TiVo Premiere (Series4) announced – good but not great

TiVo announced their new TiVo Premiere model today. The unit added a lot of what was needed to improve the TiVo experience and bring it into the 21st century, but not everything is in place. Is it enough to overcome being stymied by CableLabs and their slow progress?

The first thing to recognize is that TiVo fixed most of the major gripes with their existing units. Their biggest problem is the cable companies themselves vis-a-vis CableLabs, and while I’ll not address anything having to do with them for now (there is a long list of gripes), I had a long list of things TiVo needed to fix in a draft blog post ready to hit the “Publish” button had they messed up. Lucky for them I’m scrapping that post! (well, recycling it into this post, got to be green!)

Upgraded Hardware. While the device is still limited to two tuners (the Moxi supports three, new cable cards will support up to six), the upgraded Broadcom Chip on the inside is a dual core 400MHz MIPS processor and 512MB of RAM with clustered multi-threading (portions of the core like the execution unit are partitioned to support more than one thread per core). So once they manage to optimize their interface they should be able to take advantage of the hardware, even if the 400MHz speed look rather slow.

New HD Interface. The Series 3 TiVo uses the ancient SD interface, while the new Series 4 models use the new Adobe Flash-based UI. While the old interface is leaps and bounds above the standard cable set-top box (STB), other set top box makers (DirecTV, Dish, etc) are quickly catching up, and non-broadcast STBs like the Boxee Box already provide an experience that is better. TiVo should be the far and away leader given the head start they had, but they haven’t kept up. The new UI still needs some (a lot) of polish (“My Shows” should go back to “Now Playing” considering it can contain non-TV show content) but they seem to have got out of the rut they were in.

Better integration with internet content. Whether its the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory or a new Tekzilla I want them all in one list, organized by show name. I want one screen that shows me all the content I can watch now, whether its recorded TV shows, internet TV shows, plus TV shows, movies, pictures and music from my home network. Everything in one place. While I wont be able to get the stuff from my home network, I’m hoping the UI addresses the centralization issue.

Apps. The new TiVo is supposed to have an API available for developers. Combined with the Bluetooth Remote/Keyboard I can see cool Facebook or Twitter notifications. We’ll see if TiVo opens it up to all comers. If so, they are definitely going to need some sort of App Store. It would be really neat though, to replicate some of the iPhone App Store successes on the TiVo.

What did the get wrong?

No DLNA. I wont mince words, this is a huge mistake. TiVo’s proprietary protocols for sharing recorded content needed to be dropped a long time ago in place of the DLNA standard. Part of this might be restrictions imposed on them in terms of getting video out, but at the very least, I should be allowed to stream audio and video into the TiVo from my Windows Home Server easily, and it would be nice if they supported video formats like MKV (MP4+AC3 or DTS) since its really only a container around codecs supported by the Broadcom decoder chip.

No Built-in Bluetooth. While I can understand selling the awesome slider remote for $80, not including the $10 Bluetooth chip inside the unit seems incredibly weak. If I already have a BT keyboard I could do without one in my remote (especially for $80). Allowing BT keyboards in the first place was a great idea, but allow people who already have the hardware to use it! Also, BT would be useful for talking to a TiVo iPhone/Android application to use my phone as an advanced remote control, again, meaning that I don’t need the remote and BT dongle, rather just the BT capability.

While I still think TiVo needs to strengthen their engineering department to make their product better (DLNA, TTG Mac client, etc), the Series 4 is a step in the right direction. Hopefully they can manage to produce a new box more often than every 3 years to keep up with the rate of change in consumer electronics and can manage to squeeze more out of the Series 4 hardware they’re going to start shipping soon.

Finally, one parting thought on comparing a Tivo to an iPhone.

I think its odd that I have no problem dropping $300 every year on an new iPhone plus $30 a month for data and yet still complaining about AT&T’s poor service. But everyone is griping about the TiVo’s price ($300) and monthly costs ($13 or $400 lifetime) and yet they still love their TiVo. It is incredible to me actually. Why does everyone have such a hard time justifying to themselves a $300 TiVo once every three years and the $12.95/mo. I might get more out of an iPhone, but I would presume more people spend more time in front of the TV than a phone (except for teenagers perhaps). The only possible reason I can think of is because the only people I hate more than my cell phone provider is the cable company for its annual price increases. That and it would cost me an extra $10/mo just to them to add a Series 4 TiVo to my house – $2/mo cable card fee PLUS $8/mo for “additional digital service outlet” which is a, pardon my language, bullshit charge hoisted on us by the cable companies and the hardware vendors.

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