TiVo Roamio Pro: Is it your DVR Soul Mate?

Feb 17, 2014 by

In August, TiVo released three models in the Roamio line. You can see the full specs here. TiVo sent us their top-of-the-line model: the Roamio Pro. We’re breaking down our review into two areas: this article covers our impressions of general use as a DVR and then later we’ll write about the streaming and other on-line capabilities.

TiVo does a great job making setup as easy as possible. Once the Roamio shipped, we received an email describing what to do when the box arrived and also advising us to get a CableCARD right away. Over the course of the next two weeks, we received more helpful emails that described the various features. Some helpful tips were delivered via the Messages section on the Roamio itself. That level of communication is a nice, unexpected touch. We had to chuckle at one message, though, describing season passes. It was touting how useful they are and how you “can’t do that on your VCR!”

The Roamio comes in three flavors: the Roamio at $199, the Roamio Plus at $399, and the Roamio Pro-the one we tested-runs $599. Those are the suggested retail prices, but they can be found cheaper on Amazon. Each requires a subscription to the TiVo service, which goes for $14.99 a month for those who struggle with commitment in a relationship. If you are completely smitten, a lifetime subscription runs $499 for the life of the marriage device.

It’s a lot out of your pocket up front, but if you opt for the lifetime subscription and keep it for several years, it’s actually cheaper than renting a cableco DVR. Add in all the streaming features, which might save you from buying a streaming device, and we think it’s actually a pretty good value.

After following the exceptionally clear instructions for hooking it up to your TV, coax cable, internet, etc., it was about an hour before the TiVo was ready to go. First there was a software update to install. It then asks about what cable company you have and your zip code so it can set up the correct TV channel lineup. Once that was done, we were ready to go. Or so we thought.

We all know how aggravating CableCARDs can be, and we experienced some challenges here as well. You can’t point the blamethrower at TiVo for this, but it is a frustration nonetheless. We went through two cards before finally just giving up with the third. Each card would tune everything except HBO and Cinemax. Since this is just a review unit, we chose to use it without those channels. If we were keeping it, of course, we’d persist until we got a card that worked properly. We should note that we have a Windows Media Center home theater PC with a CableCARD tuner and it activated properly the very first time, which just goes to show how finicky the cards can be. Again, we don’t lay the blame on TiVo’s door for this.

The Roamio experience is really simple and intuitive. TiVo tweaked the HD user interface a little bit for the Roamio. It has an overall darker, flatter look and is mostly crisp and clear. In some areas, such as the TiVo Central screen, which is definitely in HD, the text looked just a bit fuzzy. It seemed a bit odd that some screens, such as the info screen that overlays details of the program as you’re watching it, can be crystal clear while others aren’t. Perhaps that’s nitpicking a bit too much, but it was noticeable. And then there’s the portions of the UI that are still in SD. How can this possibly be in 2014? Switching from one HD screen to an SD screen is jarring and really detracts from the experience.

Conversely, the TV picture is outstanding and even seems just a little clearer than our HTPC. Some of our channels are highly compressed and look a little washed out, but they appeared just a little less foggy on the Roamio. The Roamio and HTPC use the same coax from the wall via a splitter, so I don’t think it’s a cabling issue.

Switching channels is really fast; we counted about two seconds on average. And that same speed carries everywhere. The user interface is very zippy with almost no lag whatsoever. Moving from one screen to another happens very quickly. Launching the YouTube app took under ten seconds (we’ll talk more about the various streaming services in our next article). The Discovery Bar at the top of the TiVo Central screen updates very fast and makes that feature actually usable now.

What is the Discovery Bar? It offers programs that TiVo thinks you may like based on what shows you’ve recorded and/or graded with their thumbs up and thumbs down buttons on the remote. You can customize the types of shows that are displayed there, which is a nice touch. For example, if you don’t like sports, you can turn off sports recommendations.

In the upper right corner of the TiVo Central screen, a preview window shows a live stream of the currently tuned channel. It can be turned off easily with the push of a button on the remote. It’s really handy for when a commercial comes on and you want to check on something in the TiVo UI. When the commercials are over, you can quickly jump back into your program, or even pause it.

We really like how integrated the TiVo UI is. We like that season and episode number information is displayed for a show. You can see episode descriptions for every season of any given show. It’s also cool how the Discovery Bar changes to display similar shows to the one you’re exploring–something of an “if you like this, then you might like these…” feature–or that have actors in common with that show.

Setting up Season Passes, what TiVo calls recording an entire series, is fairly easy. However when setting up a lot of them, as you would during the initial setup, it’s actually easier to do from their web site than it is from the Roamio itself. That’s because you can set default values for the series recording on the web site, but you can’t on the TiVo. For defaults, you can choose to record new, new plus reruns, or new and reruns with duplicates. You can also choose to start and end the recording a set amount of time before and/or after the scheduled show time, the recording priority, the recording quality (which doesn’t really apply anymore, now that all recordings are digital), how many episodes to keep, and how long to keep them. It would be very handy to be able to set recording defaults on the TiVo itself so that you didn’t have to select them every time.

Relatively new to the UI is a “What to watch now” feature, which is similar to the Discovery Bar, except it offers many more options. It’s the extension of the TiVo Recommendations feature from previous models and shows what’s popular broken down by sports, genre, movies, suggestions from various sources such TiVo, the IFC channel, etc.

Advertisements are displayed in some places, as they’ve been for a long time. There’s nothing new here, but it was one spot in the UI that presented just a touch of lag. After finishing a show and hitting the left button to display the delete prompt, there was a bit of lag while the TiVo downloaded and displayed the ad. This was minor and hardly noticeable, but worth mentioning only to point out how fast the UI is in all other cases.

The guide is easy to read and shows a good amount of information. It’s a bit bland and we think adding a column for channel logos would provide both useful, visual information as well as a little needed color. Channel logos are displayed in various places, but we think their use in the guide, to-do list and recorded TV list would liven up the UI.

Having six tuners and 3TB of storage is a TV hoarders dream come true. We never hesitated to record anything we were even remotely interested in watching. Generally we give a show a few episodes to impress us. With all that available storage, we felt freer to give more shows a chance. We’re not regular viewers of all the late night shows, but we do like to watch when there’s a guest on that we’re interested in. We’ve missed a lot of episodes simply because we didn’t look at the week or two ahead for each show to see who was going to be on. It’s too time consuming. But with all those tuners and all that storage, we set a Season Pass for all of them and then simply delete the shows we didn’t want to watch. Nice!

Recording six shows at once and watching a previously recorded show didn’t seem to faze the TiVo at all. Fast forwarding through commercials, moving around in the UI, etc. were all fluid and lag-free. We even streamed another show to an iPhone at the same time and again, the Roamio kept up easily.

We’re Windows Media Center (WMC) enthusiasts here. So, how does it compare as a DVR? We have to admit the Roamio is the better DVR in several key areas. The Roamio is better at dealing with recordings that overlap. For example, if you schedule your recordings to start and end one minute before and after the show time, and record two shows on the same channel back-to-back, WMC will not add the extra time to the end of the first show and the beginning of the second, even if it has tuners free. Roamio can. We’ve missed a lot of John Stewart’s “moment of Zen” when the next recording is Colbert.

The Roamio has a live 30-minute buffer for each tuner and if you choose to record a currently tuned program after it has started, that buffer will be included in the recording. For example, let’s say you sit down to eat your lunch and turn on the TiVo. It’s 12:15 and you get sucked into that documentary about alien autopsies that popped up when you turned on the TV. You can hit the record button, and you’ll get the entire show, including the 15 minutes before you even sat yourself down in front of the tube, or you could just rewind up to a half hour and watch it that way. WMC can’t do that.

Roamio is also better at helping you find other shows you might like. WMC doesn’t have anything like it.

Some things WMC does better? Sorting. Sorting various lists such as upcoming and current recordings by date recorded, title, date originally aired, etc. And then there’s Recorded TV HD, with its TV/movie poster backdrops and myriad sort and grouping options.

We love the Roamio and we love our WMC. Too bad we can’t take the best of both.

The Roamio hardware is attractive. It looks right at home in a home theater rack. The front has an attractive piano black with a grey mesh patterned accent with two soft buttons, one for power which will put the Roamio in standby mode and one that will cause the TiVo remote to play a little ditty so you can find it. There’s also a red circle on the right side of the box to indicate something is recording. Additional half circles light up to the right of it to indicate additional recordings. It looks quite nice. None of the lights are too bright and they can be turned off if you don’t like them. We also really appreciate the complete lack of fan noise. The Roamio is nearly silent, making the idea of putting it in a bedroom a much easier decision than some earlier models.

The remote is the usual TiVo peanut shape. It’s a bit smaller than previous models, but feels good in the hand. The buttons are essentially the same, with the addition of a “back” button for use in streaming apps. Within the TiVo UI it works the same as the skip back button. The button layout is pretty good, but a bit cramped, making some of the buttons a bit hard to find in a darkened room by feel. However, we imagine you’d get used to the locations over time. Our favorite feature is the RF capability. It’s great to not have to think about where you’re pointing the remote, allowing you to place the box in places you might not otherwise be able to. It does include IR so you can control your TV and audio devices. TiVo has always had good remotes and this is no exception. One thing missing is CEC control. TiVo does have a slide remote with backlit keys and a built-in keyboard that makes entering search terms a lot easier. As of the time of posting, however, they were out of stock.

Overall we like the Roamio. A lot. It’s much faster than previous models, and it has almost no lag whatsoever, which is probably the most critical improvement over the previous models. There’s no doubt it’s the best DVR available and is far, far superior to any cable company DVR.

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  • Tej

    no way this thing beats a HTPC WMC paired with a cablecard….maybe if money was no object, but when is that actually the case? I understand you guys did this review because they gave you a unit to test, but lets be real, you can do much more for half the cost of this box.

  • jpollarddmz

    Half the cost? You’re not going to build a high quality WMC machine, including the cost of a nice case, SSD, 3TB storage, 6 tuners (that’s $300 alone) plus the O/S for half the price of this. You’d be lucky to do it for the same price. Also, while there are many things you can do on a WMC that you cant do on a TiVo (like watch BluRay, but that’s another ~$150), there are many services and features that TiVo has natively that WMC never has or will. We’re not biased by review materials. After all, we have to give them back. Listen to Entertainment 2.0 this week. We’ll clarify this even more, I’m sure.

  • gasz

    I have both WMC and Tivo Roamio. The big thing (not the only thing) that the WMC can do that the Tivo can’t is remove ads. The Tivo interface is clean, the portable apps are very good and getting better all the time (IOS mostly), you can search streaming services, upcoming recordings and the programming guild.

  • Paul Honens

    Yes, an htpc can do more than a TiVo, but I was comparing the DVR capabilities only. As a DVR, the TiVo has a lot of great features that WMC doesn’t.

  • Tej

    Your right, if I were to give my grandparents, or even my parents a DVR solution, it would be a tivo, not an HTPC, maybe we should rename this article to “TIVO Roamio Pro: Is it your Grandparents DVR Soul Mate – Yes”

  • robroy90

    Anecdotal at this point, but I would be willing to bet your issue with the premium channels not working was due to the Tuning Adapter (I assume you were using) was not paired correctly with the ID of the Cablecard at the headend with your cable company. I have ran into this before. If they do not associate the Serial/MAC ID of the Tuning Adapter to the Serial/MAC/Host ID of the CableCard, everything but the premiums will work. I learned this from painful personal experience with clueless tech after clueless tech. I finally spoke to a Tier 2/Tier 3 who knew their stuff…

  • Paul Honens

    My cable co doesn’t require tuning adapters. Thanks for the tip, though.

  • Paul Honens

    All very good points.

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