Save TiVo and the Perfect Machine

Geeking with Greg: Save TiVo and the perfect machine Greg Linden blogs about the “perfect” TiVo machine and points us to an article over at Salon by Farhad Manjoo on the PVR pioneer and the future of living room technology.

Manjoo writes about the amazing technology that is TiVo but the embattled, money losing of a business that is also TiVo. He seems to feel that TiVo’s current woes center around the current competition between freebie units from cable and satellite providers on the low end and more sophisticated Media Center type PCs on the high end. Manjoo ultimately concludes what is needed is the oft-rumored Apple/TiVo marriage. He also paints an interesting picture for who the “perfect machine” might appeal to these days.

“Do you need your TiVo, iPod, cable TV, DSL, subscription to the New Yorker, or dinner at Chez Panisse? If you say yes to several of these things, you’re likely the type to need a Perfect Machine.”

Well let’s see, TiVo? Check. iPod? I think my new Audiovox SMT 5600 smart phone will do even better, check. Cable TV? I prefer satellite, check. DSL? Check, and I even pay extra for faster download and upload speeds. Subscription to the New Yorker? Nah, Maximum PC is much better, check. Dinner at Chez Panisse? Definitely! Nice to know that Manjoo’s a neighbor in Oakland! Yep. I think I just might need that “perfect machine.”

“[TiVo is] embracing our self-indulgence, greed and laziness by working toward a device that I like to call the Perfect Machine: a cheap, small, quiet, stylish thing that sits in your living room and can display all of your entertainment, from TV shows to music to movies to photos; it also hooks into the Web and gives you access to all manner of audio and video available online.

The new project — which TiVo calls “Tahiti” — essentially aims to create a souped-up super-TiVo, a box so inviting, so enthralling, you’ll never leave the couch …. The Perfect Machine ameliorates laziness, refines sloth, embellishes indulgence.

The Perfect Machine is flexible in the way that a computer is, but works as flawlessly as a DVD player. The Perfect Machine, the ultimate hybrid of a PC and a consumer electronics device, would be upgradable and minimally programmable, but it would never freeze up or slow down.”

I guess the things I might add would be a networked fully functional HDTV workhorse — and TiVo certainly is not the only company pursuing this.

One competitor that Manjoo brings up in his article is Microsoft — who have been working on a “perfect machine” of their own for about three years now.

“Microsoft has upgraded its media center since its first version, and it has also relaxed the way it distributes the system, now allowing all kinds of PC makers — even small, mom-and-pop shops, or weekend hackers — to put together a Perfect Machine of their own.”

Manjoo continues, “The worst part about running your media center on a PC is that the machine’s ugly (though you can find stylish PC cases), it’s loud, and it takes forever to start up. These may sound like small problems but they’re not. We’re used to dealing with delays on Web browsers but not on TV. When you press a button to select a show on TV, you want the show to start within one second, not 10. “There’s a big difference between what you can live with in the office and what you can have in your living room,” says Matt Haughey, who runs PVRblog, which covers media machines. “In a living room you can’t have noise, you can’t have heat, it has to work, it can’t be clunky.” Microsoft’s system works most of the time, but because it runs on a full-fledged PC, sometimes it feels clunky. And in the living room, in your pursuit of indulgence, sometimes is just enough times to be annoying.”

Manjoo concludes that the PC still has a ways to go to find an acceptable home in the living room. I’m not sure if he has seen some of the Niveus products yet but these are coming awfully close from a style standpoint to create a presentable aesthetic design and a perfectly silent Media Center PC. Personally I’ve always felt my HP 873N was perfectly acceptable from a noise standpoint, but I’m sure with a more powerful PC the issue gets more complicated.

I do agree with Manjoo though that the “perfect machine” can’t feel clunky. Certainly the first Media Center PC, that Manjoo references having tested in his article, felt clunky — slow speeds and lots of system stability issues. Now, however, with MCE 2005 the experience feels vastly better. Although I have personal problems with my mega large music library, for most people MCE 2005 is about as error free and as instant of an experience as a TiVo is. The challenge is for Microsoft to convince people of this fact.

It will be interesting to see five to ten years from now who ends up with the “perfect” machine first. This is a multi-billion dollar question and will largely shape the living room of the future.