TiVo Roamio OTA review: This DVR would be a cord-cutter's dream machine, if not for the subscription fee

If you haven't cut the pay-TV cord because you don't want to give up your DVR, you should take a good look at TiVo's Roamio OTA. This set-top box harbors four HD over-the-air tuners, an on-screen program guide so you can see what's on each channel and when, and a 500GB hard drive that provides enough storage to record 75 hours of HD video. In addition to watching and recording live TV, you get access to on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu, and more.

It'll set you back just 50 bucks.

Yes, there's a catch; two, actually. First you'll need to also buy an HDTV antenna. That will add anywhere from less than $10 for a cheap indoor model you probably won't be happy with to more than $200 for a rooftop model that will pull in a signal even if you're on the very fringes of the broadcaster's range. But you'll need to buy an antenna for any device you're going to use to watch over-the-air broadcasts.The folks at TiVo sent along a $70 Mohu Leaf 50 (an indoor model with claimed range of 50 miles) for this review.

The second catch is more onerous: You must sign up for a TiVo subscription, which will cost $15 per month, $150 per year, or $500 for a lifetime subscription. You'll of course need to sign up--and pay--for Netflix, Hulu, and any other over-the-top services separately.

TiVo program guide

That subscription is to pay for TiVo's on-screen program guide, which is very similar to the ones that you get with any pay-TV subscription. Once you've grown accustomed to a program guide that lets you see what's on right now and in the near future, and then click a button on your remote to watch or record it (with the ability to skip over the commercials when you play it back), you won't want to go without one.

The alternative to an on-screen program is to use a second device--such as your phone, tablet, or home-theater PC--to view a free program guide on the Internet, and then push the buttons on your remote to go there, but that works only for live TV. If you're using a DVR, an integrated program guide is a must. TiVo's subscription fees undoubtedly subsidize the cost of its hardware. If a drive-less Roku 3 (which can't tune in OTA broadcasts and doesn't have onboard storage) costs $100, there's no way TiVo can make a profit selling the Roamio OTA with a 500GB hard drive for half that much.

Still, $15 a month is a lot of money to spend just to see what's on TV. But if you consider that the subscription fee also makes possible some of the Roamio OTA's other software features possible, it's not so bad. You can also download a free app to your Android or iOS app and use it as remote control (TiVo's regular remote is very good, but it's tough to beat a touchscreen). Purchase the TiVo Stream ($130) and you can stream live or recorded TV to an Android or iOS device from anywhere, and you can download recorded programs to an iOS device. I'll have a full review of this component later.

The program guide itself, meanwhile is top shelf. It's split into two columns, with the programming available at the chosen time displayed in the left-hand column, and all the programming available on the chosen channel in the right-hand column. Information about the selected show (season and episode for series, plot summaries, resolution, genre, and date first aired) appears above these two columns.

A thumbnail window to the right of this shows live video (or recorded video if that's what you're watching when you call up the guide). Unlike some guides I've used, TiVo lets you go back in time to see programs you might have missed so you can set up repeats or other episodes for recording.

If you prefer a more conventional grid guide, with the channels in one column and several hours of programming displayed in multiple columns on the left, you can easily switch to that view. You can also use shortcut buttons on the remote to customize either view, including to display only the channels you can tune in, only the channels you've designated as favorites, or only selected categories (movies, sports, children's programming, and so on).

When you find a program in the guide that you're interested in, press the Info button: A window pops up showing you the same information as in the top window of the guide, but with three buttons added to the bottom: Explore This Show is for people who enjoy researching what they're watching. It opens another window where you can find information about the cast, dates and titles of upcoming episodes, and it offers recommendations of similar shows.

Record This Episode does the obvious, but it doesn't give you the option of recording the entire series. For that, you need to go into TiVo's OnePass options. I'll go into OnePass in a bit more depth now--it's one of the Roamio OTA's most powerful features--but TiVo erred in making such an important task so difficult to perform.

TiVo OnePass and TiVo Central

When you record an episode of a TV series, you typically want to record at least all the new episodes in that series. But you need to create what TiVo calls a OnePass to do this. A OnePass can search both broadcast schedules and streaming services to track down episodes you might have missed. This is where you choose whether you want to record only new episodes, or both those and repeats.

You can set the recordings to be deleted as the hard drive fills up, or you can keep all recordings (which might prevent new events from being recorded). Finally, you can start recording early or on time; or stop recording late or on time.

Tapping the big TiVo icon at the top of the remote calls up TiVo Central. This is where you'll find all the content you've recorded, suggestions of what to watch (including recommendations based on your use of the remote's thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons). Next to OnePass, TiVo Central is where you'll find the rest of the Roamio OTA's best features. Search for a specific movie or TV show, for instance, and the Roamio will show you everywhere it's available (for free, for rent, or for purchase).

You can also jump directly to a wide variety of on-demand video services--including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and even MLB.tv--in addition to the services I've already mentioned. If you've amassed private collections of music, videos, and photos on a PC or NAS box, TiVo recently added support for the Plex media server, so that you can stream that content to your entertainment center via the Roamio. You won't be able to use the free version of Plex for this, though; you'll need a Plex Pass ($5 per month, $40 per year, or $150 for a lifetime subscription). You can also access your music-streaming accounts on Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Live365 directly from this device.

Should you buy a TiVo Roamio OTA

As good a DVR as the Roamio OTA is, it would make a cord-cutter's life even better if it included support for a service such as SlingTV (so that you could get some of the channels that are otherwise available only with a pay-TV subscription), along with access to premium channels such as HBO Now and Showtime (although you could add Showtime to a Hulu subscription). You'd still need to pay for these services, of course, but it would be cheaper than subscribing to cable or satellite TV.

The absence of those services, and my nit-picky comment about recording full seasons of new episodes, are my only complaints about the Roamio OTA. A lot of people hate subscription fees, but the power and the convenience that TiVo's software and service delivers is worth $15 per month in my book.


Michael Brown

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