TiVo on a PC? Not So Fast

The LiquidTV / Nero PC software adds a handy video preview window to TiVo's excellent interface.I love my TiVo DVR, so I had high expectations for Nero’s LiquidTV | TiVo PC, a combination of hardware and software that brings the features of a TiVo (s tivo) DVR to a PC. But after testing out a newly updated version of the product, I’m a bit disappointed, as it suffers from a few glitches that make me hesitate to recommend it.

LiquidTV | TiVo PC is available in two versions: A $200 package that includes both hardware and software, or a $100 software-only version. I tested the $200 version, which includes a TV tuner (with antenna), the excellent TiVo remote control, and an IR blaster that allows the remote to work with your PC or a set-top box. Both versions include the LiquidTV | TiVo software client for your PC and a 1-year subscription to the TiVo service.

LiquidTV | TiVo PC can accomplish two basic tasks: It can turn your PC into a fully functioning TiVo-equipped TV, or it can turn that PC into a portable TiVo, whose contents you can view on a television set or another external monitor.

When used with a PC only, setup is a breeze: You connect the TV tuner to an available USB port and let the Nero installer go to work. It finds your TV tuner, scans for available channels, and sets the program guide up accordingly. Using the TV tuner’s included antenna, it picked up more than 70 over-the-air stations at my home in suburban Boston. You also can connect the tuner to a coaxial cable to pick up analog cable channels. (The TV tuner is Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 950Q; that tuner, when used on its own, supports ClearQAM, which allows you to pick up digital cable channels. That functionality is not yet supported in the Nero TiVo product, though.)

The software interface is the same as you’d see on any old TiVo set-top box — and that’s a good thing. It’s easily the most user-friendly DVR software I’ve found. One nice addition to the PC interface is a video preview window that plays even when you’re in the TiVo menu system. You can watch, pause, rewind and fast-forward live TV just as you can when using a TiVo set-top box. You can search for and record shows and set season pass recordings just as you would on a set-top box, and entering information using both the TiVo remote and your keyboard makes the experience even easier.

Video quality was consistently very good; it always looked sharp and clear, even when maximized on a 15.4-inch laptop screen. The audio, however, occasionally stuttered and even shut off completely a few times. I was using version of the software, which Nero says was updated just this week to address performance problems in the previous version. (Users of past versions will get the update.) Nero says this audio problem is a known issue when you’re using a system that meets only the minimum requirements for the product, which include a 2-GHz or higher processor and 256MB of RAM. I tested it out on a new laptop with a 2-GHz Intel (s intc) Core 2 Duo processor and 3GB of RAM.

I also tested LiquidTV | TiVo PC’s capabilities as a portable DVR. The TV tuner can connect to a cable box via S-Video or composite A/V (an adapter is included, but you’ll have to supply the actual cables). I was able to make the connection without a problem, but the software stumbled when it couldn’t figure out how to change the channels on my cable box. (An included receiver connects to both your cable box and the IR blaster on your PC, which should allow the software to change the channels.) After repeatedly changing the settings, I was finally able to get it working, but it was a painfully slow process.

With performance issues like these, it will be hard for LiquidTV | TiVo PC to compete with the many DVR applications available for PCs — many of which cost less. If you were to buy the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 950Q tuner on its own, you’d pay about $100 — and that includes its own DVR software. The interface quality is nowhere near that of TiVo’s, and it lacks some of the extras you get with LiquidTV | TiVo PC, such as the ability to access content stored on other TiVos connected to the same network. But it’s $100 cheaper, and, in my experience, the performance was better.

I really do want to love this TiVo for PC product, and I think it has plenty of potential. But its performance needs to match its price.