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    TiVo Bolt review: Getting smaller and faster has a price

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    TiVo has been in the DVR game for the better part of two decades, and even in the slow-paced TV world, that's enough time to see lots of change. Surprisingly, with the introduction of its Bolt DVR (excuse me: Unified Entertainment System) TiVo grabbed a feature from one of its oldest competitors in order to do battle with newer rivals. The company seems to have realized it's not just trying to beat your cable or satellite company's half-assed excuse for a set-top box, as Apple, Google, Roku, Amazon and others join game systems and Blu-ray players in a fight for living room dominance. Now, TiVo has a new design and, for the first time, a solution for easily skipping commercials. Still, that might not be enough to make the Bolt (starting at $300) a good buy.

    Gallery: TiVo Bolt Review | 10 Photos

    Engadget Score
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    Key

    from $319.99+
    84
    Pros
    • Commercial skipping is easy to use and works as promised
    • QuickMode is the best way to binge watch in a hurry
    • Faster than previous TiVos
    • One year of TiVo service included
    Cons
    • "Lifetime"TiVo service just got way more expensive
    • No out-of-home streaming yet, no six-tuner or 3TB option
    • Odd shapeisn't for everyone
    • SkipMode sometimes failed to appear on shows where it should

    Summary

    The Bolt isn't for cord-cutters, or power TiVo users who value Lifetime service or need more recording space and tuners. But for the casual TV viewer who just wants a better cable box without making a huge upfront investment? Even with an interestingly curved frame, it's a perfect fit -- all while piling on extras like commercial skipping and sending recordings to your phones and tablets.

    Hardware

    You can check out our preview for most of our impressions of the hardware, which continued to hold up under further use. The Bolt's bent shape means you won't be stacking anything on it, but it's so much smaller than the TiVos of old, we don't think most people will have a problem fitting it in their cabinets somehow. In my living room it was virtually silent, and you can turn off the lights on the front, as on previous models. It's missing analog video/audio outputs, but that's about all you'll have to give up for the size of this relatively diminutive DVR.

    Inside, TiVo has switched to a 2.5-inch hard drive, which some owners have already taken a shot at swapping out for drives that are formatted to hold up to 3TB. You can also add an external drive that connects to the SATA port, but you will need a TiVo-authorized Western Digital unit to do it, and know that if you remove the external, you'll lose all the recordings you have stored, no matter which drive they're on. If DIY doesn't do it for you, third-party operator WeaKnees is selling units with 2TB drives inside and up to 6TB externally, good for up to 984 hours of recorded HD. Some early purchasers have complained about the bottom-mounted fan (positioned where the box is curved so it can get some air) being too loud. If it's in a spot that can provide vibrations or echoes, it could be much louder than other DVRs, since there's less space for the air to flow through.

    Judging by the style of TiVo's refreshed logo, the Bolt's arc shape is something fans will need to get used to, at least for certain units. I like it, but for many it's disconcerting at best, and annoyingly incompatible with stacking at worst. I'd be shocked to see if the new Pro-level DVR expected next year brings anything other than a standard box shape, but then again, I wasn't expecting to see this.

    Software

    The software has been revamped, but with a light touch -- it's still TiVo. A new style with flatter icons and channel logos gives it a more modern look, but if you already liked the UI, it's not a big change. I'm not sure if it's the new hardware inside the Bolt or a switch from Flash to HTML5 for apps, but the new box is definitely better equipped to page through Amazon and Netflix than its predecessors. Still, that's not quite enough to make this style of DVR a direct competitor for the likes of Apple, Roku and Amazon. The basic TiVo interface has had so many things added to it over the years, that it still feels like you're taking extra clicks to get into and out of apps, set up new OnePass recordings or even just browse through the guide. The number of features the Bolt offers is definitely better than competing TV boxes that are stuck pushing just internet TV or cable TV, but the trade-off there is a more complicated UI.

    I talked about the ad-skipping and sped-up QuickMode viewing in the preview, and most of that still applies. After using it for a few weeks, I was a bit surprised to find that my favorite thing about SkipMode is using it to jump to the beginning of a show. Usually there's a few seconds of whatever was already on at the beginning of a recording (more if I'm padding it with an early start time) and on SkipMode-enabled recordings, hitting the green button immediately takes you to the start, no fiddling or fast-forwarding-then-rewinding required. It's a tiny thing, but I've come to love it. I also noticed rare occasions where the SkipMode failed to appear, although it's not clear why -- it's not enough to be particularly troubling, but if you're buying a box for this feature, you would expect it to work all the time.

    This is your TiVo app on the Fire TV. No guide or flashy UI, just a bare-bones list of recordings.

    A new feature that applies to the whole TiVo family (with streaming abilities) is the option to watch recordings from a non-TiVo set-top box: the Amazon Fire TV. It's something some have already been doing by hacking the app, but now it's official. I loaded up the (still "beta") app from Amazon's Appstore to give it a shot, and while it works, the picture quality left much to be desired. It's more than enough to get by, and would probably satisfy many members of your household, but it's not a real option to replace the $150 TiVo Mini so you can watch TV on other screens. The Bolt (like its Roamio predecessors) comes with the ability to sling video around your house. At launch, it's not ready for streaming when you're away from home -- that's coming in a future software update.

    Doing the math

    Where TiVo is losing some of its diehards however, isn't the software -- it's the cost. Fretting over the price of Lifetime and whether or not it will go away for good has been a worry for years, and while the package is still here, it's not as appealing anymore. The Bolt brings with it a new setup: One year of TiVo service (necessary to actually use the box) is included right off the bat. That's great, but adding "Lifetime" service, which keeps the box active for as long as it's working, and can transfer if you sell it in the future, now costs $600, up from $400. Combined with the base model Bolt, that's $900 spent before you've even added a Mini extender or extra storage, and for now there's no rebate for existing customers. If that's too big of a commitment, TiVo offers a one-year plan for $150 and (under certain conditions) a monthly plan for $15.

    There's no question that this makes for a pricier upgrade than usual, and it also means that the difference between buying Lifetime and going with a year-to-year plan puts your break-even point (considering the year of service included and assuming prices stay the same) at five years clear of the original purchase. That's a long time to be tethered to a TiVo, although it does enhance resale value if you ever decide to move on. Clearly, TiVo is trying to quietly push customers to its year-to-year service plan, and on its face, it may simplify the pricing for newbies to the ecosystem. Diving into a TiVo setup with Lifetime service was always an expensive proposition, and with that decision largely pushed off by the new pricing, now you will only compare it to the cost of renting a (likely inferior) DVR from a cable or satellite company.

    Compared to a cable DVR, I currently pay $26 per month (total, $10 for the DVR and $8 each for two extenders) to rent Comcast's X1 setup. After 24 months that's $624, so even just a couple of years of TiVo ($300 for a 500GB Bolt + $300 for two Minis + $150 for an extra year of service = $750) can be a comparable decision compared to cable, for a better experience that doesn't reboot every night at 3AM. After three years, it's $936 for cable vs. $900 for TiVo on that plan, although it could take longer for the price advantage to flip if one opts for Lifetime service.

    Wrap-up

    The Bolt is smaller, faster and in some ways better than any DVR TiVo has made before. But the price makes it harder to recommend if you're looking for something for the long haul and the Roamio OTA is still better for cord-cutters. Of course, if a one- or two-year commitment appeals to you, and you just need something better than the basic cable TV box, it will do that at a price that's not too high to swallow, while its ad-skipping and streaming features come as a bonus. TiVo is trying to find its way in a future where internet TV is just as or more important to viewers as traditional sources, but hopefully whatever it has planned for 2016 is a better fit for the customers it already has.

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