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TiVo Bolt review: A smaller, faster media box to meet your TV watching needs -- at home or away

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The Good The TiVo Bolt combines a best-in-class DVR experience with a streaming media box; it has the capability to stream and download recorded content to iOS and Android devices; and easy expansion to other rooms with TiVo Mini extenders; skip commercials on primetime TV recordings with a single button press; excellent cross-service search.

The Bad The still-required monthly or "lifetime" service fees raise the total cost of ownership; though the app selection is very good, you still may need another streaming-media box to fill in the gaps; doesn't work with satellite or AT&T U-verse.

The Bottom Line The TiVo Bolt makes a strong claim to the throne as king of DVRs and streaming media, but those pesky TiVo service fees keep it short of perfection.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Ecosystem 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Value 7

TiVo would like you to know that it doesn't make DVRs anymore. It makes unified entertainment systems -- and its first one is called "Bolt."

Gone is the usual big black box, and in its place is a smaller, thinner inclined device with no buttons or external lights. The bend helps with airflow, but it's also intended to make it stand out in your living room. This TiVo is vying to be the only box under your TV, after all.

The Bolt replaces the standard TiVo Roamio, the company's fifth-gen DVR, which works with a CableCard available from your service provider or can be used with an HD antenna to record over-the-air (OTA) programming. (Judging by TiVo's site, though, all of the Roamio models look like they're on their way out.) It has four tuners -- allowing you record up to four shows at once -- or you can buy TiVo's Mini extenders to use up to three of the extra tuners for viewing live and recorded programming on other TVs in your home.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Along with TV shows, Bolt gives you direct access to over-the-top streaming content (OTT) through individual apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Hulu Plus (coming soon), Vudu, Plex and more. Plus, Bolt is the first TiVo to support 4K-resolution video (2160p) from YouTube and Netflix, with Amazon Prime 4K support in the works. In some regions, Comcast and Cox subscribers can view on-demand content from those respective cable providers as well.

The 4K support is just the tip of the new and updated features for this sixth-generation TiVo, though. For instance, to go along with the new design, TiVo has added station graphics, freshening the look of the program guide. The guide can also be filtered by very specific topics, allowing you to view a listing that, for example, only shows football games or action movies or kids channels. And for the current TiVo users out there, the interface is now completely in HD. Well, almost. There are still some deep setting menus that are in standard definition, but it's getting there.

However, regardless of how good the features are, the rub for many will be pricing. The Bolt alone is reasonable enough at $300 for 500GB of storage (about 75 hours of HD content) and $400 for a 1TB version (about 150 hours of HD content). The deal breaker for most people is the service fee. Though the purchase price includes a year of service, after that you'll be paying $15 a month, $150 a year, or $600 for the life of the product, which TiVo is now calling "All In pricing." The lifetime pricing has never been a bargain, but it seems deliberately high to discourage getting it.

Still, it's a lot to swallow upfront and ongoing, especially if you're satisfied with the DVR from your cable provider and you don't notice the lease price since it's rolled into your bill. Then again, the Bolt is much more than a DVR.

The TiVo advantage

These days, digital video recorders aren't anything special -- cable and satellite companies rent them to their customers for a few bucks a month, and said customers can time-shift their favorite programs to watch at their convenience. So, why invest in a TiVo? Basically, it's the same reason you'd pay extra for a Mac versus a Windows PC: for starters, that means a best-in-class user interface and ease of use.

Beyond the standard DVR features of pausing and rewinding live TV, TiVo's got a wealth of less common (and better implemented) TV-recording features:

EPG: All digital cable and satellite boxes and DVRs offer an onscreen EPG (electronic programming guide), but TiVo's steps it up a notch, with a degree of customization and configuration that most cable company DVRs don't offer. The guide extends 14 days into the future, and it can be displayed as a standard grid or as a split-screen Live Guide, which breaks out several hours of program information from each channel on the right half of the screen. You also have access to a grid-style miniguide on the bottom of the screen, overlaid on top of what you're currently viewing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Streaming media services: TiVo's supply of on-demand apps continues to grow, but at the moment this includes Netflix, Amazon Instant Video with Prime, Hulu Plus (coming soon to Bolt), YouTube, Yahoo, Aol On, Vudu, Plex, Web Video Hotlist and HSN for video. Spotify, iHeartRadio and Pandora are available for music. Also, the app platform is based on the Opera web browser, and the Bolt has access to apps developed for that browser.

OnePass: OnePass is the evolution of TiVo's Season Pass option that lets you quickly set the DVR to record every episode of a show throughout the season or catch both new and repeat airings of a show. For instance, you can record every "CSI" episode on any channel and keep only the five most recent episodes, or you can record only the new (nonrerun) episodes in prime time, or both. This function has mostly been imitated by other DVRs, but TiVo's OnePass is generally more accurate and reliable than other cable DVR models, especially at delineating between new episodes and reruns, or adjusting if a show changes its time slot.

OnePass builds on that by collecting all episodes of a show into a single folder, whether it's recorded, available for streaming or purchase, or both. Each episode is marked letting you know if it's a recording on the DVR or a streaming-only title.

Search: TiVo's Search is one of its strongest features. It ties all of the content from streaming services and your TV schedule together. This allows you to get search results cross-referenced for all video sources, that is TV and online. So, if you search for a show -- say, "The Good Wife" -- you'll get upcoming first-run and rerun episodes on TV, plus episode-by-episode lists (organized by season) of the shows on Netflix (and Amazon and Hulu Plus, if the shows in question are also available there). If they're only available for purchase, it will tell you so and the prices across services.

Screenshot by Josh Goldman/CNET

Web and mobile management: TiVo Online is the company's web portal for managing your account. This includes setting up, adjusting or canceling OnePass or one-time recordings, deleting content from the DVR and viewing and editing your To Do List, which is a list of your upcoming scheduled recordings. Even if you're not a TiVo user, you can use the site's search to find where to watch TV shows and movies across broadcast and OTT services. All of these things can be done via TiVo's mobile apps as well.

Wish List: The Wish List is just what it sounds like: you choose an actor, director, genre, or keyword, and TiVo will record any program that involves that keyword. Again, this feature is also available on other DVRs, but TiVo's implementation still tends to be easier to use than other versions we've seen.

TiVo Suggestions: By default, TiVo also uses your TV downtime -- overnight, when you're at work, and so forth -- to record programs based on interests you express by using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down button on your remote. The more you vote on your viewing choices, the better your TiVo will become at finding similar, related programming, which it duly labels TiVo Suggestions. Some may object to this functionality as invasive or overkill -- which is why it can be easily turned off -- but for anyone who laments that there's never anything on TV, it's worth trying.

Collections: TiVo assembles collections of TV shows and movies based on themes. For example, you might find a Collection based on Thanksgiving movies. With a couple -- and I mean a couple -- button presses, TiVo will schedule everything in the collections to record. No hunting around for specific times and start dates or anything, it's all just set to record. And if you'd like to customize the Collections, you can do that, too.

What to Watch Now: Ever turn on the TV and you're just not sure what you want to watch? Select What to Watch Now 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.

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