Walt Mossberg

New TiVo Mixes TV and Internet, but Falls Short

TiVo is the most famous third-party set-top box for your TV. The company popularized the idea of digital video recording and, in recent years, also has added to its devices the ability to deliver some Internet video content to the TV screen.

But TiVo is being squeezed. Cable and satellite companies now offer boxes with DVR capabilities. And other tech companies are rolling out competing set-top boxes to get Internet video to televisions.

TiVo (TIVO) is responding with a new model, the TiVo Premiere, that aims to seamlessly blend programming from conventional TV and the Internet. It is slimmer, has a slicker user interface and holds more recorded programming than earlier models—45 hours of high-definition programs, up from 20 hours in the prior model, the TiVo HD. A more expensive version of the Premiere, the XL, has the same new software and holds 150 hours of HD shows.

I have been testing the new Premiere, and it worked as advertised, with conventional cable programming and with the available Internet sources TiVo (TIVO) supports. But, in my tests, it showed some flaws and, in my view, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in tapping the Internet.

Like prior TiVos, I’d rate the Premiere as better than the standard cable-company-supplied boxes I’ve seen. But, if you already own a recent-model TiVo, I don’t believe the Premiere justifies an upgrade, unless you need the greater built-in storage.

The TiVo Premiere goes on sale Sunday at Best Buy (BBY) stores for $300, plus a monthly fee of $13, or an annual or lifetime payment plan ranging from $129 for a year of service to $399 for the life of the device. The Premiere XL costs $500, plus the same fees. Both will be available Monday at tivo.com.

TiVo calls the Premiere “the One Box,” because it better integrates regular TV and Internet content. However, it actually has no additional Internet services compared with recent TiVo models. It allows you to get movies, TV shows and videos from YouTube, Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX) and Blockbuster (BBI), which are available on competing set-top boxes. It also includes a number of online music and photo services.

The company says a couple of added Internet services will be available later this year. These include the Pandora streaming music service and a widget system displaying things like news, stock prices and Twitter updates. However, the widgets won’t allow you to interact with Twitter and won’t be viewable while you’re watching TV or Internet video.

The biggest changes in the new Premiere involve the user interface. The TiVo Central screens, where you find and manage recorded shows and other content, are now presented in high definition and wide screen. This allows more menus on a single screen. The screen containing your recorded shows is now called My Shows instead of Now Playing.

You also can now watch TV in a small window while you’re on the menu screens, and there is a 30-second skip button on the remote.


The new TiVo Premiere

Also, a new Browse function lets you look for programming without typing search terms, by scrolling through colorful icons that include “collections” of related content, such as Oscar or Emmy winners.

Both Search and Browse now integrate regular TV shows with Internet content. If you start typing letters into the search box, TiVo will respond not only with TV shows that match, but with movies and TV shows that you can download from Web sources. You can also easily find YouTube clips related to a favorite show.

A new Discovery Bar of icons appears across the top of the Tivo Central screens. It’s filled with icons of TV shows and available Web content TiVo thinks you might like.

But there are some big downsides to the Premiere. You can’t watch videos on popular sites like Hulu (owed in part by News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and its Web sites), CBS.com, blogs or news Web sites. This may be partly due to media-company restrictions, not TiVo’s shortcomings, but it means the Premiere omits vast sources of Internet video.

The new HD interface was slower than the old standard one in my tests, with frequent delays, even in scrolling through a list of recorded shows. TiVo says this is a bug being fixed.

In addition, I found the Discovery Bar a distraction, cluttering the menu screens, with no way to turn it off unless you revert to the old interface (a buried option.) This is partly because TiVo hopes to sell ads on the bar.

Finally, the new HD interface isn’t available when watching live TV. You have to constantly bounce between the new and old software designs.

All in all, TiVo Premiere looks incomplete. It seems more like a platform for a future set of offerings TiVo hopes one day to have, rather than a way to deliver new content right now.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free of charge, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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