Bugs & Fixes: Bugs affect TiVo-to-iPhone transfers

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Toast 10 Titanium allows you to transfer recordings from your TiVo digital video recorder to your Mac. You do this via a separate TiVo Transfer application included with the Toast. I have several programs on my TiVo that I haven’t had time to watch, and am unlikely to watch anytime soon. As I didn’t want these programs continuing to take up valuable space on my TiVo’s drive, transferring them to my Mac seemed the perfect solution.

The TiVo Transfer utility did its job, exactly as promised. Once on my Mac, I could play the shows via the Toast Video Player, also included with Toast 10. However, I wanted a bit more. Each hour of video took up more than 3GB. I didn’t want to devote that much space to these TV shows, even on my Mac. The solution: Convert the files to an iPhone format. This would not only save space, but would give me the added flexibility of being able to view the shows from my iPhone.

The question was: Could I do this? The answer is: Yes, but not without a good deal of time and hassle.

The TiVo files will not open in most video player/editor applications, including QuickTime Player (standard or Pro). This is probably deliberate, as TiVo does not want to make it too easy to “repurpose” these transfers, due to digital-rights management concerns. Still, I wanted to give it a try.

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I figured others had traveled down this road before me, so I searched the Web for a solution. I was not disappointed. I quickly found TiVo Decoder, a freeware utility that converts .tivo files to the MPEG-2 format. While this was a move in the right direction, it was not a total solution.

The MPEG-2 files still took up just as much space as the original .tivo files. The MPEG-2 files will similarly refuse to open in QuickTime Player—unless you fork over $20 for Apple’s QuickTime MPEG-2 Playback Component. Assuming this is your only need for the Component, I recommend not wasting your cash here. While these MPEG-2 files will open after the Component is installed, you won’t hear any audio on playback.

These TiVo-derived MPEG-2 files are multiplexed (or “muxed” in the vernacular). This means that “the audio and video tracks are interleaved together into one track.” It turns out that the QuickTime MPEG-2 Playback Component cannot demux the audio and video, which means you hear nothing when playing the file (as confirmed in this Apple article). Nor can QuickTime Player successfully export these files to another format.

While Apple may consider this a feature rather than a bug, I consider it a very close call at best. It is certainly a deficiency—especially so when you consider that there are completely free alternatives, such as StreamClip and VLC, which can play both the video and audio. However, these programs are less than ideal for exporting the files to the iPhone format. For this task, I settled on yet another freeware utility: iTiVo.

iTiVo does not play video; it’s a file converter. It accesses your TiVo device, transfers selected files to your Mac and performs a conversion of the files to an iPhone format (or any of several other formats) after just a single click of a Download button. This eliminates the need for Toast 10’s TiVo Transfer utility.

Of course, you knew there’d be a catch. iTiVo (and its cousins) remain quite buggy. For one thing, the program is a graphical front-end for underlying UNIX software, notably tivodecode. The tivodecode process regularly crashed while I was working with iTiVo, halting whatever transfer was in progress. Even when things appeared to go well, I occasionally wound up with a file that was missing the last 10 minutes of the recording. Still, when the stars were aligned correctly, I did manage to successfully produce iPhone-formatted files that were almost one-third the size of the original.

I eventually hit upon another solution that proved more reliable, although more expensive: I began by transferring the files via TiVo Transfer and converting them via TiVo Decoder. From here, I used Elgato’s Turbo.264 to convert the MPEG-2 files to the iPhone format.

Regardless of what method you choose, it will take up a good chunk of time and may require a few tries before it succeeds. While it isn’t something I intend to do often, it’s good to know that the option exists.

Update: Since posting this blog entry, I’ve discovered that if you own Toast 10, there is an easier solution than I described above. Toast 10 can indeed convert TiVo files to iPhone files. Here's one way to do it:

  1. Go to the Convert option in Toast and select the Video Files option.
  2. From here, click the Add button, locate the desired TiVo file and select it.
  3. Click Toast’s red button. From the dialog that appears, select your desired format.
  4. Click Convert. And wait.
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