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The best DVRs just got a whole lot better.
TiVo’s newly announced line of Roamio DVRs raises the bar on what a DVR can be, while also providing a needed update to the TiVo line, whose last significant update was more than three years ago.
TiVo lent me a pre-production unit of its high-end Roamio Pro, which I’ve been testing for the last couple of weeks. The Roamio series includes the Roamio (4 tuners, up to 75 hours of HD recording), Roamio Plus (6 tuners, up to 150 hours of HD recording), and Roamio Pro (6 tuners, up to 450 hours of HD recording). The Plus and Pro also include built in streaming functionality, which lets you stream live or recorded content to iPads and iPhones. Shows can also be downloaded to the device for offline viewing, such as an on a plane. (Some content, like HBO programming, cannot be downloaded or streamed because of restrictions by the programmer.)
These TiVos have been updated inside and out. The new industrial design makes the Roamio the best looking TiVo ever. The UI has had some significant redesigns that make the menus feel clearer and airier. (Though some lesser-used screens, such as the settings screens, still remain in standard definition — a source of minor irritation to detail freaks like me.)
Even the iconic TiVo remote has gotten some big improvements: It now does RF. That means you can hide the TiVo in a cabinet because the remote no longer needs line of sight. There’s even a remote finder button on the front of the TiVo that causes the remote to play a low-definition version of the TiVo theme. On the downside, the remote has been shrunk. And although it is actually lighter than the previous generation, it feels heavier because it’s more dense. It also has a flat finish instead of the earlier glossy finish, making it a bit easier to hang on to.
Like its predecessors, the Roamio line allows streaming of content from services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora. But all of that has gotten a lot faster with faster processing. Launching those apps could sometimes take 20 seconds or more on the Series 4 units; it happens within a few seconds on the Roamio. TiVo now also supports the DIAL protocol, which allows you to search and discover content on a mobile device and then flip it up on the TV screen. I was able to find videos on YouTube with my iPad and then press a button to have it appear on my TV.
My favorite feature of TiVo remains universal search. It allows you to search across all of the video that you have access to in your cable subscription, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon. The rights restrictions that distributors put on content — a certain episode of a certain show may be on one service but not another, or it may disappear from a service — are maddening. But TiVo’s universal search manages that complexity for you. I often use my iPad to search for shows and can quickly find the ones that I can watch.
TiVo also cleans up some of its legacy. Wireless networking is now built in, instead of requiring an external dongle. (It’s about time!)
The biggest problem I ran into was that video and audio were often out of sync when watching streamed content. Sometimes when watching Netflix, audio went away for up to three seconds after pausing, rewinding or fast forwarding. TiVo said that it was able to replicate the issues. “We do have some ‘tuning’ to do, which we’ll deploy in the earliest upcoming release,” said TiVo spokeswoman Seana Norvell.
TiVo also doesn’t support AirPlay streaming of content from iPads and iPhones. According to Jim Denney, TiVo’s VP of product marketing, this is a licensing issue with CableLabs. It’s one that he hopes to have resolved.
Whole home DVR
One of the biggest advances in cable and satellite DVRs over the last few years has been “whole home” DVRs. These allow you to watch recorded content on any TV in your home. TiVo has historically required a complete DVR in each room, each with a significant monthly fee. (Although there was a discount for multiple TiVos on the same account.) The solution was also not great because the whirring of the hard drives throughout the night as programming was being recorded could disturb light sleepers. Earlier this year, TiVo introduced the TiVo Mini, a slave that could display content off a main TiVo. But it came with a big restriction: You had to dedicate a tuner on the main TiVo to each Mini, regardless of whether someone was watching TV on the Mini.
With these updates, tuners are allocated dynamically, and up to nine Minis can be run off one DVR. But doing that will be expensive. The Mini sells for $100. Each Mini also requires a monthly service fee of $5.99 and a one-year commitment with an early termination fee. Cable and satellite companies typically charge a monthly service fee but don’t charge for the extra hardware.
For those who prefer a clean look, it would be possible to put the TiVo DVR in a wiring closet and use Minis for every TV. (If you’re willing to pay an extra $6 a month just to avoid a cluttered look.) But the new industrial design is so beautiful it’d almost be criminal to hide it in a closet.
The most exciting feature of the Roamio line is one that isn’t out yet: the ability to stream your content outside of your house. If you’re in a hotel, you can watch anything that’s been recorded on your DVR. (Assuming you have decent connectivity, which isn’t a given at most hotels.) Before you head to the airport for your return flight, you can download a show to your iPad. The new feature is coming this fall and will also be available with the standalone TiVo Stream. It presents a significant challenge to Slingbox. I was able to test an early beta of it, but it’s not ready for prime time. I’ll do a review closer to its release.
The biggest turnoff for most people with TiVo will be the price. At an upfront price of $200-$600, plus $14.99 a month with a one-year commitment, it is expensive. But it’s expensive like a Ferrari is expensive. Comparing it with a cable company DVR is like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford Focus.
If you can stomach the price, it’s the best TV viewing experience out there. Once you’ve decided to get a TiVo, the decision of which box to get is relatively straightforward. If you intend to use an antenna, there is no choice, because only the $200 model can tune in over-the-air programming. For cable viewers, I recommend the midline Roamio Plus. 150 hours is nearly a week’s worth of nonstop TV. The only addition in the Pro is a hard drive that’s triple the size, storing more than 2.5 weeks of nonstop TV. If you buy the Plus and find yourself capacity constrained, you can always add a 2TB eSATA drive and you’ll have a functionally equivalent product. (TiVo doesn’t work with satellite providers.)
Even at these prices, it seems TiVo is not making money on the hardware. I asked TiVo if the boxes were sold at a negative margin, as has been the case historically.
“We are continuing to move toward mitigating the negative margin typically associated with the set top box business,” Norvell said. “This pricing structure helps, but it doesn’t entirely close the gap. We continue to look at this on a constant basis.”
If you already have a Series 4 TiVo and can tolerate the lags, it’s probably not worth the upgrade. (Though you should probably also not try the Roamio, because once you experience the new speed, it will be hard to go back. It’s amazing how quickly our expectations get reset.) Software improvements will be pushed to earlier TiVos (as far back as the Premiere) over the coming months.
When I last reviewed TiVo in January, I put out a list of needed improvements. With Roamio, it’s as if the TiVo team took the review as a to-do list. Many of those improvements have been included in the new software and hardware.
If you’re looking for the best TV viewing experience that money can buy, the TiVo Roamio is it.
Rakesh Agrawal is a consultant focused on the intersection of local, social, mobile and payments. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local, mobile and search products for Microsoft, Aol and washingtonpost.com. He blogs at http://redesignmobile.com and tweets at @rakeshlobster.