A Few FiOS TV DVR Notes (versus TiVo)

Dave Zatz —  January 22, 2011 — 40 Comments

fios-gear1

As regulars know, we recently left the cable hegemony behind in favor of Verizon’s FiOS TV…. to overcome switched digital video (SDV) tuning adapter flakiness and a CCI Byte content lockdown that essentially neutered our TiVo ecosystem. And, on the technological front, we couldn’t be happier. (But I may follow up with a less glowing billing and support post, as many of you cautioned.)

We’re a three TV/DVR household, although currently only possess two televisions — one powered by a TiVo Premiere and the other powered by the Verizon FiOS DVR shown above. So the question is, what DVR will power TV #3 when the time comes?

Now that Cox Communication’s CCI Byte “guilty until proven innocent” restriction is behind me, TiVo once again provides multi-room viewing. Although my mothballed TiVo HD and Series 3 may not have the bandwidth to move content wirelessly in real time between DVRs, the way I could Premiere to Premiere. On the FiOS TV front, most of us are still running Interactive Media Guide (IMG) 1.8… which doesn’t utilize a 16:9 UI and multi-room viewing is limited to a DVR hub feeding set-tops. However, testing is underway for version 1.9 and deployment should begin in the near future. And I’m quite interested…

In my mind, the top FiOS TV IMG 1.9 features are the inclusion of a true 16:9 HD interface, support for external storage, and DVR-to-DVR multi-room viewing capabilities. On the storage expansion front, I get the sense that Verizon will offer some sort of officially supported eSATA drives. However, drives won’t need to be purchased through Verizon or even approved. Grab a drive and go. Now original FiOS TV customers may be running older Motorola hardware without eSATA support and it’s my understanding they’ll be able to upgrade their DVRs for free. Whereas folks with newer hardware who happen to want the newest hardware (with larger internal drive and more attractive enclosure) will be subject to a one-time $39 upgrade fee.

The new FiOS TV DVR-to-DVR streaming functionality of 1.9 seems like a no brainer and I was surprised it wasn’t already present. Verizon offers two tiers of DVRs — the hardware is the same, but the price and functionality vary. The typical DVR runs $15/month, while the “Home Media DVR” enables multi-room viewing and relaying content PC-to-DVR for $20/mo. In the new DVR-to-DVR configuration only one unit needs to be at the $20 tier. (Surely there’s a simpler way to sell and explain this functionality?) However, what you end up with sounds very similar to TiVo’s existing MRV service. When what I really want is a unified whole-home playlist. Additionally, let’s move to collaborative scheduling… if one DVR happens to be out of tuners, record my show on another unit. If one DVR is low on drive space, record on one with more available overhead. While this won’t be present in IMG 1.9, I know it’s something Verizon is looking at. And the possibilities make me giddy.

On the iPad front, both TiVo and FiOS TV offer iPad apps. TiVo’s is more powerful and more attractive. But I find myself using Verizon’s more when channel surfing live TV, given the traditional grid guide and “What’s Hot” thumbnails displaying popular shows in my region. (Although it’s not exactly real-time, maybe delayed 10-15 minutes?)

One last note, based on the FiOS TV Twitter feed and unrelated to DVR functionality: the next two HD channels Verizon will offer are Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Fox Soccer Channel (FSC), in that order. Neither do much for me, but I just discovered we receive the Big Ten Network (in HD) and enjoyed a few minutes of Wisconsin/Nebraska wrestling last night (even though it made me feel old and out of shape).

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40 responses to A Few FiOS TV DVR Notes (versus TiVo)

  1. Oh yeah… it’s probably worth mentioning that CableCARDs on FiOS TV currently run $3.99/month.

  2. Very nice review. How does it breakdown in terms of bells and whistles? Can you set up keywords for it to record? Any type of suggestions feature? What do you have in the way of interactive content? Can you pause it for more than a half hour without it kicking you back to live TV? Do you have an Xbox hooked up to your Fios TV or are you going without Netflix?

  3. We’ve had FiOS for almost four years now, after a sad trial run with Cox Digital Cable. I don’t think Cox has changed their UI much in that time, but Verizon has consistently made improvements to UI, features, and performance.

    I am very interested to see what they do next.

  4. Davis, I’m still digging. But the search feature has been useful so far in finding channels. Regarding Netflix, just about every “box” I possess offers it… and better than TiVo. Of course, the benefit with TiVo is you don’t need to switch remotes or TV inputs. But I do. There’s all sorts of Interactive content, via “widgets”, but most of it I don’t care about. I don’t need Twitter on my TV. The Weatherbug app is maybe the only useful/practical one for me. Verizon has an extensive VOD library so that mostly removes the need for Amazon VOD on TiVo. A smart whole-home solution, without building my own Media Center infrastructure, is probably my priority. (It’ll be interesting to see how or if the new DirecTV TiVo integrates into their new whole-home infrastructure.) I did notice the FiOS DVR is recording two of every Season Pass – at least that’s what the iPad app is reporting. I need to double check that. (For example, iPad says I have two copies of the same Californication episode.)

    Joel, Cox has a whole new UI in the works. Looks promising. And infinitely better than their steampunk SARA interface. Unfortunately, they’ve yet to deploy it as far as I know. (I was a little surprised Cox never offered me an advance look… at either my place or theirs.)

  5. Have you had any issues with your Sonos since the move to fios. I had so manu issues I had to place another router after the actiontec one. This kills the iPad app though

  6. Kevin, We’re still getting settled, we’ve been traveling (CES in Vegas, Florida), and engaged in projects – surprisingly, I haven’t used it much. Not sure if we’ve even run it since flipping to FiOS. I’m trying to think where I’ve got their wireless bridge positioned. We have an Actiontec router of course, but WiFi is turned off and a Apple 802.11n Time Capsule is hard wired to it and running in bridge mode. Not sure if the Sonos bridge is on the Actiontec or the Apple. But I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know. (I’ve considered dumping both the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme if I can get the 802.11n variant of the Actiontec and assuming it provides appropriate coverage in the house without some of these obscure issues like Kevin’s that I hear of.)

  7. Dave,

    I’m in the same situation as you with both a Tivo (series3) and a Comcast home media dvr. When I signed up for FIOS it was included for 6 months no cost. I’m hoping 1.9 becomes available for everyone soon. Massachusetts is not in the test area so I’m bummed.

    The simple and clean interface of TiVo and it’s media features such as NetFlix and Amazon VOD. keep it as the living room DRV. The sentimental side of me loves TiVo’s happy noises and bleeps it makes which the Verizon DVR has nothing similar to. Once 1.9 appears, I don’t know if that will be enough to continue to be a TiVo house. I’ve been holding off on a Premier until I can see 1.9 among other reasons.

  8. Everyone complains about the Netflix app on TiVo, but with the Premiere in HD I rarely use it since I actually use the new search to find the shows/movies. In the rare case a show or movie doesn’t correctly list in the search results, there is a list over at TCF, I bump it to the top of my queue on my PC and then it is the first choice when I do into my Netflix app.

    I really think FiOS would have to offer the ultimate DVR before I would consider paying monthly for multiple boxes again.

  9. I have a HD and Premiere myself and wireless transfers from the HD to the Premiere were an issue. HD would transfer somewhere between .5 and .75 times real time. Admittedly, wireless reception in my house is not the best. Fortunately, I was able to run CAT5 and HD now transfers about 2x real time. If I couldn’t have done that, I would have tried one of those power line network adapters.

  10. Since you have an in with fios, can you convince them to go back to the old remote that also had an aux button!? I can’t believe they would remove the functionality to turn on my sound system and control the volume with the same remote. Ludicrous!

  11. Ananth T Sarathy January 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I am assuming because you want multiple tuners, the multiroom dvr that fios offers is a no go for you? One of the reasons I am waiting for the FIOS rollout is to get that feature.. I have given up waiting for COX to offer it.

  12. Jacob, Powerline is an option. But I could also hardwire or go MoCA (given the Verizon Actiontec router). But I’m mostly content with my network – I can (and I do) stream HD content from outside the home, so the bottleneck inside the home is TiVo’s. Although I believe both wired and wireless throughput is substantially improved with Premiere hardware.

    John, You can assume your comments here are being read by Verizon. (I was already pinged today by PR to find out more of my billing/support issues.) However, the old remote you speak of is still available if you don’t mind picking up the tab:
    https://teleproducts.verizon.com/fios/index.cfm/eh/DisplayProducts

    Ananth, I know you and I’ve discussed Cox upcoming solution several times in the past with interest and excitement. But nobody seems to know where it is – including a Cox technician I spoke with before pulling the plug. Verizon’s multi-room DVR currently (IMG 1.8) only shares content to set-top boxes, not other DVRs. And I do indeed want more tuners and hard drives. That way my wife gets to manage one and I get to manage one, but the content is available anywhere in the house. That’s what’s coming with IMG 1.9.

  13. Ananth T Sarathy January 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    That’s very interesting… now if FIOS would get around to connecting my side of the street… it’s incredibly frustrating that about 500 feet separates FIOS connection and Cox purgatory….

  14. “As regulars know, we recently left the cable hegemony behind in favor of Verizon’s FiOS TV”

    A purely semantic tangent:

    Fergawdsakes, FIOS is cable TV.

    It’s delivered via a cable, (albeit fibre optic instead of coax), it’s regulated by the FCC as cable TV, (which is why we can use CableCARD’s with FIOS), and it is counted as a cable MSO by the industry groups just like all the other cable companies.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a happy FIOS customer, (well, other than dealing with their theft-oriented non-trustworthy billing department), but I’m happy with FIOS because they are an excellent cable TV supplier.

    For the sake of the poor semantic creatures starving to death in the word gutters for lack of a morsel of clarity, call FIOS cable TV like a sane person…

  15. And I refuse to get on board with FIOS’s preferred but perverse inter-cap spelling…

  16. “Fergawdsakes, FIOS is cable TV.”

    Agreed. There may be some slight regulatory differences (where’s AT&T’s U-Verse CableCARDs?) but the telecoms are hungry for defectors in this space and the services are largely the same. I’ve teased the NTCA folks a few times about bringing Verizon on board. If they can support regions where RCN and Comcast coexist, they should be able to coexist peacefully with Verizon.

  17. “There may be some slight regulatory differences (where’s AT&T’s U-Verse CableCARDs?)”

    I can actually live with the reasoning behind not mandating CableCARD into U-Verse.

    The theory here is that thin pipes are different than fat pipes. If AT&T wants to offer a weird proprietary “tv” system delivered over a pair of twisted copper wires, fine. But if you own the fat pipe railroads, you’ve got to work in a consumer regulated space, whether you’re delivering the last-mile via fibre or coax.

    “I’ve teased the NTCA folks a few times about bringing Verizon on board. If they can support regions where RCN and Comcast coexist, they should be able to coexist peacefully with Verizon.”

    Huh. Shows how little I know. I always figured Verizon was part of the NCTA.

    And it’s actually kinda weird that they’re not. I wonder what the backstory is on that one. I wonder if the sticking point comes from VZ or the NCTA.

    But perhaps it’s a good thing from the consumer POV if Verizon stands apart from the crowd. And the whole thing actually makes my semantic quibble more questionable. In a certain sense, maybe FIOS isn’t fully part of the cable hegemony…

  18. Dave,
    This is a bit off topic, but does FiOS re-compress channels like Cox does? I know this might be silly, but I am just sick at watching “HD” that looks like crap (CBS is especially awful). I don’t really have a provider choice right now, but when I buy a house I would make sure to be in a FiOS area.
    Thanks,
    Josh

  19. Mike Charkowski January 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I haven’t really seen coop scheduling on anything since the Replay units (boy do I miss them). I figured maybe Denon (who’s holding company bought up the reamins of ReplayTV) is holding the patents hostage at some ridiculous licensing fee. Any idea if this is true?

  20. Josh, in theory they’ve got a larger pipe and pass along content as they receive it. But I can’t say for certain.

    Mike, Actually DirecTV picked up Replay’s patent portfolio in 2007. I assume this was done for insurance and even leverage. At the time, TiVo and DirecTV had a reciprocal do-not-sue agreement in place but hadn’t yet rekindled their relationship.

  21. Mike, DNNA (Digital Networks North America), which was controlled by D&M Holdings, sold the rotting corpse of ReplayTV to DrecTV back in December 2007: http://giz.lv/ehqMDO DirecTV seems to have purchased it just for the patents – the customers remained the responsibility of DNNA to support, they just bought the IP. By that point there was really nothing left of ReplayTV’s engineering team and the source code was all several years stagnant.

    Chucky, IIRC FiOS uses cable standards for linear channels, but not for OnDemand content. Linear channels are delivered as normal QAM content, just like cable, but OnDemand content, FiOS TV widgets, etc, are delivered as IPTV data packets. So it is a hybrid system and not the way cable networks do it with QAM-delivered SDV or OnDemand content and they aren’t using SCTE 55-1/55-2 or DSG (DOCSIS Set-top Gateway) for the upstream signalling like cable systems do. FiOS uses an IP backchannel instead.

    So FiOS is arguably not a ‘cable’ system in that they only partially use the standards normally associated with cable. I didn’t think the FCC made them use CableCARD, I thought they agreed to do so on their own.

  22. @Megazone You are correct, sir! The live stuff is over QAM and the On Demand Stuff is over IP. I assume that means the IP is over MoCA, which might make using MoCA yourself slightly more interesting (just from the point of view of possible collisions/reduced bandwidth I’d guess). And yes, I think their use of Cable Cards was strictly Verizon’s choice.

    I assume VZ has a lot more bandwidth in their fake RF network than a typical real one though, since they can fake a 1GHz plant, have no analog channels taking up space, and don’t use any of the QAM frequencies used up by SDV or On Demand. This should mean they don’t have to play the sort of tricks others are playing like 3:1 HD channels in 1 6MHz band and so forth, so I’d expect their HD channels to look better than other cableco’s, but I don’t have any facts to back this up.

    @Dave Seems unlikely anybody is going to be doing cooperative scheduling anytime soon. More likely the central home DVR with 6 tuners and lots of terminals approach various companies were playing with at CES will make this less important.

  23. ” I didn’t think the FCC made them use CableCARD, I thought they agreed to do so on their own.”

    And

    “I think their use of Cable Cards was strictly Verizon’s choice.”

    Of course, these are just flatly incorrect. The FCC (correctly) mandated CableCARD into FIOS for the reasons outlined above. If you are running fat pipes into consumers’ homes to deliver TV, the FCC (correctly) doesn’t care if the last-mile is coax or fibre.

    And if the FCC hadn’t done their job in administering the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Verizon quite certainly wouldn’t be offering the CableCARD option “voluntarily”.

    No one who offers the CableCARD option to consumers does so voluntarily. CableCARD is one of the only regulatory triumphs for consumers in American telco over the past twenty years.

  24. MZ, Glenn, Agree on the technical distinctions. But from a consumer perspective, it’s all “cable tv.” Incidentally, Verizon is moving towards IPTV and H.264 for live broadcasts… but I guess still intends to spoof QAM (and MPEG2?) in the house in some way to continue supporting CableCARD?

  25. “Incidentally, Verizon is moving towards IPTV and H.264 for live broadcasts… but I guess still intends to spoof QAM (and MPEG2?) in the house in some way to continue supporting CableCARD?”

    What’s the deal with the upcoming industry-wide move to mp4 instead of mp2? I assume it’s not just VZ that will be doing that. And I assume CableCARD doesn’t care what format is coming in. And I assume TiVo is able to decode mp4.

    But I’m not really clear on any of this.

  26. TiVo hardware is capable of supporting a variety of codecs and we know they’ve already got others in play via things like Amazon VOD. The motivation for moving away from MPEG2 encoding is to maximize bandwidth. Of course, dumping analog channels would also free up bandwidth and other resources…

  27. “TiVo hardware is capable of supporting a variety of codecs and we know they’ve already got others in play via things like Amazon VOD.”

    Right. So I guess my confusion is why anyone would have to “spoof MPEG2″ to be compliant with CableCARD, unless that codec is part of the official spec.

    (And hell, I’ll be happy when everyone moves from mp2 to mp4. Better quality using less disk capacity is a win-win for the consumer.)

  28. Well… in theory CableCARD is merely for authentication, but all of cable’s technology is designed around MPEG2. So I’m not sure the implications. Glenn and MZ are probably better suited to shed light. If Mari’s around (she’s been traveling), she might have some insight too.

  29. “MZ, Glenn, Agree on the technical distinctions”

    Yup. Both of you folks run down the FIOS advantages quite nicely.

    But considering this post is about the various merits of the FIOS vs TiVo DVR’s, I thought it important to pull out that one particular issue that you got wrong.

    The only reason Dave can compare the FIOS and TiVo DVR’s is our federal government. Without the CableCARD mandate, this post wouldn’t exist. No choice would be available to the consumer other than choice of wireline provider…

  30. Don’t forget the Tivo Desktop side. I save quite a bit of programming off to a pc to watch later (untethered) on any device. The big difference I find between them now (once 1.9 is released) would be the on Demand. Fios has both Broadcast on demand (ABC, NBC, CBS..) of the most popular shows, as well as cable premium. I know you will never see the broadcast on demand from Tivo, but I don’t understand why you would not see the Premium Channels. HBO GO, and MAX is available for pc’s, so why not integrate into the Tivo ? That would narrow the gap a bit. Also the Web Video catalog on a Tivo is a plus as well.

  31. I don’t see Verizon being able to move to a pure IP play in the short term. Their OnDemand capable STBs can handle it, but there is no way to do it with CableCard devices without deploying some pretty unique new bridge devices (think custom tuning adapters and IP->QAM bridges). Unless the FCC lets them drop cable card support they would need to develop some pretty complex stuff that no one else needs. They also appear to be fighting AllVid, which is the most likely way to get the FCC to drop CableCard requirements. They might try to add new channels as IP channels (like SDV providers did previously), but given the recent CableCard and SDV changes I suspect that would be frowned upon.

    As for h.264, people need to understand the difference between the transport container and codec. Cable companies currently transport MPEG-2 encoded video stream in an MPEG2 transport stream over a QAM encoded link. There is no reason you can’t simply place an h.264 video stream inside an MPEG-2 transport stream. That gets you basically all the benefits of h.264, and simplifies a lot of migration issues. It is already done in multiple places, including australian TV, and Apple’s http live streaming protocol. Though it might require software updates, every CableCard device which also includes an h.264 decoder can handle it (so all commercial DVRs and most recent CableCo devices), and it was added into the official ATSC standard as part of A/72 several years ago.

  32. You might be simplifying the industry’s marriage to MPEG2 the way I’m oversimplifying a CableCARD IPTV hybrid. ;) Regardless, Verizon must already have some ideas in mind, as I asked this very question two weeks ago and they respond on Twitter:

    @davezatz will not abandoned CableCARD – but also CableCARD can be made to work over IP delivery

  33. @Chucky The reason for the move to h.264 over MPEG-2 video is efficiency. Typically quoted as twice as efficient, meaning half the bandwidth for equivalent quality. So 7.5Mbps instead of 15Mbps for HD say. In a QAM-based network in the US this means instead of fitting 2.5 HD channels into a 6MHz band (an old analog channel frequency) you can fit 5 HD channels.

    To deliver h.264 video over a cable system, they’ll continue to use MPEG-2 transport streams. That’s the container format. Within it are multiplexed the video (h.264 instead of MPEG-2), the various audio channels (all AC-3 in the US), etc. Lots of equipment in the network doesn’t care about the video codec (QAMs say, or cablecards) so should work regardless.

    One thing that won’t work regardless is the STB. It has to actually support h.264. And some of the cable cos have been shipping STBs for decades that only support MPEG-2. For Comcast for example the only STB’s they’ve deployed that support h.264 are the new RNG boxes. As far as I know these have only recently started being deployed, and the only customers guaranteed to have them are the ones who wanted to view one of the 3D channels–e.g. not a lot of people.

    Over time they’ll find ways to put new services out there with h.264, like 3D. Or maybe niche channels (of course a lot of the channels are niche channels). Or even VOD if you happen to have one of the new STBs. For the bulk of the channels though, especially the popular ones, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

    Verizon of course hasn’t been around for decades and as far as I know all of their deployed STBs support h.264. So they could move more easily.

    Also Verizon ALREADY uses IP distribution (over MoCA in your home) for its VOD service. In the network I assume its IP over PON or something. Whatever. Possible because their network isn’t really RF. Its fiber that sometimes pretends to be RF.

    As a result I assume they could move to some channels over IP if they wanted to. Sorry but I don’t know enough about how CableCard works in this case to be certain.

    Personally I think people are over-reacting to that Verizon Blu-Ray on demand demo they did using a Samsung Blu-Ray player. Not sure the move to ‘everything is a STB’ is as simple as VZ is saying. But they’ve certainly got a better shot than most.

  34. Glenn already address the transport streams. As for CableCard, there are two things people could be talking about. The first is purely their CAM mechanism. That can be used for seams delivered over IP trivially, just like all of the MPVDs use CableCards for authentication other two way devices, despite mo 3rd party 2way device ever being certified. That may fulfill the letter of integration ban, but it defeats the spirit, since the MPVD boxes have never used the CableCards in the same way as retail boxes.

    When people discuss cable card they generally mean retail boxes, which don’t just use CableCard for their CAM, but also conform t the unidirectional device spec, which means they use QAM, work up 860MHz, etc. There are ways to bridge retail CableCard devices to IP, they are just impractical. Verizon can implement a custom box that plugs into both the cable input and a USB port, and claims to be a tuning adapter. Whenever the box makes a tune request it could get the channel via IP, then generate a QAM stream on the output directly connected to the cable input, and report the frequency of the locally generated stream. The catch is that it is a lot of hardware (way more than AllVid gateway for instance), and since no other vendor needs it the dev costs would not be amortized across any other MPVDs.

  35. It’s too bad that Frank Zappa is dead. We could use an modern day song like Baby Snakes updated with current standards.

    “They live by a code
    That is usually SMPTE
    Which stands for
    Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers
    Maybe I think
    That is what keeps them in sync”

    Nobody seems to have worked “Moving Picture Experts Group” into song lyrics…

  36. Dave what market are you in? I have FIOS here in the DC area and they are only using the older Motorola DVR. Just today, this box was in a perpetual reboot and I lost all of my shows. Considering a TiVo premiere, but I would rather get the new set top box from Verizon that you pictured.

    Please let me know! Thx!

  37. I’m in Northern Virginia.

  38. Hey Dave how do you get the time in front of the box?

  39. Do you have the newer box? I think it’s a feature. When I’m flipping stations, it shows the channel. But at some point it reverts to the time. Not sure if there is a remote button to toggle that.

  40. Very helpful article. My new house in DC is almost complete, and I’m debating FIOS versus DirecTV+WiMAX (Clear or other).

    Quite a few TVs in the house, and all expected rooms have the structured bundle wiring (2xRG6 + 2xCAT5).

    DirecTV had my allegiance until my Tivo DVRs died. Now I’m looking more closely at the FIOS option. Though the DirecTV DVRs have a strong set of features, and menus are really clunky and frustrating.

    My current thinking is to just get FIOS internet and phone installed, and get DirecTV for TVs (this is my current setup).

    Does anyone have any experience yet on the new FIOS DVR 1.9 and/or opinions on my options?

    Thanks,
    -John

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