What is it with the rash of new set-top boxes lately? One recent box brings the best of the Internet to your TV screen, like podcasts, Web videos and Internet radio. Another one is a video recorder that you can operate from anywhere in the world (for example, tell it to record a show), using only your cellphone.
There’s even a product that displays slide shows and videos that your friends send to it from their computers — great if they have a new baby and you’re a technophobe.
O.K., just kidding. There aren’t really three set-top boxes like that — they are, in fact, all one box. And it’s not even a new one; it’s the TiVo, which has been around for years. But for the last year, TiVo the company has been quietly adding features that take the machine well beyond its original function as a video recorder and turn it into a surprisingly versatile Internet portal.
TiVo has become synonymous with the life-changing, time-shifting magic of a digital video recorder. You can pause live TV or rewind it. You can auto-record every episode of a favorite series. You can skip commercials. You can watch a one-hour “American Idol” episode in 23 minutes — by skipping over the recaps, the previews and the chitchat.
But the cable TV companies now offer video recorders of their own. The monthly fee is about the same as TiVo’s — around $10 a month. (TiVo, after you buy the unit, costs $8.30 to $17 a month to subscribe to its service, depending on how far in advance you’re willing to pay.) Users merely lease the cable company’s box, whereas a new TiVo Series 2 costs $100, and the high-definition Series 3 is $800. The TiVo’s software is light-years more polished and reliable, but to the masses, a “free” box trumps everything.