TiVo Roamio Pro review: TiVo's new DVRs are the company's best yet

It's been three and a half years since the last major TiVo release and while the company has offered some new features since -- via hardware revisions, software updates and accessories -- we're very excited to tell you that TiVo is back. The three new TiVo Roamio DVRs range in price from $200 to $600 (plus service), all with at least four tuners and built-in WiFi. And the Pro and the Plus have integrated TiVo Stream functionality. The cool new trick is out-of-home streaming for both live and recorded shows, with the ability to download shows to your iOS devices while away from home. (Note: this feature isn't coming to the Roamio until this fall, so we tested it with a TiVo Stream instead). There's also a new remote that no longer relies on IR, as well as a refreshed user interface, which includes the What to Watch Now feature and new Netflix and YouTube apps -- that launch quickly now. We'll get into all the highs and the lows in just a moment, but we're pretty confident in saying these are TiVo's best boxes to date.


TiVo Roamio Plus review

Top: Roamio Pro; bottom: a TiVo Premiere box.

The connections and form factor of the TiVo Roamio Pro are very similar to that of the Premiere line: a CableCARD slot, one coax connector, two USB ports, Ethernet, eSATA, Toslink, analog audio / video and HDMI out. What's new are the internals, including 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and a new chip (a Broadcom BCM7241) that has the power to speed up the TiVo user experience, as well as launch third-party apps quickly and stream content to other devices. All at the same time. There are also more tuners and bigger hard drives. At the high end, we have the Pro for $599 with six CableCARD tuners and 3TB of space. Next is the Plus, which also has six tuners, but only 1TB of space for $399. At the other end of the price range is the standard Roamio for $199, which only has four ATSC or CableCARD tuners, a 500GB hard drive and no built-in Stream functionality or MoCA. None of the new models support analog cable. These limitations are not a big deal for most, but some will be disappointed. Cable-cutters certainly won't be, though; the ATSC model is the box they've been waiting for, as the old ATSC model only had two tuners and didn't support the TiVo Mini.

The fit and finish of the new box is appealing, with the cheap plastic of the Premiere gone and a nice, textured gray material with a glossy piano-black faceplate taking its place. Oh, the face. Yeah, the TiVo guy on the front of the Roamio doesn't have one, which is odd since he isn't faceless on the remote. The other newsworthy additions are the touch-sensitive power button and a new remote finder button; press it and the remote will start emitting the same music as the TiVo start-up video. The last mentionable change is the recording indicator. Now, there's only a single-circle recording indicator, then five smaller semicircles off to the right. And the lights on the box are, of course, not so bright that they're distracting, and can be turned off completely via the settings.

TiVo Roamio Plus review

The new remote gets its own section, but one aspect we must cover here is the lack of HDMI-CEC on any of the new TiVos. We surely sound like a broken record at this point, but this time around should be much louder, as the missed use case is worse than ever. TiVo obviously recognizes the value in moving away from IR, but by not including HDMI-CEC in the Roamio, the new RF remote must still rely on IR for TV power and volume. This creates a somewhat disjointed experience because you can control the Roamio without any regard for where the remote is pointed, but to adjust the volume you must be sure to point it in the right direction. Add in our old points about the prominence of CEC in modern TVs and AV receivers and our dream of being able to turn our TVs on with the great smartphone and tablet apps from TiVo, and, needless to say, we're disappointed. There's the chance that it could be added later, as our understanding is that the lack of CEC in most DVRs has more to do with software than with hardware, but we aren't holding our breath and TiVo isn't commenting.


TiVo Roamio Plus review TiVo's new DVRs are the company's best yet

The only thing that TiVo releases less often than a DVR is a new remote. The entire Roamio lineup includes the same remote, which means that while the base model also gets the benefits of RF, the top-of-the-line models' remote no longer features a backlight or the ability to learn IR codes (the built-in IR database is very extensive, though). Upon unboxing the remote, we almost immediately referred to it as the stubby peanut -- affectionately, of course. It reminds us of the size of the discontinued TiVo Slide Remote, but not quite as short. We were happy with the size of the old ones, but the smaller size does make it a bit easier to reach all the buttons. The other big change is the addition of a "back" button.

TiVo Roamio Plus review TiVo's new DVRs are the company's best yet

From left to right: the old TiVo remote, the Glo remote and the new Roamio remote.

The TiVo user experience still doesn't require a back button; this new addition is for the streaming apps like Netflix and YouTube (the back button provides the same function as the left button while in the native TiVo UI). This is undoubtedly the result of a decision by TiVo to no longer optimize the streaming apps for the TiVo experience. Whatever the impetus, it pretty much squashes any hope we might have still had for a congruous user experience.

That being said, it does come in very handy when you leave the TiVo experience for another app; it's less jarring than switching inputs. In most cases. The only other notable button change is the front-and-center repositioning of the guide button, pushing the mute and record buttons aside. We find this very odd, as this button is primarily for those who watch live TV first, as opposed to our TiVo experience of going straight to My Shows when we sit down -- TiVo users typically watch less live TV than most. We would've preferred to see the space used for a shortcut to Watch Now or My Shows, but this is likely an attempt to appeal to those not currently using a TiVo.

The big point of differentiation here, though, is the remote's RF capabilities. No longer do you need to worry about having line-of-sight to your TiVo to control it, which means you can hide the DVR behind closed doors, or change the channel without moving your hand outside the warm and comfy confines of your favorite blanket. The remote does still emit IR, though, but only to control your TV and AV receiver -- as we mentioned before. The Roamio also still features an IR receiver so you can use your old TiVo remote or, say, a programmable one.


TiVo Roamio Plus review

With the new Roamio hardware comes a few updates to the software. The entire user interface has been refreshed, which essentially amounts to a darker, almost black, background instead of blue. The What to Watch Now feature from the smartphone and tablet apps has been added to TiVo Central, but without any configurable options. The really exciting new feature is the long-awaited ability to use the iOS apps to stream and download content from outside the home. This is of course limited by your available throughput, but it's at least easy to set up. It works well enough, but despite having FiOS internet service and LTE on a mobile device, the picture quality of the live stream was still far from what we've come to expect from a Slingbox. We imagine adaptive streaming isn't an easy thing and hope the quality gets better in future releases.

That is great and all, but it plays second fiddle to our favorite feature of the TiVo Roamio: its speed. Seriously, we can't remember ever using a TiVo this fast. Perhaps we're just conditioned by years of molasses on the TiVo Premiere. No matter. This one flies; it had no trouble keeping up with us in everything we've tried. Does it lag every once in a while? Sure, but the Roamio is faster than the Premiere in every way; from watching something live, we can play a show from the My Shows list within six seconds versus 16 on the Premiere XL4 (that's five button presses).

We can't remember ever using a TiVo this fast.

That new speed helps with more than just navigating the TiVo native UI. In fact, Netflix launches in less than eight seconds, compared to the 40 seconds it takes on the Premiere XL4. Speaking of which, the Netflix and YouTube apps have been updated; there is DIAL support, but the apps are still a little behind as the new Netflix Profiles feature still isn't supported. We also really appreciate the fact that now, when you use the TiVo search to find a show, and then choose to watch it from Netflix, it takes you directly to the show rather than to the Netflix search, like it did before. Much appreciated, no doubt, but we still long for the congruous user experience that the Xbox and Apple TV deliver, as well as all the missing streaming content from services like WatchESPN, Vudu, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, Epix, Crackle and CinemaNow. Oh, and it's crazy that the same old, worn-out Amazon Instant app is still being ported along.

TiVo Roamio Plus review

Now that we're on to the subject of what we don't like, let's talk about switching DVRs. The out-of-the-box TiVo experience has always left a lot to be desired -- especially when CableCARDs are involved -- but upgrading your DVR should be as easy as upgrading your smartphone. Instead, you have to set everything up from scratch again. At least there's the Season Pass Manager on that'll allow you to transfer your Season Passes (which didn't work for us, but we assume that is a result of our early access). If you're lucky enough that your provider doesn't mark everything as "Copy Once," then you can at least transfer the recordings, one by one, from your old TiVo to your new one.

The other enhancement we were hoping for, that sadly isn't here, is a revamped My Shows. What we would really love is a single list of everything we want to watch -- including recordings, live TV and streaming content. But instead, it's pretty much the same as it has been throughput TiVo's existence. We're told there's a new, three-column My Shows view coming this fall, so we look forward to trying that out. We can only dream the user profiles will follow; now that would be a point of differentiation for TiVo.

Managing six tuners works the same way as if there were two or four. The good news is that with six tuners, you should almost never have to use the conflict resolution, which is in desperate need of a refresh (you can't easily select which of the six recordings you'd like to cancel when you encounter a conflict). You can still maintain a live buffer for each tuner at the same time, perfect for when there are six college football games on at the same time. TiVo Mini fans will be happy to know that you can now dynamically assign a tuner to a Mini for live TV. So not only does this mean you can still record six shows at once when you have a Mini, but now you can also have up to nine Minis configured to your main DVR -- the Mini still does not work with dual-tuner TiVos, though. This may sound like overkill, but really, who ever complained about having too many? The one odd limitation here is that if all the tuners are in use, you still can't join a live session in progress on the Mini. You can, however, still record the show you are watching live in another room and then watch that recording from the Mini. Not exactly intuitive, but it still works.


TiVo Roamio Plus review

TiVo has never been the least expensive option, at least not up front. The ATSC version runs $199, which is $50 more than the least expensive Premiere, but that still works out to less per tuner and it has the same recording capacity. Speaking of which, the extra $200 to step up to the Pro from the Plus, for an extra 2TB of storage, seems like a bad deal. Any of the models could save you money in the long run, though. The potential savings of the cord-cutting ATSC option is obvious, but even compared to renting a six-tuner multi-room DVR from a provider like Cox, buying the TiVo ends up being cheaper, assuming you hold onto it for several years. Most importantly, the value of six tuners and plenty of space on a DVR can't be underestimated. Having more space and tuners than you need takes a DVR to the next level, to a point where you no longer have to think when you hit the record button.

It took more than three years, but TiVo has finally delivered the DVR we hoped for when the Premiere first came out. The Roamio Pro addresses every major gripe we had, except the lack of HDMI-CEC. The speed improvement alone makes this a must-upgrade for any Premiere owner, and finally gives all the Series3 holdouts a reason to open their wallets. Is it perfect? No. Is it the innovative TiVo we used to expect? No, there are other six-tuner DVRs with amble space already on the market. Is it the best DVR ever released that works with ATSC and/or CableCARD? Absolutely.