For years now, TiVo — the company that’s synonymous with digital video recorders — has marketed its product by arguing, rather defensively, that it’s not just a DVR. That’s true: Modern TiVos are fully Internet-enabled boxes with access to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora and other services.
Still, the best thing about TiVo by far remains the fact that it’s the best DVR ever built. Sure, cord cutters — folks who bypass pricey cable or satellite TV service in favor of getting shows and movies over the Internet — are growing in number. But they’re vastly outnumbered by cord keepers: people who still value the never-ending supply of fresh programming offered by pay TV, some of which isn’t (legally) available over the Net until considerably later, if at all.
TiVo offers excellent search, Season Passes and other features for finding, recording and watching your favorite shows. Just as important, it helps you ignore all the stuff you couldn’t care less about, and includes unified search, which can find shows whether they’re on broadcast TV or a service such as Netflix or Hulu Plus. Cable-company DVRs which mimic TiVo don’t come close to the real thing.
Today, however, even if you’re a cord keeper, you probably don’t do all of your TV watching on a TV. Enter TiVo’s new lineup of DVRs, dubbed TiVo Roamio and available for online purchase beginning today. The two top-of-the-line models, Roamio Plus and Roamio Pro, represent the most dramatic upgrade to the TiVo box since the first high-definition TiVo shipped in 2006.
As the “Roam” in “Roamio” indicates, the signature new feature is streaming. The Roamio Pro and Plus let you watch live and recorded TV on an iPhone or iPad connected to your home network. You can wirelessly stream it from the TiVo box, or download an entire show so you can watch when you’re not connected to the Net. Effectively, these DVRs turn Apple’s mobile gadgets into portable TiVos. (TiVo says it’s working on an app that will do the same for Android devices.)
TiVo loaned me a Roamio Pro for review. Like all the Roamios, it’s designed for use with cable TV — sorry, satellite fans — and uses a credit card-sized CableCard to communicate with your cable system and identify itself as a legitimate box owned by a paying customer. The CableCard technology is notoriously finicky, sometimes requiring over-the-phone troubleshooting or even a dreaded in-home visit from a cable-company technician, but I was lucky: I removed the card from my own TiVo, stuck it into the Roamio and was good to go.
TiVo streaming originated a year ago with TiVo Stream, a $130 add-on box that plugs into your network router. It does its job well, but if your home isn’t wired for Ethernet, you need to spring for a networking adapter that uses a technology called MOCA. With the Roamio Plus and Roamio Pro, streaming is a built-in feature that works over Wi-Fi, no additional equipment or setup required.
Later this year, the Roamio Plus, Roamio Pro and Stream box will get a software update capable of streaming video over the Internet as well as your home network. Like a Slingbox or Dish’s Hopper with Sling, they’ll let you watch your DVR at home from a hotel room or airport gate. You’ll also be able to download recorded shows remotely, letting you fill your device with content for later offline viewing.
The $399 Roamio Plus can store up to 150 hours of HD video for watching anywhere and everywhere; the $599 Roamio Pro, up to 450 hours. Both versions boast six tuners — a lot for a TiVo or any other flavor of DVR. The profusion of tuners let you record multiple shows at once and watch recordings or live TV on one or more iOS devices without interfering with anyone who’s watching TV on the TV. The tuners can also power TiVo Mini, a little gizmo that can extend most of your TiVo’s capabilities to any other TV in your home for $100 plus a $5 monthly fee.
(Oh, there’s another new TiVo model, too, the $199, four-tuner, 75-hour Roamio. It’s housed in a svelter case and can pull in over-the-air broadcasts as well as cable. But it only streams video if you use it in conjunction with a Stream box, making the “Roamio” moniker a bit of a misnomer.)
As always with TiVo, there’s a service charge as well as the price you’ll pay for the box. Monthly service is $15 (with a one-year commitment) or you can get lifetime service for an up-front fee of $500. (That’s the lifetime of the Tivo box, not the lifetime of the TiVo owner.) It’s not cheap. But if you were going to pay your cable company for its DVR — in my case, Comcast would add another $18 a month to my bill — TiVo may give you a much better box for a long-term cost in the same ballpark.
The streaming does have some gotchas. For one thing, your phone or tablet can only stream video if it’s on a Wi-Fi connection, not a cellular one. TiVo hopes to introduce cellular streaming — it needs to figure out how to compress the video stream more aggressively to comply with Apple’s App Store regulations — but even if it does, you’ll need to stream cautiously to avoid blowing through the data allotment your wireless plan provides.
There are also restrictions on what you can do with any channels your cable provider flags as premium offerings, such as HBO. You can stream them on your own home network, but can’t watch them over the Net or download their content onto your device for offline viewing. As long as you’re talking about a channel with its own mobile app — such as HBO Go — this is more of a nuisance than a dealbreaker.
Overall, the iOS streaming and downloading features are a big, well-done deal. I tried them on my home network and — using a beta Stream box — over the Internet. Aside from an occasional jitter when a stream was getting going, quality was impeccable as long as the TiVo and the Apple device both had decent bandwidth. (If you’re on a slow connection, the Roamio will automatically ratchet down the picture quality to avoid hiccups.)
So what else is new in the new TiVos?
Quite a bit, actually. Nothing else is anywhere near as significant as the streaming capability, but it adds up to a much meatier upgrade to the platform than 2010′s TiVo Premiere, the last major revision.
All TiVos, for instance, now have built-in Wi-Fi, for easy wireless networking at no added expense. (In the past, you needed a $90 adapter.) They also come with a version of the iconic peanut-shaped TiVo remote that uses RF technology rather than infrared, so you don’t have to aim precisely and can even stick the TiVo box in an entertainment center with a door.
Software-wise, one of the most welcome changes is that TiVo’s interface is just plain zippier. The company says that on average, it’s 1.7 times faster than the one on TiVo Premiere models, a slowpoke which often feels like it’s half a step behind whatever you’re trying to do.
A slick-looking feature called What to Watch Now — which debuted earlier this year in the iOS app — helps you decide…well, what to watch now. It lists popular programs, movies, sports and kids’ shows that are currently on broadcast TV; only a smattering of what’s available at any given time is included, but it’s a lot more pleasant than wading through a conventional grid-based channel guide. The shows listed are generic recommendations that are the same for everybody with the same cable service — the feature would be cooler still if, like the existing TiVo Suggestions auto-recording options, it picked programs based on what it knows about what you like to watch.
The Roamio also introduces new-and-improved versions of Netflix and YouTube. Among the enhancements: As with Google’s Chromecast gadget, they let you find something to watch using the respective service’s mobile app and then beam it to the Roamio for viewing — an option that beats laboriously tapping out a show or movie’s title using the TiVo remote.
If only TiVo had given as much TLC to its Amazon Instant Video app. It’s unaccountably archaic, with a fuzzy standard-definition user interface and no search tool or support for the videos Amazon Prime members get as part of their subscriptions. You can download other videos you’ve bought from Amazon, but it’s a convoluted process that — full disclosure — I never got to work. (TiVo says it’s working with Amazon on an improved Instant Video experience.)
Along with the impending out-of-home streaming update — “coming very soon” — TiVo says that more good things are on their way. The Roamios use new HTML5-based technology designed to help the company add more content more quickly, and it plans to launch an app store with additional channels of TV and other items such as games. The company is also working on a new filtering feature designed to help you sort through the shows you’ve recorded more quickly.
TiVo has the right to start talking about features it isn’t finished with yet, of course. But consumers similarly have the right to postpone getting too excited until said features are available. It’s a shame that out-of-home streaming, at least, wasn’t ready to debut alongside the new hardware.
I also think that it’s possible to obsess too much over the apps for Netflix, YouTube and other Internet services. If they’re the only reason you’re shopping for a TV box, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars for a TiVo and pay ongoing service charges. You can plunk down as little as $50 for a Roku and get something that’s quite similar and quite pleasing.
Even without the upcoming features, and with imposing competition from cheap Internet-only boxes, the Roamio models are a polished and powerful way to watch TV, on the Net and off. TiVo, say it loud: You’re a DVR, and you’re proud.