TiVoBlog’s Alex Raiano on TiVo vs. MCE

TiVo vs. MCE, which is the better value?: Alex Raiano of TiVoBlog is out with a post comparing a top of the line TiVo to a Media Center Computer on value vs. cost and comes up with the following conclusion:

“As you can see, even with a lifetime subscription, the top of the line TiVo box costs a lot less then a middle of the road MCE system. Essentially you could buy 2.159731409100020044097013429545 top of the line TiVo boxes for the cost of one MCE box. If you want to look at the “low” end TiVo you could purchase 3.0962356321839080459770114942529 TiVo’s for the cost of one MCE box. When you break it down like this I think you can see that TiVo with a lifetime subscription is in fact a better deal for a budget minded consumer.”

My response to Alex would be, well, yes and no. If all you are doing is comparing a TiVo box vs. a Media Center PC and if all you want is something that will record standard definition television as easily as possible, then I’d agree with you that a TiVo is a better way to go. On the other hand you have to consider the advantages of a Media Center over a TiVo in a lot of other areas and ask yourself if a lot of these advantages are worth paying extra money for.

For starters, you mention yourself that with Media Center you actually get a full fledged PC, again some value here. If all you want is a DVR then maybe not, but for some having a PC is also nice. But let’s move beyond the fact that you get a PC with a Media Center DVR.

1. The first thing I’d point out is that with a Media Center PC I can buy a HDTV card and get at least, for now, OTA HDTV on network television (no monthly fee there as well). I can’t do this with even the top of the line standalone TiVo. Is it worth paying extra for network programming in HDTV? I think so.

2. Next you have to look at expandability. you mention the 300-hour TiVo box, I believe you are referring to the Humax T2500 there. This unit has a 250 gig drive in it. But it’s not 300 hours on high quality recording it’s 100 hours. What if I want more space? Can I do that with a TiVo? Well yes, if I want to pay more money and send it to WeaKnees and also void my warranty for hacking into the box. With my Media Center PC on the other hand it’s as simple as attaching another USB external hard drive and instantly I have more storage. This is especially helpful if I want to archive television and save shows.

3. I’m a huge music nut. One of the things that I love to do is to record things like Saturday Night Live and Austin City Limits and then strip out the audio from the shows (with a cheap shareware app, Total Recorder) and have live music mp3s. Can I do this with my TiVo, well no, because the box is locked down. With my Media Center PC I can do this. With a Media Center PC you have much more control over the media file and what you can do with it.

4. What about remote viewing. TiVo has TiVo2Go which makes you jump through a few hoops to copy your files to your laptop, with my Media Center PC I don’t have any of those hoops to jump through. In fact, if you are going on the road for a two week vacation for instance, just unplug your external 250 gig hard drive (plug a new one in to record shows while your gone) and take it with you. Now I have all my television with me on the road and can view it on my laptop anytime I want. Super easy.

5. Now what about expanding my television in my home? With my Media Center PC I can buy extender units and have my centralized television recorded available in any room in the house. Can I do this with my TiVo? No, I have to buy a new TiVo for each and every room (plus a new lifetime package or monthly fee for each and every TiVo box). I also need to rent additional receivers for the extra rooms from my cable or satellite provider (they charge for these as well). And if I want to be able to watch Law and Order on any of them I have to record it on all of them. With Media Center I can record all my TV centrally and then have it available in any room in the house merely by buying extra extender units. By the way, the XBox 360 will serve as an extender unit AND will be able to stream high def and, oh yeah, it comes with a kick ass game platform or so they say.

6. Now let’s talk about one of the biggest standalone TiVo weaknesses of all, the single tuner. With the TiVo box I’m stuck with one tuner. Ugh! What if I have two shows that are on at the same time that I want to record. I’m stuck. With my Media Center PC I can add multiple tuners. This helps for recording conflicts.

7. Now we haven’t even gotten into all of the extra things with Media Center “My Music,” “My Pictures,” “My Videos,” “Online Spotlight,” “My DVDs,” etc. But the Media Center PC has a lot more built in functionality for other media beyond television than the TiVo does at present. It’s pretty cool being able to pull up our family vacation videos right from the Media Center menu. One of my favorite things also to do is to have my music playing in the background while great giant full res slide shows run across my 43″ plasma in my living room. This is all built into Media Center.

8. Now the other point you make Alex is in comparing a brand new purchase of the two units for comparison. I’d challenge you to think about how people buy computers in a different way.

Most people at some point upgrade their PC anyways. I know I’ve been through several computers over my life and at some point I’ll be ready to upgrade again. Now if the next time I upgrade my computer, I buy one with Media Center (by the way both Dell and Gateway now ship their PCs with Media Center as the default and it costs no more money than regular XP Home) for my home office, then (since I was getting a new computer anyways) my only expense would be buying the TV tuners and an extender unit. Now this would make the proposition cheaper as well.

Secondly, for a little over $100 now you can get a copy of Media Center with a remote on eBay. Assuming an old computer that you are upgrading from has the power, you could buy a TV tuner for it, stick it in there and now you also have a much cheaper Media Center PC. You’ve only paid for the software and remote and the TV tuner. Much cheaper and it gives you something to do with that old PC that you probably just would have donated to the Salvation Army anyways. Beware of course that trying to go it yourself this way vs. buying a built for MCE machine may perhaps increase the potential problems with incompatible hardware, etc.

Of course both of these options assume that you will upgrade your existing PC at some point (but most people in fact do upgrade from time to time).

Now Alex, I’m not saying that Media Center does not have it’s flaws. I actually think that the biggest flaw is that the picture quality on a standalone TiVo is better than the standard definition picture quality on a Media Center. Others disagree with me on that, but that’s my sense. In the past I’ve been told that TiVo has better compression quality, but whatever the case, side by side I think TiVo’s standard definition picture is slightly better.

Also, many of the TiVo flaws that I mention above are taken care of by some of the DirecTV TiVo boxes. I, for instance, in addition to my standalone TiVo and Media Center PC, also own a Hughes HR10-250 DirecTV HDTV TiVo — which is in my opinion the best possible DVR on the market at present (although watch out for DirecTV’s move to MPEG4). But now we are talking about a different animal and a much more expensive one as well.

Alex, your point about a PC being more complicated is valid. Your father-in-law who is computer illiterate might in fact be better off with a TiVo if all he is looking for is the cheapest basic single tuner DVR
. Although I will say that as Media Center has evolved it has gotten more and more stable. With the current version including the rollup that was just released, Media Center is pretty darned stable. Still though, it is a PC and I don’t think you will ever see the stability on a PC that you get on a TiVo — but Media Center has improved significantly from it’s initial release and subsequent upgrades.

But also Alex, if your father-in-law is as computer illiterate as you claim, perhaps he’s just better off not buying a standalone DVR at all and instead using one the cheapo free rentals from his cable or satellite provider. I know my parents are not computer savvy and that’s what they do. Then they don’t have to pay for anything at all except a monthly fee. Of course they get a sucky DVR, but at least it’s something cheap that they can use.

Personally for my money I’m willing to pay up for the added features that a Media Center PC brings over a standalone TiVo. The real horse race though will come in about a year from now when we have a standalone CableCARD dual tuner TiVo to compare with a CableCARD Vista Media Center machine. I have a feeling that both of these upcoming units will make everything else out today look chump.

Ed Bott by the way did an article a while back that also provided a pretty good comparison between TiVo and Media Center.

Thanks for the blog post on the topic Alex, good work and keep up the conversation!

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  1. Thomas, what format does MCE record its video in? Does it use MPEG2, or some form of Windows Media?

  2. Alex Raiano says:

    First of all, I would like to say thank you for providing such a lengthy reply to my post. I really enjoy having this type of discussion with you. Now onto what I have to say .

    My post was never intended to be a comparison of the features in a MCE box to the features in a TiVo. The only thing I was trying to do with my post was to simply point out the fact that for an average person, buying a $1200 DVR just isn’t practical.

    The feature comparisons that you’ve provided are interesting. I have to agree with you that the biggest downfall of a TiVo is the inability to record two shows at once. As you know, you can kind of accomplish this by purchasing two TiVos. As I said in my post, you could purchase 3 TiVos for the price of one MCE box so doing this isn’t out of the question. Also, with MRV, you have the ability to watch any of your recordings from any TV in the house.

    I’d like to correct you one comparison you’ve made. You stated that extending your TiVo to other rooms in the house is difficult without having to purchase multiple TiVos. As a matter of fact, I use a product that easily allows me to watch my TiVo from any room in the house. This solution cost me something like $90. A detailed description of my setup can be found here.

    While it’s true that Dell now ships MCE boxes by default, I wonder how many people who buy a new PC intend to put it in the living room. I know that for me personally, my wife wouldn’t allow a PC in the living room . I understand that you can get an extender however; this only jacks up the price even more. BTW, how well do the extenders work?

    To sum this up, I have to agree with you that a MCE box has far more features then a TiVo can ever have. That being said, I think that TiVo is a better option for the average consumer who wants a DVR that will record their favorite shows while they are at work. As you said in your post, it might be a good idea for this type of person to “rent” a cable company DVR. While this is an option, I don’t think it is a good decision because from what I’ve seen of the cable company DVRs, they are just horrible.

    Once again, thanks for providing a detailed reply to my post. I truly respect and enjoy what you have to say. Keep up the great work!

  3. Anonymous says:

    3 and 4 might not really be possible with vista MCE. Will have to see but I think it’s safe to say the DRM ratchet is going to get cranked to a painful level to see how much push back there is. Might be a very bad move.

    The Direct Tivo units are even more limited in a lot of ways then the standard Tivo, though they do have better image quality.

    I have a 250 as well, I spent 1k on it when they came out (WHERE ARE THE DAM PATCHES DIRECT TV!? *shakes angry fist*)

    I spent quite a bit less then that building a very nice MCE box DIY of course but still at that type of price point for HD it’s tuff for a Tivo to come out on top in a direct comparison IMO. Use something like MythTV and the cost is even lower, though the work load getting things up and going can certainly be higher.

    I have always been surprised how far Tivo has stayed away from even rudimentary networking between boxes. One of many areas that Reply under Sonic blue was leading the way, course maybe that is why the conglomerates vaporized them through protracted legal feee warfare. Sad. The fact that Tivo’s won’t even do something as obvious as slave their content to each other on a LAN is heartbreaking to anyone who has even a bit of geek blood.

    Feature richness does have a little steeper get going price, but even my totally non technical mother drools when I kick up a slide show of her granddaughter and start some good music while they play in the living room. People want this stuff, they just don’t care about the package and it has to be flawless once it is up particularly if it’s the son install and support syndrome :p. To the non technical the Tivo’s are pretty much almost as complicated (I’ve had to help a lot of people), anything that you can’t just run the one cable into one box or TV and get full content is really intimidating to culture that still can’t get the VCR light to stop blinking. Yeah most folks can figure it out eventually, but understanding. IR blaster, serial cables, pass through control, fire wire? Yeah, might as well have the cable company set it up, most folks answer.

    Of course, at least with Myth we could get the fire wire working without a lot of dumb redundant hardware requirements and recording requirements to endlessly hair pull over. Always a trade off somewhere these days across the spectrum. To bad Tivo isn’t interested is proving the ONE solution.

    Maybe vista MCE will be the one but I fear the DRM rapper is going to heavily devalue the platform in favor of getting the integration ball rolling. To the point of it not being worth bothering with (pretty much how I feel about DVD’s with content that can’t be skipped in the front, rip and trash or don’t buy at all).
    I sincerely hope I’m wrong but OPM and some other anti-consumer features give me chills (please the IP owners are not going to take their ball and go home without this crap, call their bluff already).


  4. stesmo says:

    “Can I do this with my TiVo? No, I have to buy a new TiVo for each and every room (plus a new lifetime package or monthly fee for each and every TiVo box). I also need to rent additional receivers for the extra rooms from my cable or satellite provider (they charge for these as well). And if I want to be able to watch Law and Order on any of them I have to record it on all of them.”

    Yep, mostly correct. Things to note: fees for additional TiVo units are about 1/2 the usual monthly charge. So, after rebate $50 + $6.95 (I think) monthly for a second or third TiVo, fully functioning and capable of recording shows.

    If you have multiple TiVos and they are networked together, you can transfer shows between them. A Law & Order SVU episode recorded on the living room TiVo can be transfered over easily to the bedroom TiVo. In fact, if you were watching it on one TiVo and paused it in the middle of the show, you’ll get an option to only transfer over from the pause. Once the show has a couple minutes transfered over, you can start watching and let it stream from TiVo to TiVo while you watch and wonder if Stabler’s going to lose his grip on his anger and will bounce the pervy perp’s head against the wall.

    I did a quick search via Froogle and saw Media Center extenders were in the $200+ range (or $30-50 range + the cost of an XBox $150ish). I didn’t spend much time investigating… Is that about how much it would cost to purchse a decent MCE extender?

  5. EA says:

    Until Media Center starts recording HD from Cable and Satellite, TiVo, Motorola, and other HD DVR’s win.

    I have been trying to get my friends to switch over to Media Center for 2 years. When they learn that they can not record HD from Cable or Satellite, they back off.

    These are the people that don’t mind spending $$$$ on a nice HDTV, surround sound system, cables, etc. They have all that nice equipment and they don’t want to spend $100-$200 to upgrade an old PC to MCE because they won’t be able to record in HD. Not being able to record HD from Cable or Satellite IS a big deal. It is preventing a lot of people who care about HD from upgrading to MCE.

  6. Jeff says:

    OK, picture this. Vista ships with all the MCE stuff built into it. All the computer OEMs, of course, start deploying Vista and start adding TV tuner cards as installed options. My Dad goes to buy a new PC and, as always, calls me to ask what to get. I convince him that the $100-200 premium for the tuner card is worth it because it can essentially give him a whole house DVR. In the meantime, MSFT gets smart enough to realize not everyone needs the gaming functions of the XBox 360 and comes out with a $150 high-def extender (or Linksys/DLink/Roku comes out with one). So now Dad has a centralized DVR accessible from every TV in the house, an easy way to view photos and listen to music anywhere in the house, some interesting (and growing) web-only media he might be interested in (Reuters comes to mind) and he doesn’t need to string coax to every room to get his cable TV. He hasn’t purchased a dedicated media PC, it’s just his latest desktop upgrade; it’s not sitting in his living room, it’s in his office, and with a small additional investment, he reaps some pretty significant rewards.

    That said, all is not rosy. Lack of Cablecard support and lack of satellite support will need to get resolved. The DRM scheme can’t be any more heinous that currently on dedicated PVRs. And the reliability factor has to get kicked up a notch. But I can see this playing out.

    As for me, I love my DirecTiVo, but haven’t upgraded to the HD version because of limited HD content and concerns over DirecTV’s move to MPEG-4 next year. I also love my dedicated MCE box, with it’s dual OTA HD tuners (though my wife’s not crazy about the umpteen hours I’ve spent tweaking it). Would I buy (or even recommend) a dedicated HTPC for your average joe who’s mostly looking for a DVR? Not today. I built mine because I love projects like that. But with Vista and extenders, your average office computer (most of which are heavily underutilized) can become your media server with only a small incremental investment.

    Oh, and Bruce, MCE records to a DVR-MS file, which is basically a DRM-wrapped MPEG-2 file. There are lots of apps out there to convert them to pretty much any other format you could think of.