TiVo adding online services
Monday, October 16, 2006
Many features are spare imitations of tasks that seem better suited to a computer.
SEATTLE -- Ever get an itch to buy a movie ticket, find your nearest Lexus dealer or listen to the president's weekly radio address on your television?
No? Well, you're probably not alone, but TiVo Inc. is hoping to get more customers tuned into the idea of using its digital video recorders to do a lot more than just pause live TV or hook up season passes to their favorite shows.
Teaming up with Yahoo Inc. and other companies, Tivo began adding online services late last year that let viewers share photos with family and friends, check weather forecasts and real-time traffic conditions, play games, listen to live radio or recorded podcasts, compare reviews of child-friendly programming, or track fantasy football standings.
The services are available through Series2 TiVos, which start at $69.99 after a $150 mail-in rebate and a $19.95 monthly subscription fee, as well as the new Series3 high-definition boxes that cost $800. For the online services to work, the boxes must be hooked up to the subscribers' broadband-enabled home network.
I tested out the features on a borrowed Series2 and liked the first feature I tried -- browsing for movie listings and buying a ticket through the online ticketing service Fandango. Still, it didn't completely dazzle me.
After punching in my ZIP code, I got a choice of searching for movies by title or theater, what was opening that week or coming to theaters soon. Movie listings came with short plot descriptions -- skimpier on detail than those Fandango offers on its Web site -- plus a list of cast and credits and a photo gallery that seemed designed to make up for the lack of a trailer.
With another click of the remote, I picked a theater and showtime, got a prompt saying it would cost me $9 per ticket plus a $3 Fandango charge, then I entered my credit card number, got an 11-digit confirmation number -- which I had to jot down because there was no way to print it out -- and instructions to head to the theater with the credit card I'd used.
When I got there, there wasn't a line, but if there had been, I'm sure I would've felt cool walking up to the Fandango machine and getting my tickets with a quick swipe of my credit card.
The rest of TiVo's online features struck me as spare, less user-friendly imitations of tasks that seem better suited to a computer.
It was easy enough to set up a link to my Yahoo Photos account, though I soon found it pretty tedious to enter information like usernames and passwords into an on-screen keyboard with the up-down, right-left buttons on my TiVo remote.
My photos looked nice on a 27-inch screen, but no nicer than when I simply plug my digital camera straight into my TV. Another feature lets people view pictures from family and friends with Yahoo Photos accounts. Most people I know use other digital photo-sharing programs, which I've generally found much easier than Yahoo's, so it's not a service I can see myself using that much.
TiVo's Yahoo Weather service seemed like a better fit for TV. It displays five-day forecasts by ZIP code and lets you save more than one city on the same screen, making it easy to compare forecasts in different areas. It didn't surprise me to find out it's one of TiVo's most widely used online services.
The company also says the Live 365 Internet radio service has proven popular. It lets you play live music from a fairly wide variety of stations in about two dozen categories. Because the content is streamed, there are occasional hiccups in the sound, but not often enough to be too annoying.
Another service offers various podcasts, including 15-minute audio snippets of TV executives chatting about shows like ABC's "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy." I didn't find them enlightening. Perhaps more die-hard fans would. Other podcasts include the president's weekly radio address, summaries of top stories, and recordings from a handful of music and public radio stations.
I wasn't too impressed with KidZone, which lets parents browse for kid-centric programming, or Product Watch, which gives viewers the option of ordering promotional videos on various products. But don't most people get TiVo so they can skip over ads?
KidZone pointed out some children's shows I'd never heard of before, offering brief descriptions that included the age range they were tailored toward. Some new parents might find it helpful.
I got turned off, however, when "Wife Swap" showed up on one of the recommended lists with an explanation that it "fosters acceptance toward other lifestyles and shows people they can learn from their differences."
Yahoo Traffic was a disappointment, highlighting only a few construction projects and scheduled lane closures on nearby highways. I was also underwhelmed by the lineup of games, none of which seemed remotely catchy.
Some TiVo customers have complained that all the add-ons have slowed down their TiVos. The company has acknowledged the problem and said it's trying to address it.
Overall, TiVo says it has been pleased with how many people use its online services. More than half of its roughly half million broadband subscribers log into at least one service in a typical month, the company says.
TiVo is working on other online features, but isn't saying anything specific about what they'll entail or when they'll roll out.
But I doubt many customers are holding their breath waiting for new online options to pop up on their TiVo menus.