TiVo Stream sends TV to iPhone and iPad: Hands-on

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TVs connected to recent TiVo digital video recorders can already play back programs recorded on other TiVos on a home network; now, a new TiVo gadget lets you watch live or recorded TiVo content on a network-connected iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch—without disrupting playback on the TiVo-connected TV set.

The TiVo Stream ($130 when it goes on sale September 6) also lets you download recorded shows for offline viewing on an iOS 5 device running a new version of the TiVo app. As before, the app lets you view the TiVo program guide, set or delete recordings, and use the iOS device as a TiVo remote.

In my tests, the Stream performed quite well in the high-performance network environment called for in the system requirements. Specifically, TiVo DVRs must use a high-bandwidth wired network connection—either ethernet or coax cable (for networks based on the MoCA spec for the use of coax cable for home  networks). MoCA stands for Multimedia over Coax Alliance.

Can your network handle TiVo Stream?

The newest TiVo DVRs—the Premiere 4XL (previously called the Premiere Elite) and the Premiere 4 (similar to the 4XL but with less storage and a lower price tag)—have built-in MoCA support, so once you set up a MoCA network (by connecting a MoCA bridge to your broadband router, the cable TV connection on these models doubles as the network connection. You can even attach an ethernet switch to these TiVos in order to use the MoCA network for other entertainment center devices—a Roku or Xbox, for example.

The Stream—which you connect directly to a free LAN port on your router using an included ethernet cable—also works with two earlier models, the Premiere and the Premiere XL. But you need to get an external MoCA bridge if you want to connect these models using coax.

Tivo Stream

The reason the Stream demands a robust wired connection (TiVo recommends something that supports TCP throughput of 100mbps) is to allow support for multiple simultaneous HD streams—so, for example, someone could be streaming content from a TiVo in the living room to a TiVo in the bedroom, while at the same time someone else could be watching a recorded show on an iPad. I also tried the Stream with a HomePlug AV hookup, with mixed results—sometimes it worked, other times it didn't. The MoCA hookup proved more reliable.

Setting up the TiVo Stream

Setting up the Stream takes about 15 to 20 minutes following TiVo's first-rate printed instructions (which are accompanied by helpful screenshots). You start by changing TiVo settings to allow network streaming (if you haven't previously done so) and then copying down a media access key (also in the settings)—a 10-digit number that identifies the TiVo to other devices on the network.

After that, you install the iOS app (or update a previous installation with the new version). Upon launch, it scans the network for TiVo DVRs and once it sees one, lets you link to it by entering the media access key. After you've set up the app to work with your TiVo(s), you set up your Stream by clicking on a menu item in the app's settings. The app automatically finds the Stream, links it to your TiVo account and checks for software updates, and then runs a media streaming test (this is the point at which HomePlug AV occasionally didn't work).

If your connection passes the test, however, you're good to go. The app's interface isn't too different from the previous version—you can look at your recordings or the program guide, or search for shows to record. But it now includes buttons for watching a recorded or live show, or downloading it. A one-hour show took about 25 minutes to download and occupies roughly a gigabyte of storage space on the iOS device.

Tivo on iOS: Full stream ahead

If you choose to watch a live show, the TiVo actually records it and then streams the recording the same way it streams previously recorded shows. While you're watching, you can pause, fast forward or rewind the program—or even use the same 30-second forward and 8-second rewind buttons that appear on the remote. In fact, the app even lets you control the TiVo via a virtual version of the remote, and there's also a quick and easy Pause button in the upper right hand corner. When you're done watching a show, the app asks if you wish to delete the show to free up space on the mobile device.

While the wired network connection assures the Stream of good bandwidth for the content it has to transcode, the potential weak link in the chain is the iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch's dependence on Wi-Fi. Even today's fastest Wi-Fi, 802.11n, can slow down dramatically as a result of interference from other Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth devices, microwave ovens, and other wireless gadgets.

These issues, which can cause video streams to stutter or pause in order to buffer, are more pronounced for networks that use the 2.4GHz band, so I use a 5GHz connection (the iPad supports both standards). With this setup, I found the overall quality of the video excellent—and quite lovely on the iPad's Retina display. The Stream for the most part sustained the quality throughout two thirds of the film Pretty Woman, with only an occasionall small stutter.

When I left the app and returned, the Stream needed only a couple of seconds to buffer and resume streaming. The interface for pausing, rewinding and fast forwarding appeared for a few seconds and then vanished. In short, the app behaved pretty much the way I expected it to, which isn't always the case with streaming media applications.

There are a couple of limitations: Most notably, you cannot access content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, or other video-on-demand services that these TiVos support. Obviously, it would have been nice to be able to stream video over the Internet a la Slingbox (although maintaining quality for remote streaming can be difficult under the best of circumstances). But the Stream generally does a fine job with its appointed mission of letting you watch recorded or live programming—and it's certainly cheaper to use a Stream and an iPad than to buy a second TiVo and HDTV.

This story, "TiVo Stream sends TV to iPhone and iPad: Hands-on" was originally published by TechHive.

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