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DVRs

TiVo Bolt OTA DVR records free antenna TV, costs $250 (hands-on)

The cord-cutter version of TiVo's popular Bolt DVR and streamer offers quick responses and affordable initial pricing, but there's still that service fee.

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TiVo

After four years TiVo is replacing the excellent Roamio OTA with its newest DVR aimed at cord cutters, the Bolt OTA. This $250 device blends both OTA (over-the-air) TV reception and internet video streaming in a compact unit. 

The Bolt OTA offers four tuners, so you can record four antenna channels at once -- typically including local broadcasts of major networks ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS, as well as whatever other local channels happen to be available in your area. It also serves up the the most popular streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.

In short, the Bolt OTA aims to be the one box for all of your TV cable-free needs. The catch? On top of the initial $250 price, it still requires a TiVo's fees to use.

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Free over the air TV, TiVo fees required

The recorder will be available Sept. 28 and requires a $7 monthly or $70 annual fee. This charge is cheaper than the original Roamio OTA which was $15 a month, but still relatively substantial for people looking to shave every last cent from their monthly TV bill. The lifetime option is now called the "All-in Service Plan" and costs a flat $250 if you want to skip monthly fees altogether.

With four years of paying $70 a year plus the cost of the Bolt OTA, you'd be down $530 versus $820 on the original Roamio OTA plan ($50 plus $15 a month). Buying the Bolt plus the All-in Service at $500 obviously makes the most long-term sense, even if there is a bit more sticker shock involved.

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The selection of apps available on TiVo Bolt OTA

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Hands-on

The Roamio OTA set the standard for traditional antenna DVRs, and during the couple of days I used it, the Bolt OTA was even better. Responses were pleasingly quicker, and the new Vox remote is an improvement over the classic traditional TiVo "peanut" clicker. There's new "microphone" button with voice search, and the iconic thumb up/down buttons are tiny and white instead of red and green.

The DVR's 1TB hard drive will hold up to 150 hours of HD programs, and there is an e-SATA port to add additional storage if needed. Other connections include HDMI, coaxial antenna, optical digital, 3.5mm analog audio, Ethernet and two USB ports. I liked the handy remote finder button on the rear, which makes the remote emit a sound if you lose it among the couch cushions.

Black and angular, the OTA looks just like the newest TiVo Bolt ( $700 at Amazon) for cable TV subscribers -- it even has an (empty) Cable Card slot underneath. The apps on offer include Netflix (with a dedicated button on the new remote), Hulu, Plex, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and more. The Bolt OTA also has the ability to stream via the TiVo mobile app.

The first thing you'll notice about the TiVo when you turn it on is the new interface, which now opts for a muted gray color palette instead of "Wonka's chocolate factory." The color permeates the interface. Setting up a Season Pass can bring up an uninspiring gray spreadsheet, for example.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Speed is the Bolt's main attraction, especially when it comes to loading streaming apps. Pressing the Netflix button on the remote brings up the streaming service instantaneously, a welcome change from the pokiness of earlier TiVos. The voice search is fun, even if it does get clogged with Prime Video entries instead of shows you might want to record.

Two things I couldn't get working in my brief hands-on were Amazon Alexa control and TiVo mobile app streaming. Both features allowed me to install them, but Alexa couldn't find the TiVo as a video device when we asked to change to Fox, for example. Likewise, the TiVo app enabled me to view a list of recordings on the TV, but if I tried to stream, the app directed me to buy the (now defunct) TiVo Stream. I reached out to TiVo for further information.

Competitors, including Amazon's fee-free DVR

There are a number of antenna DVRs out there in competition, though none of them have the name recognition that TiVo enjoys. It's a shame that Channel Master discontinued its fantastic DVR+ in favor of the rough-around-the-edges $150 Stream Plus, so the TiVo's biggest OTA DVR competitor is probably the new Amazon Fire TV Recast DVR. It's $230 and doesn't have any monthly fees.

Amazon's DVR doesn't connect to the TV directly -- instead it sends streams to your Fire TV, phone and/or tablet. One advantage over TiVo is that it can stream to more than one TV or other device, either in the house or on the go. With the Bolt OTA, you're only connected to one TV.

Recorders like the Tablo, Sling AirTV and the HDHomeRun represent other competition for TiVo. Of course, the last option is to ditch hardware altogether and go with a streaming TV service like DirecTV Now or YouTube TV, but a subscription to one of these may end up costing the same as cable and behave worse.

With its well-known name along with slick hardware and software design, the Bolt OTA offers a great alternative to the still-fledgling world of streaming TV services. The Amazon DVR is cheaper (especially when you consider TiVo's monthly or lifetime fees) and potentially more versatile, however, so if you're considering an antenna DVR you might want to wait for that review before taking the plunge.

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