TiVo Premiere: First impressions

TiVo Premiere is the DVR pioneer's fourth-generation digital video recorder. Is it an evolutionary update of the company's previous HD DVR, a must-have upgrade, or something in between?

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The TiVo Premiere is finally here, and I've gotten a chance to live with it for the past week. Thanks to a late CableCard installation, I'm not quite ready to wrap up the review on the product, but I've seen enough to share some detailed impressions. And it is, in many ways, a tale of two TiVos. Or, more specifically, two sets of prospective TiVo customers. TiVo newbies--those who have suffered with "generic" DVRs from their cable providers and are coming to a real TiVo for the first time--will find themselves getting an all-in-one digital box that's an easy-to-use and elegant gateway to a wide range of TV and online video and audio entertainment. Meanwhile, TiVo die-hards are likely to be disappointed: the TiVo Premiere is merely an evolutionary step-up from previous Series3 and TiVo HD models, not the sort of game-changing product that the original TiVo was. It adds an updated, high-def user interface, universal search option, and faster operation--and not too much else.

The basics

The TiVo Premiere is the company's first Series4 DVR. The box itself is more svelte than previous TiVos, and has circular notification lights up front that keep you apprised of what it's doing (recording TV, downloading Web video, and acknowledging signals from the remote). The remote is a classic TiVo peanut, but the company's added four colored buttons to provide additional contextual choices on the system's updated menus--that means there's less need to jump in and out of certain menus to activate filters and sort lists, for instance.

The Premiere costs $299 and can record up to 45 hours of HD programming. Alternately, you can invest in the $499 THX-certified Premiere XL, which more than triples available space to 150 hours. (Both units are also expandable by adding a Western Digital My DVR Expander to the eSATA port.) Like all previous TiVos, owners of the Premiere and Premiere XL will need to pay a service fee above and beyond the product's upfront price. Choices range from $12.95 per month, $129 per year, $299 for three years, or $399 for the lifetime of the box. (Note that most cable companies charge around $10-15 per month for DVR rentals, so this fee isn't terribly different from the industry average.)

The Premiere models are both dual-tuner models, meaning they can record two channels simultaneously while playing back a third, previously recorded show (or an online video). As with the last-gen TiVos, these models can record cable TV (you'll need a multi-tuner CableCard from your cable provider) and/or over-the-air antenna broadcasts. I tested using both--cable and antenna--and it worked like a charm.

The TiVo advantage: What first-timers will like

These days, digital video recorders aren't anything special--cable and satellite companies rent them to their customers for a few bucks a month, and they can time-shift their favorite programs to watch at their convenience. So, why invest in a TiVo? Basically, it's the same reason you'd pay extra for a Mac versus a Windows PC: for starters, that means best-in-class user interface and ease of use.

The TiVo Premiere sports a new HD, wide-screen interface TiVo

Beyond standard DVR features of pausing and rewinding live TV, TiVo's got a wealth of more unique (and better implemented) TV recording features, including:

EPG: All digital cable and satellite boxes and DVRs offer an onscreen EPG (electronic programming guide), but TiVo's steps it up a notch, with a degree of customization and configuration that most cable company DVRs don't offer. The guide extends 14 days into the future, and it can be displayed as a standard grid or as a split-screen "Live Guide," which breaks out several hours of program info from each channel on the right half of the screen.

Season Pass:The TiVo Season Pass function lets you record every episode of a favorite show within the parameters you set. For instance, you can record every "CSI" episode on any channel and keep only the five most recent episodes, or you can record only the new (nonrerun) episodes in prime time, or both. This function has mostly been co-opted by other DVRs, but TiVo's Season Pass is generally more accurate and reliable than other cable DVR models, especially at delineating between new episodes and reruns.

Wish List: The Wish List is just what it sounds like: you choose an actor, director, genre, or keyword, and TiVo will record any program that meet those criteria. Again, this feature is also starting to show up on other DVRs, but TiVo's implementation still tends to be more user-friendly than other versions we've seen.

TiVo Suggestions: By default, TiVo also uses your TV downtime--overnight, when you're at work, and so forth--to record programs based on interests you express by using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down button on your remote. The more you vote on your viewing choices, the better your TiVo will become at finding similar, related programming, which it duly labels TiVo Suggestions. Some may object to this functionality as invasive or overkill--which is why it can be easily turned off--but for anyone who laments that there's never anything on TV, it's worth trying.

30-second skip: While this once required a user hack (entering a code on the remote), 30-second skip is finally included by default--though it's a bit less instantaneous than before.

In addition to TV, however, TiVo Premiere is also a Web-enabled entertainment box. It can access Netflix online streaming (which requires a Netflix subscription, of course) and the on-demand services of Amazon and Blockbuster (both of which offer on-demand video for rental and sale). Those are particularly important because TiVo, like all third-party CableCard devices, can not access your cable company's stable of on-demand channels.

TiVo also ties all of these services--and your TV schedule--together with its updated TiVo Search feature. This allows you to get search results cross-referenced across all video sources--TV and online. So, if you search for a show--say, "Lost"--you'll get upcoming first-run and rerun episodes on TV, plus episode-by-episode lists (organized by season) of the shows on Netflix (and/or Amazon and Blockbuster, if the shows in question are also available there).

The TiVo can also access most audio and video podcasts; you can either choose from a menu of popular ones (such as The Onion, This Week in Tech, and nearly all CNET franchises), or add your own (any MP3 audio or h.264 video podcast available via an RSS feed should work). What's cool is that you can also subscribe to these via the Season Pass function, which potentially puts Web video on the same level as anything from a TV network.

Other key online functions include access to YouTube videos, the Rhapsody premium audio service (subscription required), Live365 Internet radio (free), and access to online Photobucket and Picasa photostreams. TiVo is also pledging to add Pandora's free music streaming service later in 2010.

Additionally, the TiVo can stream audio and photo files from Windows and Mac computers on your home network. Upgrade from the free TiVo Desktop software to the $25 TiVo Desktop Plus (Windows) or Roxio Toast (Mac), and you can transcode and stream digital videos to the TiVo from the PC as well.

TiVo Premiere also retains the TiVo To Go function, which lets you copy some recordings from your TV to portable video devices (iPod, iPhone, PSP, etc.). Likewise, the Multi-Room Viewing function--which lets you transfer recorded shows from one TiVo to another in the house--has also been ported from the Series3 models.

If that sounds like an impressive list of features, and a great overall experience on a DVR, that's because it is--doubly so if your only experience is with standard cable DVRs.

So, what's the problem?

The TiVo frustration: What will disappoint longtime TiVo users

Last time TiVo had a truly new cable DVR, it was the TiVo Series3 in the fall of 2006. To put that into perspective, HD DVD and Blu-ray were just beginning their war for HD home video dominance, and the first iPhone release was about nine months away. In other words, that's eons ago in "gadget years," and some of those very devices--the iPhone and increasingly cheap and full-featured Blu-ray players--have raised the bar on what we expect in a product for 2010.

For TiVo, that level of expectation is very high--and that's one reason that hard-core TiVo fans may greet the Premiere model with a shrug of, "That's it?" Indeed, if you already have a TiVo Series3/HD, there is--at this point, anyway--not a compelling reason to upgrade. Those models won't be getting the user interface upgrade, the full TiVo Search functionality, or the faster response time of the newer hardware--but they pretty much already have everything else.

Meanwhile, while the new TiVo HD interface is certainly a step forward, it's not universally applied to the system yet. Many of the menus still use the older Series2/Series3 interface, which is visibly less polished on an HD display. More annoying is that the system displays a "please wait" splash screen when transitioning between them. It makes the system feel like it's in beta, not a flagship best-of-breed product.

The other problem is what TiVo has not yet chosen to change or upgrade. I previously highlighted many of the forthcoming issues earlier--see Putting TiVo Premiere in context . But to recap: Multiroom viewing should be streaming, not copy-based. And it would've been nice to see support for more than two tuners, at least on the XL.

Meanwhile, some users will no doubt begin to feel that TiVo is nickel-and-diming them to death. Beyond the service fee (somewhat of an unfair criticism, since it's in line with similar cable company fees), TiVo users are stuck paying extra for Wi-Fi (a dongle is required, even though it's built-in on many cheaper Blu-ray players); the TiVo Desktop Plus software (Blu-ray players are beginning to include DLNA support, which lets you stream digital media from free software such as Windows Media Player); and the QWERTY remote (a step-up remote control available later this year that features a smartphone-style slider keyboard for entering text searches).

For comparison, TiVo's main rival, Arris' Moxi, offers a 3-tuner CableCard DVR (able to record 3 programs simultaneously) for $599. That model supports DLNA network streaming and Rhapsody, offers Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu streaming (from the PC-based PlayOn application), and allows instantaneous multi-room viewing (recorded and live TV and Web programming) to one of its $299 Moxi Mate accessories. I don't think the interface is as pleasing or intuitive as TiVo's, but overall, the Moxi value proposition meets and even exceeds that of TiVo in some areas--especially when you consider that Moxi does not require any service fees above and beyond its upfront purchase price (beyond that of your cable bill, of course).

Final thoughts

In the past, TiVo has been good about continually upgrading the software of its products. We're hopeful that trend will continue, and that some of the nonhardware issues we've pointed out here can be addressed via future firmware upgrades. In the meantime, I'd divide my recommendations on this product as follows:

"I have a cable DVR and it's good enough for me--but I'm kinda jealous of the integrated online features of the TiVo Premiere." If you don't want to take the TiVo plunge and you can live with your existing DVR, consider buying a new Blu-ray player. Most of the 2010 models available between $200 and $300 offer some of the best online entertainment features found on this TiVo: Netflix, Vudu and/or Amazon, and Pandora (in most cases).

"I have a TiVo Series3/TiVo HD/TiVo HD XL." My gut reaction is that you probably don't need to upgrade to the Premiere. That said, you should check out TiVo's upgrade program for existing TiVo owners; the discount might be enough to put you over the edge.

"I have a cable DVR, but the interface sucks and it's hard to use." You're a perfect TiVo candidate--you should strongly consider the TiVo Premiere (or possibly the Moxi).

"I don't have cable, and watch all my TV via an over-the-air antenna." If you have broadband Internet as well, I'd strongly recommend TiVo Premiere.

Editors' note: We'll be updating and expanding this review in the near future, as we continue testing.

 

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