The world's first THX-certified, dual CableCARD DVR has finally arrived in the form of TiVo's Series3. It doesn't come cheap with a price tag of $799 (don't forget service!), but it's a fine cable company DVR replacement if your budget allows it. What are you waiting for, click on for the full rundown and lots more pics!

Design

Oh come on, like you need us to tell you that the S3 is TiVo's best looking DVR to date. The solid unit has a gleaming black top with a stylish black and silver front bezel. From a couch, the front-panel OLED display serves little practical purpose without Chuck Yeager vision (or better), though we've really enjoyed studying it up close. TiVo's trademark peanut remote is glossy, well balanced, and features pleasantly glowing buttons.



Functionality
The TiVo interface is exactly what you'd expect: after all these years, the competition still hasn't been able to match the intuitiveness, ease, and power of the original DVR. Familiar features such as Wishlists, Suggestions, and Season Passes are present. Music and photo streaming from Mac or PC also work as expected.

Toggling between tuners can be performed via the programming info menu or by pressing the LiveTV button on the remote. Any two incoming signals can be recorded simultaneously with the option of watching a third signal of recorded content.

The Series3 is designed to replace a cable box, not control it. The S3 supports OTA broadcasts (both ATSC and NTSC) in addition to analog cable, but to fully appreciate the unit a pair of CableCARDs are needed. If our experience is representative, getting them installed will test your patience. The S3 supports CableCARD 1.0, and it's our understanding a single M-Card (CC 1.0+) will replace 2 CableCARDs once they become available.


HD details
Obviously, the primary selling point of this unit is its ability to handle HD. Not only does the S2 handle OTA and digital NTSC, it includes a variety of settings to optimize incoming content for specific screen types. Unlike analog recordings, digital content is directly recorded bit for bit without any degradation of quality. The trade-off is that the unit only stores about 30 hours of HD programming (or up to 300 hours of SD). Tribune guide data now includes information source video resolution in case your eyes still can't tell the difference between a nice cable signal and a fat HD pipe. The Now Playing list includes a dedicated HD folder.



Specifications


While the Series3 provides only two inputs (antenna and cable), the THX-certified unit finally provides numerous outputs including HDMI and optical audio. The S3 contains a 250GB Western Digital Caviar hard drive plus an eSATA port, which paves the way for future storage options. While we weren't able to receive confirmation from TiVo, we feel it's likely the internal hard drive can be upgraded. Connectivity to the mother ship is (still) handled via phone, Ethernet, or supported USB network adapters. The hardware supports AVC (aka H.264) though it hasn't been enabled in the software yet, which leaves us wondering what TiVoCast might have in store for us down the road.


Disappointments and concerns

TiVo continues to develop and evaluate Multi-Room Viewing, TiVoToGo, and external hard drive support in relation to CableLabs certification. While we recognize certain aspects of this issue are largely out of TiVo's control, the absence of these value-added features makes the MSRP more difficult to swallow. And while we were pleasantly surprised that the Series3 allows you to scan and tune unencrypted QAM programming, we were disappointed in the inability to manually map those channels to their respective networks. TiVo tells us this functionality is being evaluated for a future software update. Lastly, the cable industry appears to be in flux and it's not clear when/if technologies such as OCAP and SDV might impact Series3 functionality.


Cost and Availability

Being an early adopter is gonna cost you. Those leaks and our own forecast were spot-on: $799 will be the price of admission. Unfortunately for potential S3 consumers, TiVo is at a disadvantage compared to the deep-pocketed cable companies and satellite providers who operate under a different business model and underwrite hardware costs. If it's any consolation, the 30-hour Series1 and the HD DirecTiVo both retailed for $1k at launch (and then proceeded to drop in price).

Service fees remain $12.95 a month, or $6.95/month for those who currently have a non-bundled pricing unit subscription. TiVo also offers pre-paid pricing at the rate of $155.40 for one year or $299 for two years. TiVo is offering two promotions in conjunction with the release of the S3. First, you can prepay three years of service for the price of two ($299). Second, as we revealed last week, $199 lets you move Lifetime Service from a S1 or S2 unit to the new S3.

Units go on sale today at TiVo.com and should be showing up within the next week or so at Best Buy, Circuit City, Fry's, and Ultimate Electronics. Good luck on that decision!