Sunday, October 23, 2005


Watching TiVo'ed Programming on a Mac, Part 1

I like my TiVo, and I like my 54-inch TV, but I've wanted to be able to watch things while working at my Mac. I knew TiVo had added some network features to their software, allowing users to move files from the TiVo to a computer, but I'd been too lazy to figure it out. This weekend, I finally gave it a go.

The first task was to figure out how to hook the TiVo up to my home network. The TiVo does not have a built-in Ethernet port, but does have a couple of USB ports, so a USB network adapter is needed. I wanted a wireless solution, but a glance at TiVo's supported wireless adapters for my older-model TiVo showed only a bunch of old adapters that are no longer available at the retailers I checked. So I had to get a wired adapter.

My DSL modem and router were in a back room, next to my Windows PC. I didn't want to run an Ethernet cable all the way from the TiVo to that back room. So, I spent an hour unplugging things, moving them around, and plugging them back in. Now my DSL modem and my router are right on top of the TV. In addition to letting me plug in my TiVo, I can now plug my Mac into the router, rather than relying on wireless. I bought a Belkin USB wireless adapter for the Windows PC that is in the now-routerless back room, but it didn't work reliably. So I bought a D-Link USB wireless adapter, which works like a charm. Lesson learned: Belkin sucks.

Next, I needed to figure out what software would be needed to get the video out of the TiVo and onto my Mac. It turns out that there isn't any. There is a TiVo Desktop application for Windows that can transfer videos, but they don't have a Mac version yet. (There is a Mac version of TiVo Desktop, but it only transfers pictures and music, not video.) There is an HTTP server built in to the TiVo that can be used to extract the files, but they are in a format that is not usable on the Mac.

After some research on the Tivo to Go Unleashed! page, I decided to try the following:

  1. Use TiVo Desktop on a Windows box to copy a video over to the Windows machine
  2. Use the DirectShow Dump utility to convert the .tivo-format file to an MPEG-2 file.
  3. Copy the MPEG-2 file to my Mac, and watch it using QuickTime Player or Windows Media Player (whichever one worked).

So, I tried these steps, which took about two and a half hours: one hour to transfer the video from the TiVo to the Windows machine, half an hour to do the conversion, and then another hour to transfer the converted video to the Mac. I tried opening the file with QuickTime Player, with Windows Media Player, and even with RealPlayer. Each application reported it was unable to deal with the file format.

It turns out that Apple doesn't provide an MPEG-2 codec with QuickTime. They will sell you one for $20. So I dinged the credit card and downloaded and installed the codec. (By the way, this requires a reboot. It felt like Windowsland.) I tried playing the video again. This time, I was able to hear the audio from the movie, but the video didn't work—it just stayed stuck on the first frame of the movie.

The MPEG-2 file plays fine on the Windows machine. It just looks like Apple's MPEG-2 codec is somehow incompatible. TiVo has a support article that states "Not all MPEG-2 codecs will play TiVo recordings properly." I don't know whether to blame TiVo or Apple for this incompatibility.

So that looks like a dead-end, but I have a some other routes to try:

I'll describe the results of those experiments in Part 2. I'd welcome any other suggestions.

Why does this have to be so difficult? One answer is that TiVo is screwing its customers with digital-rights-management "features." Thanks, TiVo. Another answer is that Apple doesn't provide good support for video formats other than QuickTime's native format. Thanks, Apple.

Holy heck! Something that just works on a Windows box and is a PITA on a Mac? Never thought I'd see the day a Mac user would admit that.

DRM is definitely a slippery slope...I for one very much like to be able to buy art/intellectual property on one media and transfer it at will to other medias.
I've heard that VLC on the Mac will play the TiVo DRM stripped MPEG2 files. Users have reported the problem is the Apple/Quicktime MPEG2 codec, and recent comments from TiVo indicate that has been one of the holdups in releasing TTG for Mac. They're working on it now for 1Q06.
I would suggest mplayer for OSX. Versions exist usnig either the command line o a nice GUI interface more familar to Mac users.
Mplayer will play almost anything
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