The introduction of Digital Video Recording technology several years ago was one hell of a game changer in the world of pop culture. The Tivo ushered in the age of entertainment-on-demand that we all live in now – the taping convenience of a VCR with many times more storage space and infinitely less clutter on the shelf. Shortly after the Tivo was released, several cable television companies released rentable set-top converter boxes with DVR built in. Time Warner was one of those cable providers, and has been my personal choice for a decade now. Occasional technical glitches aside, I’ve had no problems with them. Until now.
After about 4 years of working with the same, perfectly effective user interface, Time Warner performed a major, mandatory overhaul that was rolled out this past summer. After sitting with the thing for a few months now, I decree that this new interface represents some serious steps backward from the previous build, actually making the experience worse. A lot of these differences may not mean much to the average user, but some of them do, and they are plentiful enough that I can’t in good conscience keep quiet. Advancements in technology are supposed to, you know, advance things and make them better. Especially if I’m paying for them, I never asked for any changes, and have no choice in the matter.
Before we dig in, yes, I am a big, honking nerd about this stuff, and it’s certainly possible you might not give a crap about any of it. But if you got this far, if you nodded silently in understanding at the mere title of this post, then come along, won’t you?
So here we go. The list of offenses:
- The channel guide, containing several hundred channels (spaced out in numbers 1 through about 1100), used to allow the user to jump ahead to the beginning of the next group of 100 channels at the press of one button. This is no longer the case. Now you have to sit on the page button, scrolling ahead through all the channels, taking significantly more time. Or you could spell out a specific number with the keys, a pain to do if you’re just surfing. A perfect example of a feature that previously existed to streamline the experience, that was actually taken away.
- Another removed feature related to the channel guide has to do with the program search. Let’s say you’re in the guide and want to see when else the selected show is going to be on. Previously, if you accessed the program search from the guide, it would search for instances of the currently selected show by default. Now, it starts from scratch, and you have to slowly and clunkily spell out the name of your show, every time.
- Let’s talk recording now. Previously, it was part of the series recording options to choose what specific days of the week you wanted to record your program. This option is now gone, and that creates a major headache. If your show only airs a new episode once a week, but is rerun on another day at the same time (which happens often), your lovely DVR will record that one, too, unnecessarily, against your will. Ah, but what about the “new shows only” vs. “new and repeats” option? The thing that’s supposed to prevent that from happening? Yes, it’s still here. Guess what? It’s broken. It doesn’t work. The DVR is entirely dependent on the labeling system of the channel guide to distinguish what is a “new” show versus a rerun. Only first-run episodes are supposed to have the “new” label on them, triggering the proper use of the recording function. Well, whoever is responsible for this labeling has gotten worse, as there are multiple instances of the same show being rerun, and labeled as “new”. Add to that the fact that even shows without the “new” label show up in the “new” recording queue, and the result is constantly having to babysit the recording list to make sure you’re not having a conflict that will result in missing something you actually want. This was simply not a problem before.
- Previously, it was possible to create a “manual recording”. This means a recording of any length that you can set to start and stop at any time you want. Now, you can’t. Let’s say you only want a small part of a broadcast that’s programmed on the guide for a multiple hour block, like on a news channel, or a sporting event. Unless you are there in person to start and stop the recording yourself, you have to record the entire block of programming. If you don’t have enough space on your hard drive, you’re just plain out of luck and can’t do it. You could before.
- The new rewind and fast forward functions are a lot more janky than before. In the previous build, it was possible to jump to a particular frame in the recording and know that’s where it would resume. Not now. There’s a terrible lag time to it, and you have to guess several seconds either before or after where you want to be in order to get there.
- And finally, the time synchronization is worse than before. The majority of programs I used to record would sync up nicely with the programmed start and end times. Not anymore. Now it’s a festival of padded extra minutes before and after most recordings, which can once again cause conflict problems if you’re not careful. Granted, sometimes this can be an issue with the individual stations (Cartoon Network and Comedy Central are particularly big offenders), but it wasn’t nearly this widespread a problem before the changeover.
To recap, these are all great features that were taken away. So, has anything been added to the new build? Aside from the cosmetic overhaul, here are a few additions I’ve noticed:
- You now have the option of seeing your recorded programs and scheduled recordings ordered by name as well as by date. Whoop-de-freaking-doo.
- There is now a “recording log” that tells you what was erased and when, a feature that seems to exist for the sole purpose of starting fights among family members and roommates. “You erased CSI!” “No, I didn’t!” “Yes, you did! It says so right here!”
- The recording list now tells you what percentage of your box’s memory is full. This is, to be fair, a nice feature, and one that should have been included originally.
- The box now allows for overlapping recordings on the same channel. This is somewhat helpful, and is more necessary now that the time synch is worse.
These are all minor improvements at best, and frankly not worth the trade-off. But what of the big feature that Time Warner was touting all summer long? What of the great and almighty “Start Over”?
“Start Over” enables the user to flip to a non-recorded program at any point in its broadcast, and have the box restart the program from the beginning of its scheduled time. A great idea, in theory. In practice, not so much. First of all, because of the aforementioned wonky time synching, there’s no guarantee the scheduled beginning of the program will be at the right spot, potentially cutting off part of the show. Second, the feature is only available on certain channels, only for certain shows at certain times. Finally, while the information bar seems to indicate the box has downloaded all the updated program information, and while you can pause and rewind the show, you cannot fast forward. This means you have to watch the show as if it were live, commercials and all. No escaping that damn Progressive car insurance woman that everyone wants to beat with a sack of doorknobs. This feature loses a lot of luster for that, and seems to be designed for the impulse surfer and those who are too lazy to schedule series recordings of the shows they watch regularly.
Now, I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but it seems to me that the technology exists to fix this and enable the fast forwarding. Advertisers have been biting their nails for years ever since the advent of DVR, trying to figure out ways of forcing viewers to not skip over their commercials, even approaching certain DVR manufacturers to develop technology to solve this problem. This seems an awful lot like the first step toward that goal.
So, in conclusion …well, you get the idea. I just don’t understand how there could be any number of people in focus groups or in boardrooms who actually thought this was an improvement of the DVR experience. A completely misguided overhaul now has me thinking seriously about changing providers for the first time since subscribing to cable.
Or perhaps I could just go outside more.
UPDATE: Great thanks to The Consumerist for featuring this post! It has come to my attention that the “Start Over” feature is not a DVR function, but rather a digital cable on-demand function, available to Time Warner subscribers with or without a DVR box. That distinction being made, my complaint still stands. Especially given that all other Time Warner on-demand programs enable fast forwarding. Of course, most of that programming only has one or two commercials, at the very beginning, making user fast forwarding an easier pill for advertisers to swallow.