Review: TiVo Mini is a cheaper way to share (most of) the TiVo love around the house
At a Glance
If you’re flush enough to own two or more recent-vintage TiVo DVRs (Premiere, Premiere 4, or Premiere 4XL), then you may already be enjoying one of TiVo’s cooler features-the ability to access content on a networked TiVo Premiere from another such model. Now, there’s a cheaper way to access TiVo Premiere 4 or 4XL content on a second TV: the TiVo Mini.
The Mini-a mid-size set-top box-addresses a main drawback of the current TiVo lineup’s approach to whole-home content sharing: It’s expensive to accumulate multiple TiVos if you’re only interested in accessing recordings and streaming services throughout the home and don’t care about the additional tuners and storage space.
Once you cough up $150 to $400 for the TiVo itself (depending on the number of tuners and amount of storage), there’s the not inconsequential cost of the TiVo service-$15 a month or $500 for the life of the product (which sounds like a lot, but it does in fact pay for itself in a little less than three years). TiVo does offer a discount for new additional subscriptions-$13 a month or $400 for lifetime service-but that’s still a big chunk of change.
And don’t even think about getting a unit without service, which delivers program guides, recommendations, capable search and filtering features, streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix, parental guides, and everything else that makes TiVo the Cadillac of DVRs (and lets you forgive it for also serving up banner ads, a concession to Hollywood for allowing users to fast-forward through ads on recordings).
Given the cost, you have to be pretty well off to spring for two or three TiVos. The Mini-basically an extender for a four-tuner TiVo Premiere 4 or 4XL-costs $100 and still requires a service subscription that runs $6 a month (alternatively, you can purchase a Mini with lifetime service for $250). That’s still a lot less expensive than the hardware/service package for a full-blown TiVo, and the Mini lets you schedule and access recordings on the main unit as well as some (but not all-more on that shortly) of the same streaming services.
There are some caveats beyond the Mini’s lack of storage. Both the Mini and its mother ship TiVo must be connected to a wired network-TiVo recommends one based on the MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) standard for networks based on the coax cable used for delivering cable services. The TiVo Premiere 4 and 4XL both have MoCA adapters built in, so if you have set up a MoCA network, the coax cable that delivers your cable TV content will also provision the network connection. ethernet is acceptable too.
The Mini works with the four-tuner Premiere 4 and 4XL models. That’s because it actually takes over one of the tuners, which is no longer available for recording shows on the host TiVo. You can connect up to two Minis to a TiVo Premiere 4 or 4XL, but that make two of the four tuners unavailable to that TiVo.
The Mini doesn’t need a connection to the cable service, just a coax or ethernet connection to your network. In my tests, since I don’t have a lot of cable drops, I hooked up the TiVo Premiere 4 to a MoCA-enabled network, and the Mini connected via ethernet to a free port on my router.
Setup took about half an hour. Before you even connect the Mini to your network and a TV, you must first activate it by going to TiVo’s website and entering its serial number (much the way you activate a TiVo DVR). You must also change the TiVo Premiere’s settings to authorize access by one or two devices (depending on how many Minis you’re connecting).
After doing all that, I connected the Mini’s network and AC adapter cables, and ran an HDMI cable from the Mini to an HDTV (the Mini also supports component and composite connections via breakout cables). When I first powered on the TiVo, the same setup screen you get with the DVR showed up, and the Guided Setup wizard kicked in. As with the TiVo DVR, authenticating the unit and downloading data took a lot of time-especially since the unit first downloaded and installed a software update.
But some 20-25 minutes later the little “TiVo is here” cartoon played on the Mini-connected set, and the familiar TiVo Central interface appeared. The My Shows menu item displayed all the recordings stored on the Premiere 4, and I was also able to watch live TV streamed from the TiVo.
But on closer investigation significant differences with the Premiere 4 XL became apparent. Most notable was the absence of Amazon and Netflix streaming services from the menu for finding shows using the Mini. Hulu Plus, Pandora, Spotify, and XFinity on Demand (I’m a Comcast subscriber) appeared, as did AOL on Demand and a slew of channels and apps, including a beta of the Flingo Web video queuing service. TiVo told us that Netflix will be added later in 2013, and that the company has more apps planned.
The quality of the streamed image on my 1080p HDTV was on the whole quite good, although I did notice more jerkiness and pixilation when I fast forwarded through recordings on the Mini than when I did the same on the Premiere 4.
In short, the Mini pretty much performs as advertised. But by monopolizing one or two of the host TiVo’s tuners, it does cut down on that unit’s ability to record and access network content. This may not be a big issue with a single Mini (you still have three tuners left), but with two it might start to be annoying. Also, not everyone has access to a wired network, let alone one based on the MoCA standard. Except in the newest of homes, cable drops are not that common, nor is ethernet. You can try using the Mini with a powerline network, but TiVo doesn’t recommend it.
TiVo Mini should appeal to well-heeled multimedia enthusiasts, who will feel that the savings they realize by going with a Mini instead of a second or third TiVo constitutes a bargain. But the cost and infrastructure requirements (a wired network), not to mention having to use a Premiere 4 or 4XL, may still discourage widespread adoption.
Updated at 10:29am pacific to clarify pricing on the TiVo Mini with lifetime service.