At an event in NYC tonight, TiVo introduced the biggest change to their digital video recorder (DVR) in years with the Series 4, to be officially called the TiVo Premiere. It's the first TiVo box to use a new, Adobe Flash-based interface, and the new user interface isn't just superficial—it's needed, because the Premiere integrates Web content better than any prior TiVo. Oh, and there's also a new QWERTY keyboard hidden in a slider remote, to navigate through all that online goodness. But is it enough to compete with game consoles, HTPCs, and media streamers?
Here are the basics. The Series 4 TiVo is available in two capacities, called the Premiere and Premiere XL—the former has a 320GB hard drive and will cost $299, and the latter bumps it up to 1TB of storage for $499. There's also a monthly subscription fee of $12.95 fo the service. Both boxes will be available sometime in "early April." That's nice and all, but what's more important here is the software—and, infuriatingly for Series 3 owners, the new software will not be compatible with older machines. So if you want what's new, you'll have to upgrade. And what is new, exactly?
TiVo has taken their stale, standard-def UI and evolved it to accommodate the fact that HD, widescreen hardware is now standard. So when you're navigating through the menus, you'll actually see two separate screens side-by-side, taking advantage of that extra width. Up on the top of the screen, you'll see a row of recommended titles based on your viewing habits, which is a nice touch. There are a host of other little touches (titles change color after viewing, there's finally a meter showing available hard drive space, that kind of thing) as well. Wi-Fi, for some insane reason, is still not included; you'll have to shell out a ridiculous $90 for a dongle.
One of the bigger changes in the interface is that, well, TiVo apparently discovered that people watch video from sources other than the TV—like, say, the Internet. Home theater software like Boxee, XBMC, and even Microsoft's built-in (and excellent) Windows Media Center have been doing this for years, so the mere fact that TiVo finally joined in isn't so much laudable as required. But Premiere's new software appears to do a pretty great job of integrating online services into the interface alongside regular TV shows. It's packing a service called Swivel Search, which provides a ton of online information and video with a simple search. Search for an actor, director, film, TV show, whatever, and you'll be shown online viewing options, including Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, Amazon on Demand, and YouTube, as well as lots of other useful tidbits like upcoming releases, movie times, biographical info, and past works (sort of like IMDb).
TiVo's traditional remote control, while a paragon of design in the category, is just not equipped to handle that kind of text input (damn you, Jonathan Taylor Thomas! Nobody needs three first names!)—so TiVo will release at some point in the future a new sliding QWERTY remote. It doesn't look incredibly ergonomic, but should be leagues better than navigating around an onscreen keyboard with a directional pad. Oddly, it requires a Bluetooth dongle, but that shouldn't be too big a deal.
This is a big step forward for TiVo, but that doesn't say a lot, since it merely levels the playing field with free, open-source software like Boxee (and, to be honest, Boxee is far more feature-rich). Is it enough to staunch the flow of subscribers who are steadily leaving TiVo behind? Despite these changes, all of them welcome, I'm left unimpressed.