Review: TiVo Series 4 Premier XL

The stakes for TiVo’s new Series 4 are ridiculously high.

A lot has changed since TiVo premiered its Series 3 DVR in 2006. Netflix, Amazon and Blockbuster are now set-top players, and even Apple is strong-arming into entertainment centers.

So TiVo fans will no doubt cheer this entertainment powerhouse’s knockout blows: Massive storage, internet video streaming, an improved interface and a kick-ass way to search for and find new content.

The bad news? It’s a sloppy victory. TiVo acolytes won’t mind, but others might find its rough edges a little grating.

Like the Tivo Series 3 (and HD, and HD XL), the Premier XL is a digital video recorder to its core. It boasts a terabyte of storage (enough to hold roughly 150 hours of HD content), and its dual tuners let you simultaneously record channels piped in through digital cable, antenna, CableCARD, and Verizon’s FiOS service. We chose to connect it to our 42-inch Philips LCD via HDMI, but the Premier also supports component, composite, optical and analog audio.

The Premier kicks ass when it comes to searching content. Nestled at the top of the menu screen is a new, customizable Discovery Bar that lists movies, shows and recommended web video. Though it only takes up a quarter of the screen, the feature is hugely useful for exploring new shows floating out in TV land. We got hooked on AMC’s Breaking Bad after highlighting the show’s banner and clicking through the synopsis.

Integrated tools like the Discovery Bar are rounded out with traditional forms of search. You can browse by category (new releases, most popular) and also use a keyword search. What’s most compelling about this is the breadth of results. Searching for The Office doesn’t just retrieve showtimes from the cable provider. It reveals IMDB-like data about the show and its stars, links to related YouTube content — and it presents the option of streaming through Netflix, or buying episodes from Amazon VoD or Blockbuster On Demand.

According to TiVo, a Pandora app is due out soon, while a partnership with the widget wonks at FrameChannel is already in the works. The promise of a robust app ecosystem (running on Flash Lite, no less) is an appetizing carrot to dangle. But for now, this sad, desolate branch of the menu reeks of missed opportunity.

As a whole, it’s lacunae like this (and the ugly transitions to third-party storefronts) that epitomize the Premier XL. Its core features are all right on target — it just has a somewhat half-finished feel to it.

If you’re a no-frills TV-archiving fiend, then this device definitely has you covered (and then some). But if you’re looking for a truly scalpel-edged, seamless, all-in-one entertainment box, the Premier falls a little short. But only a little.

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