TiVo Roamio review: The best over-the-air DVR, if you're willing to pay

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The Good The TiVo Roamio is an exceptionally polished DVR for recording free over-the-air TV. The interface is excellent and intuitive, making it dead simple to record shows and series exactly the way you'd like. There's built-in Wi-Fi and a 500GB hard drive. The remote is excellent and works via RF, so you can hide the box behind a cabinet. And the hardware itself is compact, sleek and silent.

The Bad It's very expensive when you add in subscription costs. Only the entry-level Roamio records over-the-air TV, and it lacks the step-up features of more expensive models. And there should be more streaming services at this price, like HBO Go, Vudu, and a fully-functioning Amazon Instant app.

The Bottom Line The TiVo Roamio is hands-down the best DVR for recording over-the-air TV, but its excellence comes at a great cost.

8.6 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 10
  • Value 6

TiVo, with its burdensome monthly fee, has always been a tough sell for cord-cutters, many of whom went cable-free to get rid of monthly fees in the first place.

Even so, the entry-level TiVo Roamio ($200 list price, plus subscription fees) is the best DVR for anyone relying on free over-the-air (OTA) TV. It has a whopping four tuners, which is more than enough for the limited OTA programming options, and a 500GB hard drive built-in, so you don't have to tack on your own as you might with other OTA recording solutions. TiVo's software and interface remains best-in-class and incredibly easy to use, plus it's been overhauled to be much faster than previous models. There's even built-in Wi-Fi and a handful of streaming media apps, so you can watch more than just network TV.

Here's the bad news: add up the lifetime subscription ($500), the hardware ($200), and some incidental costs, and you're looking at about $750 for the three-year cost of ownership. And TiVo's subscription policies can seem downright customer-unfriendly: "lifetime" subscriptions are tied to your box and won't transfer to a new TiVo if your box breaks or you want to upgrade in the future. There's just a lot to make you think twice before forking over $500 for what feels like a glorified "TV Guide" subscription.

But even with the excessive cost, the TiVo Roamio is the first option I'd recommend for most cord-cutters. Cheaper options like the Channel Master DVR+ and Tablo Nuyvvo are good alternatives if you only have basic recording needs or you're a little more tech savvy, but both have just enough frustrations to make them tiring in day-to-day use. The TiVo Roamio certainly costs too much, but its mastery of the over-the-air TV experience gives you the best chance to avoid going back to cable -- and that will save you so much money in the long run, it almost makes TiVo seem like a bargain.

Editors' note: While this review of the entry-level TiVo Roamio focuses on its appeal to cord-cutters, the box is also capable of working with many cable providers. For more information about the TiVo experience with cable, see our TiVo Roamio Pro review .

Design: A smaller, friendly TiVo

TiVo's mascot may be a colorful, friendly television, but the company's boxes have traditionally been gray, bulky, and joyless. That changes with the TiVo Roamio, which feels light and small, coming in at 14.3 inches wide by 7.4 inches deep by 1.9 inches tall and weighing just 3.7 pounds. Compare that to its predecessor, the TiVo Premiere, which weighed in at 6.8 pounds with a considerably larger frame.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Not only is the Roamio smaller, it looks sleeker too. The edges are rounded, and the box tapers off toward the bottom. The glossy black finish and swooping, duotone look on the front make it clear that this isn't a generic box from your cable company.

TiVo remotes have always been among the best available for any DVR, and the latest version follows the same familiar pattern. Frequently-used buttons like pause and fast-forward fall right under the thumb, and all the buttons have unique shapes and sizes that make it easy to navigate by feel alone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Best-in-class remote design would be enough to solidify the Roamio's clicker excellence, but TiVo's gone one step further by including RF control, which means you don't need to line-of-sight to control the box. You can stash the Roamio itself in a cabinet, out of sight, or control the box from afar without contortions to aim the clicker. And the Roamio can still receive traditional IR remote commands, so it will work with a universal remote like the Logitech Harmony Smart Control .

Setup: Simple, but lengthy

If TiVo's hardware makes a great first impression, the software is more underwhelming out of the gate. The Roamio's guided setup uses older, standard-definition graphics, which is a shame since most of TiVo's interface has been polished to a high-def shine. (Emphasis on "most"; there are still some frustrating exceptions.)

The setup itself is simple enough, with straightforward questions about your Wi-Fi password and zip code. However, it takes longer than you'd expect, thanks to a hour-long software update that's required before you're up and running.

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the plus side, the Roamio doesn't require any additional accessories except an antenna. There's both built-in Wi-Fi and a 500GB internal hard drive. Compare TiVo's all-in-one package to products like the Channel Master DVR+, which require you to add your own hard drive and a Wi-Fi dongle. If 500GB isn't enough, you also have the option of adding more storage using the Roamio's eSATA port; an extra 1TB will run you about $100.

If you already have a TiVo, you'll also appreciate the ability transfer recordings from your old box via your home network. You can also transfer your Season Pass requests, so you don't have to set them up all over again.

What can you watch?

When using the Roamio with an antenna, you'll be able to receive free over-the-air TV signals. In a perfect world, you should be able to get all of the major networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC) as well as PBS and a handful of other stations. In the real world, your reception might vary considerably, depending on your location, antenna, and a host of other factors, including the weather.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In addition to over-the-air content, the Roamio also offers a handful of streaming services. On the video side, there's Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, YouTube, AOL On, and Hotlist. There's also Amazon Instant Video, but the app isn't capable of playing back free Amazon Prime content and the interface is painfully archaic. For music, you get Pandora, Spotify, and Live365.

In all, it's just an average collection of apps for a premium-priced box, missing major services like HBO Go, Vudu, Rdio, Vevo, and true Amazon Instant streaming. It's a nice idea to fold all your video needs into a single box, but I still found myself preferring my Roku 3 for my streaming video needs, as there are more options, and it's more responsive.

User interface: Still the best, and much faster

If you've used a TiVo anytime over the last few years, the Roamio's layout should look familiar.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The home screen ("TiVo Central") lets you jump directly to your recordings or find other content, whether that's via TiVo's universal search, the "What to Watch Now" feature, or TiVo's streaming media apps. Universal search is particularly neat, combing through your recordings, TV listings, and streaming services to find the content you're looking for.

Jump to live TV and you can also bring up the program guide, which shows upcoming TV listings in crisp high-def graphics while live TV continues to play in a picture-in-picture window. You can choose between a traditional grid layout or TiVo's own arrangement, which shows you a further-future look at one selected channel.

On the recordings screen, your programs are laid out logically: sorted by date and grouped into folders based on the show. There's even a handy "recently deleted" folder that lets you reclaim shows you've trashed, similar to a PC's recycle bin.