TiVo Roamio Pro review:

TV and online video nirvana in one box

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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

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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. If you need to drive two displays, say a projector and a TV, you can do that with one connected by HDMI and the other to the component output.

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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. It's also not backlit.

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 Wish List search screen made it into HD this time around.

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Along with the previously mentioned What to Watch Now and filtered guide features, TiVo will be adding a three-column view of your My Shows 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, basically reproducing what is currently available in TiVo's mobile app. This feature won't be available immediately for Roamio, but is expected in about six months.

More apps, faster
One of TiVo's key advantages over cable-provider DVRs is that from within the TiVo interface you have access to several streaming services. Though TiVo's certainly been building out its service selection over the years, compared with something like a Roku, its selection looks pretty small.

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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.

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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. That's the case for HBO Go, too. There is something good 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.

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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.

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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 eight 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. (Note: Dynamic tuner allocation is only supported by Roamio DVRs at this time. The feature is expected to come to Premiere 4/XL4 models later this year.)

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.

Running the numbers
For those who've been using their cable providers' DVRs, where your monthly fees disappear into a bill that's on autopay, it's easy to look at the TiVo Roamio's pricing as ridiculously expensive. Buying a new Roamio Pro is $599 plus a service charge of $14.99 (with a one-year commitment) or $499.99 lifetime service.

TiVo Roamio Pro + TiVo Mini DirecTV Genie DVR + Genie Mini Dish Network Hopper with Sling + Joey Time Warner HD DVR + HD receiver Xfinity AnyRoom DVR + HD extender AT&T U-verse DVR + receiver
DVR price $599 $299 (free to new subscribers) $199 (free to new subscribers) None None None
Extender price $99 $99 $99 (free to new subscribers) None None None
Monthly service $14.99 + $5.99 $20 + $6 $7 for Joey + $10 DVR fee $30.24 + $14.25 $13.95 to $19.95 + $9 $7 for receiver + $10 HD fee
Number of HD recording hours 450 200 500 75 60 65
Number of simultaneous recordings 6 5 3 (up to 6 during prime-time hours) 2 2 4
Number of simultaneous streams to extenders 3 3 3 3 3 7
Live TV streams supported Yes Yes Yes No No Yes
Start/delete recordings from any TV Yes Yes Yes No No Yes
Broadband apps available to all components Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, AOL On, Flingo, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, PhotoBucket, Picasa, more (Amazon Instant Video available at a later date) YouTube, Pandora, weather, sports (requires Cinema Connection kit) Pandora, Facebook, MLB Network, Weather Channel, MSNBC, SiriusXM; stream live TV to computers, mobile devices None None Facebook, MultiView, weather, Media Share (DLNA), Food Network, NBA stats, more
On demand to extender Xfinity subscribers Yes (requires Cinema Connection kit) Yes No Yes Yes
Stream to computers, mobile devices Yes, to iOS devices (Android support in development) Yes, to iOS devices (requires Cinema Connection kit) Yes, to computers, iOS and Android devices Yes, to computers, iOS and Android devices, Xbox 360, Samsung TVs, and Roku devices Yes (requires Xfinity AnyPlay device); some channels on Xbox 360 No

However, the Roamio is a one-box solution offering a superior user experience and more features than any other cable DVR. Yes, you can build your own home-theater PC and do much of what the Roamio offers -- but not all of it.

If you just need something to record TV with, there's no doubt the Plus and Pro models are overkill. The Roamio Pro is much more than just something that records TV and that's why it's worth buying. Plus, you're not leasing it: once you buy it, it's yours to keep. Switch cable providers and it won't matter, you'll just need a new CableCard. TiVo DVRs retain their value very well and while I would never shell out for lifetime service, it pays off after two years and 10 months and having lifetime service increases its value if you go to sell it.

The TiVo Roamio Pro is a very impressive DVR and certainly the best TiVo to date. Yes, the upfront costs are hefty. But, if you're in the market for a whole-home solution for cable, it doesn't get any better than this.

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