TiVo DVR owners will soon be able to watch movies and TV shows purchased or rented from Amazon's Unbox video download service. The new feature, being beta tested by a "select group of TiVo subscribers" according to TiVo's press release, will eventually be rolled out to more than 1.5 million TiVo Series2 and Series3 owners.
According to the FAQ page on Amazon, you'll choose the videos you want to download while browsing Amazon's site on your PC, but the videos will be downloaded directly to the TiVo. Once they're fully downloaded, they'll appear in the Now Playing list with all the other recorded content on the DVR. To avoid hard-drive overcrowding, purchased videos can be erased from the TiVo and re-downloaded again at any time. And the download terminology is key here. The videos need to be fully (or at least partially) downloaded before they can be viewed, so you won't get the instant gratification of a YouTube-style streaming video. On the plus side, the quality should be good: when we reviewed Amazon Unbox on the PC, we noted the WMV9 video was "near DVD quality," and offered 5.1 surround sound. Ideally, the TiVo versions will be just as good, if not better.
While it's not completely comprehensive, Amazon's service offers content from some key Hollywood content providers, including Warner, Universal, Paramount, Fox, and CBS. The other good news is that the TiVo functionality won't cost extra: the same prices for PC downloads ($2 for TV show episodes, $10 to $15 for most movies, and $2 for movie rentals) will apply for watching the content on your TiVo. Unfortunately, there's no indication that Amazon will be offering a Netflix-style "all you can eat" subscription service anytime soon.
What about the fine print? Amazon Unbox on TiVo will work only on TiVo Series2 and Series3 boxes connected to a home network with broadband Internet access (naturally). Dial-up TiVo users and owners of DirecTV TiVo boxes are out of luck, as are (we assume) future subscribers to the TiVo service for cable. And don't expect to transfer the downloaded videos off your TiVo: they won't be compatible with TiVo's TiVoToGo or Multi-Room Viewing features (though you can download videos straight from Amazon to multiple PCs and some compatible portable-media devices). Moreover, while the Unbox service is for Windows only, we assume Amazon could open it to Mac users as well, at least for TiVo playback. On the flip side, owners of Windows Media Center PCs (or the Home Premium or Ultimate flavors of Windows Vista) will likely greet the TiVo announcement with a yawn: they already can stream downloaded Amazon Unbox videos from their PCs to their TVs, courtesy of the Xbox 360.
Caveats notwithstanding, Amazon Unbox for TiVo is a nice step-up feature for both products. Like other PC-based video download services (including CinemaNow, MovieLink, and the just-launched Wal-Mart store), the main criticism of Amazon's Unbox service was that you were stuck watching the movies on your PC rather than on your TV. Similarly, TiVo had long hinted that on-demand video content would eventually be available, but nothing ever materialized from a Netflix deal announced back in 2004. Likewise, the expensive Series3 box cuts off cable users' access to pay-per-view and video-on-demand content from the cable company (thanks to the limitations of the CableCARD technology upon which it relies). Amazon Unbox on Tivo is a tidy solution for all of these issues.
How well the Amazon/TiVo partnership will take on Apple TV (coming later in February) and Microsoft's Xbox 360 (which already offers HD movie and TV downloads for TV viewing without any PC intervention) is anyone's guess. But toss in additional competition from Netflix, CinemaNow, Google/YouTube, BitTorrent, and Sony--just to name a few--and one thing's for sure: the battle for on-demand digital content has the potential to make the Blu-ray/HD DVD competition look like a minor skirmish in a much larger war.