TiVo Premiere XL4 review:

TiVo Premiere XL4

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

In addition to TV, the Elite is also a Web-enabled entertainment box. It can access Hulu Plus and Netflix online streaming (subscriptions are required, of course) and the on-demand video rental and sale services of Amazon (though Prime Instant Video isn't supported) and Blockbuster. Those are particularly important because TiVo, like all third-party CableCard devices, cannot access your cable company's stable of on-demand channels. (Note: TiVo and Comcast/Xfinity are in the process of rolling out access to on-demand content to subscribers.) The apps for these aren't the greatest, though they are certainly usable. A spring 2012 software update will feature redesigned apps for Netflix and YouTube.

TiVo also ties all of these services--and your TV schedule--together with its TiVo Search feature. This allows you to get search results cross-referenced across all video sources, that is 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 Amazon, Hulu Plus, 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), Pandora, and access to online Photobucket and Picasa photo streams.

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 a computer.

TiVo Premiere also retains the TiVoToGo function, which lets you copy some recordings from your TV to portable video devices such as iPods, iPhones, or PSPs.

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.

Doing the math: The TiVo service fee
One of the biggest hang-ups for people buying into TiVo is the service fee. It currently sits at $19.99 a month, or for $500 you can buy service for the lifetime of the device. That $500 is definitely a lot to ask for up front, especially on top of the Elite's $500 price. But, that $500 earns out after 25 months and then you've got a box with guaranteed resale value.

What it doesn't guarantee is that the box will survive those 25 months without repair. The standard warranty for the Elite is one year for parts and 90 days for labor. You can get full parts-and-labor coverage for two years for an additional $30 or three years for $40. Frankly, though, I think if TiVo's asking for $500 for lifetime service, it should include an extended two-year warranty.

If you already have a TiVo running in your home, TiVo offers a multiunit discount on service: $14.99 a month or $399.99 for lifetime service. However, if you're looking for a straight-up upgrade, the deals aren't as out in the open. There is no official upgrade program, but TiVo does regularly offer deals or you can simply call the company up and ask for one. (As with many services, saying you're going to cancel generally inspires some "please don't go" negotiations.)

If you're already burned out on paying monthly service fees and can get a free DVR from your cable provider, it's understandable that you might pass on TiVo and getting one more bill, especially if you feel like your existing cable box is "good enough." In the end, though, I'm OK with the $19.99 service fee because it's competitive with what my provider charges for its DVR, and the Elite's storage capacity, four tuners, UI, and capabilities are far superior. (It also helps that my cable provider doesn't charge for the first CableCard and is just $2.50 for additional ones.)

Performance is a big issue for a lot of current TiVo users. When TiVo switched over to its HD interface for the Premiere, doing anything with it--from opening up the guide to navigating through recorded programs to accessing any of the extra services--seemingly took forever in TV-surfing time. And actually, when I first got my review unit, the Elite was still sluggish and would randomly reboot every few days. Not good for a product with such a premium price tag.

However, the latest software update, which should be pushed out to all Premiere boxes by now, has greatly improved overall performance, ended the rebooting, and added several interface improvements. While I wouldn't go so far as to call navigation snappy, it is definitely not sluggish (though I guess that's all in the impatience of the user) and it is quicker than your average provider-supplied DVR. Plus, because the UI is so well designed, you can do more with fewer button presses. It does still take a second or two to populate some screens, but it's not enough to really slow you down.

That said, navigating with the iOS and Android apps is snappy and can actually make clicking through menus using your remote and the TiVo seem sluggish. Plus, since using the mobile apps doesn't block watching at all, it can make for a much happier experience when you're not the only one watching.

Past, current, and potential TiVo users might think that the company is crazy to ask $500 for the Premiere Elite and then ask for a service fee on top of it. And, frankly, it's probably about $100 too much. However, it's the closest you're going to get to a single-box solution for cable and streaming video and music, and it's an excellent solution at that.

As for performance, some people are never going to be happy unless it's snappy. But the fact is, most cable provider DVRs are far more sluggish and frustrating to use, and TiVo continues to speed things up with regular software updates. Unless you're really impatient, the HD interface moves well now, and the latest update made my Elite very stable.

Lastly, being able to record four things at once and store up 300 hours of HD programming might seem unnecessary, and depending on the size of your family or your appetite for movies and sports, it might be. Then again, there's a freedom to just being able to hit record and not worry about whether you've got a conflict with a favorite show, or worse, your significant other's.

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