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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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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."

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8.0

TiVo Bolt

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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What TiVo Bolt offers

Faster everything: Roamio was a noticeable jump in performance compared to prior TiVo models, and cable-provider DVRs, too, for that matter. Still, there was room for improvement that TiVo tackles with Bolt. More system memory and a speedier processor make the speed difference here, whether that means quicker navigation or starting up a recording or, perhaps most importantly, launching apps.

Netflix, in particular, is much faster. The first time you start it up takes about 3 to 5 seconds, but after that, opening is near instantaneous. Amazon Prime and YouTube also get a speed boost, but they don't currently pop open like Netflix. Even boot time, which has felt interminable on past models, speeds up to an average of 2 minutes and 30 seconds. (That said, you shouldn't be rebooting the Bolt very often after its initial setup.)

The Bolt also gets faster networking speeds with support for 802.11ac wireless, Gigabit Ethernet and MoCA 2.0 ( Multimedia over Coax Alliance), which uses the coaxial cable in your home for networking. Speaking of wireless, Bolt supports streaming and downloads of recorded programs to mobile devices without the need for TiVo's add-on box, Stream. Initially this only works with devices on the same network as Bolt, but will eventually be updated to support out-of-home streaming.

The iOS app can also be used to mirror your TiVo to an Apple TV via AirPlay. Android users can do the same with an Amazon Fire TV . It works with stuff that's already recorded or you can start streaming a live show to mirror with only a slight delay.

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QuickMode and SkipMode: TiVo's speeding up actually watching TV as well. Quickmode lets you accelerate playback by 30 percent, but audio is pitch corrected so it sounds normal... well, close to normal.

All it takes are two button presses to turn it on and off. Tired of watching a batter foul off pitch after pitch, but don't want to fast forward? Turn on QuickMode. Want to breeze through your favorite reality show? Turn on QuickMode. It works as promised, though I'm not sure it's something I would use because I eventually found it distracting. I also ended up jumping back several times anyway to hear things I missed. But if you watch shows where not every word matters, this could be a binge-watcher's best friend.

SkipMode is just plain awesome, and if you watch a lot of primetime TV, you'll think so, too. While watching recorded content you're able to jump over whole commercial breaks with a single button press. As the show you're watching reaches a break, a notification appears on screen letting you know you can tap the remote's D button and it will instantly transport you past the break and back into the show. The feature is available about 30 minutes after a recording has ended; it won't work for live TV (obviously) and it's also not available for all programs.

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SkipMode is applied to approximately 20 channels for programming between 4 p.m. and midnight, plus repeat airings and late-night talk shows, but not sports or local TV. The current networks include: FX, HGTV, History Channel, Lifetime, NBC, ABC, ABC Family, AMC, Bravo, CBS, Syfy, TBS, TLC, TNT, USA, Comedy Central, The CW, Discovery Channel, Food Network and FOX. (Note that CNET is a division of CBS, which also partially owns The CW.)

The feature works as promised, too, eliminating the need to shuttle back and forth to get to the end of a commercial break. It doesn't strip them out entirely like Dish's AutoHop feature, so if you don't hit the button every time you'll still see commercials. However, with AutoHop you have to wait one to seven days after a show's airing to watch without commercials, and it's only available for shows on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC recorded with Dish's PrimeTime Anytime feature.

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Ready for 4K (streaming that is): There might not be a lot of content at the moment, but 4K (2160p) programming is coming and Bolt is ready. It currently works with the YouTube and Netflix apps, though you'll have to get the $12 Netflix subscription to access it. TiVo is in talks with Amazon for its 4K app.

Note, of course, that only a fraction of the programming on any of those services is available in 4K, and that seeing the difference between 4K and "regular" HD programming is still overkill for all but eagle-eyed viewers with giant-screen 4K TVs. But for those who care -- this is for you.

Remote Control: TiVo's peanut-shaped remote hasn't changed much over the years and for good reason: it's an excellent remote. With the Roamio and now the Bolt, the company uses an RF remote so line-of-sight wasn't necessary to control the TiVo. The big difference between the two -- outside of labeling the remote's D button with the word Skip for SkipMode -- is its color, trading in black for white.

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At first I wasn't crazy about the color choice, but with its keys not backlit, the white does make it easier to see the buttons in a dim room. Plus, it's much easier to spot on darker furniture or in a box full of other remote controls. If you still can't find it, though, a button on the Bolt will trigger a chime in the remote to help you track it down (a feature carried over from the Roamio remote).

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 Bolt's pricing as expensive. Buying a new Bolt is $300 or $400 plus a monthly service charge after the first year of $15 or $150 for the year, which comes down to $12.50 a month. Add in another $150 for a TiVo Mini for multiroom viewing on a TV (viewing on a mobile device or computer doesn't require a Mini) and you've got yourself a pretty hefty investment.

TiVo versus the competition

TiVo Bolt + TiVo MiniDirecTV Genie HD DVR + Genie MiniDish Network Hopper with Sling + Joey Time Warner Enhanced Whole House DVR & ServiceXfinity X1 HD DVR + HD extenderAT&T U-verse DVR + receiverVerizon Fios Quantum TV Enhanced
DVR price $299 (500GB)/ $399 (1TB)$299$199Lease onlyLease onlyLease onlyLease only
Extender price $149$99$99 (free to new subscribers)Lease onlyLease onlyLease onlyLease only
Monthly service $14.99 (after first year of service)$15 + $13$7 for Joey + $12 DVR fee$22.50$19.90 + $19.95 DVR fee $9 for receiver + $10 HD fee$44
Number of HD recording hours 75/15020050015075155100
Number of simultaneous recordings 453 (up to 6 during prime-time hours)6446
Number of simultaneous streams to extenders 3534375
Live TV streams supported YesYes3YesYesYesYes
Start/delete recordings from any TV YesYesYesNoNoYesYes
Broadband apps available to all components Netflix, Amazon Instant/Prime, Vudu, Yahoo, YouTube, Hulu Plus (coming soon), AoL On, Plex, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, moreYouTube, Pandora, weather, sportsNetflix, Pandora, Facebook, Vevo, MLB Network, Weather Channel, MSNBC, SiriusXMNoneTraffic, weather, sports, Facebook, PandoraFacebook, Multiview, weather, Media Share (DLNA), Food Network, NBA stats, moreNone
On demand to extender Xfinity, Cox subscribers (in select areas)Yes (requires Cinema Connection kit)YesNoYesYesYes
Stream to computers, mobile devices Yes (in-home to computers, out-of-home to mobile devices; iOS and Android supported)Yes (in-home and out-of-home streaming; iOS and Android supported; requires $99 GenieGo device)Yes (iOS and Android support)Yes (in-home computers, iOS and Android devices, and Roku devices)Yes (in-home and out-of-home streaming; iOS and Android supported)NoYes (in-home and out-of-home streaming; iOS and Android supported)
4K support Yes, streaming content only (for TiVo Bolt only, not Mini)Yes (DirecTV 4K-ready TV required)NoNoNoNoNo

As you can see in the chart above, the TiVo Bolt and Mini package is competitive. Keep in mind, too, that satellite and cable providers also make money from TV service and can make different hardware and service deals that TiVo can't compete with. However, with TiVo the hardware is yours -- to use or resell -- and you'll be able to use the DVR and Mini with any cable provider that can supply a CableCard for service. Have Verizon and want to switch to Comcast or Cox? No problem, just get a new CableCard from your provider of choice.

The Bolt is less attractive for cable cutters, since really the idea is to get away from service fees not add to them. It's current selection of apps also means cutters will likely need to supplement streaming with a Roku or Apple TV. That goes for non-Xfinity and Cox subscribers, too, who won't have access to on-demand content. That said, TiVo continues to add streaming services and if you're currently a cable subscriber toying with the idea of eventually breaking away, the Bolt has you covered either way.

Conclusion:

The TiVo Bolt is positioned as the company's primary option with the six-tuner Roamio Pro model sticking around for power users. Ironically, it's probably those buyers who care the most about the faster performance and 4K support. As for software features being carried over, QuickMode will come to Roamio later this year, but there is no current timing for SkipMode on Roamio. And my money's on that it will never arrive because TiVo will use it as enticement for upgrading to a new model, perhaps a Bolt Pro.

But if you're looking for a DVR unified entertainment system right now, Bolt has a lot to offer. You just need to weigh the many advantages versus the price -- and, more importantly, that pesky service fee.

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8.0

TiVo Bolt

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 9Features 8Performance 8Value 7