Guest Review by Reed Savory
I wanted to love this product. I almost physically needed to love this product. I love my TiVos and was craving the ability to finally have full TiVo DVR functionality in a Windows-based Home Theater PC. My dream HTPC system would have all the benefits of the fantastic TiVo user interface and functionality married to all the benefits of being on a PC platform, where I can expand disk space as much as I want and can easily swap to the desktop and run standard Windows games and applications and browse the web - all the things you can't do with a dedicated TiVo DVR box. That was the functionality I've been wanting since I bought my first TiVo, nearly eight years ago now.
Nero's Liquid TV/TiVo PC (NLTV) DVR software sounded, finally, like the perfect solution for me, and it had me ready to hand-over my credit card info to Nero and place an order almost as soon as I saw the first pre-release write-up on the product last summer. Fortunately for my wallet, I've just spent the last two weeks evaluating the currently shipping commercial release of the product for BBG, and I'm sorry to say that so far NLTV doesn't match the aspirations it has for itself and doesn't come close to a "true" TiVo experience. Nero has done a great job making NLTV look like a TiVo and (mostly) act like a TiVo, but the resemblance is only skin-deep. Put plainly, the current release of NLTV isn't ready for primetime.The product's most basic functionality, emulating the user interface of a TiVo DVR while being able to record and play-back television programming, does work well enough, for the most part:
• In my first test configuration, I had NLTV operating with two separate tuners and I had no trouble watching programs on one tuner while recording programs on the other and vice versa. The first tuner in this setup had the USB NTSC/ATSC tuner which is packaged with NLTV setup as an ATSC device and attached to the small portable antenna that's also in the NLTV package, and for the second tuner I had the NTSC & ATSC Combo PCI tuner card which was already installed in my PC taking its signal direct from Comcast cable without a cable box through its NTSC port. In this configuration I watched and recorded shows from over-the-air HDTV that look as clear and crisp as you'd expect while simultaneously watching and recording cable programs on the other tuner.
• I then ran the program's "Repeat Guided Setup" function and changed the system setup by reconfiguring NLTV's USB tuner as an NTSC device and connecting it to a Comcast standard-definition digital cable box and left the cable connection with no cable box connected to my internal tuner card's NTSC port. Again it worked flawlessly, and with the NLTV IR blaster tuning the channels on the cable box I was now able to watch and record premium cable channels on one tuner while watching and recording basic cable channels on the other. I wasn't able to test the product with a Comcast high-definition cable box (since I didn't have one available), but I can't see that the high-def cable box would cause an issue since the mechanics of the interface from the cable box into the tuner (via coax cable coming from the cable box's OUT) and the cable box control method (via the NLTV IR blaster) would be exactly the same as with the standard-definition tuner.
• The final configuration I tried was the same as the second, but I also connected the ATSC port on my internal tuner card to an external antenna in an effort to test NLTV working with more than two tuners (the product specs say it can handle as many as four simultaneous video sources). Unfortunately I couldn't get this working despite spending more than a day trying - every attempt to reconfigure NLTV with all three tuners connected failed. As soon as I'd start the "Repeat Guided Setup" function in the software, the program would sit and do nothing - I left it running for two hours with no results, and then restarted the PC to try it again and left it running all night, and again found no change in the program the next morning. The NLTV software was still responsive, and I could get back to the main menu by hitting the TiVo button on the remote, but nothing I did could get the reconfiguration function to run with all three tuners attached.
Needless to say, most people will never use NLTV with more than just the single included USB tuner or perhaps add one additional tuner, but since the product specifies as many as four tuners, it would have been nice to get NLTV working with more that two and prove this functionality works as advertised.
Far more worrying, my testing has found the current build of NLTV to be unstable (fairly regular program crashes) and very CPU-hungry. Annoying problems in the product can be seen nearly everywhere: from text searches not returning any results for show titles that you can see just fine when you look for them in the Program Guide grid, to an inability to transfer recorded shows reliably between NLTV and other TiVo boxes. There are even problems with burning recorded programs to DVD not working reliably (burn-to-DVD being something you'd think Nero AG would be experts on, after more than a decade selling their Nero disc-burning software).
Additionally, the current release of NLTV requires that all TiVo programs be stored in a single subdirectory on a single drive. To get around the problem of what to do if you run out of disk space, NLTV includes a tool to allow you to change to a different drive and/or subdirectory location whenever you want to, and it then moves all your existing programs over to the new location. If you run out of space, you just go out and get yourself a nice big external USB drive, plug it in, and run the tool, selecting your new drive as the storage location for NLTV, at which point it moves all your existing recorded shows over to the new drive - which would be fine except that when I used the tool, it moved my storage location to the external drive but lost all but one of my recorded shows, the rest simply vanished from both the source and target locations.
And as far as Nero themselves go, they've been very responsive to discussing the problems I've seen (the total list of problems I've encountered so far runs to nearly two pages), and were already aware of most of the problems I ran into. And they did seem genuinely concerned about the problems I found that they hadn't encountered previously.
That said, my concern is that based on what I've seen, NLTV isn't yet a finished product that should be on the market - I consider the current release as being no more mature than perhaps a late beta-stage product, and certainly not refined enough to even be called a release candidate. Bottom-line, I can't honestly recommend the NLTV product, in its current release, to anyone.
If you want a decent, stable DVR application running on Windows, for now I'd have to say to stick with the Microsoft MediaCenter application that's built-in to XP MediaCenter and Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, or look at some of the other commercial or freeware DVR apps that are out there already.
If you're a dedicated TiVo user like me, stick with the free TiVo Desktop for viewing your recorded TiVo programs on your PC (or pay the small fee for TiVo Desktop Plus if you also want iPod/PSP conversion capabilities), use something like the open source "pytivo" app to share PC content with your TiVo boxes, and keep using your TiVo DVR to record your shows. NLTV might seem like the right way to go particularly for existing TiVo owners, but at present anyone who is used to the reliability and ease of a TiVo DVR is just going to frustrate themselves bumping-up against all the problems in NLTV.
The boxed NLTV product (with included USB NTSC/ATSC TV tuner and portable antenna, TiVo remote control, and USB remote receiver/IR blaster) is currently available on Amazon for about $105 (which includes one year free of the mandatory $12.95/month TiVo subscription service) which is indeed a considerable cost savings over the purchase of a TiVo HD or HD XL DVR and having to pay for one year of subscription service. But until NLTV works as promised, all the cost savings in the world doesn't mean much.
If you want to get into a high-def TiVo unit, and are on a budget, then look at a refurbished TiVo - the TiVo web site is currently selling refurbished TiVo HD units for prices starting at $180. You'll of course still have to pony-up for the $12.95 monthly fee, and you'll want to pick yourself up the $160 TiVo-certified external harddrive upgrade as soon you've got some cash to spare.
I still want to be able to buy NLTV, and to have full TiVo functionality on my Windows PC - I really, really do. But I'll wait until NLTV works as advertised.
Reed Savory is an Eastern Massachusetts native and resident, a senior-level manager with twenty-five years experience in Information Technology operations management and strategic planning, an award-winning technology writer, the proud father of two young boys, and an occasional guest blogger here at Boing Boing Gadgets. Reed can be reached via email at email@example.com.