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TiVo Bolt OTA review: DVR makes cord cutting with an antenna simpler, but also more costly

TiVo wrote the book on DVRs, but is the price friendly enough to woo cord cutters?

Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
5 min read

Cord-cutting started as a province for nerds only. It usually meant owning a media center PC, a PCI tuner and even cobbling together guide data from enthusiast websites. While the movement has evolved since then, cord-cutting still clings to its geek roots with the popularity of products like Plex (ex-XBMC) and HD HomeRun (which still needed a PC until 2015).


TiVo Bolt OTA

The Good

The TiVo Bolt OTA offers a plethora of services including streaming apps with 4K support, in-home streaming and voice search. The price per month is a lot more affordable than the full-fat version of the Bolt, and lifetime service brings the total cost to $500. The interface is quick and Netflix loads instantaneously.

The Bad

There is no access to live TV streaming services which would help bolster the OTA options. The functionality is skewed heavily in favor of streaming over the DVR. For example, voice search isn't able to be limited to guide data only which means streaming shows are mixed in. I had limited success trying to get in-home streaming to work.

The Bottom Line

With its household name, slick hardware design and affordable pricing structures the TiVo Bolt OTA offers one of the best alternatives to the still-fledgling world of streaming TV services.

TiVo's Bolt OTA , on the other hand, is about as mainstream as a cord-cutting DVR can get. TiVo is a familiar name and this DVR aims to make ditching cable as painless as possible. The problem is that plenty of other big names -- think DirecTV Now, YouTube TV and the Amazon Fire TV Recast -- are horning in on the cable-free DVR turf.

OTA stands for "over the air." Unlike the standard TiVo Bolt, the Bolt OTA doesn't work with cable TV. Instead it connects to an over-the-air antenna to pipe in free TV broadcasts in your area. The Bolt offers four OTA tuners (so you can record up to four different channels at once) as well as the most popular streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon.

The TiVo's main advantage compared to live TV streaming subscriptions with cloud DVRs like YouTube TV and DirecTV Now is that it's a hardware solution. Your live TV and recordings are kept within reach, not susceptible to the outages and buffering.

The Fire TV Recast is also a hardware DVR with streaming apps, and in many ways it's the Bolt's biggest threat. It's just as easy to use and has two big advantages over TiVo: the ability to stream to more than one TV in your house, and (the kicker) no charge for a service plan. The TiVo is a compelling product, but for conscious cord cutters, the Recast is definitely a better deal.

The Bolt OTA retails for $250 and owners can either opt for a $6-per-month subscription or a $250 "All-in Service Plan". TiVo is currently offering a $200 trade-in program for owners of the Roamio OTA until Dec. 22 2018, which would bring the total cost to $300.

A modern DVR

Sarah Tew/CNET

Forget beige boxes with a flashing 12:00 -- the TiVo Bolt OTA thoroughly updates the look of the modern recorder, and mostly for the better. It's vaguely boomerang-shaped (meaning you can't plonk things on top of it) and it's about a foot long. It may look black but in the light you'll find it's a dark, translucent scarlet.

The Bolt OTA is able to hold up to 150 hours of HD programs on its 1TB hard drive, and comes with the now -standard 14-day guide to schedule recordings. It's a 1080p recorder but it will also stream 4K-ready content from compatible apps including Netflix. If you run out of recording space there is an e-SATA port to add additional storage if needed. Other connections include HDMI, coax antenna, optical digital, 3.5mm analog, Ethernet and two USB ports. There is also a handy remote finder button on the rear.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Vox remote has a host of extra buttons over the traditional "peanut" including the new "microphone" button, which adds the ability to search for content. But the biggest change is that the iconic thumbs up/down buttons are tiny and white instead of red and green.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The apps on offer include Netflix (with a dedicated button on the new remote), Hulu, Plex, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. Sadly, there is no access to live TV streaming services, which would help bolster the local options with cable channels. The Bolt OTA offers the ability to stream recordings via the TiVo mobile app, though I personally have had limited success with that (with either the Roamio OTA or the Bolt OTA). You can also control the box via Amazon Alexa, though the number of commands is currently limited.

The multitalented Hydra

First introduced on the original Bolt, the gray Hydra interface has been polarizing TiVo fans for over a year. It offers horizontal navigation with the two most-used sections, My Shows and Apps at either end. Given the box's reliance on streaming media it would have made more sense to put these two tabs next to each other.

With the new interface came the inevitable changes to the way users do things, including the iconic thumbs up and down. As I mentioned the buttons are much less prominent on the remote and this carries over to the UI itself. The previous interface enabled users to sprinkle thumbs up or down liberally like cord-cutting confetti. However, you can't can't thumbs up or thumbs down programs now, such as within TiVo suggestions, without pressing the Info button first.


The TiVo Bolt OTA offers 14 days of guide data

Sarah Tew/CNET

The interface offers the cable-like "play from beginning" which enables you to rewatch the live program show from available subscription services -- usually Hulu. Unlike cable you are then shunted to the relevant app and it's more difficult to continue watching if you press the guide button again, for example.

The new interface and hardware does bring with it one major benefit: it's quick. Speed is one of the most appealing things about the Bolt OTA, especially when it comes to loading streaming apps. For instance, pressing the Netflix button on the remote brings up the streaming service instantaneously -- this is not something that many other devices can do.


The main menu

Sarah Tew/CNET

My only wish is that for a device designed to record OTA TV that it didn't lean so heavily on streaming. For instance, the voice search is fun, but the results get clogged up with Prime Video entries instead of shows you might want to record. Also, the "My Shows" watch list incorporates both streaming and recordings while you need to go down to Recordings before they are separated out.

Sadly, I was not able to get Amazon Alexa support to work at all, and TiVo's out-of-home streaming feature only sort of worked, despite communicating my issues with TiVo over the course of a week. I could see shows that I'd recorded, but as soon as I tried to stream one within the home it would fail. It seems I'm not the only one having troubles with this app -- the current version has a rating of 2.4 out of 5 stars.

Should you buy it?

The Bot OTA is fast, it's relatively easy to navigate and its comprehensive in its capabilities. The Amazon Fire TV Recast may have a bit more of a learning curve, but its affordability (roughly $250 versus $500) offers a better alternative to most people.