First Look: TiVo DVR-SuperAdvance

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TiVo DVR-SuperAdvance
Pros: Familiar TiVo interface; DVR can record not-yet-broadcast programming; potentially useful as a wagering aid.

Cons: Expensive; access to programming is limited; footage is displayed in standard definition only.

Bottom Line: TiVo's latest might be the company's slickest technology yet, but network politics and legal wrangling will keep most customers on the sidelines.

Hands-on Evaluation: After nearly seven years in development, the TiVo DVR-SuperAdvance is ready for release. The company bills the DVR SuperAdvance as the first digital video recorder capable of recording full programs before they've finished airing; it also permits fast-forwarding of live broadcasts.

TiVos have always been capable of skipping through commercials or jumping to the end of a given prerecorded program. But according to TiVo product evangelist Peter Onderdoink, the "aha!" moment came "when one of the guys in our labs realized that he could overclock the internal TiVo processor to get a jump on live recordings as well."

"We expect this will be a huge hit with consumers," Onderdoink says, "and an irresistible upgrade," especially for customers of the older Series2 TiVos.

I put a prerelease unit through an extended workout earlier this week, and left the hands-on session feeling impressed but not bowled over. For one thing, the DVR-SuperAdvance can record programming only 58 seconds in advance of the actual programming--a relatively minor "advance" in my view. What's more, with SuperAdvance mode activated you're forced to view everything as standard-definition footage, even when the content comes from a from a high-definition feed.

According to Onderdoink, the subminute time gain is a limitation of the overclocking technology itself. But by daisy-chaining several TiVo DVR-SuperAdvances together, he says, it is possible to stretch the anticipatory capability to nearly 4 minutes. Considering the premium price on these new models, however--a steep $799 for 150 hours of HD programming--I can't imagine that many customers will be willing to shell out for more than one machine, and that's without taking into account the problem of hardware clutter in the living room.

Clean Interface

As we've come to expect from TiVo, basic recording and timeshifting functionality is effortless, and the interface remains unchanged from previous models. More important, the SuperAdvance feature is easy to find and activate: A red "SA mode" icon appears in the bottom righthand corner of the screen whenever the feature is available; you simply click the icon once, and presto--you jump 58 seconds forward.

Unfortunately, SuperAdvance seems to be available less than half the time. In my tests, for instance, the icon was grayed out during all of the qualifying matches for World Cup 2010 soccer except Mozambique vs. Nigeria, which ended in a scoreless tie.

The feature was also unavailable on the World's Strongest Man Competition, Dancing with the Stars, and CNBC's Mad Money. On the other hand, I was able to SuperAdvance nearly all of ESPN's live bowling content, along with several LPGA tournaments, the CBC's extended coverage of the Prairie Provinces Curling Cup competition, and the sitcom Two and a Half Men.

Evidently, the restrictions on SuperAdvance programming are due not to technical limitations, but to legal complications. According to TiVo general counsel Douglas Hoffman, the company must receive specific written authorization from the copyright holder before activating the SuperAdvance feature for a particular piece of content. Hoffman notes that CBS, for instance, has been very open to the idea, while ABC, CNBC, and CNN are dead-set against it. "ESPN has apparently decided to limit its SuperAdvance offerings to minor sports, and most of the other networks have elected to make their decisions on a case-by-case basis," Hoffman says.

The short-sighted resistance of the broadcasting industry to TiVo's promising new technology is regrettable, to say the least. Indeed, if the protectionist impulse takes hold, the result may be to stifle an initiative that the industry itself could benefit greatly from. For instance, widespread adoption of SuperAdvance programming would render any further investment in 15-second delay technology for live broadcasts superfluous, potentially saving broadcasters hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment maintenance and FCC fines.

The PC World Test Center will be putting the TiVo DVR-SuperAdvance through its paces in a formal laboratory setting as soon as we can get our hands on a shipping unit. For now, though, it's difficult to recommend a product that is (a) expensive and (b) badly hobbled.

Still, my hat is off to the TiVo tech guys. If they can somehow get the armies of lawyers representing content providers and technology innovators on the same page, TiVo might have a real hit on its hands.

[Note: This review was specially prepared for April Fool's Day, 2009.]

This story, "First Look: TiVo DVR-SuperAdvance" was originally published by PCWorld.

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