Updated: June 14, 2017

Tivo HD DVR Guide - Newest Tivo Hi-Def Recorders

By now, most people have seen or heard about Tivo DVRs (what is a DVR? Digital Video Recorder). Tivo set the standard for ease of use when it came to DVRs -- their intuitive menu and scheduling formats were easy enough for a child to use, and with just a few clicks you could schedule an entire season of your favorite show to be recorded for you automatically. The original series 1 and series 2 Tivos worked great, but they don't support HD TV (hi definition). As cable companies began adding more and more HD content to their service, and as people bought more and more expensive HDTVs, old Tivos became more of a liability. Basically, you have to route your cable feed through your Tivo, and then to your TV (that's how you can pause live TV with Tivo -- it actually intercepts everything first and processes it before it gets to your TV). You can't watch HD channels on a Series2 Tivo. Enter the Tivo HD DVR (also known as Tivo Series3, though they no longer use or sell that model name). These latest Tivos have built-in HD tuners, allowing you to receive, record, and view both standard definition (SD) programming and HD programming. In this guide, we will take a look at the Tivo HD and the Tivo HD XL -- how they work, what they offer, how they interact with cable boxes, how to install and use them, prices, etc. Let's go!

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Tivo HD vs. Tivo HD XL

As of 2009, Tivo offers two HD compatible Tivo units, the Tivo HD and the Tivo HD XL. The biggest different between these 2 models is capacity and price. The basic HD model sells for $299 (list) and can store up to 20 hours of HD programming (180 hours standard definition), while the HD XL sells for twice that, $599, and handles 150 hours of HD recordings (HD takes up a lot more space than SD -- almost 10X as much). The XL version also comes with the fancier, programmable, backlit Tivo remote. Right off the bat, you should know that the Tivo HDs work only with cable, not satellite TV. Like all Tivos, these HD Tivos need to regularly connect with Tivo headquarters to get updated program scheduling details and information -- this is done either through a phone line, ethernet cable, or WiFi (if you buy the optional WiFi adapter, $30-$50). We think wireless internet should be built into these HD Tivos, but it is not. If you upgrade to a Tivo HD from a Series2 Tivo, you may ask them to throw in a free WiFi adapter (we've known it to happen). This of course assumes you have a WiFi network in your house for accessing the Internet. Both of these devices are capable of recording two shows at once, or watching one show while recording another. Both are expandable with external hard drives called My DVR Expander, made by Western Digital. For $199, you can add 65 additional hours of HD recordings -- it plugs right into the back of your Tivo in an E-SATA port. As to which one you should buy, it depends on how many programs and movies you normally record and save, and how much of that is in HD. For me, 180 hours SD or 20 hours of HD is adequate, so I went with the $300 Tivo HD. If you're a power HD watcher and user, it may be worth the extra $300 to get the HD XL with 150 hours of HD storage -- that really is the only decision you have to make, since functions and features are otherwise pretty much identical. Apart from the Tivo unit itself, when you open the box you'll find a component and composite cable (no HDMI cable), a phone cable, a power cord, and a Tivo remote. We suggest checking out Tivo prices online here.

Setting up a Tivo HD DVR or Tivo HD XL Digital Video Recorder

Hooking up your HD Tivo DVR is not very complicated. One nice feature about these Tivos is that they DO NOT require a cable box on your TV -- they basically replace the cable box, so one less thing, one less remote cluttering your TV area. You do need to coordinate with your cable company though -- the Tivos use something called a CableCARD to access and descramble the incoming signal from your cable company. These CableCARDs look like PCMCIA cards if you know what those are -- basically, little thin metal and electronic cards that slide into the front of your Tivo HD (you can see the slots marked 1 and 2 on the bottom of the photo at left). You will have to schedule a visit from your cable technician to bring you out a card and get it authorized on your cable network. The CableCARDs should not cost more than $2 per month. The CableCard slots are hidden behind a little drop down panel on the front of the Tivo -- other than that, there are just lights indicating the Tivo is on (green) and recording (red, 2 lights to show up to 2 channels in use) - the front is otherwise very crisp and clean. The cable coming from the wall outlet plugs into the back of the Tivo, and you then use either an HDMI cable or component and composite cables to send the audio and video from your Tivo to your HDTV. HDMI is the preferred method for transmitting HD signals, so if your TV has HDMI inputs on the back, buy yourself an HDMI cable and connect that way. The next step is to connect to either a phone line, ethernet cable, or use the WiFi adapter -- remember, this is how Tivo downloads its monthly TV schedules and guides so it knows what's always on every channel.

So on the back of the Tivo HD you have (see photo below):
  • 1 HDMI port
  • 1 Ethernet port
  • 2 USB ports
  • 1 E-SATA port for connecting additional external storage
  • 1 set of component video (red/blue/green) outputs
  • 1 set of RCA composite jacks (red/white/yellow)
  • 1 optical digital audio output
  • 1 S Video output
  • 1 phone line jack
Once connected, you power up the Tivo and it will go through a setup routine - just follow the instructions on screen. tivo HD DVR back

Accessing HD Cable - Tivo HD DVR Features

tivo HD wireless USB wifi adapter So now you have your Tivo HD or HD XL installed and you are enjoying all your SD and HD cable channels, right? How about that On Demand feature you hear about from Comcast? Does On Demand work with Tivo HD? Unfortunately, it does not. On Demand requires the two-way communication provided by a traditional cable box. When you swap out your cable box for a Tivo HD and the CableCARDs, you lose that connectivity. Of course if you have your Tivo set up to record your favorite shows, you pretty much already have your favorites "on demand". But how about renting first-rate movies on demand, a feature many people use via their regular cable box. Well, you can't rent movies from your cable company through Tivo, but if you have broadband internet access either though the WiFi adapter (see photo to right) or an ethernet cable, you have access to all kinds of instant programming through your Tivo.

With broadband internet connectivity, your Tivo HD can access Amazon Video on Demand, giving you same day access to all new DVD releases, and access to previously broadcast TV episodes. Rentals are $2.99 to $3.99 for movies, or you can buy them for $10-$15. With rentals, you must start to watch them within 30 days of payment, and once started, you can watch them all you want for 24 hours before they disappear. With so many DVD kiosks offering movies for $1 per night, we'd love to see these rental prices come down closer to $1-$2, but for the convenience of not having to drive anywhere, and instant access 24 hours per day, still not a bad deal, and equal or better to what you get with On Demand. If you are a Netflix customer, you can also access all the "play instantly" titles they list (over 10,000), and watch them any time on your Tivo. You can access YouTube videos, plus view photos and videos stored on your network connected PC.

Tivo HD Review Comments

OK, so the biggest complaint most people have about Tivo is the monthly fees. Fact is, if you get a DVR from your cable company, they charge you a monthly rental fee as well, and you pay extra for HD cable boxes. You could easily pay $15-$20 per month in HD and DVR access fees to your cable company. With Tivo, yes is costs $12.95 per month, or $10.75 per month if you pay the $129 annual fee upfront instead. If you have more than 1 Tivo, you get a discount on additional units -- personally, I'd like to see additional units with no extra monthly fees (there really is no per unit cost associated with looking up program schedules). Overall, though, the Tivo experience really is worth the money. The ease of use and conveniences of having quick access to all your favorite shows (and your kid's favorites) really is worth $10 bucks a month. Add in all the free movie options if you are a Netflix customer, the on demand video rentals from Amazon, the access to your own movies, photos, and music from your PC, and these Tivos really are amazing. When we upgraded to HD and digital cable, we actually bit the bullet and "retired" two Series2 Tivo models and bought 2 new Tivo HD models -- no small investment. But that's how good they are, and that's how much they become part of your life once you start using one. These are great machines. They hold up well over the years. And they really make TV easy and fun. Ours have performed flawlessy over the years, and we heartily recommend them. Check lowest Tivo prices here. If you have questions about how Tivos work or how to set them up, feel free to drop us an email at the address below.

Tivo Accessories

You can check out a variety of Tivo Accessories here -- the USB Wireless adapter, the Premium Glo Remote, etc.