You can get a digital video recorder from your cable company. Want to watch something on Netflix (NFLX:US) or Hulu Plus? There’s Apple TV, or Roku. And SlingBox lets you access your home TV service from anywhere over the Internet.
Now there’s a single device that does all of the above: the Roamio, from DVR pioneer TiVo. There’s much to like about it; the question is whether its slick capabilities are worth the hefty cost and the hassles inflicted by cable companies.
The Roamio comes in three versions. I tested the top-of-the-line Pro model, which costs $600, can record up to six programs at one time and stores a whopping 450 hours of high-definition digital video.
There’s also a $400 version, the Plus, with the same six tuners but a 150-hour capacity, and a $200, four-tuner model that stores 75 hours and lacks some advanced features. All require the TiVo (TIVO:US) service, which costs $15 a month or $500 for a lifetime subscription, on top of your cable bill.
That seems like a lot. On the other hand, I’m paying $20 a month to my cable provider, Comcast, in perpetuity for DVR equipment and service that’s much less powerful.
The Roamio allowed me to view all my Comcast channels, including on-demand programs and movies, through a TiVo interface that’s much more attractive and useful than the cable company’s grid-like programming guide. TiVo has also upgraded the hardware from its previous version, making its performance zippier.
And using the built-in apps and connection to my home network, I was also able search for and watch shows and movies from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon (AMZN:US) Instant Video and YouTube.
The big news about Roamio is its ability to stream content to mobile devices: Apple’s iPads and iPhones now, and devices running Google (GOOG:US)’s Android operating system later this year or early next. The even bigger news is where you’ll be able to stream it.
TiVo’s previous-generation box, the Premiere, let you view content on tablets and phones within your home, but only through an extra $130 box called the TiVo Stream. You could only watch away from home by downloading programs to your mobile device before you left.
The Roamio Plus and Pro do away with the need for the Stream, allowing you to access your programs directly. Even better, the company promises an update this autumn that will let you access your cable channels and recorded programs over the Internet, which until now has largely been the province of the Slingbox and, for satellite users, Dish Network (DISH:US)’s Hopper. (Sling Media is owned by Dish’s corporate sibling, EchoStar. (SATS:US))
I found in-home streaming to be smooth and satisfying. Programs launched quickly and looked terrific on an iPad with Apple (AAPL:US)’s high-resolution Retina display, with none of the blockiness or stuttering sometimes associated with streaming video.
To give me an idea of how out-of-home streaming will work, the company gave me a test version of its forthcoming app in conjunction with the Stream box. (That’s how owners of older TiVos will be able to view programs on the go once the service becomes public.)
Here the experience was more variable, mostly depending on the quality of the available Wi-Fi. (The software wouldn’t let me use the iPad’s connection to AT&T (T:US)’s high-speed LTE network, though TiVo says that’s in the works.)
At a local Starbucks, where the download speeds were about two megabits per second, the video was watchable but with some blurring and blockiness. At a gym in Silicon Valley, where I was getting speeds of about 16 megabits, the video was almost as good as at home.
So what’s not to like?
Start with the setup process. The Roamio requires a CableCARD, a special plug-in device that costs an extra $1.50 a month from Comcast (CMCSA:US) and in my case, required three trips to its nearest office. (The first card didn’t work; Comcast then gave me two cards in hopes that at least one of them would work; I then had to return the one I didn’t need.)
It also requires at least one phone conversation, and maybe more, with your cable company so the TiVo can be paired with your service. Comcast kept bouncing me around from department to department as they tried to diagnose why the two wouldn’t play well together. Dealing with a cable company’s support department is not a pleasure.
Then there’s the issue of premium channels like HBO and Showtime. While the TiVo handles them just fine on a TV, their encryption keeps them from being streamed. The Slingbox works around the issue by having you run extra cables between it and your cable box. The Roamio’s setup is much simpler, but you can’t access as much.
For years, TiVo has struggled to establish itself as a viable alternative to the plain-vanilla equipment provided by local cable companies. The Roamio comes tantalizingly close to being the ideal do-everything set-top box, but the cable industry is standing in its way.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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