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DVR Shootout: TiVo Premiere XL vs. Moxi HD DVR

Consumer Reports News: May 28, 2010 11:56 AM

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The TiVo Premiere XL DVR
Photo: TiVo

These days, it's easy to take for granted the ability to save, fast-forward and rewind live TV, but these features were novel when the first TiVo digital video recorder (DVR) arrived more than a decade ago. Now TiVo is battling not only with cable and satellite DVRs, but a new entry: the Moxi HD DVR, from a company called Arris. Both can replace your cable box, though neither will work with satellite services.

There were a number of similarities between the two boxes. Both, for example, included two digital cable tuners, so you can watch one program while another is recording, or record two shows while playing a recorded program. (Moxi also has a three-tuner model.) Both have their own electronic program guides, HDMI outputs, and support for Dolby Digital 5.1-channel sound.

But there are differences. For example, Moxi doesn’t require an ongoing service fee, something TiVo and the cable and satellite DVRs do. Also, the TiVo Premiere XL’s hard drive stores up to 150 hours of HD programs, double that of Moxi. But perhaps the biggest distinction for some users is that you can access online content, such as streaming TV shows and movies, directly on TiVo, getting this content via Moxi requires a workaround.

We recently put both new models through their paces, and found them fairly easy to set up, though typically your local cable company requires a representative to come to your house to install the multi-stream CableCard (MCard). Our local cable company, Cablevision, charges about $35. Because these are still one-way cards, you won’t be able to receive video-on-demand from the cable company or its interactive programming guide. Both TiVo and Moxi offer their own interactive guides.

Tivo Premiere XL
We’ve already blogged about Tivo’s newest models, the $300 Premiere and the $500 Premiere XL, so we won’t go on at length here. The XL includes a larger 1-terabyte (TB) hard drive, THX certification, and a more advanced backlit remote control. In addition to digital cable, TiVo works with Verizon’s FiOS TV, and comes with two ATSC digital TV tuners for free over-the-air TV reception. If you need more recording time, an external E-SATA hard drive can be added for a maximum capacity of 2TBs.

In addition to standard cable TV fare, TiVo provides direct access to a fair amount of online content, including streaming movie services from Amazon, Blockbuster, and Netflix, plus Pandora Internet radio. It also includes FrameChannel, which works as a personalized channel that aggregates a variety of online content including news, weather, photos and Tweets.

Key improvements include a new high-def, Flash-based interface, a capacity meter that shows how much recording time is left, and a search function that sorts through all types of available content—live TV shows, recorded programs, and online material—regardless of where it originated. TiVo can be programmed remotely using a web-connected PC or cell phone at several online sites, including tivo.com and tvguide.com

TiVo’s toughest sell has always been the fact that you have to buy the hardware, plus pay a recurring subscription fee, which currently costs $13 per month. There’s also an option of paying a one-time “lifetime” subscription of $399 instead.

moxi hd dvr
The Moxi HD DVR.
Photo: Moxi

Moxi HD DVR
Thanks to a recent price drop, the Moxi HD DVR now also costs $500. Though it comes with a smaller 500GB hard drive, you can add six additional 1TB E-SATA external hard drives that can hold than 1,000 hours of HD programs.

The Moxi DVR has a great-looking HD interface, with lots of information and colorful graphics. It also has a high-def electronic programming guide, with the channels organized vertically along the left side of the screen, and current or upcoming shows displayed in a window on the right side. Moxi has filters for different types of content—HD, Kids, Sports, Movies, etc.—that can be placed in folders with similar content, and your most viewed channels are automatically saved as Favorites. You can schedule recordings via the moxi.com website using a computer or web-enabled cell phone.

Moxi also has very large, dual TV buffers, which cache between one and three hours of live TV content, depending on how many tuners are being used. By contrast, TiVo buffers about 30 minutes of live TV. Both allow you to switch channels without losing the ability to rewind on either of them, but Moxi’s larger buffers let you pause one channel, switch to another for an extended period of time, and then go back to the first channel and view the remainder of the program in its entirety.

Other features include a 30-second skip for blasting past commercials, and SuperTicker, a widget bar that displays news, weather and sports updates pulled from the web across the bottom of the screen. Using Moxi Media Link, a DLNA-based feature, you can pull content from a networked PC for display on your TV. A $299 option called the Moxi Mate receiver lets you stream programs from the Moxi DVR to other rooms of the house, so you could start watching a show in the living room, for example, and finish viewing it in a bedroom. A three-room bundle that packages a three-tuner Moxi HD DVR with two Moxi Mate receivers is available for $999.

While Moxi provides direct access to some online content, such as the Rhapsody music service, Flickr photos, and an assortment of games, it doesn’t have built-in applications for viewing streaming movies or YouTube videos. Instead, you have to download PlayOn software on a networked (and running) PC to access videos from Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu.

Shootout results
While we like seeing more choices in the standalone DVR market, TiVo is, and remains, the clear winner in our shootout. The Premiere XL is well designed, easy to use, and comes packed with a bigger hard drive that can store more HD programs. The upgraded search function, which seamlessly searches live TV, recorded programs, and online services, is a big improvement, and the addition of the capacity meter finally addresses a long-standing, common gripe among users. For some, the annual subscription fee on top of the upfront hardware cost remains an impediment, and it would be nice if wireless was built in rather than offered as an option. But if you want more features and storage than what you’d get from a standard cable DVR and don’t mind paying a bit more for it, TiVo is still the way to go.

Despite a few significant shortcomings, there are some things to like about Moxi, starting with the colorful, fresh look of its interface and no recurring service charges. The Moxi HD DVR capably performs its basic mission of recording programs, and we like its multi-room, the ability to add lots more storage, and the long buffering time for live TV shows. And the unique SuperTicker feature, which brings a lot of useful content to your TV screen.

While we liked the look of Moxi’s interface, actually using it wasn’t intuitive; when combined with the remote’s confusing control and button layout, you expect a decent learning curve. Other drawbacks include the lack of any ATSC tuners for receiving free over-the-air HD broadcasts, and the need to purchase a separate adapter kit ($130) to get analog cable channels if your cable company hasn’t yet gone all-digital.

But the real deal-breaker for us is the inability to directly access online content. Given how easy it view streaming movies and TV shows these days—even on inexpensive Blu-ray players and videogame systems—Moxi’s work-around, which requires PlayOn software to be running on a Windows-based PC, seems antiquated and kludgy. Also, the lack of a Wi-Fi option means you’ll need a wired Ethernet connection, which could be an issue for some.

As an unproven newcomer, Moxi is in the unenviable position of not only having to be better than the DVRs provided by cable, but also superior to TiVo’s latest offerings. In at least this iteration of the product, Moxi exceeds what cable provides, but falls short of topping TiVo’s newest model, the Premiere XL.

—James K. Willcox and Charles Davidman

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