TiVo may have invented time-shifting, but the past few years haven't been kind to this company unsure how to cut a profit. Then, someone inside TiVo HQ must have realized, oh right, INNOVATION! That's the ticket!
What You Need to Know
• The TiVo Premiere (320GB, $300) and Premiere XL (1TB, THX certified, $500) are the new Series 4 TiVos
• They have completely new widescreen HD software built on Flash
• This software will not come to Series 3 models (or earlier)
• The Premiere is less a DVR than a completely integrated video machine
• Available in early April
Why I'm Excited
The TiVo Premiere is the smallest TiVo yet, a thin and diminutive box that holds only one CableCard and still lacks Wi-Fi (a $90 802.11n adapter will be available this May, plus you can pick up a $30 TiVo powerline adapter). It hides a multicore processor inside that drives a new, HD UI that previews your program at all times. That's right—no more going into Now Playing only to lose the stream of your show.
Despite the redesign, you'll find the experience is remarkably familiar. The basic fonts and menus are unchanged, with a few key differences. Most importantly, instead of seeing one page at a time (like being in Now Playing, then clicking to a new screen with a particular show), you see two pages at a time—a logical design update to the widescreen format that speeds up navigation enormously.
Plus there are little touches that anyone can appreciate: A disk space meter. Show titles change colors once watched. The 30-second commercial skip? That's been programmed into a dedicated "scan" button that flashes half a minute by in just a handful of frames (to keep advertisers happy). Plus, I have it in good faith that TiVo won't be eliminating the classic 30-second skip, either.
Of course, you've already noticed the top bar filled with show icons. That's basically a list of suggestions that shift dynamically depending on what you're watching at the time. I have a feeling TiVo is finding a way to make money off that thing, but you know what? That's OK if they're offering content to me based upon what I like.
Which brings us to the big, key difference about the Series 4.
It's the Internet
Even though the Series 4 still makes you pay for a Wi-Fi dongle (ridiculous, right?), it's truly an internet machine.
Imagine if TiVo and IMDB made a baby. That's exactly what you get.
Swivel Search, which allowed you to search for programs by criteria like actor and keyword, has been built in to the very core of Series 4, and it's got internet access.
So say you're watching 30 Rock and you decide, that Jack Donaghy is an interesting guy. I want to see more of his work! A few clicks takes you to Alec Baldwin. A few more? You can access pretty much anything Alec Baldwin's been in—but not just within your cable subscription.
You'll see Netflix streaming options. Amazon Video on Demand. Blockbuster on Demand. YouTube clips, even. Or you can find an Alec Baldwin movie that will be in the theaters in several months. Then? You can program your TiVo, right then, to record that movie whenever it's finally on cable.
And I should add, none of this advanced search is forced upon you. Much like IMDB, the information is just there if you choose to dig deeper.
For Flash, There's Not Much Flash
If we have one criticism regarding the Series 4 (other than the lack of integrated Wi-Fi, yes, I'm gonna hammer that point home), it's that there's nothing all that flashy about it.
Yes, this point is a quibble, but an important quibble all the same. Those accustomed to flipping through their Netflix queue on a modern, powerful machine like the Xbox 360, those accustomed to the seemingly endless media oomph of the PS3's animated XMB previews and photo collages, may be disappointed in the Premiere's general lack of flare.
I'd love to see a few more UI treats—tiny, tactile animations that smartphone programmers are so wickedly good at designing—built in to the core UI.
There's no doubt, the Series 4 is a smart machine. I just want to make sure that TiVo doesn't become an old maid, but rather a naughty librarian with a sense of adventure. I'm not sure whether or not, just by glancing at it, the Premiere will be enough to woo the average consumer again. And that's something that TiVo very much needs to do.
Oh, and TiVo, Wi-Fi dongles shouldn't cost $90 anymore. Who are you taking lessons from, Microsoft? (OK, OK, I'm done with the Wi-Fi complaints...for now.)
While my impressions were from a meeting long ago, John Herrman just got a second hands on. Here is the sum of his experience:
TiVo's Series 4 box is superficially, well, just another TiVo box, but that's not the point—all set-top boxes are boxes, and if they were anything else, they wouldn't be set-top boxes. It's what's inside that counts, and that's where the Premiere's newness is.