TiVo and W-Fi -- Imperfect Together

By Joseph Moran

March 04, 2005

The world's most beloved digital video recorder will reveal some major issues when you try to connect it to a home wireless LAN. Here's an in-depth look at the ups and downs of trying to unwire your favorite DVR.

I've been an avid TiVo user since I got my first TiVo DVR back in early 2001. (In the interest of disclosure, I also own shares in the company.) However, as a long-time user of the DirecTV DVR (digital video recorder) version of TiVo (sometimes known as DirecTiVo) I've always been envious of TiVo Series 2 DVR owners (sometimes called stand-alone TiVo) because of their additional capabilities when added to a home network.

There are a lot of good reasons to add a TiVo Series 2 DVR to a home network. For starters, a networked TiVo can be programmed remotely over the Internet via a Web browser. Even better, once your TiVo has access to the Internet it no longer needs a phone line connection in order to access program guide and software updates.

If you have multiple TiVos in the same household, you can also use the network to transfer recorded shows between units. This lets you record a program in the living room but watch it in the bedroom. Similarly, you can also use the TiVoToGo feature to offload recorded programs to a PC for mobile viewing. Finally, a networked TiVo can be used to access digital audio and images located on a PC.

I recently made the switch from DirecTivo to getting two stand-alone TiVos to work with my cable TV. I was looking forward to adding these DVRs to my wireless network so I could take advantage of many of the features listed above. However, I soon found that while adding TiVo to a wired network is straightforward enough—you'll need a USB to Ethernet adapter (see below)—getting TiVo networked on a WLAN can be much more difficult and the results unsatisfying, to say the least.

The reason is apparent as soon as you look at the back of any Series 2 TiVo unit, where you'll find two USB ports. TiVo DVRs don't currently have any built-in Wi-Fi capability or even an Ethernet port, so if you want to network one, USB is the only way to do it. Since USB devices require drivers and there's no way for a user to load software into a TiVo unit, any USB adapter used to network a TiVo has to be compatible with drivers automatically provided in the DVR's system software. TiVo is a Linux device, so Linux drivers for a given network adapter will need to be available.

If you happen to have a home wired for Ethernet, getting your TiVo on the network won't be a major problem, because USB-to-Ethernet adapters are fairly common (at $30 or less, they're also fairly inexpensive), and TiVo includes compatible drivers for over a dozen different models from almost as many vendors.

Wireless Woes

If you want to add your TiVo to a wireless network, however, the situation is significantly more complicated. As of this writing, TiVo support for USB WLAN adapters is overwhelmingly for 802.11b hardware. (TiVo recently added some limited support for a few 802.11g devices, which I'll discuss later.)

Moreover, many vendors' USB 802.11b adapters have undergone multiple hardware revisions, with each revision usually using a different wireless chipset, and thus requiring a different driver. This means not every version of a given device will be compatible with TiVo, because although Windows drivers for wireless hardware are ubiquitous, there is a relative paucity of Linux drivers for much of the newer hardware. In this case, newer means less than 18-24 months old.

Case in point: the Netgear MA111 and Linksys WUSB11— both common USB adapters that are listed as compatible with TiVo. However, the most recent hardware versions of each, v2 of the Netgear and v4 of the Linksys, have been out for months and are not compatible with TiVo (at least not as I write this). Consider that these most recent models are the versions you're most likely to find for sale in stores and online, and you can see the dilemma.

There are several TiVo-compatible WLAN adapters that don't have multiple hardware versions, but most are made by smaller vendors whose products are harder to find at retail (Belkin, Hawking, SMC), or are no longer produced, as in the case of Microsoft's MN-510. If you're planning to buy online, it's best to go with an adapter that doesn't have multiple versions available, since the only way to really know what version you're getting is to look at the UPC label on the box. (TiVo has a complete WLAN adapter compatibility matrix.)

Bottom line: You may have much better luck getting your TiVo networked with older wireless hardware than with newer equipment. If you have any old USB WLAN adapters lying around, try them first, even if they're not on the list of supported devices, because USB WLAN adapters that use the same chipset as officially supported adapters may still work. You'll know instantly, because if you plug the adapter into one of the TiVo's USB ports and it doesn't immediately light up, the adapter isn't compatible.

Even if it does light up though, it still may not be compatible; you'll need to go to the Settings screen to see if it's recognized by the DVR.

As difficult as finding a compatible wireless adapter can be, configuring it is actually quite easy, just a few steps, like specifying the SSID and encryption key, (if used) and you're done.

One final caveat though—to use certain wireless adapters TiVo may need to first upgrade their firmware, which may preclude future use on a PC. This turned out to be the case with two D-Link DWL-122 devices I used. (TiVo will prompt you for confirmation before it performs a firmware update).

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