Updated: June 14, 2015
What is TiVo?NOTE: 2013/2014 update - see review of HD Tivo here.
To put it simply, TiVo is like a VCR on steroids. Also called a personal video recorder (or PVR) or digital video recorder (DVR), TiVo is a electronic filled box you connect to your cable TV. Inside is a hard drive, just like in a computer, that stores dozens or hundreds of hours of TV programming. But instead of complicated VCR programming that no one actually uses, Tivo comes with a spectacularly simple software interface you control through a handy remote control.
So how does it all work? You plug your incoming cable signal (whether regular cable or DirecTV or Dish Network or satellite) into the Tivo, then plug your Tivo into your TV. From then on, everything you see is coming from the Tivo hard drive - even live TV, enabling you to "pause" TV. Live TV is buffered onto the hard drive and temporarily stored there, allowing you to rewind what you just saw, or pause live TV while you get a snack or put the kids to bed. Un-pause, and you are back where you left off, while everything you missed has been recorded to the hard drive. In this strange way, you may be several minutes "behind" live TV, since you are actually now watching it off the Tivo box and not off any live broadcast.
And this is what makes Tivo so great - you are now free from normal TV schedules and time limitations. This is called "time-shifting", meaning you watch programs when you want, instead of when the networks want. Now that you control live TV, you also control everything that was on in the past via simple recording options. Tivo connects via a phone line to a central computer that contains DETAILED listings of every program on TV/cable. Periodically, it dials in, downloads the entire schedule, and stores it. You can then search by program title, subject, star, etc. and find any upcoming show. You can also browse live and upcoming schedules, reading summaries of each episode and seeing at a glance what is on every channel at every time. Find something you like, click the RECORD button on the remote, and it will be recorded. Choose a Season Pass, and every episode of that show is recorded automatically. Amazingly simple, tell it to record your favorite 10 shows, and they will all be there waiting for you when you want to watch them.
The Tivo remote control brings up options for Live TV or What's Playing on Tivo (for recorded shows). Shows are stored by most recent recordings, with an option to store episodes of the same show in little folders, so all your General Hospital episodes are in a folder called "General Hospital" and so on. Just click what you want to play, and off you go. Again, you can pause and resume any show you are watching. Another favorite button is the 8 second rewind - punch it once or a few times to jump back if you missed something. You can also fast forward or rewind at 3 different speeds, and the little beeps and pops sound effects will soon be like music to your ears as you blast around from program to program.. Most people love to breeze past 2 minutes of commercials in about 10 seconds - you'll find you can watch an hour show in about 45 minutes! And Tivo has an interesting smart feature during high-speed fast forward - it knows you have a little delay in your brain between the time you WANTED to hit play and the time you ACTUALLY hit play and skips back a few seconds so you don't overshoot the point you wanted to start watching again - amazing!
Tivo boxes come in various capacity sizes, ie. 40 hours of programming, or 120 hours of storage (usually at lowest quality setting). Other versions now contain a built-in DVD-Recording (Humax) unit so you can burn your favorite shows to DVD for permanent storage (build your own complete seasons of whatever!). Things like the Hughes DirecTV HDTV receiver come direct from the provider. Some cable companies like Comcast provide Tivo functions - see what is available in your area.
TiVo User Complaints?The main complaint about Tivo is cost. You have to pay $100-$400 upfront when you buy a stand alone Tivo DVR. Some companies like DirecTV have Tivo functions built into their cable box they provide. Then you pay a monthly fee to Tivo, around $12-$15 for the programming updates. And of course you need to plug the Tivo into a phone line so it can dial in and get the programming info, and your TV space may not always be near a phone cord. Another complaint is quality, especially on big screen TVs. Tivo compresses video as it records it (with several options as to quality level - for example, you might be able to store 10 hours at top quality setting, and 50 hours at low quality setting), so watching programs through Tivo can often appear slightly blurry or pixelly. As HDTV becomes more common, Tivo has plans to deal with this and allow you to see TV as it was meant to be seen.
There are also concerns about privacy, since Tivo knows everything you watch, when, what ads you skip past, etc. However, most people find it is worth it, and once they get it, they are hooked Tivo fanatics!
TiVo Resource Links?The official Tivo website is here. Information on how or where to buy Tivo can be found there.
Tivo FAQs and Questions - here. Things like "Does Tivo work with Digital Cable?", "Does Tivo work with HDTV?", "What is Tivo2Go or TivoToGo?", etc.