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  AT&T U-verse

or, They killed my Tivo, but life goes on



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March 16, 2009 The Day They Killed my Tivo

A few weeks ago I got a call from Comcast that they were changing things. It would be ok. They would take care of me. They were moving most of their channels to digital. They'd give me a converter box - and a remote! - for free. Oh crap. I don't want another box. I don't want another remote. I asked the nice lady, "how will this affect my Tivo?" She didn't know. It didn't sound good to me.

Today I got this email from Tivo

Dear TiVo Customer,

Comcast Cable is transitioning to all-digital cable. With all-digital cable, extended basic cable channels will be broadcasting only in digital, and you will need a digital cable box to view them.

Note: basic cable channels will continue to be broadcast in analog format, as usual. Your TiVo DVR will have limited dual-tuning functionality as a result of this change from Comcast Cable. Please contact Comcast Cable for information on which channels will be affected by this transition.

To ensure you are informed on the effects of this transition and your upgrade options, please visit our Support Page.

Thanks for being a valued TiVo customer!

Your friends at TiVo

That's it. Comcast put the knife into my Tivo. Damn, I loved my Tivo.

I just went to ATT and signed up for their U-verse product. I have been enticed by their offer of a free DVR with the ability to record four shows at a time. The free DVR comes with the cheapest package too! And I want to go cheap.

Unfortunately, the "u-family" line up includes all the channels I want, except Comedy Central and Discovery. Shit. OK, I have to go up to the U100. U100 is same price, but more channels. How can that be? Oh, no DVR. So now I'm up to U200 and just over $100 a month for TV and Internet. I guess I'll live with it.

I do remember how bad the user interface was on the Dish Network DVR. It was so bad we cancelled the Dish. I guess now I'm going to take the leap to ATT and hope their DVR doesn't suck. Stay tuned. The guy installs this Friday.

29 March 2009

I now have about two weeks under my belt with the new ATT U-verse. It's been ok, but not perfect.

First the good: The installer, Damien, was excellent. U-verse is all IP based. I have a lot of wiring already, but he added a few more CAT5 lines. The install took five hours, and he worked diligently. Along the way he answered all of my questions and even volunteered a few things I didn't think to ask. He deserves a raise.

The service turned on and worked. That was good. The DVR user interface is very good. It's more responsive than Tivo. The remote control is good, buttons in convenient places.

The DVR has a skip-forward-60-seconds button which I dearly loved in my ReplayTV and missed in the Tivo. The DVR can also record up to four shows at the same time. Each TV in my house that has an ATT box can watch either live TV or any thing recorded on the DVR.

The DVR is tied into the U-verse web site, which is an excellent site. I was able to schedule shows to record while in San Carlos and the DVR responded immediately - the Tivo only took remote instructions every few hours.

The show based recording has the nice feature to only do one episode a day, so I don't get 8 Daily Shows each day like the Tivo used to pick up. And while next week's survivor has two episodes in one day, the DVR has scheduled to record both of them.

They originally had Port 25 blocked so we couldn't get to our outside email. The good news is that with one phone call they changed it in about 60 seconds. Nice support.

I moved my SlingBox to the new DVR and it seems to be working completely. That's one more worry off my mind.

The gateway they installed has its own wireless access point. I converted over and it is strong enough to service my whole house. The embedded admin web site is very, very good. Better than Linksys or Netgear. I had to punch several holes in the firewall for various devices and it was a snap.

The internet connection is DSL, but it has to be fast - it supplies 4 simultaneous video streams, of which 2 can be HD, and up to 8Mbps of internet download. I won't know if it all works because I haven't paid for HD (see below) and I only got the 3Mbps download, 750kbps upload package.

There have been some bumps.

First, Friday night after the install I was in San Carlos and used the web site to schedule some shows. When I got back to Saratoga on Monday I found the DVR in some kind of hang. After a power cycle it looks like it had tried to record the shows but only had blank screen and no sound on each! Yikes. That is fundamentally bad. I was very, very worried. Luckily this has not happened since.

Second, there have been a couple of recorded shows that have video stalls in them - places where the audio keeps going but the video freezes for up to 20 seconds. I've used the remote to go back over that spot and the stall seems to be in the recording. I don't know if this is an ATT streaming video issue or a problem with the DVR. It's only happened three times that we know of, but still... this is fundamentally bad.

Third, I thought my U200 $100/month package came with some HD. It does not. HD is another $10 a month. I've noticed a few times that the video was a bit "jittery" - like there wasn't enough bandwidth. I'm a bit worried about going to HD if it has the jitters on SD. We'll see how things pan out before I upgrade.

Lastly, because it's IP TV, I can't watch TV on any TV in my house unless it has one of their IP to Analog set top boxes. Those cost $7 a month. I'm just using two TVs today instead of the four I used with Comcast. This limitation might actually be a good thing for us.

The bottom line is that so far it's good. The DVR is as good as Tivo, in some ways it's even better than Tivo. In another couple of weeks I'll blog a bit more.

19 May 2009 - Still lovin' it

It's now been about 8 weeks since I made the switch from Comcast/Tivo to ATT U-verse. Looking back, I have no regrets. Zero. In fact, I think I have a better set of features for the same price. ATT TV has been very reliable. Their Tivo replacement is actually nicer than my old Tivo in some ways - that was a complete surprise to me.

In yesterday's Merc News Tech Section was an article about the Comcast switch to digital requiring a new set top box. The writer said many people were as surprised with this as I was. I've told many of my less tech savvy friends that the switchover to digital TV would be no issue if they had cable. I'm a bit embarrassed about being so wrong and I'm waiting for them to call me. I have heard from one person that they got the free boxes from Comcast and hooked it up to their old Tivo's without a hitch; that's good to know.

From my experience I can tell you all, the switch to ATT Uverse is an easy one that performs well. If you want to make the switch I think you'll be very happy.

31 May 2009 - The Comcast Solution

Last weekend I was up at the folks' and they said, "here's a surprise for you." They pulled out the digital to analog (DTA) tuner that I avoided by moving myself to ATT Uverse. "Can you hook it up?" But of course!

My folks have a Samsung LCD TV that has a digital tuner, so there was no worries about that. They also have a non-digital Tivo. They asked Comcast about the Tivo, but the Comcast person could not help them. She kept asking, "does you Tivo have a two way tuner?" We don't know what that means, but we think not. In the end, here's what I did.

I put a splitter on the cable and ran one to the DTA box, the other directly to the TV. This way if they want to watch live TV, they can select the "cable" input on their TV and use that tuner.

The other side of the split I connected to the Tivo. I connected the Tivo output to the TV. If they want to watch Tivo then they select "AV1" on the TV. I'd stashed the infrared (IR) extender that came with the Tivo in their TV cabinet and it was still there. I plugged that into the Tivo.

Setting up the Tivo was easy, but required some time. We went into settings and changed it from cable to digital cable. Tivo wanted to run some tests to make sure it could control the DTA. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could place the IR almost anywhere near the DTA and it would work. In the end I just sat the IR end on top of the DTA. Tivo then started dialing-in for updates and doing its thing. It all ran automatically and had nice progress notes on the screen. Well done.

We then realized that the TV config also needed to be switched to digital cable. That was easy to find in the menu and the TV took about 30 minutes to scan everything. Also well done.

The final concern was the on-demand features of Comcast. Those are only available through the DTA box. Turns out Tivo knows this and has channel 1 in the line up for OnDemand. If we select channel 1 on the Tivo, then we're watching the OnDemand stuff.

The only downside in this set-up is having one DTA. Suppose Tivo is busy recording a show and my folks pick up the DTA remote control - perhaps even by mistake - and change the channel. Tivo won't know that and will be recording the wrong show. My folks are not really interested in OnDemand content so for them we just decided to keep away from the new remote control.

For anyone considering this, a better solution would be to get two DTA boxes from Comcast: one for the TV, and one dedicated to the Tivo. I'd hide the Tivo one in a cabinet so that the remote controls don't get confused. I've also been told that if you call Tivo to cancel they will offer to send you a brand new Series 3 with the required digital tuners for free. I think you have to pay Comcast $2 a month more to have them, but these might be the "two way tuners" that the Comcast support person mentioned. With this set up only one DTA is needed.

Two rants here. First, my folks would never have gotten this done on their own. Comcast is probably losing a lot of customers to the Uverse "we do it all for you" solution. Second, that DTA remote control is horrible. It has three modes it can be in: Cable DTA, TV, Other. Using it I was constantly switching back and forth because buttons I needed were not dedicated to be available in all modes. Again, I think Uverse is a better overall solution.

June 2009 - Others Weigh In

I received a very nice email from Ron with a few questions that I was unable to answer. In return he provided the following insight - edited to protect the innocent.

This is the culmination of speaking with both AT&T and TiVo.

I spoke with U-Verse and their take on it was that Series 1 & 2 TiVo’s will work but not the Series 3. The TiVo Series 3 and TiVo HD cannot be used with U-Verse. This is due to the system requirements of needing a Digital Subscriber Card inserted into the TiVo unit in order to process the signal. TiVo does not have such cards and claims that AT&T has not provided specification to them to create a card on their own. The TiVo representative did not know of any engineering efforts on their part to address this concern. However, I believe it in TiVo's best interest to develop a solution else they risk losing market share. [ed, Indeed!]

The biggest drawback for us is that AT&T does not allow the user access to the system to import or export shows from the DVR to a computer (think TiVo Desktop). There is an effort underway to utilize the USB port to allow users to insert a flash drive and copy a show to it but I challenge how many people have a 15 GB flash drive for an HD movie. [ed, Although for standard definition TV shows this would be ok.] Additionally, who wants to go through the extra step of saving it to an intermediate device and then copying it to yet another system?



Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else (although Jim wishes more people shared his opinions)