New hardware does little to improve the increasingly outdated TiVo formula.
By Jared Newman
TechHiveNov 18, 2019 3:00 am PST
Image: Jared Newman / IDG
At a Glance
Top-notch DVR recording and viewing options
Much quieter than earlier TiVos
The antenna version has a backlit remote
Recordings are getting pre-roll video ads
Whole-home DVR still requires expensive add-on boxes
App support is falling further behind dedicated streaming players
The TiVo Edge DVR is new and improved, yet the experience is still sliding backwards.
The best thing about TiVo has always been its fundamentals. No other DVR gives you as much control over which programs to record and how to record them, and no other DVR makes live TV viewing so convenient.
All the more frustrating, then, that the new TiVo Edge DVR makes no improvements in the areas where TiVo needs them most. The hardware is slicker (and quieter) this time around, and now it supports Dolby Vision HDR. But you still can’t use other streaming TV devices, such as Roku, to access your DVR, and TiVo’s own selection of built-in video apps is falling further behind dedicated streaming players. Even worse, the core DVR experience is now deteriorating with pre-roll video ads.
As TiVo stands still, other over-the-air DVR solutions such as Tablo, Channels DVR, and Fire TV Recast are adding more of TiVo’s core features while offering those that TiVo still lacks. As such, even a slightly improved TiVo Edge is harder to recommend than its predecessors were.
New look, less noise
For this review, I evaluated the TiVo Edge for Antenna, which costs $350, has 2TB of storage, and can play or record up to four broadcast channels at the same time. DVR service costs an extra $7 per month, $70 per year, or $250 for the life of the hardware.
For those who plan to plug in a CableCARD, the TiVo Edge for Cable costs $400, also has 2TB of storage, and can play or record up to six channels at a time. TiVo charges $15 per month, $150 per year, or $550 for lifetime cable DVR service.
With both TiVo Edge variants, the design of the box itself is a big improvement over the previous TiVo Bolt. Instead of having an arched enclosure, the Edge is a flat plastic slab with a ledge that runs around the front and sides. The result is a better thermal design that runs a lot quieter. With the Bolt, I could hear it whirring from the other side of my office, but the Edge becomes inaudible from just a foot or two away.
The port arrangement around back has barely changed despite the new look, with a coaxial input, optical audio output, HDMI, a pair of USB ports, ethernet, and a remote finder button that plays a tone on the TiVo remote. The old eSATA port for storage expansion is gone, but WD stopped selling its sole compatible hard drive years ago anyway. Unfortunately, the USB ports still don’t support external hard drives, so they don’t serve much purpose beyond charging your phone.
Compared to the Bolt, the TiVo Edge has a faster processor and more memory (4GB instead of 3GB), but those upgrades don’t translate to a major performance boost. You’ll still notice slight loading delays as you move through menus, and the interface still animates at a choppy 30 frames per second rather than the smoother frame rates you’ll find on modern streaming boxes.
Still, the Edge now supports Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos, though I was unable to get the former to work on my Vizio M50-E1 TV from 2017. Unless I disabled HDR entirely, loading Netflix would make the screen become overly dim or unbearably pink. TiVo says this a bug related to my TV being an early HDR set, but I’ve never experienced this issue with myriad other 4K HDR streaming boxes.
As for TiVo’s remote, it remains aggressively chunky with too many extraneous buttons (TiVo’s recommendations don’t even utilize the thumbs-up and -down buttons anymore), but the TiVo Edge for Antenna remote has one major improvement this time around: It’s backlit, so the keys light up when you press them. Strangely, TiVo is sticking cable customers with the non-backlit version for now.
A world-class DVR, with one big caveat
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people can be picky about DVR behavior, and that’s especially true of TiVo users. There’s even a contingent of users who’ve avoided upgrading to TiVo’s most recent operating system version because they don’t like the changes therein. (I’ve found the upgrade to be mostly positive.)
So it was a bit surprising when, a couple of months ago, TiVo started stuffing preroll ads into users’ DVR recordings. These ads have not turned up on my review unit, and unofficially, you may be able to disable them with a call to customer service. Still, stomping on a sacrosanct element of the DVR experience is either a tone-deaf decision or a sign that current customers don’t matter in the grand scheme of TiVo’s business.
That issue aside, the TiVo DVR experience remains top notch. With any show, you can choose which channels to record from, how many recent recordings to keep, and how much buffer time to include before and after the recording. You can watch recordings in progress and skip through the commercials, and you can pause or rewind any live program without having to record it first. Finding potential shows to record is easy as well, thanks to a “What to Watch” menu that lets you browse across genres.
When it’s time to watch those recordings, TiVo does a fine job helping you sort through them. The “My Shows” list is a click away in the main menu, and it has a handy “Continue Watching” section for series that you’re in the middle of binge-watching. TiVo can even use its unoccupied DVR space to automatically record shows it thinks you’ll like.
TiVo has also added an automatic commercial-skip option in recent months, so you don’t need to hit the remote’s “Skip” button during every break. TiVo still relies on human editors to identify commercials, however, and while this approach is more accurate than the ad-detection algorithms that some other DVRs use, it also means some recordings won’t support ad-skipping at all.
On the upside, TiVo’s remote does have a 30-second skip button, and its “QuickMode” feature, which increases playback speed without changing the pitch of the audio, is a helpful way to get through programs faster.
Still waiting for streaming
The biggest problem with TiVo today is one that’s existed for a long time now: Turning it into a whole-home DVR gets expensive fast.
At present, the only way to access TiVo on more than one television is with additional TiVo Mini boxes, which cost $180 apiece. Although TiVo has demonstrated streaming apps for Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV, it has yet to release any of them and has no updates on when it might do so.
This omission is getting harder to excuse when so many other capable whole-home DVR options exist, including Tablo, Channels DVR, Plex DVR, and Amazon’s Fire TV Recast. With these devices, you can access live and recorded TV on a wide range of streaming video players, and the hardware is in most cases cheaper than TiVo’s as well. Most of them (save for the Fire TV Recast) even offer ad-skipping.
The sorry state of TiVo’s built-in app selection is also becoming a bigger issue as new streaming services arrive. With TiVo, you can access certain video apps such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO Go without a separate streaming player, and some of them even integrate with TiVo’s DVR menus, so for any given program, you can view recordings and on-demand episodes in one list. Still, the list of apps that TiVo supports is small, and the omissions are piling up. To watch Disney+, Apple TV+, Pluto TV, Crackle, PBS, Tubi, Sling TV, Philo, Spotify, YouTube TV, or Hulu’s live TV service, you’ll need a separate streaming player.
As for the much-ballyhooed TiVo+ app, which streams live video from online sources such as FailArmy and FilmRise, it’s in rough shape at the moment. I’ve experienced channels that stutter periodically or fail to load outright, and the integration with TiVo’s menus is ham-fisted at best. While TiVo+ channels appear in the main grid guide, they don’t actually tell you what’s currently playing, and there’s no way to disable these listings if you’re rather not see them.
Besides, much of the content is the same as what you’d find on Xumo, another free streaming service that TiVo partnered with to offer TiVo+. And because you can’t record these channels, there’s really nothing to distinguish TiVo’s version. Ultimately, TiVo+ feels more like a halfhearted attempt to get more ads in front of users than a service that fills an actual need.
Should you buy a TiVo in 2019?
One might imagine an alternate history for TiVo, in which it doubled down on its DVR fundamentals by letting users record more of the video that they’re watching over the internet, and in which those recordings were seamlessly available across any device.
But as TiVo has made increasingly clear, consumers are but a tiny sliver of its overall business, which is more concerned with selling DVRs and DVR software to TV providers, and then further monetizing that large-scale audience through ads. Tackling users’ actual pain points-–especially in the realm of cord-cutting-–has taken a back seat.
As a result, most of TiVo’s appeal lies with people who are already deeply invested in the platform. And even then, TiVo is coming up with new ways to scare them off.