TiVo's new Roamio DVR aims for TV and online video nirvana in one box (hands-on)

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August 19, 2013 9:01 PM PDT / Updated: August 20, 2013 5:11 PM PDT

With its just-announced line of Roamio DVRs, TiVo is one big step closer to an all-in-one box for live, recorded, and on-demand TV.

Though I don't know that it's wise to name a product after something that has an indelible relationship to a tragedy, the company's newest DVR goes hard-drive-to-hard-drive with Dish's Hopper with Sling , offering lots of tuners, tons of storage, and options for sending content to other rooms without buying additional DVRs. It also makes it easier to load up your mobile devices (at least, iOS ones for now) with recordings. The Roamio boxes further sweeten the on-demand video pot with a heavy dollop of online video options, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube, meaning you can jump to those services -- and search them -- without having to switch the input on your TV.

Unlike the Hopper, the new TiVo won't automatically skip ads or record every prime-time network show, but at least you can use it with your current cable service.

Of course, all this TV-viewing pleasure comes at a price -- or three prices, to be exact: the $200 baseline Roamio, the $400 Roamio Plus, and the $600 Roamio Pro. And -- as usual with TiVo -- you'll still need to sign up for monthly or lifetime service, $14.99 or $499.99, respectively. (And you'll still have your existing cable bill on top of that, unless you use the over-the-air antenna option available on the entry-level model.)

Still -- from what I've seen so far in our initial testing -- for serious TV junkies, this might be a DVR worth ponying up for.

All new on the inside
Performance is probably one of the biggest issues for a lot of TiVo users. When TiVo switched over to its HD interface for the Premiere, doing anything with it -- from opening up the guide to navigating through recorded programs to accessing any of the extra services -- seemingly took forever in TV-surfing time. Not good for a product with a premium price tag.

With the Premiere 4 and XL4 boxes, performance improved, but it still took a second or two to populate some screens, moving through the guide had the occasional delay, and launching apps or starting playback of a recording wasn't exactly snappy. The experience was not what I would consider painful, but there were certainly times of frustration.

The Roamio DVRs are completely new systems with faster processors, built to handle the demands of all of their features. TiVo claims performance is 1.5 to 2.5 times faster, averaging 1.7 times faster. Though I'm still putting the Roamio DVR through its paces (the 3TB drive is nearly empty), it is noticeably faster. That goes for navigation, launching apps, and everything else. Boot time, by the way, remains long. Maybe not as long as for the Premiere, but it's still a wait.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Multiroom viewing has long been an option for two or more network-connected TiVo units, Series 2 or newer. However, TiVo has spent the past couple of years adding features to its DVRs and extending its product line to make it truly a whole-home solution.

The introductions of the TiVo Stream and TiVo Mini were the first steps toward that goal. And now the Roamio takes everything up another notch.

Conflict resolution
TiVo released its first four-tuner DVRs in 2012, the Premiere 4 and Premiere XL4 , and kept an updated two-tuner Premiere in the lineup as its entry-level DVR. Unfortunately, that base model was the only option if you wanted to use an antenna for OTA (over-the-air) TV.

The Roamio lineup consists of three models: Roamio, Roamio Plus, and Roamio Pro. The base model continues to be the only one that can be used with an antenna or a CableCard, whereas the Plus and Pro require a CableCard (digital cable and Verizon Fios only; it does not support analog cable, satellite, or AT&T U-verse). Now, though, the base Roamio can record four programs (again, ATSC or CableCard) at once while you watch a fifth recorded show. The Plus and Pro can record up to six shows at once with a multistream CableCard.

The extra tuners not only come in handy for dealing with conflicts (with programming and people), but can be used to stream live TV to TiVo Mini units on your network. But it's not just the number of tuners or even storage that separates the models.

By comparison, the aforementioned Dish Hopper has three tuners, but one of them can record all four major networks simultaneously. It's the Hopper's ability to autoskip the commercials in those recordings that has focused the legal ire of those same networks -- including CNET owner CBS -- on Dish in a still-ongoing legal battle .

Roamio Roamio Plus Roamio Pro
Simultaneous recordings 4 6 6
HD recording capacity (hours) Up to 75 Up to 150 Up to 450
Ethernet 10/100 10/100/1000 10/100/1000
Built-in Wi-Fi Yes Yes Yes
Built-in MoCA Requires adapter Yes Yes
Stream to mobile devices Requires TiVo Stream Yes Yes
ATSC support Yes No No
CableCard support Yes Yes Yes
Price $199.99 $399.99 $599.99

As you can see, these boxes aren't cheap. And, as always, you're not just paying for the box, you have to sign up for monthly or lifetime service, $14.99 or $499.99, respectively. The Roamio does offer a lot in one box, though.

Holy $#!*, it's got Wi-Fi
Yes, you can stop rubbing your eyes, you read the chart correctly. After years of making users buy USB Wi-Fi adapters (seemingly overpriced ones, at that) to get wireless Internet access, TiVo has finally built in 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. Although the Wi-Fi can't be used for streaming between TiVo units because of bandwidth demands, it can be used for everything else -- from updating guide data to streaming Netflix to using TiVo's iOS or Android app to control the box.

The Plus and Pro models go a step further by also having TiVo Stream capabilities baked in. This allows you to stream recorded and live TV to iOS devices on the same network and, eventually, outside networks as well.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

So, much like Dish's Hopper with Sling , the TiVo Roamio Plus and Pro will let you view your DVR's contents or live TV from anywhere. Well, eventually, anyway. I tested beta versions of the software for the Stream and iOS app and it works, but the functionality won't be pushed to consumers until around October or November this year for use with iOS devices. Android support is in development.

Getting hooked up

Joshua Goldman/CNET

For streaming between TiVo Premiere or Roamio DVRs or to Mini boxes, all three Roamio DVRs have Ethernet and the Plus and Pro have built-in MoCA support (Multimedia over Coax Alliance), which uses the coaxial cable in your home for broadband networking. The MoCA setup is painless and works seamlessly, but you'll need to add a MoCA bridge (around $100) that connects to your router if your TiVo DVR is in a different room from your router.

The rest of what's on back is pretty much the same as you'd find on the Premiere 4/XL4: power input, multistream CableCard slot, HDMI, component video, composite video, and optical and analog audio jacks. There's also an eSATA port for a storage expander, and it has two USB ports for use with TiVo's Bluetooth remote or a tuning adapter if necessary.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

TiVo's peanut-shaped remote hasn't changed much over the years and for good reason: it's an excellent remote. However, it's always used IR, which requires line of sight to work. With Roamio, TiVo switched to an RF remote, so you can stick the DVR behind closed doors or even in another room and still control it.

The remote is now smaller and chunkier than past models, more like TiVo's Bluetooth Slide remote, and TiVo also added a Back button, making it faster and easier to get out of whatever part of the interface you're in. The downside is that to make room TiVo bumped the Zoom button (used for making 4:3 content fit 16:9 screens) to where the Guide button was, and popped the Guide button down below the navigation keys. For new users this won't be a problem, but anyone with TiVo-remote muscle memory will feel the frustration.

New look, better features
Along with Roamio's more-powerful hardware come some software improvements. The most noticeable on startup is that TiVo updated the HD interface with a new font. It looks good, but unfortunately it makes the fact that the settings menus are still in SD stand out that much more. At least the WishList search screen made it into HD this time around.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Also new is What to Watch Now in TiVo Central. Pull it up and you're given a thumbnail look at the top 20 most popular shows airing in that time slot. You can also filter it by Sports, Movies, and Kids.

Similarly, channel guide information -- whether you use TiVo's Live Guide or Grid Guide format -- can be filtered to help you quickly find what you're looking for. If, for example, you just want to see what movies are on, it will pull all the other channels out of your way so you can see what movies are currently showing.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Another new interface feature will be a three-column view of your recordings. Currently in the TiVo interface all of the recordings are kept under My Shows, a single list that's sorted alphabetically or by date. You can group all recordings of one show into one folder, but that's where the organization ends. The new three-column view will allow you to filter recordings by categories like Movies, Kids, and Sports. This feature won't be available immediately for Roamio, but is expected in about six months.

More apps, faster
Though TiVo's certainly been building out its app selection over the years, compared with something like a Roku , its selection looks pretty small. On the Roamio you'll find Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, AOL On, MLB.TV, and Web Video Hotlist powered by Flingo for video; Rhapsody, Spotify, Live365, and Pandora for music; and Photobucket and Google Picasa for photos. And, if you're a Comcast Xfinity subscriber, you'll have access to Xfinity On Demand if it's been rolled out in your area.

That's a pretty healthy selection and it covers a lot. However, the Roamio was built on an HTML5 platform, which should make app development faster and easier. To that point, the YouTube app has been updated to the latest app version. While it still seemed a bit laggy, it's much faster and more usable than past versions.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The Netflix app has also been updated to the latest version. Combined with the new hardware, the app launches in about 7 seconds and navigation is much faster. Plus, when it opens, you have the option to go to the main Netflix interface or one designed for kids.

Those hoping to find new Amazon Instant or Prime video apps will be disappointed. The former is still stuck in the past, while the latter isn't available. There is something on the app front to look forward to, though.

TiVo VP of Product Marketing Jim Denney said because the app platform is based on the Opera browser, apps would be faster and easier to develop for TiVo Roamio. So much so that a full app store for the Roamio will be available some time in the next three to six months.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Oh, and one more thing, the Cast button on the Netflix and YouTube apps will also work with TiVo. Just as with Google's $35 Chromecast dongle , anyone with the latest YouTube or Netflix apps can throw video from a mobile device to a TV through the Roamio or an updated Mini.

TiVo Mini learns to let go
Pushing live with the launch of Roamio, TiVo's DVR extender, the Mini, will be updated with dynamic tuner allocation. Up until now, the Mini snagged one of the tuners from a host TiVo DVR for live TV, and kept the tuner locked up even if you weren't using the Mini at the time.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Dynamic tuner allocation enables the Mini to release the tuner if it's not currently being used. This will allow you to have up to nine Minis connected to your main TiVo DVR, and each Mini would only occupy a tuner when you want to watch live TV through it. Keep in mind, though, that each Mini carries its own service fee: $5.99 a month or $149.99 lifetime. Still, it's smaller and cheaper than adding a DVR.

Aside from live TV, the Mini can stream recorded content from your main TiVo and access on demand services that now includes Netflix, which wasn't available when the Mini launched .

What about Premiere owners?
As a current TiVo Premiere user you might be curious as to what, if any, of these software features are coming to you. CNET Senior Editor David Katzmaier (a Premiere 4 user himself) has answers, sort of . But the short answer is, we don't know yet.

Any questions?
We're still in the middle of testing the TiVo Roamio Pro and plan to have a full review up soon. So far it's a very impressive DVR and certainly the best TiVo to date.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Aug. 20, 2013
  • Available Services TiVo
    Netflix
    AOL.On
    Photobucket
    Picasa
    Amazon Instant Video
    Hulu Plus
    Xfinity on Demand
    MLB.TV
    Pandora
    Rhapsody
    Spotify
    YouTube
  • Max Recording Capacity 75 hrs (HD)
    650 hrs (SD)
  • Type HD DVR
  • Storage Capacity 500 GB
  • Type Standard remote control
About The Author

Joshua Goldman is a senior editor for CNET Reviews, covering cameras, camcorders, and related accessories. He has been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software since 2000.