Putting TiVo Premiere in context

After all the hype, the TiVo Premiere was greeted by disappointment by many gadget fans. But is there more to the story?

TiVo Premiere
TiVo

TiVo announced its fourth-generation DVR with much fanfare at a March 2 media event in Manhattan--at the top of Rockefeller Center, to be specific. Media invitations to the event included the teaser: "The DVR was just the beginning."

What TiVo delivered was...an incremental update of its existing product. If you look beyond the slick new enclosure, the biggest improvements were an improved interface (using, for the first time, Flash-enhanced HD graphics and the full range of the wide-screen real estate); an enhanced search system (it simultaneously searches TV listings and Web-based video sources); and the addition of Pandora's music service.

The backlash was swift: "It's a big pile of disappointment and missed opportunity," said Matt Burns at CrunchGear. "[G]iven TiVo's inaugural role and leadership in [the] space, not to mention the tens of millions spent annually on R&D, I have to say I'm somewhat underwhelmed," proclaimed tech blogger Dave Zatz.

"It may be too early to say TiVo's dead, but it's not [too] early to see it's bleeding from a self-inflicted foot shot," tweeted Gizmodo's Wilson Rothman (though the Gizmodo coverage was decidedly more upbeat). CNET's Molly Wood (see embedded video) says she'd like to buy one, but she cautions: "I don't know that this is going to save TiVo."

Is the TiVo Premiere really that bad? To be clear, we won't know for sure until we can conduct a hands-on review (the product ships in April). Even the live demos at the TiVo launch event weren't really enough to draw a conclusion: with a DVR, you need to live with it for a few weeks (minimum) to fully experience its ups and downs. Still, we can draw some early conclusions from which features TiVo chose to include--and which the company omitted.

Here's the primary grievance list against the new TiVo:

It's just the Series3 with a fancier paint job: Yes, we assume the TiVo Premiere is running a much beefier processor than the one found in the three-year-old TiVo HD. Still, take away the fancy new interface and the (hopefully) quicker search functions, and there are not a lot of new features. The older TiVo HD already has Amazon, Netflix, Blockbuster, and Rhapsody, and it'll be getting the Pandora update via a future firmware update as well.

My TV and Blu-ray player can already do most of this: TiVo touts its integrated online media support as a big value-add, but the big attractions--Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Pandora--are widely available in Blu-ray players and TVs from a variety of manufacturers (LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Vizio), some for as little as $200. Some of these models also include DLNA network streaming and integrated Wi-Fi (see below).

No integrated Wi-Fi: If you want to add wireless networking to the TiVo Premiere, you need to shell out for a USB adapter: $60 for the Wireless G version, $90 for the new Wireless N version. For nearly the same price, you could buy one of Roku's streaming video boxes. In addition to streaming Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora, the Roku boxes somehow manage to include integrated Wi-Fi for less than $100.

The QWERTY remote is a step-up option: One of the coolest aspects of the TiVo Premiere announcement was the slider TiVo remote that includes a QWERTY keyboard--perfect for using that supersearch function. Unfortunately, the Premiere boxes themselves include only a version of the classic TiVo "peanut" remote. If you want the QWERTY, it'll cost you extra. (The price hasn't been disclosed, but we wouldn't be surprised to see it at $80-$100.) By contrast, the upcoming Boxee Box (and Vizio TVs ) include QWERTY remotes in the box.

No integrated DLNA support: Like the old TiVos, the TiVo Premiere models can stream digital audio and photos from Macs and PCs using the free TiVo Desktop software. But if you want to add video streaming to the mix, you'll need to upgrade to the $25 Desktop Plus software (Windows only). Compare that with products such as the LG BD570 Blu-ray player, PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and TiVo competitor Moxi. With those products, you need only run a free DLNA-compliant server (such as Windows Media Player or TwonkyVision), and you should be able to access the PC-based music, photos, and video files--without paying extra.

Multiroom viewing: Theoretically, TiVos allow you to view some programs you record in one room on another TiVo elsewhere in the house. But the process requires the boxes to copy the programs from one box to the other instead of streaming them in real time. Not only does it take forever (you basically have to initiate the transfer long before you plan to watch), many cables systems copy-protect their programming, making the shows impossible to move from one room to the other. Meanwhile, DVRs from FIOS and Moxi stream programs in real time from one room to the other, with no apparent problems relating to copy-protection.

Only two tuners: The TiVo Premiere models are limited to two tuners, meaning you can record a maximum of two shows simultaneously while watching a third recorded program. The newest Moxi DVR (only available in bundles) has three tuners--ideal for families fighting for recording prioritization in the crowded prime time hours. Modern CableCards can supposedly support up to six tuners. That might sound like overkill, but upping the number of recordable streams is exactly the sort of couch potato nirvana for which TiVo should be aiming.

No DVD/Blu-ray support: Once upon a time, TiVo licensed its operating system to companies like Pioneer, Toshiba, and Humax. Those manufacturers created hybrid devices that combined DVRs and DVD player/recorders. In the post-analog era of rigid digital copy-protection, the ability to burn your recorded TV shows is gone with the wind. Still, there's no reason TiVo couldn't toss in a DVD/Blu-ray player--at least in the high-end XL model--thus eliminating one more box under the TV.

Yes, that's a pretty long list of grievances. But it's not the end of the story. There are plenty of pluses in TiVo's column, too:

It still blows away nearly all "default" cable DVRs: When visiting my brother's home in South Jersey, I was absolutely horrified by his stock Comcast DVR. The interface was horrible, and it was so slow to respond to commands that you could literally count off a second or two between depressing a button on the remote and seeing the result on the screen. Suffice it to say, if I was a Comcast customer, TiVo would immediately jump to the top of my wish list.

Who needs cable VOD when you have Netflix and Amazon? Like all third-party DVRs, the TiVo can't access your cable system's video-on-demand channels. But with built-in Amazon and Netflix--and a wide range of other online viewing options--most viewers probably won't be missing much.

The unified search and access is a (potential) killer app: Again, this is going to have to wait for our hands-on review. But the ability to search live TV listings and online video sources (Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, YouTube) does seem to raise the bar on home video access. By comparison, on a device such as the Roku HD Player, you need to do separate searches on Amazon and Netflix to see which programs are available on each service (and the Roku, of course, doesn't have a built-in DVR).

Your cable guy may be selling you one: TiVo's partnership with Comcast delivered a watered-down (and glitchy) TiVo experience to some New England cable viewers in recent years. The problem was that they tried to wedge TiVo's UI onto Comcast's pokey Motorola or Scientific Atlanta hardware. But RCN will offer a version of the TiVo Premiere to its customers later this year. More such deals--where TiVo is available through the cable provider, instead of as an end-user add-on--would make the process of choosing TiVo easier (and potentially more affordable) for customers.

Improvements are just a firmware update away: TiVo is constantly tweaking and updating its products. Some of the software-oriented issues listed above--say, multiroom viewing, DLNA support, and additional Web features--could well be addressed in future firmware updates.

TiVo Premiere is the closest thing to the "one box" model to date: When considering an Apple TV or the upcoming Boxee Box, a common refrain from consumers is always, "If this thing was also a DVR, it'd be perfect!" Well, here's the thing: the TiVo Premiere is, basically, that product. It's a formidable digital media hub that can access a wide variety of online and home network video, music, and photos--and it can record all your favorite TV shows. It's not perfect by a longshot (see above), but it's still positioned as the best all-in-one solution to date.

We'll have a full hands-on review of the TiVo Premiere in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, what do you think are the most promising--and most disappointing--aspects of the new hardware? Share your opinions below.

 

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