TiVo has just released a new Netflix player as part of their 2012 spring software update. In addition to being able to browse the Netflix catalog, the new TiVo Premiere Netflix player comes with support for 1080P HD video, Dolby Digital Plus surround sound and closed captions. When you add in TiVo’s comprehensive search capability and the convenience it offers (given TiVo usually lives on HDMI1), this is one of the best Netflix streaming implementations available. TiVo is now pushing out the spring software update date but it usually takes a few weeks before it reaches all customers. Thanks to TiVo for providing early access to the new software.
When I saw the preview version of TiVo’s new Netflix player at this year’s CES, I was told that it would only support Dolby Digital surround sound with this initial release. It’s good to under promise and over deliver. I was pleasently surprised to see Dolby Digital Plus support in this version (unlike the new Xbox and Apple TV versions). Dolby Digital Plus is more bandwidth efficient and provides better sound than regular Dolby Digital on Netflix. When you play a TV show or movie, TiVo auto-selects the Dolby Digital Plus track when available. While the TiVo delivers Dolby Digital Plus via HDMI, it still delivers Dolby Digital over optical as well (if you have a non-HDMI receiver).
There’s also support for 1080P streaming video. Specifically, it supports 1080P video at 24 frames per second (FPS) and 1080i video at 30 FPS. At first, I was concerned since the TiVo Premiere cannot output 1080P video at 30 FPS (it’s a hardware limitation). However, according to my sources, the majority of 1080P content from Netflix is actually encoded at 24 FPS not 30 FPS. It’s not only the case for movies but also TV shows including Battlestar Galactica and Sons of Anarchy. High definition video encoded at 30 FPS is delivered in either 1080i or 720P on TiVo’s Netflix player. Currently, I have not found any evidence of 1080P / 30 FPS titles in Netflix’s library.
There’s only one downside to this set-up. When Netflix starts streaming, it starts with a lower bandwidth stream and quickly improves to HD quality in less than 30 seconds. However, when it switches to 1080P / 24 FPS, my HDTV blacks out for a couple of seconds while it switches resolutions. It also happens after fast forwarding or rewinding or if there is a disruption in bandwidth. It would be nice if the TiVo buffered some more data to avoid this. Below, I’ll share a tip on how to prevent this black-out effect in some situations.
The black-out effect is the result of a feature I’ve never seen on a Netflix player. The TiVo Premiere is the only Netflix device I’ve seen that properly detects and plays content back at its native frame rate. Most Netflix devices don’t even let you select the frame rate you’re watching at, converting everything to 30 FPS. To do this, it inserts extra frame which can sometimes creates “judder”. One notable exception are the 2012 3D Blu-ray players from Panasonic but the frame rate is a manual setting.
The other feature that separates the TiVo Premiere from other Netflix players is integrated search. From TiVo’s main menu, you can enter the name of a show and TiVo searches across TV listings, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus. It’s a very handy way to find the content you are looking for without going to lots of different websites. The search is a little different from the old version. The old version directly linked to a title whereas the new version pulls up a pre-filled Netflix search screen. It’s still functional but not as efficient as before. That quirkiness is evident other places as well.
This version was not primarily developed by TiVo but by Netflix themselves. The end result is an experience that’s more consistant with other Netflix devices than the TiVo itself. Things such as TiVo’s “instant replay” button no longer work. There’s no information banner when hitting the “Info” button either. To exit a title you have to hit “UP” on the D-pad (I expected to hit back arrow). Hopefully, TiVo and Netflix will improve some of these usability features in the future.
To minimize the issue with video switching: Go to “Settings” and then “Video”. Under “Video Output Formats”, set the formats only to 1080i and 1080P/24 (pass-through). HD shows that stream at 1080i / 30FPS won’t have to renegoiate the HDMI connection with the TV and that will eliminate those black-outs. One example of an HD show at 1080i / 30 FPS is Doctor Who.
Another tip: Make sure your TiVo does not have “zoom” turned on or part of the screen will be cut off in Netflix. You have set it to to panel or full (which removes the horizontal bars for SD titles) while you are watching TV or recorded content on the TiVo.
And to anticipate a question, this version of Netflix will not be coming to the Series3. Despite its similarity to Netflix’s HTML5 UI on other devices, this app is Flash-based. It was built with Adobe AIR and AIR is not supported on the Series3.
To wrap-up, while it does have some quirks, the new TiVo Netflix player is a big improvement and provides a great audio and video experience. Since the TiVo is our primary viewing device and given its integrated search, I will be using Netflix on TiVo much more. Given the wealth of bandwidth I get from FIOS, the video black-out problem should just be a minor annoyance for me. While I wouldn’t recommend the TiVo Premiere just for Netflix, the new Netflix app is one of several compelling reasons to make it part of your home theater set up.