsoft wins but loses points here for having a reputation for creating products and then abandoning them latter.
So here’s how my living room looks now. 43” Plasma Pioneer HDTV, Onkyo HTS 760 Home Theater Audio, Hughes HR10-250 Tivo for television, MCE HP 873N for pictures and music, 4 (yes 4) remotes, Xitel Hi-Fi link going from my MCE machine to my Onkyo box, an old RCA wireless phone jack (I hate this) to make the daily phone call (yes phone call) from the Tivo machine to the outside world.
The only hardware modification on the original HP873 machine is the addition of an Intel gigabit network card where the modem once was.
This is connected to my two home office PCs (tricked out ACMA and stock high end Dell) on a Netgear gigabit switch and a Microsoft wireless router.
I use an IBM Thinkpad T40 to access the internet and files remotely, wirelessly, or wired via an ethernet cable when I’m in my office. This also serves as my official mp3 player (I wish Windows Media Player 10 Technical Beta would treat my laptop as an “external device”) with headphones. I also bought this nifty little add on called IROCK Beam it which allows me to listen to my mp3s on 88.7 fm in my car.
So there are my initial thoughts. I will edit and document this report as my opinion and developments and testing changes.