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TiVo Premiere XL4 review: TiVo Premiere XL4

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The TiVo Premiere Elite addresses two things that were disappointing about the regular Premiere and Premiere XL when they launched in 2010: lack of support for more than two tuners and multiroom viewing.

TiVo Premiere Elite DVR
8.3

TiVo Premiere XL4

The Good

The <b>TiVo Premiere Elite</b> can record from four tuners at once to its 2TB of storage. TiVo continues to offer a best-in-class DVR experience, plus a top-notch suite of streaming-video services, including Netflix and Hulu Plus.

The Bad

Cable cutters and satellite subscribers will be disappointed that the Elite works with digital cable and Verizon Fios only. And even if TiVo does work with your cable provider, you won't be able to access any pay-per-view or VOD content. The Elite is $500 plus $500 for lifetime service or $19.99 a month, which is much more than the alternatives. And there's still no built-in Wi-Fi.

The Bottom Line

The TiVo Premiere Elite might be a luxury, but it's definitely a luxury worth paying for.

The Elite has four tuners, so it can record up to four programs at once, and you can watch recorded programming or streaming video while it does it. It just requires one multistream CableCard to do it, too. (Unfortunately, the Elite supports digital cable (QAM) and Verizon Fios only; it does not support analog cable, antenna (ATSC), satellite, or AT&T U-verse.) To hold all of those recordings, the Elite has 2TB of storage, which will hold up to 300 hours of HD programming. (Note: some cable providers require a separate tuning adapter box to handle switched digital video networks, which don't always play well with TiVo. Here's a breakdown of some of the best and worst cable companies to use with TiVo from Zatz Not Funny.)

Multiroom viewing has long been an option for two or more network-connected TiVo units, Series 2 or newer. However, it required transferring content entirely from one unit to another, which, while nice, doesn't allow you to pause a show in your living room and start watching again in your bedroom, and some content can't be transferred because of copy protection. With the Elite as well as other Premiere boxes, multiroom streaming is now available.

To do this, you'll need to have a wired network connection, either via Ethernet or MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance), which uses the coaxial cable in your home for broadband networking. MoCA support is built into the Elite, but you'll need to add a MoCA bridge (around $100) that connects to your router if your TiVo is in a different room from your router. Wi-Fi is supported but is not recommended for multiroom streaming because the bandwidth simply isn't big enough. Plus, just like older models, the Elite doesn't have built-in Wi-Fi and requires a TiVo wireless dongle: $60 for 802.11g or $90 for 802.11n. At those prices, you're better off taking advantage of the MoCA support.

However, though the built-in MoCA support is nice, multiroom streaming is supported by all TiVo Premiere DVRs, so the main reasons to get the Elite are the extra tuners and large storage. Of course, you'll also be getting one of the best--if not the best--interfaces available on any DVR.

Design
There's really not too much to the design of the Elite; it's a simple, attractive black box measuring 16.5 inches wide by 9.7 inches deep by 2.4 inches high. On the front are circular notification lights to indicate what it's doing (recording TV, downloading Web video, and acknowledging signals from the remote). Also on the front is a Format button for quickly setting the TiVo to properly display video in different formats; supported formats are 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p, and 480i.

TiVo Premiere Elite jackpack
The Elite's jack pack is pretty straightforward.

On the back you'll find the power input, multistream CableCard slot, HDMI, component video, composite video, and optical and analog audio jacks. There's also an eSATA port for a storage expander, and it has two USB ports for use with TiVo's Wi-Fi dongle, a Bluetooth remote, or a tuning adapter if necessary, an Ethernet port, and a coaxial cable connector. TiVo includes 6-foot HDMI, 6-foot AC power, 6.5-foot Ethernet, and 6-foot composite video and audio cables.

The included remote is the classic TiVo peanut, but it's the backlit Glo version for easier navigation in the dark. Like on the regular Premiere remote, there are 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. It needs a dedicated search button, though, and a button to jump straight to Netflix would be nice, too.

For $60 you can also get the TiVo Slide Remote, which is a shrunken version of the TiVo peanut, but with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. It uses Bluetooth, so it's not necessary to point the control at the TiVo for it to function, and if you do a lot of searching, it's the remote to have. On the other hand, TiVo has free apps for iOS and Android devices that let you control not only basic functions, but the guide, search, and management of your recordings.

The TiVo advantage
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 said customers 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 a best-in-class user interface and ease of use.

TiVo Premiere Elite HD interface
TiVo's HD interface looks good and is incredibly well-organized compared with those of most cable or satellite DVRs.

Beyond the standard DVR features of pausing and rewinding live TV, TiVo's got a wealth of less common (and better implemented) TV recording features:

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 information from each channel on the right half of the screen. You also have access to a grid-style miniguide on the bottom of the screen, overlaid on top of what you're currently viewing.

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 imitated 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, or adjusting if a show changes its time slot.

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 involves that keyword. Again, this feature is also available on other DVRs, but TiVo's implementation still tends to be easier to use 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 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
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.

Conclusion
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.

TiVo Premiere Elite DVR
8.3

TiVo Premiere XL4

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8