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Switched On: Thumbs up, thumbs down at TiVo Premiere


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

TiVo's announcement of TiVo Premiere represents the most significant user interface overhaul for the device in years. Based on Adobe Flash and optimized for the high-definition screens that are likely to be paired with CableCARD programming, the new user interface blends together live, recorded, and broadband content. That presentation is more akin to what we've seen from Windows Media Center, and less like TiVo's Series3 that segmented programming sources by type. TiVo has also beefed up its search capability, bringing it up to par with that of its only significant retail DVR competitor, Digeo's Moxi.

The new interaction widens the user experience gap between TiVo and your average cable or satellite DVR, and TiVo has two other features that set it apart. First, no doubt reacting to the Moxi competition, TiVo long ago reinstated its lifetime service option that was so popular in the product's early years. However, those who have opted for this plan through TiVo's major platform upgrades over the years have endured more lifetime sentences than many a felon.

Second, TiVo remains relatively open, and – while the tools are primitive and the operation is glacial – it provides one of the few ways nontechnical consumers have to bring their DVR recordings to computers or portable devices via TiVoToGo. Improvements in TiVo Premiere promise to speed up the show transfer process somewhat, although TiVo still uses the inefficient MPEG-2 format. One could even argue that the cloud hanging over tru2way – the stagnant successor to the CableCARD standard used by TiVo – plays in the company's favor. At this point, TiVo isn't using "old" digital cable connectivity technology, it's using essentially the only digital cable technology.

TiVo Premiere is the Avatar of DVRs: engaging to look at but fundamentally a story we've already heard.

And that is part of why TiVo Premiere is the Avatar of DVRs: engaging to look at but fundamentally a story we've already heard. First, nothing has changed in terms of TiVo's pricing structure: there's a relatively large upfront cost combined with recurring monthly fees or a device lifetime subscription fee that is a significant percentage of the total device price. In contrast, most cable companies give away their DVRs, and we've seen from the cell phone industry how popular subsidized hardware is. Plus, if the hard drive fails – and it is relatively prone to fail – the cable company will replace it.

And other alternatives to TiVo have blossomed since it released the Series3. These include cable companies offering more on-demand and free on-demand content, which stands to lower costs and remove the vulnerability of the local hard disk, remote DVR scheduling, the rise of Hulu and other sites as a way to catch up on some popular shows on the PC, and the integration of broadband services such as Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand into inexpensive, subscription-free Blu-ray players and TVs.

In positioning its ability to tune live cable content, record shows, and access an even expanded set of Internet services, TiVo has referred to the Premiere as "the one box." But as it struggles to fight against the same fundamental challenges that have relegated it to a small portion of the DVR market, TiVo's predominant "one box" remains the one it can't break out of.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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