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

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.

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.

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.

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+ Tablo Aereo Simple.TV 2 TiVo 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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