Promising prospect: TiVoDecode Manager

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If you’ve got a networked TiVo, you’re probably aware of TiVoToGo —and the fact that it doesn’t currently work with Macs. (If you’re not familiar with TiVoToGo, it’s a software package that lets you transfer your TiVo recordings, over your local network, to your computer where you can then watch them, burn them to disc, or transfer them to a PDA or other mobile player.) TiVo has been promising Mac support for quite a while, but...well, let’s just say we’re still waiting.

Personally, I’m tired of waiting. I want to be able to put my recorded TV shows on my MacBook Pro and my iPod so I can watch them on-the-go. If you’re at the geeky end of the computing spectrum, an open-source tool called TiVo File Decoder will let you grab TiVo content and convert it to a standard MPEG video file. But TiVo File Decoder isn’t the most user-friendly solution, given that it requires using Terminal. Thankfully, two developers have taken TiVo File Decoder and slapped a rudimentary GUI on top. The results, both free, are TheBenesch’s TiVoDecode Manager 1.5.5 and Nik’s Software’s TiVo Decoder 1.3. Both applications provide a usable interface; however, I prefer TiVoDecode Manager, as it not only converts TiVo video files, but also downloads them to your Mac over your network.

When you first launch TiVoDecode Manager, you’ll need to provide your TiVo’s IP address and your TiVo Media Access Key. If you know the former, you can enter it manually, but TiVoDecode Manager’s My TiVos pop-up menu should list all the TiVos on your local network; choose one and its IP address will be entered automatically. To get your Media Access Key (MAK), just go to the TiVo Web site, click the Manage My Account link, and then click the Media Access Key link on the Manage My Account screen. Once you’ve entered your MAK, TiVoDecode Manager will remember it on subsequent launches.

Click Connect to TiVo and the app will connect to the chosen TiVo and list its contents, including each program’s ID, show name, episode name, description, date/time, and size; you can sort the list by any of these bits of information by clicking on its column header. (After you’ve connected, the Connect to TiVo button changes to Update from TiVo; clicking it refreshes the list of contents.)


Before choosing shows to download and convert, choose your download location and format at the bottom of the window. Your format choices include “MPEG-2 (native)” and “Quicktime MPEG-4 (iPod).” The former requires no actual conversion, so it’s faster, but the resulting files can’t be played by QuickTime; you’ll need to use an application such as VLC or MPlayer (or use something like VisualHub to covert the files). The MPEG-4 conversion option takes more time but produces video files that can be played both in iTunes and on your video-capable iPod. Unfortunately, the MPEG-4 option is currently available only on Intel Macs.

To download and convert a TV show, select it in the list and click on Download & Decode Show; it will immediately be downloaded to your Mac and converted. If you want to get multiple shows, select each and click on Add Show to Queue; each show will be added to the Queue at the bottom of the window. Click on Download & Decode Queue and all the shows in the Queue will automatically be downloaded and converted to your chosen format. (You can also remove shows from the queue via the Remove Show from Queue button.)


The process isn’t fast; you’re downloading anywhere from a few hundred MB to several GBs of data and, if you’ve chosen MPEG-4 format, then converting it—both processes that are slow-going on their own. And if your TiVo is connected to your network wirelessly, like mine is, download speed can vary dramatically. For example, to download and convert a half-hour sitcom over an 802.11b wireless connection took several hours one day, whereas an hour-long show took only an hour and a half another. Still, the resulting MPEG-4 video played perfectly on my Mac and my iPod.

That’s not to say this is a polished product; both TiVoDecode Manager and the open-source TiVo File Decoder on which it’s based are works in progress. As I mentioned above, you can currently convert to MPEG-4 format only on Intel Macs. You can’t customize the encoding quality or settings. And I experienced a few issues the encoding process: a couple times audio and video were out of sync, and I occasionally experienced dropouts that stopped the download process without notifying me—TiVoDecode Manager thinks it’s still downloading, but it never finishes. (Granted, a likely contributor to this latter issue is a slow wireless network, but the app should offer some kind of alert or, even better, error correction or reconnection features; after all, many TiVo’s are networked wirelessly.)

Still, until TiVo finally releases the long-promised Mac version of TiVoToGo, this is a workable alternative.

TiVoDecode Manager requires Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) and a networked Series 2 TiVo. (Series 1 TiVos do not support TiVoToGo; Series 3 TiVos and DirecTiVos may support TiVoToGo in the future, but currently do not.)

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