How TiVo Works

A black TiVo recording device on table
TiVo, a brand of DVR, allows subscribers to record their favorite TV shows and watch them when they want to. Rachel Murray / WireImage

In 1997, a company changed the way people watch television. It promised its customers that they wouldn't have to worry about television schedules or learn to program their VCRs. Instead, the company claimed that customers would be able to record shows -- even entire seasons of shows -- using a simple interface. Then they could watch the shows whenever they wanted.

The company was TiVo, the pioneer in commercially-available digital video recorders (DVR). In its 10-year history, TiVo has sold millions of DVRs and service subscriptions. In this article, we'll look at how the typical set works and the services TiVo provides.


Several manufacturers make TiVo sets, including TiVo itself, but they all have one thing in common -- a hard drive. The hard drive is connected to the outside world through a variety of jacks on the back of the set, usually the typical RCA connections that you would use to hook up, say, a cable box or a VCR.

The television signal comes into the TiVo set's built-in tuner through antenna, analog cable, digital cable or satellite (except for the Series3 TiVo, which doesn't support satellite signals). Some TiVo sets have more than one tuner, which means the set can record programming from two channels at the same time. Signals from an antenna or analog cable must go through an MPEG-2 encoder, which converts the signal from analog to digital format. Then the signal is sent to the hard drive for storage. If you have an analog television, the signal must be decoded back into an analog signal.

Satellite and digital cable signals are MPEG-2 encoded signals to begin with, so there is no need for an encoder. Analog televisions still need a decoder or converter in order to work. If you own an HDTV, your television can handle MPEG-2 signals without a decoder. Digital cable customers will need a CableCARD for each tuner. CableCARDs are adapters that let your TiVo receive the digital signal from the cable company. Most cable companies require a technician to install the CableCARD in your TiVo.

No matter how your television receives broadcast signals, every TiVo set records programs you select on its hard drive the same way you'd save a file to the hard drive on a PC. You can choose to watch the program any time you like or delete it to make room for a different program. With the right setup, you can even transfer the recording to another kind of media such as a VCR or DVD recorder.

In the next section, we'll look at the DVRs that TiVo offers.


TiVo: The Product

TiVo Series2 80-hour DVR
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Like any computer, a TiVo set uses an operating system (OS) to manage the set's resources and applications. TiVo's OS is based on Linux, and the modifications to the Linux kernel operating system are available to the general public on request. Enterprising programmers have studied the TiVo OS to not only learn how it works, but also to make modifications. Of course, doing so usually violates the TiVo warranty and might even lead to the discontinuation of the owner's service.

TiVo's DVRs are grouped by generations called Series. Series1 DVRs were made by third party manufacturers, including Phillips and Sony. These DVRs were designed to work exclusively with TiVo's services. Series1 DVRs were relatively easy to hack, and there are many Web sites devoted to teaching owners how to modify a TiVo to increase hard drive space or expand functionality. Series1 DVRs required an outside phone line in order to complete a guided setup process. They also lacked the ability to link in to a home network. TiVo has phased out Series1 DVRs, but the TiVo service still supports them.


Beginning with Series2, TiVo began offering its own brand of DVRs. Customers with Series2 sets can integrate their TiVo into their home network, opening up a host of new options. The Series2 Dual Tuner model allows users to record two programs at the same time while watching a third pre-recorded program. HUMAX and Sony also manufacture Series2 TiVo sets.

TiVo Series3 DVR
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

The latest model is the Series3 HD DVR, which can record high definition channels. Like the Series2 Dual Tuner model, the Series3 TiVo can record multiple channels at the same time. You can also hook it into your home network, though not all the cool features you get with a Series2 TiVo are supported yet. TiVo says that users will be able to download software to their Series3 TiVo sets as new applications are supported.

In addition to the three Series, some manufacturers offer DVD recorders that have a hard drive and are programmed to work with TiVo. HUMAX, Pioneer and Toshiba all offer such models. With these sets you can burn pre-recorded programs to DVD using one unit.

No matter which generation of TiVo you own, some common rules apply. The capacity of your TiVo is determined by the size of the hard drive in the unit and the quality setting you choose for recordings. TiVos have four levels of recording quality: Basic, Medium, High and Best. Lower settings are highly compressed and take up less space on the hard drive but may be choppy or blocky when played back. Some TiVo models can record up to 30 hours of programming at the Basic setting, while others can hold up to 300 hours. Higher settings require more hard drive space but playbacks are smoother and clearer.

The lower settings are ideal for programs that don't have a lot of fast-paced action in them, such as a cooking show or the news. Sports events and action-packed programming look better when you use the higher settings. According to TiVo's Web site, a Series3 HD DVR can hold:

  • 300 hours of programming at the Basic setting
  • 120 hours of programming at the Medium setting
  • 76 hours of programming at the High setting
  • 52 hours of programming at the Best setting
  • 32 hours of high definition programming

Once the system reaches capacity, it will search for old programs to delete in order to make room for new selections. The service prioritizes programs for deletion. The first programs listed for deletion are TiVo Suggestions (we'll talk about those later). After that, TiVo begins to delete the oldest programs.

TiVo sets can cost anywhere from $90 to $800, depending on which set you want. TiVo may even offer a particular set for free when you sign up for your TiVo service. Prices and offers vary throughout the year, so it's important to check TiVo's Web site to see what your options are.

In the next section, we'll look at TiVo's subscription service.


TiVo: The Service

Image courtesy © 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved. TiVo's Now Playing Screen

So you own a TiVo set and want to take advantage of its functions -- what do you do now? TiVo owners must subscribe to a TiVo service to use their sets. Otherwise, all they have is another box cluttering up their entertainment center.

TiVo sells subscriptions by the month or by the year. At one time, TiVo offered a lifetime subscription deal (the lifetime of your TiVo set, not your own lifetime). Although TiVo no longer offers the lifetime subscription, it does honor the subscriptions already purchased by customers.


TiVo does not actually provide the cable or satellite signal to your set, which means you still have to subscribe to a cable or satellite company for your television signal (unless you depend entirely upon antenna signals). TiVo's service acts as a liaison between your television signal provider and you. It interprets the signals from your provider and allows you to tell your TiVo what programs you want to record.

You have to tell TiVo where your television signal comes from when you first set up your TiVo set. Older TiVo units require a phone line so that they can download the programming schedule your service uses, but newer models can either access this information through a phone line or your home network broadband connection. Without this information, TiVo wouldn't know how to tune in to the programs you want to watch and record.

TiVo offers many package deals and specials on services, so prices change often. In general, TiVo service usually ranges from $12 to $16 a month, depending on the length of your service agreement. This fee is on top of the price you pay for cable or satellite service.

TiVo Competitors

Some cable and satellite companies are getting into the DVR game, either producing their own DVR units or partnering with a third party manufacturer. Many offer packages that have no purchase price for the DVR unit. Instead, customers pay more for their cable or satellite service, though most of the time these costs are lower than TiVo's fees. Major service providers that offer DVRs include:

Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products
  • Adelphia Communications
  • CableOne
  • Comcast
  • Cox Communications
  • DirecTV
  • Dish Network
  • Time Warner Cable

How can TiVo compete against companies that offer similar services at lower fees? Loyal TiVo customers cite TiVo's simple user interface and network capabilities. As the market becomes more crowded with competitors, TiVo continues to evolve and offer more diverse options that other units can't yet replicate.

In the next section, we'll look at some features that set TiVo apart from the competition.


What Else Can TiVo Do?

Paused live television
© 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved.

TiVo says that it can "pause live television." But that phrase is a bit misleading. TiVo is actually constantly recording to a live TV buffer, which it allocates to a certain portion of its hard drive.  When you hit the pause button on your remote, it freeze-frames the current image, giving the appearance of a paused videotape. When you hit play (un-pause), the recorded program begins playing.  TiVos can pause for up to half an hour. After half an hour, the program will un-pause and play 30 minutes behind the live broadcast.

Many TiVo owners use this function to skip commercials -- they set the TiVo to pause just as their program comes on and wait 15 to 20 minutes before un-pausing the show. When the program breaks for a commercial, the user can fast forward to the next part of the program. You can fast forward through a recorded program at three, 18 or 60 times the normal playing speed. By giving the program a 20-minute head start, the owner knows he won't catch up to the live programming and will be able to skip over all commercial breaks. Cable companies, television stations and advertisers are understandably concerned about viewers skipping over revenue-generating advertisements.



TiVo's search engine is called the WishList. You can enter a title, an actor, a genre or even just a keyword and the search engine will bring back results. You can tell TiVo to record every Yankees game or to search for movies directed by Michael Bay. TiVo customers often point to WishList as an example of how TiVo provides the best service in the DVR game.

TiVo's WishList search tool
© 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Season Pass

Another nice function is the Season Pass. Users can tell TiVo to record every episode of any program they want. Want to grab every episode of "South Park?" Just tell your TiVo and it will use its search engine to find every episode scheduled for broadcast and record it. It can even tell the difference between new broadcasts and repeats, so you don't have to worry about filling up your TiVo with duplicates.

TiVo's Season Pass feature
© 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Amazon Unbox

Recently, TiVo and Amazon entered into a strategic relationship so that TiVo users can take advantage of Amazon Unbox. With this service, TiVo subscribers are able to buy or rent films and television programs at and download them to the TiVo set. Amazon Unbox is not exclusive to TiVo customers; you can download the viewing software to a computer and rent or purchase films directly to your PC or laptop.

© 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Amazon Unbox function on TiVo

Remotely Programming Your TiVo

The Amazon Unbox function on TiV
Image courtesy © 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved.

If the TiVo set you use has network capability, you can install software on your computer that will allow you to manage your TiVo remotely. The software emulates TiVo's operating system. You can even program your TiVo to record a show using a Verizon Wireless phone program called TiVo Mobile.

Viewing Photos and Listening to Music

The Series2 TiVo models can access digital photos and music on your computer once you connect the TiVo to your home network. TiVo doesn't copy the files onto the set - they are still hosted on your computer, so you don't lose any hard drive space on your TiVo. Users have to install a software application from TiVo called the TiVo Desktop in order to access music and photos using the TiVo set.

You can view photos on your TiVo
Image courtesy © 2007 TiVo Inc. All Rights Reserved.


TivoToGo is another new service for networked TiVo systems. Users can transfer recorded programs from their TiVo system to their computers. TiVo has formed a partnership with Sonic Solutions, which offers software that can burn TiVo-recorded programs onto DVDs so that you can view them using any DVD player.

Sharing Programming

If you have two Series2 TiVo systems, you can network them together using an Ethernet USB adapter. Suppose you have one system in your living room and another in your bedroom. By networking the two together, you can watch programs recorded on the living room set while in your bedroom, or vice versa. Both systems have to be registered on the same TiVo account in order to take advantage of this option.

TiVo Suggestions

TiVo can analyze your recording habits and look for other programs similar to ones you like. For example, if you record lots of "CSI" episodes, your TiVo may search for other crime scene shows and record an episode of "Bones" on its own. When a TiVo's capacity is full, suggested programs are the first ones it will erase to make room for new programming.

For lots more information on TiVo and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

What is TiVo and how does it work?
A TiVo is a digital video recorder (DVR). It allows users to record television programs and store them on a hard drive. TiVo also enables users to pause, rewind, and fast forward live television.
Is TiVo still a thing?
Yes, TiVo is still a thing, and people are still using it.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Sutherland, Ed. "Is TiVo History?"
  • TiVo
  • Topix