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

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

Matthew_Moskovciak.jpg
Matthew Moskovciak
Matthew_Moskovciak.jpg
Matthew Moskovciak Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

10 min read

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.

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8.6

TiVo Roamio

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

If all that seems like old hat, that's because cable and satellite DVRs have heavily copied TiVo's look and feel. But other OTA DVR solutions aren't nearly as sophisticated. Nuyvvo's Tablo relies on a clunky Roku app for its traditional onscreen interface, while the Channel Master DVR's interface is better, but little more than serviceable. If you do most of your TV watching on an actual TV, rather than a tablet or smartphone, you'll appreciate TiVo's far superior living room experience.

And most importantly, TiVo has listened to the complaints about responsiveness. The Roamio feels much faster than its predecessor, TiVo Premiere . It's not on par with the fastest living room devices I've used, like the Roku 3 , but it's speedy for a DVR, free from the sometimes-interminable delays that plagued the last box.

Recordings: Four tuners, Season Pass, and more

When it comes to recordings, the Roamio has by far the most advanced software and hardware capabilities of any over-the-air recording solution -- short of building one yourself.

That starts with the Roamio's four internal tuners, letting you record four simultaneous shows or record three shows while watching a fourth live. That you gives you an incredible amount of flexibility with over-the-air TV, where there's not nearly as much programming as there is on cable. I rarely find myself running into recording conflicts with two-tuner OTA DVRs, but I'm fairly certain I'd never have a conflict with the four-tuner Roamio.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

TiVo also excels when it comes to recording options. The Season Pass feature makes it easy to record all the new episodes of your favorite shows (and exclude repeats), and the TiVo will still catch your shows even if they move to a new time slot.

Recording a sporting event prompts you to add extra time to the recording, since games almost always take longer than their allotted slot. If you think that's not a big deal, you'll change your mind the first time you miss an epic finale because your DVR didn't record extra innings or overtime.

And there all sorts of other features that are just icing on the cake, like Suggestions (records extra content you might like when there's extra space), Wishlist (auto-records any content that matches a certain actor, director or keyword) and Collections (hand-curated groups of similar programs, like "New Fall Shows," that can be set to auto-record). Note that with only OTA channels and streaming content to draw from, the results for these custom searches will be more anemic than with a TiVo hooked up to a full-fledged cable subscription.

When a Roamio can't roam

When TiVo launched the new line of Roamio DVRs, the reviews all over the Web were glowing, including CNET's. But most of those reviews were for the Roamio Pro , and a lot of the features that make the Pro so great aren't available on the entry-level Roamio.

The big one is the ability to stream recorded programs to an iOS device like an iPhone or iPad (Android support is still "coming soon") both inside and outside your home network, so you can watch pretty much anywhere with an Internet connection. Those Roamios also let you download recorded shows to iOS devices, which is perfect for long trips on a plane or in the car with kids.

Sadly, none of that functionality is available on the entry-level Roamio, which is the only model to include over-the-air tuners. On the other hand, you can schedule recordings -- using the TiVo app on Android and iOS, as well as TiVo.com -- both in and outside of your home network.

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You can schedule recordings with the app, but you can't stream content from the entry-level Roamio. Screenshot by Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The good news is you can add remote streaming functionality by purchasing the $130 (USD) TiVo Stream . It's a pricey add-on for what's already a too-expensive product, but you can get the full Roamio experience if you're willing to pay for it.

Living with it: The gold standard for DVRs

Most DVRs seem pretty good out of the gate, but their flaws become apparent with day-to-day use. That was my experience with both the Channel Master DVR+ and Nuvyyo Tablo -- very impressive right away, with some of that luster fading over time. The DVR+ can be set to record an entire series, but it can't record only new episodes, so repeats fill up your hard drive. Tablo can't add additional time to sports recordings, so you'll almost always miss the end of the game, plus its commercial-skipping function doesn't work very well on Roku.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Roamio doesn't suffer from the same decline. It's a reliable workhorse that dutifully records your over-the-air TV, anticipates your recording needs, and makes it easy to tweak the settings exactly the way you like them. All of the little things TiVo does right -- the excellent remote, Season Pass management, 30-second skip, responsive interface -- add up to make the TV watching experience seamless. It's a luxury to sit down and watch TV without having to think twice about your DVR, but unfortunately it's a luxury you'll have to pay for.

Costs: The luxury OTA option

The Roamio's $200 list price makes it seem affordable, but TiVo's required subscription fees drive up the cost substantially.

Sure, you don't need to buy a separate hard drive or Wi-Fi dongle as you would with the Channel Master DVR+, but those additional costs don't come close to equaling TiVo's subscription fees. And remember that you'll still need to budget for an antenna (around $40) and a few spare cables (around $10).

Channel Master DVR+TabloAereoSimple.TV 2TiVo Roamio
Hardware $250$220$50$250$200
Accessories $145$105$0$136$50
Subscription fees $0$150$432$150$500
3-year cost $395$475$482$536$750

You can certainly rationalize the cost by factoring in how much money you'll be saving by not having cable. But you can save even more money by getting, say, the Channel Master DVR+, which costs a bit more than half as much as a TiVo over three years.

TiVo also offers the option to pay $15 per month with a one-year commitment, but the lifetime subscription ends up being a better deal if you keep the DVR for longer than 33 months, which is just shy of three years (2 years, 9 months). $500 is a lot of money to pay up front, but it will likely end up being the best deal for most buyers.

Conclusion: Worth the initial pain in the wallet

For a long time, TiVo was really the only practical over-the-air recording solution for anyone that didn't want to build their own media center PC. That's not true anymore, as Aereo, Channel Master DVR+, and Tablo are credible alternatives, and these fledgling, software-centric products are likely to get better over time (as long as they remain legal).

But the Roamio is fully mature right now, and it's undeniably head-and-shoulders above the competition for recording OTA TV. There are no glitches, recording quirks, image-quality issues, or clunky interfaces to deal with -- it "just works," and gets out of your way when you want to watch TV. Whether or not that's worth $750 to you depends on how much TV you watch and your budget. I wish there was a cheaper alternative to recommend that's nearly as good, but TiVo remains the best overall pick for now, and it's worth it for cord-cutters looking to make the easiest transition from cable.

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8.6

TiVo Roamio

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 10Value 6
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