TiVo Gets a Major Upgrade, but Can It Beat Google TV?

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Theo Wargo / Getty Images for TiVo

Guests attend a TiVo launch on March 2, 2010, in New York City

Way back at the end of the last century, TiVo introduced its first digital video recorder (DVR) and changed TV-watching forever. Along with its short-lived archrival, ReplayTV, the company invented the idea of recording a single TV episode or an entire season's worth to a hard drive with just a few taps on a remote control. It was a monumental advance over slogging through an onscreen channel grid or TV guide, not to mention futzing with VHS tapes.

People who have TiVo tend to love TiVo, but it soon found itself competing with knockoffs marketed by cable companies. The DVRs these companies rented to their customers borrowed TiVo's concept but couldn't match its user experience. (When it comes to usability, the person who designed the remote that Comcast gave me is either an ignoramus or a sadist. Possibly both.)

Today, TiVo's most intriguing competition isn't other DVRs — it's Internet-TV gadgets such as Logitech's new Google TV–based Revue and the latest versions of Apple TV, Roku and D-Link's Boxee Box. Just as TiVo did a decade ago, these upstarts aim to put you in charge of your TV-watching. But instead of doing so by letting you record programs onto a hard disk in a stand-alone box, they pluck TV episodes and movies from the Internet as needed, then stream them over your home network to an HDTV.

To see how TiVo is keeping up with the times, I borrowed its latest model, the $299.99 Premiere, which began shipping in March. The Premiere works with cable TV and can also receive over-the-air HD broadcasts via antenna; I used it instead of the last-generation TiVo HD that normally resides in my entertainment center. (A separate TiVo model for DirecTV is under development.)

"TiVo is Not a DVR. Only." proclaims the Premiere's marketing material. It sounds a little defensive, but makes an important point. In addition to doing all the stuff we're used to TiVo doing, the box lets you stream content from Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon On Demand, Blockbuster, YouTube, the Pandora music service and more, replicating the core features of Roku and the gang. It will also get Hulu Plus, the upcoming pay version of the Web's prime destination for new TV episodes.

And TiVo needn't be apologetic about its cable-intensive heritage: even in an era of bountiful Internet TV, DVRs aren't deadwood. American Idol, for example, still isn't available — legally — over the Internet. Channels such as Turner Classic Movies and the Independent Film Channel are bulging at the seams with flicks that haven't made their way to iTunes or Amazon. News and sports also remain far more plentiful on cable and satellite than they are on Net-only boxes.

The single best thing about TiVo is how neatly it weaves together disparate sources of entertainment. One slick screen lets you search for titles and performers without worrying whether the entertainment you seek is on cable, Netflix, Amazon or another source. The Google TV interface sported by Logitech's Revue is a kissing cousin to TiVo, but it's an exception: Apple TV and Roku only let you search by title, and they make you scour each of their multiple services separately. (It's more like browsing a card catalog than like Googling.)

But despite all there is to like about TiVo — and there's lots — even the newish Premiere feels more like a classic DVR that's been spruced up than a direct competitor to the new devices. For one thing, its hard disk, cable interface and other electronics require a case the size of an old-school DVD player. That makes the Premiere a bit of a behemoth, especially in contrast to the nearly pocketable Apple TV.

It's also a big-ticket gizmo compared with the $99 Apple TV and Roku (which starts at $59.99). Spending $299.99 on the box is just the start: you also pay a fee — ranging from $12.95 per month to $399 for the life of the box — for the TiVo service, which delivers the schedule information necessary to record shows. A Wi-Fi adapter, important if your TV isn't near a network router, costs $89.99. Want the nifty new Slider remote control, which packs a QWERTY keyboard inside the iconic peanut shape of all TiVo remotes? That'll be another $89.99, please.

The TiVo company says that the total cost over five years may add up to less than you'd pay for your cable provider's cheesy DVR. That's true. But even cable-company DVRs are starting to look pricey compared with Internet-only boxes.

Installation is another issue. Using TiVo with cable requires you to procure a security device called a CableCARD and technical assistance from your TV provider. The process goes smoothly in some cases, but when I set up the Premiere, the first Comcast rep I talked to not only failed to get the CableCARD up and running but also managed to disable my Internet connection entirely. It wasn't TiVo's fault, but it made me appreciate Apple TV and Roku's 10-minute setups all the more.

All of this leaves me pining for two TiVos that don't yet exist. One would be a more thoroughly modern, affordable DVR designed to be an irresistible upgrade from an Internet-only box. Another would do away with the DVR feature altogether, reducing the cost and bulk and putting TiVo's user interface and Internet features head-to-head with Apple TV, Google TV and other whippersnappers. The company has announced that it's working with Best Buy to build an Internet-ready TV that sports TiVo's user interface. Beyond that, it's not talking about any plans to take on Apple TV, Google TV and company more directly.

I suspect that TiVo is just being coy and that both types of next-generation models are in the works. I sure hope so: it would be pretty cool if the company that revolutionized TV a decade ago were a major force in the revolution that's under way right now.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Tuesday.