Does the TiVo software update to version 7.2 break serial port control of channel changes on external receivers?

by Matthew Gast

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Last September, I started using terrestrial digital TV as a program feed to my TiVo. I later described the setup in this article almost a year ago. Ever since the initial setup, my TiVo has worked flawlessly with the Hughes HTL-HD digital TV receiver. It cycles through inputs if it receives the same channel repeatedly, but it never missed a channel change command in a year. A large part of my research for the initial setup was devoted to finding a digital TV receiver that I could control over a serial connection from my TiVo. After getting it running in late September last year, I never had to touch it. The software started at version 4, and I'm not even sure how many times it was updated since then. The HTL-HD receiver just kept on chugging away, feeding my TiVo a flawless digital picture. As far as I can tell, the HTL-HD never missed a channel change fed to it over serial control.

Until this week, that is. All my recordings that took place after the early morning of August 17 were on the same channel. My TiVo had suddenly lost the ability to change channels on the receiver, after working so well for a year. As far as I can tell, the TiVo service pushed a new software version (7.2.0-oth-01-2-140) to me in the wee hours of the 17th.

It didn't take long to diagnose the problem. When I changed the channel the TiVo thought it was tuned to, nothing happened on the HTL-HD. Whatever the TiVo had been doing to change channels, it no longer was.

First step: reset the HTL-HD, and see if it starts responding. Nope.

(It's worth noting here that the HTL-HD is a DirecTV satellite receiver. DirecTV can push software updates to the receiver as part of the subscription, and software updates can change all sorts of things. I'm using the HTL-HD as a terrestrial receiver only, so DirecTV has no way of feeding me new software. It's apparently somewhat common for new software updates to alter serial control capabilities. Since I have nothing connected to the satellite port, though, I can safely rule that out. Or start glowing in the dark, I guess.)

Second step: re-run the channel changing setup in TiVo. It's very different from what it was a year ago. Last year, when I first set it up, you had to identify the type of serial control. Two protocols were in common use: MPG and APG. The HTL-HD uses APG. Those comfortable, familiar screens are gone, though. In its place, the TiVo now tries to guess what protocol to use, and those tests fail on my hardware. In the first test, the TiVo sends a channel change command. In the second step, you must reset the external receiver and try again. It doesn't work.

I unplug both the satellite receiver and the TiVo, and try again. Still no luck.

Third step: re-run guided setup to be an antenna-only TiVo. Then re-run guided setup a second time to be antenna+satellite. This takes a great deal of time, and also does not work.

At this point, I just want my TiVo to change channels, so I dig out the infrared blasters from their original packing material. Changing the TiVo to use IR control for an external receiver is now different, too. There's no longer a control code. The TiVo runs a bunch of experiments ("The TiVo tried to change to channel 2. Did it work?"), and I guess it deduces a code from that.

Infrared control has two major drawbacks. One, it's much slower than the old serial system. If I move too quickly through the channels, say from channel 4 to channel 5, I wind up on channel 45. More ominously, the flakiness of IR that I was trying to avoid in the first place is readily observable. About half of the channel change operations have failed. When the TiVo tries to go to channel 20, it winds up on 2. Or channel 3 instead of channel 36.

This morning, I went to the TiVo web site for help. According to TiVo's information, the latest released software for my Series2 is 7.1, but I have 7.2. The TiVo help forum this thread, dated August 15, says that version 7.2 is still beta software, and that it has leaked out to customers who aren't supposed to get it. The initial poster even has the same problem I do--serial control of his external receiver quit working. A response on the thread advised calling TiVo support for help.

Given the paucity of information on version 7.2 (including the TiVo community, since a beta usually has non-disclosure rules), I decided to give TiVo a call to see if they could tell me why serial control quit working. Unfortunately, I didn't get any help. I'm not sure that I got across the point that there was no software change to my HTL-HD. Although it's a satellite receiver, I don't have a satellite subscription, so I don't get software updates. The rep I spoke with agreed that I shouldn't really have 7.2, and I was part of his first look at the code. He insisted it was released code, but it was a mystery to him whether serial support was still in the code; he didn't have access to any information about changes in the software. In the end, he wouldn't admit that it was a bug, preferring instead to point a temporary finger at my serial cable. Until I buy a second serial cable at my own expense and try it out, apparently TiVo won't admit that there might be a problem with their software.

Boo hiss, TiVo! I called with a very specific problem report, and got no help. It's a good thing I have my MythTV box set up, so that it's not particularly problematic that I can't depend on my TiVo to record on the right channel.


2005-09-10 20:57:20
It suddenly got much worse
TiVo just pushed this software update out to the general public and in the process broke serial control for owners of three popular HD receivers. Their justification for the change is providing support for the newer DirecTV-branded receivers which provide some hand-shaking whidh the older receivers did not. It wouldn't seem to me to be too difficult to provide users of the older boxes with a menu option to ignore hand-shaking, but there could be external business pressures at work since DirecTV seems to want to eliminate third-party competition and force everyone to use their equipment.

Their "technical" support people, though sympathetic, are still just as unhelpful.

A sad state for a company that seemed to be bucking the trend towards closed, proprietary systems once upon a time.

2005-09-11 10:02:01
Same Problem
Yep, 7.2 appears to have been pushed out, including to those of us whom TiVo should have known would experience this problem.

I have the same Hughes DirecTV box, although I use it to receive D*TV. The serial connection is broken. When repeating Guided Setup, I get the "Serial Test Unsuccessful" message.

I'm not even sure I have my IR cables any more. And back when I used to use them, they were very problematic -- slow! and sometimes couldn't change the channel at all.

BOO to TiVo. I'm beginning to doubt my faith.

2005-09-12 19:49:23
It suddenly got much worse
My technical support rep was not really sympathetic. I spent a fair amount of time on hold to get to him, offered a clear explanation of the problem, and offered to do whatever necessary to get a bug filed against the 7.2 release. He was unable to access any documentation of software changes, and unwilling to do anything other than get me on IR. His attitude was that if IR worked, nothing had broken.
2005-09-14 22:14:54
It suddenly got much worse
It could be that they are getting annoyed at having to deal with the number of calls they are getting from angry subscribers. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a groundswell of sorts building in the forums. Hopefully, someone in a position to actually do something about the situation will eventually get word that they screwed up and need to correct the problem.

In my case, with the LG LSS-3200A, IR won't even work. The best TiVo could do was offer me a month's credit. Pretty laughable when the service doesn't even work, never mind that I've already paid for a lifetime subscription.

2005-09-16 18:52:21
It suddenly got much worse
Heh, heh. I started one of the big threads on the forum. I'm pleased, though a bit surprised, that it endures to this day. It seems like one of the reasons is that the Hughes HTL-HD/LG LSS-3200A/Sony SAT-HD300 clones are the only HD-capable set-top boxes, and those capabilities are disproportionately represented at the top of the market.

A question: With a lifetime subscription, do they still give you the money for a month's credit? Or are you just out of luck on getting anything?

2005-09-22 06:49:02
It suddenly got much worse
As far as I can tell, I have NO options. A month's credit would be, what, $12.95? Not a lot of consolation there.

After reading one of the posts on the help forum, I figured what the hell and emailed Walt Mossberg (tech columnist at the Wall Street Journal and regular commentator on CNBC) just for fun. It could be real interesting if he picks up the story.

2005-11-13 16:11:10
It suddenly got much worse
The 7.2.1 update that just came out fixes the problem, and restores serial control to the affected systems.