I have never made a technology purchase that my wife has greeted with more skepticism than the original TiVo digital video recorder. It was 1999 and the idea of recording TV shows to a hard drive instead of a videotape seemed extravagant and pointless. Within a month she had come all the way around on the TiVo, and in the intervening 14 years roughly half of American television viewers have followed. DVRs these days come in all sorts of variations, mostly offered by your cable or satellite company, but TiVo's still offering a nicer alternative for cable subscribers who are willing to pay for the privilege.
It's been three years since the last major hardware update from TiVo, but in August the company announced and released three new DVRs. It was the first time in about six years that I've used a TiVo, having spent the intervening time using DirecTV's homegrown DVR instead. The experience was strangely familiar, but TiVo has come a long way in the intervening 14 years. This modern TiVo can record up to six shows at once, stream live TV and recordings to iOS devices, and play streaming Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant video. It's the closest thing to the all-in-one television hub that has yet been invented.
Wherefore art thou, TiVo?
Before getting into the details, let's break down the basics of what these boxes are and how they work. There are three models of these new TiVos, which might have been called "Series 5" but instead have the unfortunate moniker of Roamio. (The previous generation was called Premiere. Maybe the 2016 model will be called Hamlet?)
The $200 Roamio is the base model and it's different from the other two models. It's physically smaller, for one, and it's got the smallest amount of onboard storage: 500GB (Tivo's estimate is 75 hours of HD video). Strangely, this low-end model is the only one of these with an off-air ATSC tuner, meaning that in addition to cable, you can plug in an antenna and record television freely over the public airwaves. It also lacks the built-in streaming features of the two more expensive models; a $130 TiVo Stream add-on box is required to enable those features. And it can record only four shows at once via a multistream CableCard (provided by your cable company).
The $400 Roamio Plus and $600 Roamio Pro are exactly the same as each other, other than the size of their internal hard drives. The Plus comes with a 1TB drive (up to 150 hours of HD), and the Pro with 3TB of storage (up to 450 hours of HD). Both models support only CableCard (they can't record over-the-air), but can can record up to six streams simultaneously. They've got the formerly separate Tivo Stream functionality built in; this means that users of the TiVo iOS app can stream video from these devices without the need for additional hardware. That same app can also download shows off the TiVo's hard drive for later viewing; you could pull off a couple of your favorite shows and watch them on an airplane, for example. (TiVo said that an Android version is on the horizon.)
Currently, the streaming features work only on the same network that the DVR's on--in essence, within your home. But TiVo promises that "very soon" the iOS app will be updated to support streaming and downloading from outside the home. That will be a great addition, because it'll let you download shows from anywhere and stream shows without the need for something like one of Sling Media's Slingbox products. I saw a demo of this feature and it looked pretty good, but it will definitely require a fast Internet connection on both ends for it to stream high-quality video.
Now some of the important details. First, these devices only work with cable TV (and over-the-air antennas in the case of the low-end model). They use something called a CableCard, which is a government-mandated piece of hardware that opens up cable systems to third-party devices like TiVo. Satellite providers are not covered under this law, and so if you're a DirecTV or Dish Network customer, you can't use this product. (DirecTV does currently offer a TiVo-based DVR--after a long absence--but it's based on the Series 3 technology that's now two generations out of date. Get with the program, DirecTV.) The Roamio line will, however, work with Verizon FiOS TV service.
Second, TiVo isn't just a piece of hardware you buy: It's also a service you pay for, in addition to your cable bill. Currently TiVo requires a $15 monthly fee per DVR or a one-time $500 payment for the lifetime of the box. That lifetime service saves you money only if you keep the box longer than just under three years. That's not unreasonable, but it's a gamble. So there's an up-front investment and an ongoing charge, which means TiVo is always going to be more expensive than the box your cable company will provide for you (even from those companies that charge a monthly DVR fee). But with a user interface superior to most provided hardware, it's a cost many are willing to pay.
Installing the TiVo (I'm going to try to use the word Roamio as seldom as possible from here on out) was remarkably easy. I already had cable in the house for my Internet access, so all I needed to do was go to my local Comcast office, pick up a multi-stream CableCard, and I was ready to go. I plugged the CableCard into the back of the TiVo, plugged it into my network (I used ethernet, though these models do offer built-in Wi-Fi as well), and connected it into my TV.
It took maybe 10 or 15 minutes to get from that point to being able to watch live TV; that's too long, but my experience starting up DirecTV's DVR was no different. Setting up was easy--since the TiVo came direct from TiVo.com, it was already connected to my existing TiVo account, so I didn't need to enter in a user name or password.
While I was at it, I also set up a $100 TiVo Mini on the other TV in my house. Originally, every TV needed its own DVR, but the TiVo Mini is part of a TV-industry shift to a different approach. The idea is that every house has one powerful server hooked up to programming--the Roamio, in this case--and several lightweight client boxes that just stream video over a home network. The TiVo Mini is tiny and has no hard drive--it's like a bigger version of the Apple TV or Roku box. It behaves just like a TiVo (and requires its own $6-a-month or $150 lifetime service charge), but it isn't connected to your cable, just to your main TiVo.
The TiVo Mini didn't get up and running right away--since I bought it from Amazon, I had to go to TiVo's website to connect it to my account, and I needed to wait until the next morning and restart the box before it recognized the Roamio in my living room. But once they made that connection, the two devices worked flawlessly together. (To watch live TV, the TiVo Mini temporarily hijacks a single tuner belonging to the main TiVo box, but since there are six to choose from, it rarely causes any conflicts.) If I had a bigger house with more TV sets, I could buy more TiVo Minis and connect them to the Roamio as well. Depending on the number of tuners and TiVos in your house, you can have up to eight TiVo Minis as part of your network. And because the Roamio supports dynamic tuner allocation, the tuner is only used when the Mini needs and otherwise released back to the DVR for use (the Premiere models support the Mini, but not dynamic allocation). Because of the bandwidth involved to send that video around the house, note that you can't use a wireless connection to add a TiVo Mini, so must have either ethernet or a MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) adapter installed.
High definition... mostly
When I abandoned my Series 2 TiVo five or six years ago, it was capable of showing high-definition programming but all the device's menus were still in standard definition. Over the years, parts of the TiVo interface have been upgraded to HD, but even with new model there are amazingly still menus that are in standard definition. If you go one level down in any of the settings menus, you'll be in interface screens that look no different than those in the original TiVo circa 1999. It's kind of ridiculous.
That said, most of the interface is in HD now, and it looks great. The text is readable and there's a lot of extra information (like the season and episode numbers for many TV shows) that true TV aficionados will love. Maybe it's just my years with the DirecTV DVR (and interacting with the stock Comcast DVRs of friends) talking, but the TiVo interface seems much more attractive and thoughtful than the bog-standard cable boxes out there. It's actually a pleasure to use the interface, right down to the same old silly beep-boop sound effects that were there in the original TiVo. (Some killjoy friends of mine suggested turning those off, but I can't help it--I love the cheesy sound effects.)
From live TV to streaming
One of the new features on the Roamio is the What To Watch Now display, which tries to give you suggestions about what shows are on right now that you might want to watch. Some of it is based on data about what shows are currently being viewed, and some of it's based on filters such as Sports, Movies, and Kids. My initial reaction was that this seemed like a weird feature, because if you've got a terabyte of television sitting on your hard drive, do you really need to flip around the dial to see what's on? However, as a sports fan I found the Sports filter to be exactly what I wanted: I was in the mood to watch a live sporting event and I wanted to know what was on, and the TiVo had my back.
When I spoke to TiVo executives about the launch of the Roamio, they were especially proud of the search features, and I can see why. Almost every time I searched for something, a letter or two was all that was required to bring up that item in the search results. TiVo's obviously weighting their results based on popularity or my preferences or some other Google-like voodoo, but it worked far better than other TV programming searches I've seen.
And once I burrowed into the show I was searching for, I found pretty rich data: a season-by-season, episode-by-episode organizational structure with details about each episode. TiVo even integrates show data from Netflix into this view, so I can see episodes that are airing on TV as well as episodes that are available on Netflix, simultaneously. Puzzlingly, though TiVo also supports Hulu Plus, that data source doesn't seem to be properly integrated into TiVo searches: A search for The Thick of It brought up a result with a Hulu Plus logo on it, but there was no episode data and I couldn't jump to an episode directly from that menu as I could for programs that were on Netflix.
Speaking of streaming services, I should mention one of my biggest disappointments with this new generation of TiVo: a positively outdated Amazon Instant Video app. Not only is show data not integrated into TiVo searches, but there's no support for Amazon Prime Instant Video streaming. So if you're a Prime member with free video streaming, you'll need a separate box to watch that stuff--TiVo doesn't deliver. (Prime videos aren't supported on any TiVo, for the record.) It's theoretically possible for TiVo to upgrade the Amazon app (behind the scenes there's now a full HTML5-based app environment so that TiVo can add more third-party apps as it goes along), but it doesn't sound promising.
I was also disappointed that, although Netflix shows appear in the TiVo search interface, you can't do anything but watch them. There doesn't seem to be a way to save them to the Netflix queue or even add bookmarks to those shows to the TiVo's My Shows screen for quick access later. The Netflix integration TiVo offers is nice, and I'd like to see it repeated for Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime, but it could also be even better.
In certain markets (including mine), TiVo has a deal with Comcast that gives TiVo users access to Xfinity On Demand content. I found that the On Demand data wasn't entirely consistent on the TiVo--the On Demand app showed that all episodes of season 7 of Doctor Who were available to stream, but TiVo's search showed only a random subset of those episodes. I also had an issue getting my CableCard authorized to play On Demand content, but some time spent with Comcast customer service ironed that out.
But wait, there are even more supported services: TiVo also plays YouTube videos and live baseball games for subscribers to MLB.TV. The HTML5-based YouTube app supports the same DIAL protocol protocol as does Google's Chromecast. What this means is that you can connect your YouTube mobile apps to your TiVo and then transfer the YouTube videos you're viewing on your mobile device to the TiVo; the TiVo loads the rest of the video itself and starts playing it, and your YouTube app remains as a remote control.
I'm a baseball fan and MLB.TV subscriber, and I'm happy to report that TiVo's MLB.TV app works well. It launches quickly and the video seemed smoother to me than it does on either the Apple TV or my Roku box.
Launching extra apps quickly is a big deal for TiVo. In the past, one of the major criticisms of TiVo users has been the speed of the interface and, most particularly, the amount of time it took to launch an app such as Netflix. My colleague John Siracusa told me that it takes essentially "forever" to start Netflix on his previous-generation TiVo Premiere. On the Roamio it took about 10 seconds, which didn't seem too bad. All the other apps seem to launch fairly quickly, too. It would be great if the launches were instantaneous, but it's a big improvement.
In general, I found the responsiveness of the TiVo interface to be good. My DirecTV DVRs were often extremely sluggish, and it frustrated me to no end. This is not to say that there aren't places where the interface is laggy, but in general it seemed responsive enough. My biggest concern when I started using the Roamio was that it would be unacceptably slow, but it doesn't feel that way.
The TiVo Roamio isn't for everyone. If you're satisfied with your existing cable box, if you are a dedicated Dish Network or DirecTV user, or if you've cut the cord and are no longer watching "channels" of anything, there's nothing to see here. But if you're a digital cable subscriber who wants a better interface, the ability to stream and download shows to iOS devices, and single-box access to numerous online streaming services, TiVo Roamio offers a premium TV viewing experience. It's the closest thing to a single, do-everything television box out there right now.
The $400 Roamio Plus is the sweet spot of this product line. Unless you live in a large house with lots of TV watchers, the TiVo Roamio Pro and its 3TB hard drive (and $200 larger price tag) is probably overkill. And unless you absolutely need an over-the-air tuner, the lower cost of the Roamio is mostly offset by the required $130 purchase of TiVo Stream if you want to stream videos to iOS devices.
Using TiVo isn't essential--it's a luxury item for people who don't want extra boxes and crappy interfaces. If you're one of those people (and I have to say, I think I am), Roamio is for you. Unless you can't handle Shakespeare puns--then you're entirely out of luck.