With the TiVo Roamio line, TiVo hopes to marry the cable TV with digital streaming services. But is it enough to keep the company relevant?
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for TiVo. Even before I bought my first TiVo box back in 2003, I was a fan of the service and its functionality. Cable DVRs were only starting to roll out — and the interface was a gigantic mess. Moreover, my TiVo had features such as home network support, box-to-box transfers and the ability to stream podcasts. TiVo was a product literally years ahead of its time.
The problem was that the shift to HDTV worked against the company. A box that once worked well with SD channels on an HDTV didn’t adapt to the HD world. Instead, using a TiVo required cumbersome adaptors and crucial trade-offs. At the same time, it just became easier to use the DVR built into the cable company’s set-top box. Even worse, television viewing increasingly shifted to include web programming — something TiVo was late to address.
When I moved to New York City in 2011, I left my TiVo boxes behind. In spite of years of loyalty (I was a volunteer hardware and software beta tester for a number of years before becoming a tech journalist), TiVo simply hadn’t adapted to meet my needs as a TV viewer.
I say all of this to preface why I’m very seriously considering dropping $400 on the TiVo Roamio Plus, and why that’s a big deal. Welcome to 2013, TiVo. We’ve missed you.
With the Roamio Plus, TiVo has managed to satisfy the rare TV viewer who is both willing to pay for digital cable and who subscribes and consumes a lot of digital content. Fortunately, this describes me perfectly. I’m one of the only people my age that won’t even consider cutting the cord (give me HBO or give me death), but also pays for subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Aereo, Redbox Instant and Amazon Prime.
In addition to my cable subscription, I also have plenty of other devices hooked up to my TV: Roku, Apple TV, Slingbox, Boxee, Xbox 360, connected Blu-ray player, Silicon Dust HDHomeRun, Mac mini and a Windows home theater PC.
Part of the appeal of the TiVo Roamio Plus is that it can ostensibly replace all — or most — of those extra boxes, while also offering access to digital cable while digital streaming content.
The TiVo Roamio Plus can record up to six shows at once using a CableCARD. Right off the bat, that means that if you use satellite or AT&T U-Verse, the TiVo Roamio Plus won’t work for you.
If you’re not familiar with a CableCARD, it’s a PCMCIA-sized device that acts as a cable box. Cable companies are legally required to provide them upon request (in lieu of renting one of the company’s cable boxes), but depending on your provider and location, actually getting a card may require someone to come and install it.
You’ll also need to make sure to get a multi-stream CableCARD (often called an M-Card), as that’s the only kind that works with the TiVo.
You can set up the TiVo Roamio Plus without using an M-Card, but you won’t have access to any televised content. If you want a TiVo you can use with an HD antenna, you will need the $199.99 TiVo Roamio.
Once the M-Card is inserted, it’s theoretically as simple as booting up the TiVo and going through the guided setup.
The TiVo Roamio Plus has built-in gigabit Ethernet as well as built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi. The built-in Wi-Fi is actually a big deal because all previous TiVo models required the use of a USB dongle.
Since the TiVo is powered by M-Card, you don’t need to deal with infrared blasters anymore. The famous peanut-shaped TiVo remote is more refined than in years past, but has a familiar look and feel. As an added bonus, it works over RF now, which means that the response time is much faster.
The TiVo Roamio Plus replaces the entire cable interface. As a result, if you want to access cable-box specific features — like video on demand — your options are limited.
The good news is that most major cable providers have moved a lot of the on-demand content to the web or iPad. My cable company, Cablevision, offers full live TV and on-demand access from the Optimum app for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire and on Mac or PC.
The TiVo setup process has not changed much over the last decade, and that’s a decidedly good thing. Confirm your channel lineup, download the latest software updates and enjoy a better TV experience.
The TiVo Roamio Plus has a 1TB hard drive equipped for some 150 hours of HD recording. It also boasts an eSATA plug if you want to add an additional 1TB of storage space to the device.
TiVo has had support for streaming services in the past, but with the Roamio Plus, the experience is much, much better.
Out of the box, TiVo Roamio Plus supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant (but not Amazon Prime — more on that later), Spotify, Pandora, MLB.TV and YouTube.
Comcast users in select markets can also access their on-demand content directly from the Roamio — something I really hope TiVo is able to extend to other cable companies in the future.
You can select the services individually or use the TiVo universal search. The universal search is excellent because it searches not only your local TV listing, but also the various streaming services. So if I search for “Bob’s Burgers” (the best animated show on primetime), I receive results from AdultSwim, Fox, Hulu Plus and Netflix.
Speaking of apps, the Netflix app is fantastic. It’s running on the latest version of the Netflix platform and looks very similar to the experience on the PS3 and on iOS and Android. It’s very, very fast at finding and managing content. Cablevision, my cable provider, is a Netflix SuperHD partner, and the TiVo Roamio Plus handled the video better than any of our other Netflix devices.
The Hulu Plus app is based on HTML5 and looks and functions almost identically to the Hulu Plus app for Roku. The YouTube app is close to the standard YouTube TV experience.
The TiVo Roamio Plus supports Google Cast, which Google uses for the Chromecast. This means you can send videos from your phone or tablet to YouTube running on the TiVo. This also works with Netflix, which is neat.
The Spotify and Pandora apps are serviceable and similar to what you find on other services.
The only app I was disappointed with was the Amazon Instant app. The app is absolutely ancient, both interface and functionality. It supports Amazon Instant rentals and purchases but not Amazon Prime. For me, that’s a total bummer — especially with Amazon’s growing Amazon Prime content library.
Still, if TiVo could update the Amazon app and add support for HBO Go (the only streaming service I actively use that is not supported by TiVo), the Roamio Plus really fulfills its promise of being the ultimate TV box.
TiVo has always excelled as a platform for content discovery. Returning to the Series 2 glory days, the TiVo Suggestion feature was a standout reason to go TiVo instead of to the cable DVR.
TiVo has updated its interface and layout to make it easy to browse shows currently on the air and suggestions based on your history. You can also see what shows are most popular on live TV or on the web.
The TiVo Roamio Plus also has a new TV guide interface that is such a big improvement over the traditional cable box, it’s almost sad.
Last year, TiVo released a $130 standalone box called the TiVo stream that lets users stream or download TiVo content to their iPhone or iPad. You can stream up to four programs to different devices at once.
This works like a Slingbox, but with your TiVo stuff. Right now, TiVo Stream only works inside the house, but later this fall, TiVo Stream will work outside of the house as well. As long as you’re connected over Wi-Fi, you can stream live or recorded content from the TiVo Roamio Plus to your iOS device.
I tested an early version of TiVo Stream support and found the experience to be quite solid. Overall, I still think the Slingbox 500 does a better job of providing video — but TiVo Stream is built-in and quite good.
If you want to extend the TiVo Roamio Plus experience to another TV, you can use the $99 TiVo Mini as a way to expand the experience to another room. When you consider that the TiVo Roamio Plus can record six shows at once and has 1TB or storage (so like 150 hours), it makes sense that you might want to spread the wealth.
Up to eight TiVo Mini boxes can be connected to the TiVo Roamio Plus, but since you need a spare tuner to use the TiVo Mini, you might not be able to use them all at the same time. The TiVo Mini also lets you access digital streaming services.
Awesome, but Expensive
If you’re the rare-breed of TV lover that has an affinity for both digital cable and digital streaming, the TiVo Roamio Plus is the best, most full-featured set-top box to date.
Unfortunately (and not unexpectedly), all this awesomeness comes at a hefty price: $399.99, plus $15 a month for TiVo service.
(As an aside, TiVo sells lifetime TiVo service for $500, but keep in mind: That’s the lifetime of the unit, not your lifetime. In other words, you’ll need to use the TiVo for 34 months before it pays for itself. Oh, and if the TiVo breaks out of warranty, your lifetime subscription is usually no longer valid. I’ve fallen into the lifetime subscription trap in the past and generally don’t recommend it. Existing TiVo owners can buy a lifetime subscription for $399.99.)
TiVo also offers a TiVo Roamio Pro for $599.99 with the exact same features as the TiVo Roamio Plus, but it has a 3TB hard drive instead of 1TB. That offers a whopping 450 hours of HD recording instead of 150. Still, for most aficionados, I think the TiVo Roamio Plus is probably the better value.
TiVo does sell a lower-end TiVo Roamio for $199.99. It can record four shows at once, but if you want to stream programming to an iOS device, you’ll need to spend another $120 for a TiVo Stream box. It also has only 500GB of storage for 75 hours of HD recording.
Of course, in theory, TiVo is saving you some money. You can cancel the DVR fee from your cable company, and if you don’t already have a Roku or Apple TV, you can skip getting one of those devices, too.
Still, make no mistake about it: The TiVo Roamio Plus (or Pro) is an expensive proposition.
That said, for the target audience of TV lovers, it’s absolutely worth it.
I’ve spent the last two weeks using a TiVo for the first time in years and I genuinely do not want to go back to the cable box DVR. That’s why when I pack up the TiVo Roamio Plus review unit, I’ll almost certainly be placing an order for one from TiVo.
I don’t know if the TiVo Roamio line is enough to save TiVo as a company, but it’s a great product.
Ultimate cable TV experience
Extremely intuitive to use, especially when compared to standard cable box
Netflix app is best-of-breed
Chromecast-like features for Netflix and YouTube are an added bonus
It’s expensive; spending $400 or $600 for a box and $15 a month will only to appeal to certain users
The Amazon app is outdated and ugly
TiVo Stream only supports iOS for now
Bottom Line: It’s expensive, but the TiVo Roamio Plus is hands-down the best all-in-one solution for cable subscribers who also love digital content.
Images: TiVo; Mashable composite