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TiVo’s Big Announcement Is…WebTV?

Last month, TiVo teased us with an upcoming announcement, saying that their inventing the DVR was just the opening act, or some such puffery. This week they finally revealed the meat and potatoes: it’s the all-new TiVo Premiere, otherwise known to us old hats as the Series4.

The big news about this box, to me, is the fact that the long-familiar TiVo user interface has been completely redesigned using Flash, of all things. It now runs in full HD resolution, unlike the existing UI which is 480p only. It also adds a “picture in picture” view of the channel you’re watching in the upper right corner like most cable company DVRs, an oft-requested feature. But the central point of the TiVo Premiere’s release, if you believe all of the TiVo marketing speak, seems to be the fact that it’s a “single box solution” for all of your video needs, including streaming video from Netflix and Amazon as well as web video from YouTube and what-have-you.

Personally, I found this announcement strange, because my TiVo HD already does all of those things. I’ve long been able to watch Amazon video on demand, although I never do because of the cost. I’ve long been able to watch YouTube, although I never do because, trust me, most YouTube videos look like total shit when they’re blown up to 1920×1080 on a 57-inch screen. I’ve even been able to stream Netflix Instant Queue titles to my TiVo, although I never do because the interface is poor and the performance is far inferior to the streaming on either my Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 (the latter of which is currently my Netflix streaming device of choice).

So it was hard to see the TiVo Premiere’s apparent raison d’être as anything but a new skin on a feature set that’s already been there for months or even years. If I were to get really derogatory, it’s almost like the TiVo Premiere is the next generation of Microsoft’s WebTV — a set-top device designed to as an alternative to a computer that allowed people to browse the web on their TVs, albeit at standard-def resolutions (a miserable experience) and without the features of most PC-based web browsers.

Now, realistically, TiVo is known for their great UIs, and from what I can see of the new UI in action, the Premiere UI looks to be no exception. Still, as a current two-TiVo owner and lifetime subscriber, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed — my current TiVo seems to be at least as capable as the Premiere when it comes to being a “single-box solution” for getting content on your TV. And, as one commenter on Engadget remarked, how can the TiVo Premiere be a “single-box solution” if it doesn’t play Blu-ray discs and DVDs?

The hardware has been updated as well, of course, but not in any especially meaningful way. The new TiVo box is a good bit slimmer and simplified, and undoubtedly costs less to manufacture than the TiVo HD or the uber-expensive Series3 with its OLED display. However, the Premiere no longer supports single-stream CableCARDs, providing a slot for just one M-card. That means I couldn’t use the box even if I wanted to, thanks to the local Comcast office’s backwater equipment loadout.

Additionally, the Premiere still doesn’t solve the problem of being unable to use the cable company’s On Demand services due to its lack of support for two-way communication. Having tried it before, I can say that Comcast On Demand doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but TiVo’s lack of support for such services are nevertheless a frequently-lobbied complaint. More to the point, cable companies might treat a customer’s TiVo box like less of a black sheep if those boxes were able to use their On Demand services, which are like the proverbial cash cow for your typical cable TV business.

The new TiVo DVR is available in two configurations: the Premiere, with a 320GB internal hard drive, and the Premiere XL, with a 1TB internal hard drive. I believe those are the same configurations that the TiVo HD is currently available in, as well. I have a standard TiVo HD but upgraded the internal hard drive to a 1TB several months before the XL hit store shelves, so I’m already enjoying the benefits. (And I would never go back to an HD-capable DVR with less space than this!)

TiVo has also introduced a new Bluetooth remote control with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but it won’t come in the box with either the Premiere or the Premiere XL — you’ll have to buy it separately. I’m not a big fan of Bluetooth remotes, despite their obviating the need for line-of-sight, because I can’t program their functions into my Logitech Harmony universal remote. Really, this is Logitech’s fault — they need to come out with a Harmony universal that supports Bluetooth commands, although I admit to being ignorant of the technical feasibility of such an idea.

Also being introduced is a new TiVo-branded wireless network adapter which supports Wireless-N, which will be very useful for streaming HD content over the Internet via your in-home router or access point. With Wireless-G, it’s possible that things could get a little choppy.

Unfortunately, we existing TiVo subscribers won’t be getting the new user interface on our Series3 and HD/HD XL devices. Apparently our hardware just isn’t powerful enough to handle the task. It would be nice if TiVo would back-patch support for the Wireless-N adapter, though — I could really go for an upgrade to an N router. But I don’t really see that happening, either.

In the end, the TiVo Premiere looks like a great device for those who are new to TiVo, so long as your cable company has gotten with the times and can actually provide you with a multi-stream CableCARD. But for existing TiVo subscribers, I’m not seeing any reason to upgrade — unless you want to pay several hundred dollars for some visual gewgaws. I may be a designer, and appreciate good UI design more than most people, but I say no thanks.