TiVo Premiere

  • Pros

    Revamped, faster, high-definition (720p) interface. More robust search function with integrated online features. Video playback in background during search. 30-second skip is improved. Box is more compact. 320GB hard drive is larger than most cable-company DVRs, and is expandable.

  • Cons CableCARD is still required for cable systems. Still requires extra paid subscription. Interface is faster, but there's still some waiting involved. Main screen searches titles and actors, but not keywords. True on-demand support is only available on RCN. New slide-out QWERTY remote isn't bundled.
  • Bottom Line

    The TiVo Premiere is a good upgrade if you're already a TiVo HD or Series3 user, and an even-better upgrade if you still have an older Series2 TiVo DVR. If you're satisfied with the service on your cable company's DVR, however, that's likely to be a more-convenient and less-expensive choice.

By Joel Santo Domingo

TiVo has taken its sweet time (about three years) to build its latest DVR, TiVo Premiere ($299.99 list), which takes most of what was good with the TiVo HD ($299.99, ) and updates it with new hardware and software. The TiVo Premiere is a Series4 DVR and features a 320GB hard drive, good for about 45 hours of HD programming, or more than 400 hours of standard-def recordings. The TiVo HD, HD XL ($599.99, ) and Series3 ($799.99, ) were Series3 TiVo devices. Series4 brings better, broader search capabilities, along with faster hardware, which is a good thing. But you also get a few of the not-so great things that have always come with TiVo, the biggest of which is having to pay for the box outright, along with a monthly service fee on top of a cable subscription. Overall, if you're already a TiVo user, there's a lot to like in the Premiere. If you're not currently a TiVo enthusiast, however, cable-company-provided DVRs are likely a more-convenient, less-expensive choice.

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Smaller, Slicker Design
The TiVo Premiere is a much more compact box than the TiVo HD was—2.5 by 16.5 by 10 inches (HWD) vs. 3.4 by 16.5 by 12.6 inches. The Premiere is a little sleeker too, since the front is cleaner and flatter than the previous generation's model; TiVo HD and HD XL had the CableCard slots under a door on the front of the box, while the Premiere's single open card slot is in the back of the unit. Other components inside have shrunk as well, so the more-comapct Premiere looks more attractive than the typical clunky DVR you get from your cable or satellite service provider.

Along with the CableCard slot on the back panel, you get component video out, standard A/V out, optical audio out, HDMI, Ethernet, two USB ports, and an eSATA connector, so you can hook up an additional hard drive to supplement TiVo's integrated hard drive. The big plus the TiVo Premiere and XL have over cable company DVRs is that you can hook up a TiVo-approved hard drive (like the Western Digital My DVR Expander) for up to 1TB more storage. The RF jacks for cable and antenna are also on the back of the unit. In the box, you'll find all the cables you need to get started—including HDMI.

The CableCARD still feeds two internal tuners, but the TiVo Premiere only supports multi-stream cards (rather than two single-stream cards TiVo HD and Series3 support). This shouldn't be a problem because most cable companies (and Verizon FIOS) are shipping multi-stream cards to consumers. Over-the-air ATSC/HDTV is supported by the TiVo Premiere, and is still a good way to receive HD programs in metropolitan areas.

New-and-Improved Interface and Search
The TiVo Series4 framework is based on Adobe Flash Lite, so future functionality should be relatively easy to develop. The new user interface is displayed in 720p HD, which is a vast improvement over the previous 480i/480p UI. You'll still encounter the old interface when you dig more than two screens deep, like, for example, with YouTube searches and the Amazon Video On Demand interface, but most of the screens you'll see use the new UI. TiVo's new search function looks like a refinement of the TiVo Search Beta found on TiVo series3 DVRs. You can start typing a name or word, and TiVo will search program titles, and other criteria such as an actor name, and then display the results on the right side of the screen. Those results can include regular programming along with relevant content from Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix, and YouTube. While this functionality is great if you're looking for specific names, I wish that keyword searches were also included in the results. For example, when I searched for 'BMW,' I got a YouTube search and a program for purchase on Amazon on the main screen. But when I dove into the older Wishlist search (two or three menus deep), I was able to search for 'BMW' in the program descriptions. On the plus side, there are many more categories, so you can find, for example, all upcoming concerts together on one screen, and upcoming sports programs on another.

Like some cable company DVRs, TiVo now includes a carousel-like row of movie posters and TV show graphics on the top of the screen, which lets you browse programs that are either popular right now, or are suggested based on the programs you've recorded in the past. The TiVo Premiere can continue to play the program you're currently watching in a window at the top right of the main screen while you navigate the main menu. The picture in picture disappears when you go more than two menus deep, however. The remote has color-coded A, B, C, and D buttons, to access on-demand features, but currently, RCN is the only cable provider who has committed to on-demand support for TiVo.

In my tests, menu navigation and channel changing on the TiVo Premiere was faster than the previous TiVo HD, and much faster than a Cablevision DVR, but on a par with a Verizon FIOS DVR. Navigation and search are faster than before, but there are still times you'll have to wait to get where you're going.

If you've used TiVo in the past, you'll be happy to know that all the usual functions and key commands—Record, FF/REW, Playback Recorded Programming, and Surf Two Tuners—are all still here. You can even enable the vaunted 30-sec skip feature with the "secret" key command. But now the 30-second "skip" is standard, sort of: Instead of jumping ahead 30 seconds instantly as before, TiVo now plays a half-dozen frames while fast forwarding 30 seconds, so you can see things you might miss (like ads). On the plus side, you can repeatedly press the skip button for up to 10 minutes of fast forwarding. It's a fair trade, since you can still get a glimpse of boring sections of programs while fast-forwarding through a block of time.

For the most part, the remote control is configured just like the previous TiVo Glo remote, but it lacks the Glo's backlighting. It also loses the DVR 1-2 switch, so you can't control multiple TiVos from this remote. You do get the Glo remote with the $499.99 TiVo Premiere XL, which offers a 1TB hard drive for 150 hours of HD recording, along with THX certification. The cool new, flip-up QWERTY remote control the company announced with these DVRs is an optional accessory that doesn't have a price or a release date yet. Likewise, TiVo will be releasing a $90 802.11n adapter in May. (You can still use the existing $30 802.11g TiVo adapter here, but you'll likely get better streaming performance with the N adapter or, obviously, if you connect to the Web via hardwired Ethernet.)

To TiVo or Not To TiVo?
Keep in mind that in addition to the $300 for the box itself, you'll have to shell out for TiVo service: $12.95 per month, $129 for one year ($10.75/mo.), $299 for 3 years ($8.31/mo.), or $399 for a lifetime plan. (Note, however, that you can get a discounted plan if you're a current, qualified TiVo user. And that the lifetime subscription applies to the TiVo unit itself, so it is transferable if you sell the box.) Even so, those fees are on top of your monthly cable subscription, if you choose to keep cable. Plus, you'll have to add around $4 to $5 a month for a CableCard rental fee.

So is TiVo Premiere worth it? That depends. If you're already a TiVo aficionado, the new DVR is an improved version of what you already have. If you're a new user, however, it's a bit less compelling. Sure, the Motorola QIP-6416 you get with a FIOS subscription has only a 160GB hard drive and isn't expandable, but you don't have to pay for it upfront, instead it'll cost you about $15 to $20 a month to rent, and if it ever breaks, you can bring it back to a Verizon store for a replacement. While you won't get the full-featured TiVo experience, cable company DVRs have matured in the past few years and many have TiVo-like UIs and can perform some TiVo-like searches. Also, FIOS DVRs, for example, integrate Web widgets like Facebook, Twitter, ESPN, and WeatherBug that you won't get with TiVo.

In the end, while we really like TiVo, and the Premiere offers the richest TiVo experience yet, it's not exactly a no-brainer upgrade for current users, and it's an even tougher sell for new users.

Compare the TiVo Premiere with several other DVRs side by side.

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Joel Santo Domingo
By Joel Santo Domingo Lead Analyst

Joel Santo Domingo is the Lead Analyst for the Desktops team at PC Magazine Labs. He joined PC Magazine in 2000, after 7 years of IT work for companies large and small. His background includes...

Follow Joel Santo Domingo Twitter: @JoelSD
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