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TiVo Roamio Pro review: this is the ultimate cable box

But oh, the price

TiVo Roamio hero (1024px)

There is nothing more instantly dangerous to the average relationship than screwing up the TV.

It’s just a fact, crystallized in 50 years of jokes about remote controls: who’s holding it, how complicated it is, how many there are. Unlike almost every other piece of technology in your home, the TV is shared space, and the delicate politics of that space are potentially explosive. The TV industry moves slowly because it understands this; the early adopter curve is forever depressed by arguments over glitchy interfaces and missed recordings that are really just proxy battles for arguments about distance and commitment and doing the dishes.

These were the thoughts going through my head late last Saturday night as I struggled to install the new TiVo Roamio Pro, a $599 DVR that lets you record 450 hours of HD programming on six channels at once, and stream it all to iPads over your home Wi-Fi. (And soon, over any Wi-Fi anywhere.) It also has Netflix, Spotify, and a YouTube app with basic Chromecast support. It is a remarkable and ambitious product, and very likely the best cable box ever made.

But until my Cablecard activated correctly, it was just a dead box sitting under a blank TV, threatening my marriage.

This better be worth it.

Getting started

Getting started

The Roamio Pro is the top of TiVo’s new unfortunately named Roamio line, which also includes the $199 Roamio and the $399 Roamio Plus. The Roamio line (or TiVo Series 5, if you’re a TiVo nerd) is a big upgrade over the outgoing TiVo Premiere lineup, with faster processors, support for more tuners, and integrated streaming capability in the Plus and Pro, which also — finally — have built-in Wi-Fi. All three models get a new version of the classic TiVo "peanut" remote that works over RF for faster response times, and features a wonderful and hilarious new Remote Finder feature that has the remote play a little song when you tap the icon on the front of the Roamio. All of this is housed in a redesigned chassis that’s smaller and more power-efficient than your average cable box.

Tivoreview-1-6-300pxTiVo Installation experiences "vary wildly."

The Roamio only works with standard cable TV service and Verizon FiOS, not satellite or AT&T’s U-Verse. Installation is theoretically quite simple: call your cable company and ask for a Cablecard, which usually costs a couple bucks a month, and when you get your TiVo you insert the card, call the cable company to read off some activation numbers, and then settle in for a night on the couch. If you have FiOS, it’s even simpler: you can activate a Cablecard online using a six-digit code that comes in the box.

But Cablecard is a notoriously fickle technology, and installations can range from trivially simple to panic-inducing nightmare. Installation experiences "vary wildly," says TiVo’s Jim Denney. "If you get the right person it’s actually quite easy." But sometimes even the right person can’t help.

That’s how I came to find myself at home alone on a Saturday night, cursing Verizon for screwing up my Cablecard install so badly that I went from having a perfectly functioning TiVo Premiere to no television at all within 15 minutes of calling the automated activation number. After another 45 minutes on the phone reading long strings of numbers to an enthusiastic support rep, we both realized Verizon’s computers had thoroughly mixed up my various Cablecard and device numbers, and that the only real course of action was to ship out an entirely new card and start over when it arrived on Tuesday.

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That would mean missing the season premiere of Breaking Bad, so in the interest of saving my marriage I dug our unused FiOS cable box out of the closet and hooked it up. After a series of reboots, mysterious clicking sounds, and interminable firmware downloads, I was presented with an essential truth TiVo owners often forget:

Most cable boxes are complete pieces of garbage.

A huge upgrade over cable company garbage

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After just three days of dealing with Verizon’s unreliable, confusing, and frankly user-hostile FiOS DVR, switching to the TiVo Roamio Pro was an incredible relief. (Installation with the new card went swimmingly after a phone call to re-activate HBO.) Just using the Roamio for basic TV-watching is a huge upgrade over a cable company DVR and a noticeable upgrade over previous TiVo units — not only do you get six tuners and endless recording space, but everything is ridiculously fast. TiVo says the Roamio line is up to 2.5 times faster than previous models, and it shows: things like setting up recordings and deleting shows take just seconds. The UI responds instantly to the new RF remote, making it feel even faster. The interface has also been tightened up: it’s darker and sleeker, and moving towards a much flatter look.

Irritatingly, TiVo still hasn’t converted the entire interface to HD — there are still old-style SD screens throughout the settings menu, which I’ve been complaining about for at least three years. Why can’t anyone at TiVo just spend a weekend fixing this? Denney laughs at me. "I have that conversation with the engineering team all the time," he says. "It truly is a matter of prioritization." Note to TiVo: this needs to be a priority.

The speed increase also means that TiVo’s discovery interface is finally useful as well: the Roamio suggests programs you might find interesting in a bar at the top of the main screen, and you can also look at what live shows are popular right now, as well as what’s on in various categories like sports and movies. These features have been standard on TiVos for a few years now, but they were so slow I never used them. Now that they work well, I find myself using them constantly.

In fact, the Roamio works so much better than a standard cable box I would say it’s worth it even if you don’t engage with all of its other features — you’ll get more out of your expensive cable bill because you’ll record and watch more interesting TV than before.

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More than a cable box

More than a cable box

But there’s lots more to the Roamio Pro than top-tier DVR functionality. The integrated search indexes across Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video in addition to TV, and it’s just a few clicks to watch or record something once you’ve found it. The Netflix app is the shining star of the bunch; it’s now much faster, and runs on Netflix’s latest platform so it’ll get updates as Netflix rolls them out.

Closer to an integrated TV solution than anything from Apple, GOogle, or Microsoft

The latest update? The Roamio supports the DIAL standard used in the Chromecast, which means you can find a movie on your smartphone or tablet and send it directly to the Roamio to watch. It’s all very compelling — the Apple TV has been my go-to Netflix device for years, but the Roamio is quickly taking over.

Other apps like Hulu Plus and Spotify are fine — they’re not great, but they’re perfectly serviceable. Interestingly, TiVo’s making a big bet on HTML5 TV apps; the Roamio actually runs the Opera browser engine. The first HTML5 app is YouTube, which is just Google’s familiar leanback YouTube experience.

It’s fairly slow — TiVo’s Denney says "the reality of HTML5 is that it’s not built for performance" — but it works, and it supports Google Cast from the YouTube app on smartphones and tablets, which means you can send videos from your phone or tablet to the Roamio by clicking one button. It takes a second, but it works — and you don’t have to switch inputs or launch an app to make it happen. It’s not perfect, but the Roamio is closer to a complete integrated TV solution than anything from Apple, Roku, Microsoft, or Google. There are some key apps like HBO Go and Watch ESPN missing, but hey — you’ve got cable. You can just record those channels.

The potential here is obviously enormous, and Denney says TiVo will continue to look at expanding Cast support — including support for tabcasting from Chrome if the demand is there. "Traditionally we haven’t been focused on how to bring a browser experience to the TV, but we’ll contemplate it," he says. "Especially if we get feedback that it could be interesting. The platform is capable of a lot."

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But while TiVo’s moving quickly on the new Netflix app and the future of HTML5 apps, the Amazon app is an embarrassing relic. While movies and shows themselves are in HD, the menus and interface are all in jaggy SD — they’ll even switch your TV to 480i if you don’t lock the TiVo’s resolution to HD. Key features like search and Prime Instant Video are just missing.

It’s a glaring hole in an otherwise-complete TV product; Roku and Apple TV offer a far superior movie and TV rental and purchase experience right now. There doesn’t appear to be an update on the horizon, either: Denney says TiVo needs to "get Amazon’s full cooperation" to move forward. "Hopefully HTML5 support will move that along," he says. "It is what it is right now, and we’re working to update it."

This really could be your only box

Amazon ugliness aside, the Roamio does all the things you’d expect a competent media streamer to do. Sure, it’s the most expensive media streamer ever, but when you consider that it’s also a fully functional cable DVR, things start to make more sense. This really could be the only box under your TV.

And there are still more tricks in the bag.

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Set_a_recording-300pxSorry Android fans — streaming is iOS onlyTo_do_list-300px

Last year TiVo released the TiVo Stream, a tiny box that let you stream and download video from a TiVo hard drive to an iPad or iPhone. This year Stream functionality is integrated into the Roamio Plus and Pro — if you install the TiVo app on your iPad or iPhone, you can stream or download shows when you’re on your home Wi-Fi. You can even stream live TV with a slight delay. It’s great — you can basically use an iPad or iPhone as a second TV when you’re at home. You can also download shows to watch them offline, which is nice — although the file sizes can be a little too big.

The streaming features are going to get better: in the fall TiVo will add support for out-of-home streaming, letting you watch what’s on your TiVo from any Wi-Fi connection. Yes, that’s Wi-Fi only — TiVo’s still working on meeting Apple standards for low bandwidth streaming on mobile networks, but Denney says a future update will address the issue.

I was able to beta-test out-of-home streaming, and it worked fine for light use — it’s not as seamless as a Slingbox or the Dish Hopper with Sling, but it certainly does the job. I noticed a slight dropoff in audio and video quality, but nothing major. (TiVo recommends you have at least a 1 megabit upstream connection for the best performance.) The only thing missing is Android support, and TiVo hasn’t announced anything yet.

The TiVo app also lets you manage and control the Roamio remotely — I schedule shows using my phone when I’m out and about all the time, and I much prefer looking at the guide on my iPad and tapping to change the channel instead of interrupting what’s on the screen to click around with the remote.

If you have multiple TVs in the house, you can add $149 TiVo Minis and link them to the Roamio, allowing you to watch recorded programs everywhere in the house. You can also watch live TV on a Mini if you give up one of the Roamio’s tuners, but an imminent software update will allow the Roamio to dynamically assign tuners as needed, which will make everything work much more seamlessly.

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Wrap-Up

  • TiVo Roamio Pro
  • TiVo Roamio Plus
Outrageously expensive but worth it if you're paying for cable

The TiVo Roamio Pro is very much the ultimate DVR — short of building a media center PC, there isn’t another product on the market that can do as much with as much flexibility as the Roamio. Installing it can be a huge pain, and it’s outrageously expensive — on top of the box, TiVo service costs either $14.99 / month or a ridiculous $499 flat fee per unit — but if you’re spending loads of money on cable service with premium channels, it’s worth it. You will record more shows and movies and watch them in more places with a TiVo than with your cable company’s DVR, hands-down. That it is also a competent media streamer with a solid Netflix implementation and support for casting from YouTube is a very nice bonus; in many households the Roamio will be the only box needed under the TV.

Unless you live in a big household with lots of people recording different things, I would actually skip the Pro and buy the $399 TiVo Plus — my wife and I never needed extra space with our previous 1TB TiVo, and you can always expand your storage with an external drive if needed. Yet another interesting feature few cable company DVRs can offer.

That’s not to say the Roamio is perfect: it can be weird and clunky in places, and TiVo should be downright ashamed of shipping that Amazon app and those SD settings screens in 2013. But let’s put that in perspective: I asked my wife if the Roamio Pro was worth the pain of not having TV for three days.

“Yeah, it was worth it,” she said. “There’s no lag time.”

Marriage, saved.

GOOD STUFF

  • Integrates cable TV and internet services like nothing else
  • Fast, simple interface
  • TV streaming to iOS devices
  • Support for casting YouTube and Netflix from phones and tablets

BAD STUFF

  • Ridiculously expensive
  • Amazon app is ancient
  • Are you kidding me with these SD settings screens?

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 8
  • Software 7
  • Content selection 9
  • Performance 8
  • Accessories, remote 9
Outrageously expensive but worth it if you're paying for cable

The TiVo Roamio Pro is very much the ultimate DVR — short of building a media center PC, there isn’t another product on the market that can do as much with as much flexibility as the Roamio. Installing it can be a huge pain, and it’s outrageously expensive — on top of the box, TiVo service costs either $14.99 / month or a ridiculous $499 flat fee per unit — but if you’re spending loads of money on cable service with premium channels, it’s worth it. You will record more shows and movies and watch them in more places with a TiVo than with your cable company’s DVR, hands-down. That it is also a competent media streamer with a solid Netflix implementation and support for casting from YouTube is a very nice bonus; in many households the Roamio will be the only box needed under the TV.

Unless you live in a big household with lots of people recording different things, I would actually skip the Pro and buy the $399 TiVo Plus — my wife and I never needed extra space with our previous 1TB TiVo, and you can always expand your storage with an external drive if needed. Yet another interesting feature few cable company DVRs can offer.

That’s not to say the Roamio is perfect: it can be weird and clunky in places, and TiVo should be downright ashamed of shipping that Amazon app and those SD settings screens in 2013. But let’s put that in perspective: I asked my wife if the Roamio Pro was worth the pain of not having TV for three days.

“Yeah, it was worth it,” she said. “There’s no lag time.”

Marriage, saved.

GOOD STUFF

  • Integrates cable TV and internet services like nothing else
  • Fast, simple interface
  • TV streaming to iOS devices
  • Support for casting YouTube and Netflix from phones and tablets

BAD STUFF

  • Ridiculously expensive
  • Amazon app is ancient
  • Are you kidding me with these SD settings screens?

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 8
  • Software 7
  • Content selection 9
  • Performance 8
  • Accessories, remote 9
The Verge
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