I watch TV on more devices than ever, from more sources than ever. But when I’m in my living room in front of my 42″ Vizio HDTV, almost all the TV I watch is TiVo. The DVR that’s synonymous with the DVR remains a great way to ensure that you always have copious amounts of programming you like on hand. As long as you’re in the same room as your TiVo, that is.
Starting next week, households with a TiVo DVR and iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches will also be able to watch TiVo on their Apple gadgets — up to four of them at one time. They’ll do it with an add-on box called TiVo Stream, a sort of modern spiritual descendant of a venerable-but-clunky feature called TiVo to Go which lets you move TiVo recordings to Windows PCs and Macs. The new incarnation is much, much simpler and slicker.
TiVo formally announced that the Stream box was in the works back in May; it’ll show up for sale on TiVo.com on September 6, and is “coming soon” to Best Buy stores. The company loaned me a TiVo Premiere and a Stream for this review.
Wait — if I’m already an avid TiVo watcher, why did TiVo have to lend me a DVR? My own unit is an aging TiVo HD, which I bought in 2008. The Stream only works with TiVo Premiere, the company’s current-generation model, starting at $149.99. As always with TiVo, you also have to pay for service, which is $14.99 a month or $499.99 for the life of the box. (Existing subscribers get breaks on these service prices.)
And you need the $129.99 Tivo Stream itself. Looking a little like a blue-and-black cousin of Apple’s petite Apple TV box, it’s a grilled-cheese-sandwich-sized gizmo. It plugs into your Wi-Fi router, not the DVR itself, and compresses video streams from the TiVo, then forwards them wirelessly to up to four iOS devices.
You might also have to upgrade your home network. Unless your TiVo is already hooked up to a hard-wired Ethernet connection, TiVo recommends connecting it using MoCA, a technology which sends data over the same coaxial cabling your cable TV and cable modem use. (A TiVo can accomplish other tasks over a Wi-FI network, but sending up to four bandwidth-hogging video feeds to the Stream at once is too taxing to do without wires.)
The company sells MoCA adapters for $79; you need one to plug into your cable modem and router. Some TiVo Premiere models also need an adapter, while others have built-in MoCA capability.
As long as you follow the instructions and are comfortable stringing together devices to put them on a network, setting all this up is straightforward enough. Once it’s working, you use a new version of TiVo’s iOS app to watch the video which Stream relays wirelessly from the TiVo DVR.
Up until now, the TiVo app has been a super-fancy remote control which let you manage the TiVo DVR and choose what to watch on your TV. It still has all those features. But now, whenever you navigate to a recorded show or pull up a live broadcast, you can choose to watch it right there in the app.
How does the video look? For the most part, really good. The stream on my iPad occasionally froze for a moment, but I blame this on my home network, not the TiVo: It also happens from time to time with other streaming set-ups such as Roku. Except for those sporadic glitches, video looked…well, just like it did on my HDTV, only smaller.
The show you watch in the app don’t have to be whatever the TiVo is displaying on your HDTV. And as long as your TiVo has a sufficient quantity of tuners — there are two- and four-tuner models — different people in the house can be watching different live broadcasts on different devices. (I only had the pre-release app on one iPad, so I didn’t attempt to stream multiple shows to different devices.)
You can’t use TiVo Stream to watch video from the third-party streaming services available on the TiVo box itself, such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. Those offerings have their own iOS apps, so that’s no great loss. You also can’t use it to stream video onto your iOS device except when you’re on your home network. That’s a shame: Being able to watch your TiVo over the Internet, as you can do with a Slingbox, would be pretty nifty.
But if you want to watch shows you’ve recorded on your TiVo when you’re not on your home network, you’re not out of luck. Rather than streaming them, you can download entire recordings onto your iOS device and play them back anywhere, no Internet connection required.
This option involves transferring files in the hundreds of megabytes over your home network; the TiVo app usually estimated this would take less than twenty minutes when I tried. In my tests, it wasn’t always that zippy, and you can’t watch a video stream (or use other iOS apps) while the transfer is in progress. So I tended to initiate one or more transfers and then just go away and let the TiVo app do its thing.
One snag with downloaded videos: Pay channels such as HBO may use copy protection to prevent you from transferring their shows. If so, they’ll still be available for in-home streaming.
All in all, TiVo Stream does its job well. At $129.99, it’s reasonably priced, and it doesn’t involve any additional service fees. It is, however, only one piece of the puzzle. If you aren’t currently a TiVo user, you’ll need Stream and a TiVo Premiere and a subscription to the TiVo service and (possibly) one or more MoCA adapters.
That’s a lot of ands, especially given how many other ways there are to watch TV on iOS devices, from Hulu Plus to HBO Go to Comcast’s Xfinity app. Unlike TiVo Stream, these options don’t involve buying and setting up any hardware at home, and many of them let you watch much of the same stuff you might record on a TiVo.
So the ideal TiVo Stream customer isn’t really someone who isn’t currently a TiVo owner — it’s someone in a household which has already grown accustomed to organizing its TV-watching habits around TiVo. If you already own and love TiVo Premiere, and love to watch TV on an iPhone or iPad, the odds are pretty good that you’ll love TiVo Stream.