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Reviewing Time Warner’s ‘Whole House DVR': Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Phillip Dampier February 15, 2011 Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Time Warner Cable, Video 22 Comments

Time Warner Cable’s “Whole House DVR” service has arrived on the east coast, and it’s no longer only available to the company’s super-premium customers.  Now every subscriber in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina can get the service without signing up for a $200 monthly service package.

The service’s biggest selling feature is the possibility of starting a recorded show on one television and picking up where you left off on another — perfect for late night viewing that continues in the bedroom before nodding off.  By networking set top boxes to communicate with one-another, customers are no longer tied down to a single television set watching their recorded shows.

The cable company is a bit late to the party.  Verizon FiOS, AT&T’s U-verse, and even satellite providers like DirecTV have offered this functionality for a few years now, but for customers who can’t or don’t do business with those rivals, it’s a nice addition to the company’s offerings.

But how well does it work?  Stop the Cap! found out after having our existing DVR boxes switched out for the new service last week.

Time Warner currently sells the service at different price points.  Bundled customers, especially those buying the company’s expensive Signature Home package for nearly $200 a month, will find the service included in their package.  Customers with bundles of services can upgrade their existing DVR units to Whole House service for just a few dollars more.  Standalone customers will spend $19.99 per month for the service, which includes the DVR box.  (Additional set top boxes on other televisions are provided at the usual rental price, around $7 a month.)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TW Cable Whole House DVR.flv

Time Warner Cable’s promotional video introducing Whole House DVR service.  (1 minute)

The cable company is deploying different boxes in different areas.  You will end up with the Cisco Explorer 8642HDC, the Motorola DCX3400M or the Samsung SMT-H3272.  These boxes replace any existing DVR equipment already installed, so be prepared to lose your recordings when you upgrade — they cannot be transferred.

Time Warner requires a service call to upgrade your service for the new Whole House DVR.  That’s because the company must install new filters on your cable line which block signals that can interfere with the boxes.  Time Warner uses the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) home networking standard.

Motorola DCX3400M

In our area, the favored box is the Cisco unit.  It’s larger than its predecessor — the Scientific Atlanta 8300,and has an updated look.  The older box was silver in color.  Today’s look demands basic black and the 8642 delivers.  Heat dissipation was obviously a major concern for Cisco, and the box is well ventilated, and even carries a fan, about the size of a CPU.  Hard drive failure is the single most common reason for DVR problems, and a spinning hard drive often throws off considerable heat.  Stacking boxes together in an enclosed home entertainment center cabinet eventually spells doom for many DVR units.  Hopefully, the improved ventilation will reduce those failures.

Capacity has also been an ongoing concern for DVR users.  The hard drives in most traditional DVRs were designed to accommodate standard definition cable programming, not today’s world of HD channel choices.  Time Warner has dramatically beefed up capacity offering Whole House DVR service with 500GB of storage — a major improvement over earlier boxes.  The company says this should allow customers to record up to 75 hours of HD programming.

After Time Warner installed the necessary filters, checked line quality, and verified where we wanted the boxes placed, in came the new equipment.  In addition to the 8642 DVR box downstairs, an accompanying “client” set top unit replaced the existing box we had in the bedroom.  The client boxes are similar in style to the DVR, but considerably smaller.  Time Warner will install the Cisco Explorer 4642HDC, Motorola DCX3200M or Samsung SMT-H3262 on any television where you want to watch your recorded shows.

After installation is complete, Time Warner adds the set top equipment to your account and that authorizes the service.

Recording and watching shows will be very familiar if you have used DVR service from Time Warner before.  Recordings are accessed from client boxes just as if you were in front of a traditional DVR box.

Basic Whole House DVR service allows customers to record two shows at once while also watching a recorded show.  If your home needs additional recording capability, you can obtain additional equipment that will let you record four shows at the same time for an additional charge.

Overall, everything about the service feels evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Time Warner is simply extending the DVR service to additional televisions in the home without the need for DVR equipment on every set.  Taking shows with you from room to room is by far the biggest selling point of Whole House DVR, but it carries a price.  What originally began as a $9.95 add-on for DVR service is quickly getting more costly.  Two rate increases just a few years apart have upped the price for traditional DVR service to $11.95 per month, and now Time Warner is breaking the cost of the recording service out of the price to rent to equipment.  That means you can expect to pay up to $20 a month for DVR service, plus additional rental fees for every additional box in the house.  Packaged bundles can bring those costs down, and asking about special deals and offers before signing up can make a major difference in price.

One thing we do expect in the future: additional leveraging of MoCA technology, which can support far more than just multi-room DVR service.  This technology can handle multiple simultaneous HDTV, SDTV, DVR, data, gaming, and voice streams. It can support up to 1 Gbps home networks and is consistent with DLNA, CableHome, UPnP™ Technology, and 1394.  That means applications like multi-room gaming, or delivering all of your home entertainment system streams across a single coaxial cable is possible.  That could eventually challenge Ethernet cabling common in many newer homes, if improvements in wireless don’t make the very concept of cables obsolete.

What Works

  • The service works consistently to record programs as requested, with no missed shows or failures;
  • We were able to consistently access recorded shows on the unit with no pixels or glitches when playing them in full;
  • The Cisco box remembers where we left off when we partially view recorded shows, for every show. This is an excellent new feature;
  • There is plenty of recording space to handle today’s HD viewing choices;
  • The box is virtually silent. We never heard the hard drive or any cooling fans, something we could not say about the earlier generation of DVR boxes;
  • The menu options now let us consistently watch standard definition channels in “stretch” mode on our television without fussing with the picture settings;
  • On demand channels are far more fluid and responsive, especially when accessing shows or flipping channels between them.

What Sort of Works

  • Playback functions on client boxes are sloppy. Fast forward and rewind functions are imprecise at best;
  • 4x fast forward and rewind functionality is gone;
  • We found an inexcusable audio thumping sound present all-too-often during fast forward and rewind functions on client boxes;
  • The ponderous Navigator software remains as awful as ever. Intuitive design is lacking, navigating through the on-screen program guide is torture, and managing and finding new shows to record is tedious. When will cable companies simply give up their bad designs and license Tivo?
  • Remote recording through Time Warner’s MyServices website or from smartphone applications remains an inconsistent possibility. All too often this service is unavailable, and we found repeated instances when requested shows simply refused to be registered for recording. This remains “beta”-ware;
  • If one of your cable boxes crashes, it can mess up your in-home viewing network. Boxes can sometimes become “de-registered” and forgotten by the primary set top DVR box.

What Doesn’t Work At All

  • You cannot manage recordings on client boxes. That means you cannot delete old shows or schedule new ones unless you are in front of the DVR box;
  • You cannot attach external storage devices to the Cisco set top box we tested, at least not yet. It appears add-on expanded storage, which can increase your recording capacity, is presently disabled;
  • Our earlier DVR, the Scientific-Atlanta 8300, recorded several seconds before a recording was scheduled to begin, to make sure the start of a show was not cut off. The 8642 does not do this, so many shows we’ve recorded miss the first 10-20 seconds of the program;
  • Multiple DVR homes do not benefit from the ability for one box to pick up recording a show if another is busy or full. This elegant add-on would be a real convenience;
  • Rogers Cable customers in Ontario report their boxes do allow external add-on storage, but programming recorded on external hard drives cannot be accessed from client boxes;
  • The equipment remains expensive. Canadians can purchase this equipment for under $400CAD, while Time Warner customers will pay rental fees… forever.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MoCA DVR Installation.mp4

Learn more about how MoCA-enabled services like Whole House DVR are installed in this video from the MoCA Alliance.  Ignoring the appalling acting, reminiscent of one of those late night movies on Cinemax where clothes start to come off, the video closely mirrors how our own installation went.  (7 minutes)

Currently there are 22 comments on this Article:

  1. Miranda says:

    As you had mentioned in the beginning of the article, many other providers have been offering this for some time now. Which is very true, and what I don’t understand is how can they charge you $200 + for an upgraded DVR system? As an employee of DISH, and a long time subscriber I have been able to do this without an extra fee. I can record in my living room and pick it up in the bedroom. I do have to say that having the option of being in bed or the other room watching the same thing as if in the same room is wonderful. Check out DISH.com for more details, because honestly why should you have to pay for something that you should already have access too.

    • Patrick says:

      Just to say it isn’t just that we get. We get the whole house plus all their premium services. So that’s a 50m pipe (maximum of course) along with all the channels and digital home phone. So you do get quite a bit for it.

      • Ron Dafoe says:

        Yes, considering Wideband (50/5) is $99 by itself, and the digital phone with voicemail is $45, $199 for the Signature Home is a good deal. That extra $60 gets you all the non pay cable stations with HD, 2 dvr rentals, whole home dvr, and better service with no upfront costs or installation charges.

        I moved to Signature Home becuase of the bundle savings. It was more expensive to add Wideband any other way. This is about the same as I was paying with 3 separate services.

  2. Javadave says:

    Why would any one want to watch 5:4 programming in nauseating stretch-o-vision?

    Does it consistently let you not have stretch-o-vision? Does it let you take HD channels that are using stretch-o-vision to show programming that was originally filmed in 5:4 and make it into the correct 5:4 aspect ratio? Food Network HD & HGTV HD are notorious for this appalling behavior.

    As to DISH, they only let you view SD recorded items on one other TV. You can’t have 3 or 4 TVs hooked into their DVR.

  3. VicVanGo says:

    Javadave,
    I can’t stand stretch-o-vision either, but all the SD content was shot at 4:3, not 5:4 as you repeatedly mention. Even my TWC dvr with the crummy navigator ui has a settings page where I can set which resolutions to use and what aspect ratio. Tell the box to use 480p, 720p, and 1080i (480i is ok too) and it will switch between them as appropriate. Set the DVR to output for a 16:9 aspect ratio so it doesnt try to resample and squish things. Next you have to find the aspect ratio button on your TV remote. Use the set program mode most of the time and the TV set will automatically pillowbox SD stations the black bars on the left and right when you switch to them. This will work great as long as the broadcaster has not stretched 4:3 content to 16:9 so it fills the screen on your HDTV. If they do this you may be able to undo it by temporarily setting your TVs aspect ratio to 4:3 mode. If the broadcaster has done a linear stretch this will undo it. If however they used a non-linear stretch which many tvs call Horizon, then the edges will be stretched wider and the center will not. In this case, squishing it back on your tv will not fix it and your best options are to switch to the sd version of that station or boycott that stupid broadcaster entirely. I hope that helps you.
    If you still have problems reply back here with the model numbers of your TV and set top box and I’ll see if I can provide more detailed instructions.

  4. Jason says:

    I recently moved and got these new Time Warner Cable boxes and picture in picture no longer works. I had these same TV’s in my old apartment and never had problems with picture in picture. Can anyone advise?

    Thank you,
    Jason

  5. VicVanGo says:

    Jason,
    It’s not clear whether you are referring to a Picture-in-Picture feature of your television which would not have worked with all the stations your cable-box receives or if you are asking about the Picture-in-Picture feature that was present in Time Warner’s DVRs from Scientific Atlanta (now Cisco) such as the 8300HD, 8300HDC, 8240HDC, etc… The universal remote TWC provides has buttons at the bottom that let you use the cable-box PIP, at least for cable boxes that have that feature. Even if you’re not sure, I think I can help you, let’s start with these questions:

    Are you still using the same remote as before?
    Which cable box do you have now?
    How are you trying to use PIP when it doesn’t work now?

    • Jason says:

      Vic,

      I am using new remotes that time warner gave me. I was given the samsung box. I used to have the scientifica Atlanta box. I’m pressing the picture in picture button on the remote to activate the picture in picture but nothing happens. It frustrating because I’m using the same samsung plasma tv I’ve used for the last 3 years where picture in picture always worked.

    • Gary says:

      PIP is not available with Samsung MOCA DVR’s…

  6. WRCFanatic says:

    Samsung boxes such as the 3270 and 3272 don’t support the PIP feature, and it’s a hardware limitation. The Cisco 8640 and 8642 box still support PiP

  7. Twila says:

    We need instruction how to set up to record and when we are finished with a recording how to delete we have the dcx 3400

    • Are you speaking about the “remote” DVR probably in a bedroom or other than main room? If so, you can’t manage recordings from these “slave/remote” units. You can only access and watch the shows.

      All of the recordings management is done on the primary box installed in your home, almost always on the most-viewed, primary TV set.

      That’s how mine works, anyway.

      BTW, since writing this original story, I’ve actually used my Whole House DVR less than a dozen times.

      I am increasingly finding the DVR experience to be more “yesterday” for me than today. While I used to schedule and watch recordings on it, these days I am far more apt to seek out shows on-demand.

      My reasons for this:

      1) The electronic program guide remains cumbersome and hell on earth if you want to browse for shows you don’t yet know you want to watch. The only thing more tedious is this week’s Netflix website redesign. :-)

      2) I find I am watching more and more shows on my computer, and I simply download or stream exactly what I want to watch that moment from Netflix, Hulu, etc.

      3) Fewer commercials to either not see at all (Netflix), see fewer of (Hulu), or don’t have to skip past and fiddle with the remote (the DVR box.)

      4) Not a whole to watch: I loathe reality shows and these silly competitions the networks cram into their schedules these days. I am apt to watch a Netflix movie instead.

      When my promotional pricing expires next year, I will almost certainly abandon the Whole House DVR if it remains higher priced than a traditional DVR.

  8. Renner says:

    My current Time-Warner DVR’s will simultaneously output on HDMI, component and coax, so I can actually watch the output from one DVR on three different TV’s (this works great in the master bedroom, with remote TV’s in the master bath and in the adjacent exercise room). Do you know if the Whole-house boxes work the same way, or do you have to pick one of the three outputs, like with U-Verse?

  9. Todd says:

    I found this site helpful for learning how to use my DVR: http://www.dvrtimewarnercable.com

  10. Mark says:

    We’ve had Time Warner whole house installed in our townhouse for almost 4 months now and all I can say is that it’s a piece of junk. Our master bedroom won’t perform the playback function 90% of the time and the guest room won’t play the HD stations about half the time. The wireless internet router has to be rebooted about every other day in order for us to establish a connection to it. Technicians have been here a myriad of times to try to fix the problems but with no success. And yet, I am still paying full price with no credit for the hassles. If I don’t get off this horror-go-round soon, I’ll be an idiot for continuing to pay for this crappy service. Unfortunately, the trees are so mature and large here that Dish and Direct TV are out of the question and that leaves AT&T….uh…..It’s a tough call. I called Time Warner again today…..for the umpteenth time, and asked what they would do to keep me as a customer. The asshole I talked to cut me off during the conversation and basically offered nothing other than having another technician come out again ….. TO DO WHAT? Something they should have done right the myriad of other times they’ve been out here? AVOID TIME WARNER AT ALL COSTS. DO WITHOUT IF POSSIBLE. GO WITH AT&T IF YOU HAVE TO…..NOT A RECOMMENDATION, JUST A LESSER THAN TWO EVILS ALTERNATIVE…..I’M NOT THOUGH. We’ve decided to do without when this billing cycle is over. That’s how much we HATE TIME WARNER!

  11. StevenH says:

    I’m finding that when recording a show using the ‘1 minute before and after’ feature, It sometimes records the show twice. Once for the exrtended time and once in the regular time.

    Also, you lose the ability to record 4 shows at once with the seperate DVR’s and are limited to just 2 shows. This is a big step down.

    My “Turbo” internet upgrade has not increased my speeds AT ALL.

    The software Time warner uses is the worst I have ever seen, next to Dish Network. Other providers DirecTV, U-Verse, etc bundle the shows together in the list, so you do not have to search through multiple recordings to find the episodes you want. With time Warner you have to search through each episode of all the shows to find the one you want.

    Overall, I have only had Time Warner because it’s all that is available at my new house. I may be going to DirecTV soon.

    • Steve says:

      I had the same problem with upgrading to turbo not increasing my speed till I realized the cable modem had a 10 mbps port on it and wasn’t capable of transferring anything faster if it wanted to.
      Not that the cable company had a problem selling me faster service…
      Bought my own Motorola surfboard modem with 100 mbps port and gave them their leased one back. speeds immediately tripled.

  12. dave s says:

    fix it or we may be going some where that dose not have problems ?give us the new package and fix the problem today…………

  13. Risa says:

    Do the filters that Time Warner attaches to the Modem slow down the internet speeds?

    • Smith6612 says:

      You’ll know soon enough if the filters affect Internet speed. You’ll find they cause problems only if they mess up the signal enough to cause a high level of uncorrectable errors in the signal, which they should not even do.

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