Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hulu Plus on a TiVo Premiere: Not Worth $8

In 2008 my brother gave me his old TiVo—and "old" is an accurate term, because the thing felt ancient; fortunately, TiVos remain relevant and usable for a long time, and it was free. We used it without major problems for two years before the thing decided it was time to give up, and the power supply died.

Calling TiVo for support was a good idea. Because we were "long-time customers," they gave us a good deal on a TiVo Premiere, their newest model. I bought it over the phone and had it set up within 4 days.

Because the Premiere (a Series 4 unit) was marketed as having "double the processing power of the Series 3," I was excited. The old box took 7 minutes to boot, and the menus lagged significantly. Unfortunately, first boot—and all subsequent boots—was no less than ten minutes long. Not a good sign.

Comcast is charging me $78 a month for highly compressed video, which is painfully blocky on my HD TV, so when I heard that Hulu Plus had just become available for the TiVo Premiere I felt the urge to cancel my cable. I don't have another device that supports Hulu Plus, so this was my chance to try the service, which, at $8 a month, would be an unbelievable bargain by comparison.

I broke into my old college email account by guessing a password I thought I had forgotten to get the "30-day trial when signing up from a .edu email address," and Hulu was mine to use. Now I just had to set it up on my Premiere.

First I had to perform a firmware update to get the Hulu interface to appear on the TiVo, which took literally all night. Sometime while I was sleeping it finished and rebooted, so the next day I was ready to jump into it.

Wow, what a laggy interface! Moving the cursor within the system shows a delay between command and action that can't be less than 1000ms, and pressing one direction repeatedly queues commands that, each lagging by at least one second, might not end for half a minute or longer. By this point you've watched your show come and go in the list without being able to stop the queue of actions to select it.

Found your program? Great, now you can watch it. First, wait 20 or so seconds for the Hulu service to retrieve your show; now sit through two initial commercials. With that out of the way, you can watch the first few minutes of the program before, suddenly, another commercial breaks in.

Want to fast-forward to a funny part of the episode? Well, if you've bypassed a designated commercial break, expect 60 seconds of ads before you can move on. Finally, the Hulu feed comes through, but the audio is missing for the first 5-8 seconds of video.

And what about the quality? Well, I noticed that it was even blockier than Comcast's cable quality, but I expected that from a streaming service. However, I have a 15 mbps connection, so I should be able to handle a 1080p stream. Looking in the menu, I noticed a box that said "SD"—standard definition. Okay, I'll just click on that and change it to "HD," right?

Select a stream rate:

Oh, okay, it's either this or lower quality. Remember, I have a 15 mbit/s connection, and my highest quality option is a stream of one.

In addition to this, shows not filmed in widescreen came in at the wrong aspect ratio; instead of 4:3, Hulu was streaming me a signal that looked more like 1:1. Not only did this cause giant black bars on the left and right sides of the video, but also stretched everything on the screen vertically. As of now, I have not been able to fix the aspect ratio.

I gave up and walked to my brother's apartment where I watched him use Hulu Plus on a PS3. The interface was smooth and high quality, and there was no visible lag. Of course, the same content still came in at SD quality, but that's Hulu, not the media device.

I was highly disappointed in my "brand new" TiVo Premiere. Not only is it severely lacking in the hardware department, but it's late to the Internet television scene. It's no wonder that it took so long for the service to come to TiVo: The programmers probably had a hell of a time figuring out how to make the interface usable, eventually giving up and releasing the best thing the system could handle—which is still subpar, by far.

I would definitely not recommend the Premiere + Hulu combination. It feels much more like an afterthought than a carefully planned business move, an attempt to stay viable in a quickly changing television delivery market. If you're looking for an alternative to cable, please just buy a Logitech Revue and sign up for Google TV. It'll be the best option out there if more of us sign up for it.


  1. AnonymousJune 01, 2011

    Utter BS. I usually wait for major version upgrades before buying new devices or software. I waited for the Tivo Series 3 HD to come out and come down to a reasonable price (I paid around $300 when I purchased less than 2 years ago). Now the Premier is out. I can understand their being a better interface or some additional features with the remote, etc, but Hulu Plus should be a software upgrade available for AT LEAST the Series 3 and above. In a day when there are alternate sources for TV in addition to the Cable and Satellite providers (namely internet content providers such as Hulu), it is sad to see that Tivo isn't keeping up. I recently downgraded my cable tv to just a few of the local channels, reducing my overall bill by nearly $100 a month. I get the rest of my TV off Hulu and Netflix. Now I'm wondering why I even need the Tivo. I bought a ROKU for about $50 that gives me HD access to Hulu, Netflix and many, many other sources, with no monthly fee for the Roku (as opposed to the Tivo). I think at this point I am done with Tivo. I won't be re-subscribing and I definitely won't be purchasing a Premier.

  2. From what I understand, the Roku has a pretty nice interface, but I've never seen one in person. I would stick with that device and avoid TiVo for now. There might come a time in the future where their service is worth paying for, but $13 a month on top of the $8 for Hulu is unnecessary.

    Actually, the HD content coming from Hulu is pretty nice, but any HD box would display that just fine. $200 for the Premiere is a waste of money.

  3. I have the TIvo Premiere and was also looking forward to Hulu Plus coming to it.. I have watched it on the ps3 since it was available on ps3. I naturally assumed that interface would be similar.  Oh man. I can't even get hulu plus to load anything now except the main screen - it kicks me out and gives an error. Every time. No matter what. 

    But the ps3 has superior interface compared to this. & well, WORKS. I'm sticking with that for now. 

     For me, hulu isn't usable on TiVo. At all. (but I use amazon instant video, YouTube, etc )