Tivo & the Mac - Downloading Tivo files

I'm old enough to remember a time without the Internet. In fact, I'm old enough to have actually played on ARPANET the predicesor of the Internet. I was a kid at the time and don't ask me how I was able to sneak into the local college computer lab and log on. I'm not sure if the statue of limitations has expired yet.

I was also around when 2400 baud modems first came out and everyone thought it was amazingly fast. When modems speeded up to 9600 and 28k things were fast enough that you could actually download some video to watch. Of course you couldn't do it in real time, but you could do it. I still remember watching the Star Wars the Phantom Menace trailer on my Mac 7300. Wow! It took all day to download the 2 minute trailer, but it was worth it. It was only when I got my first cable connection that things became fast enough to stream small files to watch.

Now of course you have Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and even Apple's own iTunes store to get your video. The problem is, most of the content that's worth watching costs money. That's a problem, as my family will attest, I'm a tightwad and watch every penny.

Today I have a bundle of digital cable, Internet connection and a VOIP phone. I really only needed the Internet and phone but the price was actually cheaper if I included the digital cable. So why should I pay for TV shows twice when I'm already paying for cable? My monthly cable bill is high enough so why should I buy iTunes TV shows if I can watch them on my TV?  It was only when my family got addicted to some USA network shows that came on at 10:00 PM and I missed a few UW Husky games that I decided to take the plunge and get a Tivo. That way I could record what I was already paying for and watch shows when I had the time to watch them. Yeah Tivo has a monthly fee but it's the principle of the thing! Besides, a new toy is cool and fun to play with. My biggest problem with Tivo was working out how to get the shows from the Tivo box to my iPad, iPods and Apple TV where I could watch them the way I wanted to.

The standard application for moving recordings from the Tivo box to the Mac is Roxio Toast. It's what Tivo recommends and it's what Hollywood has blessed. The problem with Toast is that DRM Tivo attaches to all recorded shows doesn't allow any editing or transcoding of your recorded Tivo file. That's when I started looking around for another way. What I found that worked best was an application called iTivo.

iTivo is a great little application that allows you to download your Tivo recordings from your Series 2, Series 3 and TivoHD devices directly to your Mac. During the download it strips out the DRM and you end up with a file that you can edit and covert to any format you want.

The set up is easy. Just download iTivo from here and install the application. Once it's installed you will need to configure the iTivo application to work with your personal Tivo.  To do that you need the Tivo Media Access Key or MAK.

To get the MAK for your box you need to either use the on screen menus or log into the Tivo web page and click on the "View Media access key" link. Once you have the MAK for your Tivo box just enter it in the iTivo preferences.

Next you need to enable Tivo downloads on your box. You can do that from the same Tivo web page listed above. Select "Change DVR Preferences" and Enable Tivo downloads. Now iTivo is almost ready to go. Back in the iTivo preferences, after you enter the MAK you will now see a screen that looks something like this:

Notice that any recorded files you have are listed by show. But before you download you need to decide what format you want the show to be converted to.

Most Tivo HD recordings are large and are in a native format that Macs can't handle very well without a lot of tweaking. iTivo comes with a lot of format options. To make things easy, I recommend that you download the file in the format you want to end up with at the end of for process. If you plan on playing the file on your computer maybe you want to use Quicktime. If you plan on playing it on an iPod, iPhone or Apple TV use that selection. Remember that every time you transcode a video file you loose some resolution and detail so choose wisely so you don't need to convert things twice.

One cool feature of iTivo is the ability to edit the format parameters of the file you create. For me the best mix of quality and size was using AppleTV as a starting point and editing the variables. To do that select AppleTV in the pull down menu then select the "Advanced" tab.

In the "encoder video options" I edited the bitrate to 1800 and changed the video size from the AppleTV standard 960x540 to 720x480. Just edit thethe "dsize" variable. You can see the edits in the screen shot above.I also bumped up the audio to a bitrate in the "encoder audio options" to 224.

After you make these edits, select the "Save Custom Format" box and give it a name. Then you can pick it again with the next download without manually changing the variables each time.

Another option is to let iTivo remove commercials. It's a cool tool and great idea but in my testing it really doesn't work all that well. you end up with bits of your show missing or part of some lame commercial for a product you don't want. I would leave this option out.

Lastly you can schedule your downloads for a specific time. Remember that when you download you are transcoding the file so it will take a lot of CPU power. If you have a slower mac you may want to schedule it for late at night to minimize the impact to other processes.

Once you have set all your variables just select the show you want to download and click the download show button. You can read the iTivo Help or FAQ pages and learn about other tweaks you can make to this great application but that's the basics.

In my next post I'll show you how to edit the file and remove all the commercials.

UPDATE - 2/20/2013

iTiVo was broken for Mac OSX 10.8 Mountain Lion  but as of 2/20/2013 iTiVo is working again. The application does needs a manual fix however. Please download the latest iTiVo and apply the fix outlined in the this MacITHelp post