With the recent spring TiVo Premiere update we figured it was as good of a time as any to spend some quality time with the newly-renamed TiVo Premiere XL4. The highest model in the TiVo line, the XL4 costs $399 plus $15 a month, or $499 for lifetime service. For the money, it records four HD shows at once with a single CableCARD and offers 2TB of storage. More tuners and space aren't the only things that have changed since we gave the original TiVo Premiere a once-over just two years ago. No, there have been a few notable releases as well as the release of the TiVo Slide Remote and a number of TiVo companion apps for phones and tablets. How all that comes together is exactly what you'll find out should you choose to click on through to the other side.
Four tunersExcellent phone and tablet appsStreams video and traditional cable on a single box
Not a whole-home DVRMissing some popular streaming sourcesParts of the UI are still slow and in standard-def
TiVo continues to stand head and shoulders over provider-issued DVRs, but it still falls short of the expectations we had when it first launched.
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There are many similarities between the standard TiVo Premiere and the XL4, with the primary difference being the number of tuners. First up, the XL4 is the only CableCARD-enabled TiVo that doesn't support analog cable or over-the-air. But while this means it isn't the cord-cutter's solution that its little brothers are, the XL4 does offer the ability to record four shows at once -- although you wouldn't know it by the conflict resolution process.
The other big difference here is the inclusion of MoCA. This might not seem like a big deal, but we think it is. The main advantages to MoCA are its greater reliability compared to WiFi and, while many homes still don't have wired network connections in the living room, everyone has coax in there. If you happen to have a provider like FiOS TV that uses MoCA as part of its solution, then it's even better because you can just connect the coax to the back of the XL4 and you're done. As an added bonus, the XL4 will act as a MoCA-to-Ethernet bridge. This means you can connect a switch, or anything else, to the CAT5 port on the back of the XL4 and have access to the rest of your home network on that device too. Other than that, though, the XL4 hardware falls in line with the rest of the Premiere lineup, including two rear USB ports, a single rear CableCARD slot, an eSATA port and the regular assortment of audio and video outputs. The bad news, though, is that like the rest of the line, there's no built-in WiFi. This really rubs us the wrong way considering TiVo offers its Wireless N adapter for $89.99, which is $40 more than the Roku LT streamer that includes it.
Two final mentionables here are the THX certification and the Glo remote. As we pointed out in the original Premiere review, the standard remote is pretty cheesy. Both the XL and the XL4 include the TiVo Glo Remote, originally shipped with the Series3, that features a higher-quality feel, backlit keys and the ability to learn commands from your TV or AV receiver's remote. The THX certification validates that the signal quality coming in the DVR matches what comes out, but it also mean a pair of filtered glasses are included which works with the preloaded six-minute THX optimizer video that is used to walk you through calibrating your TV's picture settings to perfectly match the output of your DVR. We've huge proponents of calibrating your display to your source, so we can't express how much we appreciate this. All that being said, you can calibrate your TV to match your TV with other DVRs using something like the HDNet Test patterns (broadcast every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. ET) and the filtered glasses you get with a Blu-ray calibration disc.
The lack of over-the-air tuners will certainly be missed by some, but one hardware feature omission we can't forgive is HDMI-CEC. We appreciate that the TiVo remote is programmable, but considering it will only control your TV and AV receiver's power, volume and input selection, we can't understand why TiVo doesn't implement HDMI-CEC. It would do away with programming the remote completely -- we can't think of a single TV or AV receiver released in the past five years that doesn't support HDMI-CEC. The XL4 does offer more control integration with third-party devices than most, though. In fact we were able to easily download a Crestron module for the TiVo and have full integration with our home automation system via IP without much effort at all (the protocol is published if you use a different HA controller).
Netflix, Youtube and other streaming
Streaming movies from Netflix to your TiVo is nothing new, in fact TiVo was only second only to the Xbox 360 in adding the feature over three years ago. But unlike the Xbox Netflix experience that has been revised more than a few times since release, TiVo's experience has remained unchanged and was becoming very dated. That changes today, but sadly, not in a revolutionary way. What we mean is that, like the Hulu Plus experience on TiVo, the Netflix TiVo experience isn't unique. In fact, it's almost identical to that of the Boxee and other boxes. We don't care that it isn't new, per se, the problem is it isn't like the TiVo experience we've grown to love. The familiar TiVo colors, sounds and even button actions aren't much alike. We're not saying we don't like this new Netflix; it's just that we're disappointed that it isn't TiVo-flavored, say the way the Xbox version mimics the game console's user interface. You can browse for things to watch, finally, as well as search or rely on the tried-and-true Instant Queue. You can even find content on Netflix via TiVo's unified search, but it doesn't take you directly to the results when selected; instead it takes you to the Netflix search, which is better than what it did when we tried it from the iPad app (in that case, it simply launches the Netflix app).
Speaking of launching the app, it takes about 40 seconds, which seems like a lifetime if you accidentally hit the TiVo, Guide or Live TV button on the remote and just want to find your way back to what you were watching. We're glad at least some of the buttons on the remote do the same thing, because the info, skip and replay buttons don't work at all when using Netflix. Instead you have to use the right and left d-pad to skip around in a show. The good news is that both 1080p and 5.1 are supported and we even saw the Dolby Digital Plus light on our AVR get some action. What's a bit jarring is the switch from 720p to 1080p. It seems that HD streams start out at the lower resolution and then switch after about 30 seconds, which can mean a few seconds of blackness if your HDTV doesn't resync as fast as you'd like. This can be especially annoying if the feed keeps switching back and forth between two resolutions while it deals with less-than-consistent internet throughput. This is less irritating than the alternative, however, because while TiVo supports 1080p passthrough, it can't rescale it like it can other resolutions.
Much like Netflix, the YouTube experience is like most other streaming boxes and not very TiVo-like. In fact the only real point of integration between the main TiVo experience and the other apps, including YouTube, is that TiVo search returns results from all sources. Launching any TiVo app takes more time than we'd like and the buttons on the remote don't behave the same as they do anywhere else. Switching apps is basically just as jarring as switching inputs -- assuming you had a programmable remote.
The only thing worse than incongruous user experiences is the lack of apps, and while TiVo originally positioned the Premiere line as the everything box, here we are two years later and it hasn't kept up with the competition. Where are Watch ESPN, Vudu, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, Epix, Crackle or CinemaNow? The list goes on. We're sure TiVo owners are very happy to get updated versions of Netflix and YouTube, but, in reality, they're both long overdue and we'd be shocked if TiVo owners who were serious about those other sources haven't at least seriously considered adding another box to fill in the gaps. There is one source that TiVo has that almost no one else does, but unfortunately we're not in San Francisco and thus unable to try out the Xfinity On Demand, but everything we've read is good and, evidently, the plans are to expand it to more Comcast markets before too long.
New guides and info bars
Streaming apps aren't the only big change TiVo has made on the Premiere lineup since our initial review. About five months ago, TiVo released an update that finally brought the HD treatment to the guide and refreshed the info bars (among other features we'll cover shortly). The new HD guide is uncharacteristically snappy, optimized to fill the whole screen and, in this edition, moves the video preview window to the top right corner. Thankfully, the pause button will save you from that video window spoiling your favorite show. The revamped guide still leaves room to display eight channels and what is on for the next two-plus hours. The TiVo Live Guide is still available and looks a lot like the Grid expect that it displays the next eight shows on one channel at a time -- still a great way to find new things to record on your favorite channels. Unfortunately, there's no option to add color codes or built-in filters for genres like sports or drama, but TiVo has finally added indicators to let you know what will record and which are part of a season pass. As for guide options, you can easily remove any channel you want completely, create a single favorites list, quickly skip around by hours or days at a time or go straight to any time in the next two weeks. Additionally, you can sort by name, giving your provider's crazy numbering the boot once and for all.
In addition to the old school favorite guides, there is a new mini one as well. Pressing the select button summons the mini-guide that displays just three channels and the next two-plus hours of programming, while still leaving most of the screen real estate for whatever is currently playing. What is a bit odd is that while select brings up the mini-guide, hitting it again selects the program currently highlighted in the guide (pressing the guide button with the guide displayed clears the guide), and if you'd like to go back to what you were watching, you'll need to hit the clear button. Like the full guide, the skip buttons make it easy to quickly jump to a different time in the future and channel up and down still works as page up and down. The program information available in the mini-guide is more limited compared to the full guide, but things like title, rating, channel info, season and episode number are still there.
Also new since our original Premiere review is the info bar at the top that comes up when you change the channel or hit the info button. There are two new versions of it, with the less compact one offering more details, as well as some advanced options you might want easy access to. Pressing right also brings up this bar at the bottom of the screen, with the initial look presenting the details of the show, and pressing the down button allows access to see what the other tuners are doing, enable closed captioning or select alternate audio tracks. One thing that's missing that happened to be included in the old info bar is the ability to enable parental controls. The Spring update included the first HD TiVo user interface that even supports parental controls. You are prompted to temporarily disable parental controls if you try to access a TV show or movie with a rating beyond your set threshold (or tune to a channel you blocked completely). The only way to re-enable it is to not use the TiVo for four hours, put it in standby or dig in the settings a few menus deep. This one annoyance aside, we're sure concerned parents will be happy to feel less tied to switching back to the SD user interface just for parental controls, but they might still go back for KidZone, which may likely never get the HD treatment.
We believe that 2012 might prove to be the year of the whole-home DVR, but if it is for TiVo, it hasn't happened yet. The Winter update did enable TiVo-to-TiVo streaming, but that isn't exactly enough to be a whole-home DVR. It is a big improvement over the previous multi-room viewing that wasn't compatible with content marked Copy Once (since it technically was making a copy of the recording). TiVo does make the Preview for a few cable companies, but it has yet to release it at retail and without the ability to remotely schedule recordings, it still wouldn't exactly make the TiVo Premiere line a whole-home DVR.
In the two years since the release of the Premiere, TiVo has actually made more than a few enhancements beyond those from this year. These include the release of the TiVo Slide Remote, Hulu, iPad, Android and iPhone apps, but we can't help but think there's still so much more to do before TiVo lives up to the expectations it set more than 10 years ago. In fact, a number of our two-year-old beefs remain unanswered, including our desire for real-time remote scheduling, streaming to other devices and an easy way to replace your old TiVo -- you can transfer your season passes via TiVo.com, but not recordings or other settings like history. To this day, many of the less-often used screens are still in SD including To Do list, season pass manager, history, manual recordings and browse web videos/photos.
The truly sad thing is that even with all these misses, the TiVo Premiere XL4 is still the best DVR available at retail. On top of that, the overall user experience still manages to leave your provider's DVRs in the dust despite the fact that it may feature some of the previously mentioned gripes -- more features don't always equal a great experience. When you consider that CableCARD self-installs are now the norm and easier than ever, it all adds up to make the TiVo Premiere lineup of DVRs the best out there. All that being said, TiVo is leaving the market wide open for its competitors -- although that has been true for years. The bottom line is the only reasons cable subscribers might not want to go with the Premiere is that they'd rather roll their own DVR, they couldn't care less about the experience or they're just cheap.