Review: Roxio Toast 8 Titanium with TiVoToGo
Pros: A best-of-breed disc burning solution for Mac users, now with the TiVo-authorized ability to transfer and convert TiVo videos into iPod- and iTunes-ready files, as well as DVDs. Relatively easy to use, creates largely correct iTunes file tags.
Cons: iPod/iTunes resolution is artifically capped at 320x240, below current standards of top competing options for Mac users. Less than complete automation of the TiVo-to-iTunes process, requiring slightly tricky reliance on multiple program windows to complete all the steps, and some retagging. Though computer- and network-dependent, speed of iPod format conversion remains far below realtime, and resulting files are unnecessarily large relative to their Apple Store- created alternatives.
If you’re a Macintosh owner with a yen for iPod- or iTunes-viewable TV shows, you have several options: buy episodes individually from Apple’s iTunes Store, use a dedicated Mac-based recorder from Elgato Systems’ EyeTV family, or transfer videos from a non-Mac recording device connected either to your TV or the cable line. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to pay episodically to carry around your free broadcast television, or keep your computer turned on 24 hours a day as a recorder, and a device such as TiVo’s excellent line of dedicated digital video recorders could create iPod-ready files for immediate transfer. But we’re not in an ideal world, and in fact, it’s taken until this month for TiVo to offer any formal solution for Mac users to view TiVo-recorded videos on the iPod, or within iTunes.
Thankfully, Roxio has released Toast 8 Titanium ($100), a program - currently, the only program - capable of both transferring TiVo content to your Mac and transforming it into iTunes/iPod-compatible files. Put flippantly, it also does a lot of other stuff, too: TiVo-features aside, Toast has been and remains the definitive CD, DVD, and now Blu-Ray Disc mastering software suite for Mac users, and the iPod and TiVo functionality is just gravy. Since iLounge is iPod- and iTunes-focused, and not concerned with Toast’s myriad disc-related features, we’re neither assigning a product-wide rating to Toast 8 Titanium nor rating it solely on the highs and lows of its iPod/TiVo conversion functionality; rather, this review is meant to describe what it does, how well it works, and what future iterations of the iPod and TiVo software need to do in order to remain useful to Mac iPod and iTunes users.
In short, Toast 8 is the best TiVo program of its type yet released for the Mac, and relatively easy to use, however, it neither automates the entire TiVo-to-iTunes process, nor permits iPod encoding at higher than 320x240 resolutions. Notably, Toast 8 actually does a better job outputting TiVo content to DVD format - apparently because of TiVo corporate-imposed resolution limitations - than it does at creating iPod-ready files, an issue that will limit the software’s appeal to those who watch videos through iTunes, or intend to do so with the impending Apple TV.
What Toast 8 Titanium Does for TiVo and iPod/iTunes Users
Toast 8 offers several related benefits for TiVo and iPod users, which divide up neatly into “transferring” and “encoding” categories. On the transferring front, Toast 8 offers full support for automatic or manual TiVoToGo video exporting from any Series 2 TiVo device. (This assumes that you have both a wireless network and a wireless adapter for your TiVo, such as the official TiVo Wireless G USB Network Adapter; as noted below Toast 8 requires virtually no additional work on your part.) Users can browse the contents of their TiVos, select any given show or batch of shows for single-episode immediate or series-wide automatic transfers, and leave the transfer process running in the background. Once a file has been transferred to your Mac in .TIVO format, Toast 8 offers the ability to convert it into an iPod-ready MPEG-4 or H-264 file, or DVD.
The first thing you’ll notice when booting Toast 8 is its redesigned user interface, which features subtle background visual effects, a large, easy to use window pane to fill with burnable content, and a new floating window called the Media Browser. It turns out that the Media Browser is absolutely necessary for using the TiVo exporting features of the program, so you can’t really close it.
Setting up Toast for the first time lets you choose whether or not to use TiVoToGo. Roxio’s done a fantastic job of simplifying this process - you literally only enter your TiVo’s Media Access key, and Toast 8 automatically finds your TiVo, then displays its contents on a TiVo Transfer screen. We needed to reboot Toast once to get our TiVo box to show up in the TiVO DVRs list, which again turns out to be absolutely necessary for using the exporting features.
With the TiVo selected in the TiVo DVRs list, you can pick an individual episode of a show - or multiple episodes - to transfer to your Mac. Start Transfer and Auto Transfer buttons are found at the bottom right of this screen, replaced by Stop Transfer and Remove Auto Transfer buttons when a transfer’s in process. The Transfers list at left shows you a queue of what’s happening at a given moment. Auto Transfer features let you schedule new episodes of a series for automatic delivery to your Mac, whenever it’s turned on.
Within the queue, you can see how long it takes to send a file from your TiVo to your Mac - in each of several tests we conducted, Toast 8 required 45-47 minutes for 36 minute (688MB) shows, conversion time not included. Description details later to be included in the file’s tag are evident at the top; Toast 8 properly tags the file as a TV Show, gives it its Show, Episode ID, Artist, and Comments, but doesn’t give it an episode number, season number, or standard iTunes cover art - you’ll need to do these yourself, which can be very time-consuming when dealing with multiple files.
The next step is to convert the file from .TIVO format to iPod format, which is unfortunately the part that Toast 8 neither automates nor makes easy enough. We needed to consult two separate sets of instructions - this one in particular - to figure it all out. Once you have the TiVo file ready, you can drag it from the Media Browser into the Toast 8 main window, then select the EXPORT VIDEO option from the “Disc” menu, or the Export button at the bottom of the main window. (Without conversion, you can also just watch it on your Mac with the included Video Player, provided by Elgato.)
What Toast 8 Creates, and Fails to Create, for iPod/iTunes Users
Toast 8’s conversion window provides you with two options if you want to watch the video on your iPod: “Fastest” (MPEG-4) or “Smallest” (H.264) encoding. In our tests on a dual-2.0GHz MacBook Pro with other light tasks going on at the same time, it took around 40 minutes for our 36-minute test .TIVO files to be converted. While that’s not awful, that meant that a 36-minute show took almost 1.5 hours to turn into an iPod-ready video; aside from a direct-to-H.264 hardware solution, our wish list for TiVo would include near-simultaneous transferring and encoding rather than having to wait for one stage to finish before beginning the next. Of note: Toast 8 also includes settings for “iTunes” (audio-only ripping), “PSP,” and “PSP Audio” modes, the former really requiring a name (and perhaps perception) change, given how much iTunes’ video functionality has evolved over the past year.
The disappointment really begins with this window’s small print. Whether you’re converting videos into “fast,” “small,” or “PSP” format, Toast 8 notifies you that “Your video will be exported at 320x240 resolution, the maximum size allowed by TiVo.” The second half of the sentence makes clear that Roxio wants to disclaim responsibility for what’s ultimately going to be an iPod user’s biggest gripe with the program: even though your TiVo can record videos at a resolution higher than that of the iPod’s screen - better than even the one on Apple’s upcoming iPhone - Toast 8 can’t, putting it at a distinct disadvantage relative to Elgato’s recently released EyeTV 2.3.3 software, which creates 640x480 iTunes-ready videos, just like the ones sold from the iTunes Store. Toast 8’s videos are fine for current 5G iPods, but a major bummer for those who were hoping to export their TiVo videos for later playback on iTunes, Apple TV, or future Apple portable devices like the iPhone.
These full-frame pictures (iTunes on top, Toast on bottom) illustrate the difference between an iTunes Store-purchased, 640-pixel wide image and Toast 8’s H.264-format video. The iTunes video is more detailed, colorful, and color-accurate across the frame; the Toast 8 video is blurrier and more muted in its tones. A 100% crop below shows just how the detail differences play out on a larger screen; Andy from The Office holds up a cell phone that clearly is dialing Dunder-Mifflin in the iTunes video, but can barely be made out in the Toast video.
On a 5G iPod’s screen, the detail differences mightn’t be as obvious, but on iTunes or an Apple TV, they will be. There are also a couple of other noticeable issues that other applications have handled better: the Toast 8 video preserves the black letterboxes at the top and bottom of every frame - plus a little on the sides - rather than offering you the option to cut them out. For shows filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, this isn’t an issue, but newer 16:9-formatted shows (like The Office) lose the iPod’s Widescreen setting zoomed display functionality as a consequence.
There’s also the issue of file size optimization. Using Toast 8’s MPEG-4 (“Fastest”) setting, the files we created consumed over 340MB of disk space, even though they offered around 1/4 the resolution of a comparable length 320MB iTunes Store download; H.264 (“Smallest”) created more acceptable 205MB files, instead, but neither the MPEG-4 or H.264 videos were as optimized as they could have been. The ability to cut off accidentally recorded start and end material, automated commercial snipping, and more control over the video encoding quality would really help Toast 8’s TiVoToGo solution rival what we’ve seen in user-assembled TiVo software for the PC.
Though this is currently the best fully legal TiVo-transferring solution for iPod owners - the reason it won our 2007 Best of Show Award - it’s clear that Toast 8 Titanium still has some improvements yet to be made, both under the hood and in its Direct-to-iPod TiVo encoding process, which could be simpler. For obvious reasons - especially our desire to watch DVD-quality content through iTunes and devices such as the Apple TV rather than merely through DVD players, which TiVo supports - it’s our sincere hope that TiVo and Roxio will remove Toast 8’s artificial 320x240 resolution limitation. Absent that, we’d strongly suspect that unauthorized TiVo alternatives - and direct-to-computer recorders such as Eye TV - will become the options of choice for users based largely on their superior video quality.