TiVo Roamio Review

TiVo recently announced a new line of DVRs called "Roamio" that replace their previous "Premiere" line. I've owned a TiVo for a number of years now, specifically a Series3 HD. I've been somewhat uninterested in their models since, but the Roamio line caught my eye. I picked up a Roamio from their online store last week, and it arrived yesterday. In this article, I'll walk you through what to expect, what I liked, and what was not so awesome.

TiVo Roamio: New & Improved

The Roamio line starts with 4 tuners at the low end, and goes to 6 if you move up to the Plus or the Pro. The Plus and Pro models also come with more storage, MoCA support, a "remote finder" button on the TiVo itself, and built-in TiVo Stream support. The price tag is pretty hefty on the higher end models, though. The "base" model starts at $200 and you'll pay $400 for the Plus and $600 for the pro. For our house, I couldn't justify the extra expense when more than likely we'd only want the additional storage.

The new Roamio boxes are quite a bit smaller than the TiVo I was used to. The same "power on," "recording," and "transfer in progress" LEDs are on the front, but there's no mode selection button like the Series3 had. I actually kind of like the buttonless front, as my kids tend to play with any buttons they have access to. The power input is a wall wart, whereas my old TiVo had a power cable and (I assume) an internal power supply. If you've got outlet clearance or orientation problems where you couldn't fit a wall wart, plan to use an extension cable or something similar.

The remote's got an overhaul too. It's a bit lighter than the old remote, although the plastic feels a bit cheaper to me. It's glossy and light, and the weight of it doesn't feel quite as nice as the old remote. Some of the buttons have moved, which means there's been a learning curve as I interact with the new remote. The remote's also got microswitches for the buttons instead of rubber popple domes that the old one does. This gives it a noticeable "click" as opposed to the mushy button feel, but it might not be for everyone.

The new remote has RF support for communicating with the TiVo and IR for interacting with the TV. The RF is nice, since you no longer need line of sight between the remote and the box. You can hide the TiVo box somewhere out of sight, or behind a glass door, and use it just fine. I still have to remind myself that I don't have to point the remote at the box in order for it to work.

One feature in particular that made me hang onto the Series3 for so long is the separate antenna and cable inputs on the back of the box. I've been paying for basic cable, and then getting HD broadcast channels via an antenna. The Premiere line doesn't have antenna support, which is a bummer. The "base" Roamio model has HDTV antenna support, which is nice. I had initially thought it was like my Series3 in that could do both cable and antenna at the same time, but I found out when I went to hook it up that this was not the case. I was a bit bummed, but I talked with the cable company, and with a CableCard M-Card, I can get broadcast HD channels as part of the package I was already paying for.

In the box there's everything you need sans a HDMI cable and possibly an Ethernet cable if you plan to use wired Ethernet. If you need a HDMI cable, do yourself a favor and avoid BestBuy or Target - Amazon sells "Amazon Basics" cables that are far cheaper and just as good. Whenever I use my last HDMI cable, I pick up a 2-pack just to have some extras on hand. Usually the price is less than $10, and you can't beat that.

TiVo Roamio: Interface

The interface on the Roamio has been overhauled in a pretty major way. Things feel much faster, and more information is provided on each screen rather than requiring you to constantly select and go back in order to get any level of detail. A lot of these improvements were introduced with the Premiere line, so if you're coming from that interface you will likely feel at home. I understand that the speed has been increased significantly since the Premiere interface, though.

I really like the Season Pass Manager, as it feels much faster and more useful overall than the Series3 interface. The To Do list has divisions for each day, which the Series3 interface did not have. The "Discovery Bar" is kind of irritating, as it tends to recommend pay per view movies, or things I don't really want my kids to watch. I managed to turn off most of its suggestions in the settings, so now it just shows what is on random channels. I'd still like to reclaim this area for something more useful, though.

There's some lag as menus populate, which can sometimes slow down the flow a bit. Paging through the To Do list, I sometimes couldn't move down until the next set of entries had loaded, which took a couple of seconds. Also, if you're moving through a menu that has sub-menus (like the main menu you get to from the TiVo button on the remote), if you press "Right" to jump to the sub-menu before the sub-menu is ready, it ignores you. It's not terrible, but it's still one of those things you'd think they could fix.

There's also a fair number of interfaces that look like they were taken straight from the old SD interface. Many of the Settings menus, the Amazon Instant Video app, etc, all have the "classic" look. I don't get why these are hard to update to match the rest of the UI. It's kind of jarring to mess with these menus, and it's also sad that there's probably been no improvement in some of the video apps in the last five years or so.

TiVo Roamio: Setup & Transfer

Booting the TiVo Roamio is still a long process, like my Series3 before it. You've got to wait a good 10 or 15 minutes as it gets set up. Out of the box, it wants to patch and reboot a couple of times before it is happy. Expect to spend a good half hour waiting before you can start in on guided setup.

The TiVo Roamio's setup is exactly the same as it was previously - the guided setup still takes a good 20 minutes of waiting on data to load and populate. It's a bit frustrating, as I'm sure there's not gigabytes of information being transferred here. Again, some cleanup in this code would probably do wonders. At least you only have to go through the process once.

One of the things that I felt was likely to be painful was transferring my old recordings and season passes from the Series3 to the Roamio. Transferring shows was a breeze, as the Roamio detected the Series3 and it was just a matter of picking the recordings to transfer. It would have been nice to be able to batch transfer all the recordings, or sort the recording list by show, but it's at least a fairly painless process otherwise.

Speed wise, the old Series3 TiVo never seemed to really get that great of a data rate, even though it's connected via Ethernet directly to a gigabit switch. Transferring my HD recordings to the Roamio took a good couple of hours to get through. The new Roamio seems considerably faster at transfering data, which I'll get to in the next section.

Using the Season Pass Manager on the TiVo website worked acceptably well to transfer Season Passes. Since I was going from the HD antenna to HD cable, some of the channels didn't map exactly. This caused the web interface to glitch a bit. Trying to add Season Passes via their online system is still relatively painful. There was a long delay as I searched for a show, and another long delay as I clicked to change the Season Pass options. Their website might be loaded down with people doing this, but it's also not the first time I've had issues with the web interface. I don't really use it often because it tends to be somewhat slow and not particularly feature rich.

TiVo Roamio: Advanced Use

Like I mentioned, the Plus and Pro models come with an integrated TiVo Stream device. The TiVo Stream can... wait for it... stream TV to your mobile device. However, there are some puzzling limits to this. For instance, it only works with iOS, with no mention of Android. Second, although support is promised on the Stream site, you apparently can't currently download a show to your mobile device for remote viewing.

I, however, have always used third-party tools for this sort of thing. My Series3 works perfectly well with kmttg, which is a desktop program that simplifies transferring recordings from my TiVo to my PC, and can even decrypt and encode them for mobile devices.

I'm happy to report that these "TiVo To Go" style apps work fine with the Roamio. I didn't see support mentioned anywhere on the Roamio page for it, but it seems to be working just fine here.

The transfer rates are quite a bit better, as well. The new Roamio transfers data to my PC at around 40 megabits per second, versus around 8 megabit per second from the Series3 - around 5 times faster. However, the connection between the PC and the Roamio is a 300 megabit wireless N card in my PC to a gigabit switch where the Roamio is connected. There's still kind of a lot of bandwidth possible here. However, this is likely to be "fast enough" for me for the foreseeable future.

Overall, using kmttg seems like a much better (although far less user-friendly) option than paying an extra fee for the TiVo Stream (or the Roamio Plus/Pro) and getting an iOS device to run it. However, if you've already got the iOS device, and you're looking for an easy way to stream TV to it, it may be worth checking out.

TiVo's also got an Android app, although as I mentioned it lacks the streaming and video download features of the iOS app. This seems to work fine with the Roamio, and is handy to have around when I can't seem to find the remote.

TiVo Roamio: Conclusions

The Roamio is definitely an upgrade to my old Series3 TiVo. I do miss the separate antenna port - I was bummed that I misread the product specs and it didn't have one. If I hadn't been able to figure something reasonable out with my cable company, I would probably have had to return the Roamio.

Going from 2 to 4 tuners is very nice, the new interface is a big upgrade, and migrating my old content was less hard than I expected. There are still rough edges though, so overall the interface is a mixed bag.

The new remote is nice, but I didn't really have any issues with the old one. Similarly, the size of the box is nice but I didn't really need it to be smaller or lighter.

Overall, I can say that I'm happy with the investment. However, I kind of wonder what the benefit is to Premiere owners, though. Do you really need:

I'm kind of tempted to say no - if you've got a Premiere and you're happy with it, I don't really see a need to upgrade. But, as I don't own one, I may be missing some important feature that justifies the expense. Or maybe you just have to have the new hotness. I won't judge :)