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Review: TiVo Bolt Unified Entertainment System

Posted by Braden Russell on May 20, 2016
tivo bolt

Cord-cutting is all the rage, but for many of us, it simply isn’t an option: there are way too many members of the household that can’t do without TV, you’re too far from the transmitters to get over-the-air TV, the shows you really want to watch aren’t available via streaming, or you really like watching live events you can’t get over-the-air. Whatever the case, cutting the cord is a non-starter. Slimming the cord, however, could totally work. And the TiVo Bolt might be the perfect device to do it.

TiVo Bolt Features & Specs

The TiVo Bolt is the sixth and latest generation of TiVo DVR products, and it represents the company’s most comprehensive effort thus far in combining a user’s content options into a single interface. TiVo has long approached the activity of watching television a bit differently, from being the first major player to bring live TV timeshifting to the mass consumer market to automating the process of recording shows with features like Season Pass. Now with TiVo Bolt, the company’s aim is to make finding and enjoying television content as simple as possible for the consumer, regardless of whether that content is recorded locally via cable or over-the-air, or streamed online via one of several supported video providers.

tivo bolt sources

This isn’t the first time that TiVo has offered users access to online content via the TiVo user interface but, as you’ll see, it’s the company’s most seamless and ambitious push for a “source-agnostic” experience yet. As a result, TiVo refers to the Bolt with the marketing-friendly name of “Unified Entertainment Center.”

While the overall experience of the Bolt will be familiar to anyone who has used a TiVo in recent years, the latest device does sport some new and intriguing features.

Supported Online Services: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, Vudu, Yahoo, Plex, Spotify, Pandora, and more. TiVo offers access to online services via integrated “apps,” which are updated regularly, so expect the list of available video and audio sources to grow over time.

OneSearch: Just search for a particular show, movie, actor, director, or even keywords and TiVo OneSearch will return all results from all available sources. Feeling in the mood to watch Pulp Fiction? Your TiVo Bolt will let you know that you can catch it on HBO at the end of the week, or watch it right now via Netflix.

OnePass: TiVo’s popular Season Pass feature would scour your television program guide to find and record all episodes of your favorite show. The new OnePass feature takes this approach a step further by introducing online streaming services into the mix. Now you can catch all episodes of your favorite shows regardless of whether they air on your local television package, are available for streaming via a subscription service, or can be purchased à la carte via a video download service.

tivo bolt onepass

QuickMode: Need to leave in 15 minutes but the guide tells you there are 20 minutes left in your show? With QuickMode, the TiVo Bolt can accelerate playback by up to 30 percent with pitch-corrected audio to prevent your show from sounding like the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks album. This is similar to the features built into many podcast and audiobook apps, and it requires that the show you’re watching be recorded, or at least buffered far enough ahead to account for the increased playback speed. QuickMode can be a handy feature in some situations, such as when watching recorded sporting events and those annoyingly padded reality shows, but the pitch correction isn’t perfect and you won’t want to use it for any critical viewing sessions.

SkipMode: SkipMode takes commercial skipping to the next level, for TiVo at least. With SkipMode, users can instantly skip an entire commercial block with a single button press. Hoping to avoid the issues that Dish encountered with the automatic commercial-skipping features of its Hopper DVR, the TiVo Bolt’s SkipMode has some important limitations. First, the feature will only work with content and networks which support it, and while TiVo advertises compatibility with many major networks, not all networks or shows are on board with the feature. Currently, about 20 channels offer support for SkipMode with their programming between 4:00 p.m. and midnight, excluding local TV and sports. Second, even for networks which do support SkipMode, you’ll need to wait some time — officially set by the content creator, but on average 30 minutes — after the program aired live before it will work.

Performance Improvements: As I’ll mention again later, TiVo chose an apt name with “Bolt.” The new TiVo is notably faster than its predecessors, with TiVo advertising “3x” faster processing and memory, all in a 33 percent smaller enclosure. Those with older TiVos will be amazed at the performance increase of everything from booting up to navigating the menus to searching for and scheduling recordings.

From a technical specification standpoint, the TiVo Bolt supports both CableCard and over-the-air sources with four tuners and includes up to 4K video output via its HDMI 2.0 port. Other connectivity options include digital optical and stereo analog audio outputs for connecting older receivers, gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, two USB 2.0 ports, and an eSATA port for connecting external storage drives.

tivo bolt input output

There are two official storage capacities available — 500GB ($199) and 1TB ($299) — as well as additional internal and external options from the TiVo specialists over at WeaKnees, such as this $399 model which has been upgraded with a 2TB internal drive.

The entire TiVo Bolt package is relatively compact when compared to previous TiVo models, at 11.4 inches wide, 7.3-inches deep, 1.8-inches tall, and weighing in at 1.9 pounds.

tivo bolt front

 

The first thing you notice about using the TiVo Bolt is that it is fast. Super fast.

The TiVo Bolt can be purchased in three different options. The 500 GB model goes for $199, the 1 TB model is $299, and the unofficial 2 TB option from TiVo specialist WeaKnees is $399.

The big knock on TiVo as a cord-cutting device is that it isn’t free. There is a monthly or annual subscription fee associated with each DVR. There is a new TiVo Roamio OTA that doesn’t have the subscription fee, but it only supports antenna tuners, not CableCard. The Bolt includes the first year of service for free, but after the first year, the cost goes to $150 per year or $15 per month if you pay monthly. Not great, but honestly, not that bad. Cox charges $28.49 per month for a DVR alone, so the Bolt is less than half the annual cost of a Cable DVR, at least in our area.

Installation

The saga of getting our TiVo Bolt up and running wasn’t really anything to do with the device itself, but it was quite an ordeal, so we’ll tell you everything we went through so you have an understanding for what you may be in for if you decide to go the TiVo route. Since Ara, my co-host on the HDTV & Home Theater Podcast, and I are both Satellite TV customers, one of us had to get cable activated to do the review. So I stopped by a local Cox Solution Store, activated a basic cable package for about $40 per month, added a CableCard for an additional $2 per month and left the store quite satisfied. The whole process took about 15 minutes.

What is supposed to happen is you get home, plug the CableCard into the TiVo, connect the Bolt to coax for cable service and you’re all set. If only that was the case. The first thing that happens is you call the cable provider to pair the CableCard with your account and activate it. This was easy, but it didn’t work. The tuning adapter Cox provided couldn’t lock on, so the Bolt couldn’t pick up any channels. The phone representative suggested a visit from a technician, so we got that scheduled.

The technician arrived the following day and found the signal to the Bolt was both weak and dirty. He did some rewiring, added a signal booster and retested the line. All looked good, everything was green and should have been the perfect situation to get the Bolt working. The tuning adapter did lock on, but the Bolt was permanently stuck at 89% on the process of getting cable channels. A quick call to Cox to un-pair and re-pair the CableCard got us past that, and we could then access the program guide, but still received no video. Everything should have been working, but we just couldn’t get it there.

The Cox technician admitted he wasn’t a TiVo expert, but said there were others who were. He would leave for the day and get us connected with a different tech that could hopefully make everything work. That other techs came two days later and found that it was a PEBKAC issue, mea culpa firmly on my shoulders. The first time walking through the guided setup I either chose antenna as the tuner option, or it was selected for me since the CableCard wasn’t installed at the time. In any event, the Bolt didn’t set itself to cable mode when the CableCard was inserted, and it stayed on antenna mode during our initial troubleshooting efforts. Trying to tune the cable signal as if is was an antenna of course didn’t work. Re-running guided setup and selecting cable as the source got everything working, with guide, picture and sound.

Well, actually, sound was temporary. Not even ten minutes had passed after the second technician had left the house and sound stopped working on the TiVo Bolt. No audio whatsoever. No sound from TV programs, no sound from streaming apps, not sound effects from the TiVo menus. We rebooted the TiVo, unplugged the HDMI, tried a different HDMI input on the TV, nothing worked. Google to the rescue. We found others complaining of the same issue. It seems TiVo isn’t a huge fan of some TV brands, and we just so happened to be trying to set the thing up with one of those brands, Sharp. To fix it you have to physically remove power to the TV. When you plug it back in, sound is restored.

About four days, three cable technicians, several calls to tech support, and a ridiculous number of Google searches later, the TiVo Bolt was finally installed, working and ready for business.

Using the TiVo Bolt

The first thing you notice about using the Bolt is that it is fast. Super fast. The user interface doesn’t lag. Searches are crazy fast, and everything just feels like it happens when you want it to. Most DVRs, even the Hopper from Dish, have areas of the UI that lag. Searches, for example, tend to be a real chore in a lot of interfaces, but not for the Bolt. And it isn’t just a guide search, or a search of your recordings. When you search on the Bolt, it draws results from the television guide, your recordings, and all of the various video streaming services you have enabled (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, and more). All of it in one spot. The search functionality is awesome.

Which leads us to the integration of channel content and streamed content. This functionality, like the OnePass feature or the unified search, is amazing. At my house there were a few episodes of a couple shows that I wasn’t able to record while we were getting the installation issues worked out. OnePass to the rescue. I set a OnePass for those shows and the TiVo Bolt software instantly populated all of the episodes available, and listed where each one could be streamed from. For those available on Hulu, you can get them for free. If they aren’t up there anymore, you can usually find them at Amazon or Vudu for a small per-episode charge. And for the really old ones, at Netflix or Amazon Prime for free.

This unified approach to content is pretty awesome. No more searching through all your video apps to see who has which show. No more wondering if you can get it for free over here or if you’ll have to pay for it over there. The only weirdness comes in when you set a OnePass for a show like Saturday Night Live, a show with over 40 seasons. For shows with a massive number of past episodes, you’ll need to adjust the filters to narrow the OnePass results down in order to easily find your recently recorded episodes or a particular set of episodes you’re interested in. It’s two quick button presses, but a bit strange getting used to.

Anytime you switch from one user interface that you’re comfortable with to a new one, there’s a bit of a learning curve to get used to it. The TiVo interface is no different, but it is quite intuitive. Everyone in the family picked it up pretty quickly and my wife even commented on how much better she thought the experience was than our prior DVR. Sure the guide works a little different, the searches are a bit different, setting recordings is a bit different, but it all makes sense once you get used to it. And what they say is true, TiVo does have the best DVR interface out there. Different, but different in a good way.

No more wondering if you can Watch an Episode for free over here or if you’ll have to pay for it over there. OnePass on the TiVo Bolt is awesome.

The Bolt also lets you stream recorded content to your phone or tablet if you’re on the same network. You can watch TV from the treadmill, or turn it on from the kitchen, without the need for another box or device. Yes, the Hopper can do that too, but not all DVRs can. And you can control the DVR to set and manage recordings from anywhere in the world. If you’re outside the home you won’t be able to stream content directly from your device, but the TiVo app will still helpfully tell you if the show you’re looking for is available via any streaming services, information you can then use to catch up on your favorite shows via third party services in lieu of streaming the recordings directly from your home Bolt.

tivo bolt iphone

There are a couple nits about the TiVo Bolt, though. Parental controls on the Bolt are a bit weak. It feels like they threw something in to say they had it, not really designing the feature to match what parents would want to do. If you have a lot of kids all accessing the same DVR for content, it would be nice to have a bit more granularity on what you can do.

Another issue is that a lot of the Bolt’s menus don’t wrap around. So if you’re on the top option and want to get to the bottom, you have to scroll through all the options to get there, you can’t just click the up button once. Same if you’re at the bottom and want to get to the top. If you try to do it, the Bolt makes an error sound. Admittedly not a huge deal, but strange.

TiVo Bolt Accessories

Like competing DVR services offered directly from the cable and satellite companies, TiVo offers a number of accessories to enhance or expand a user’s TiVo experience at home and on the go.

tivo mini

The TiVo Mini ($138) unlocks a world of whole-house video options. You simply buy the Mini and add a video zone. It doesn’t require an additional subscription, just buy the box and away you go. It can be installed using wired Ethernet or MoCA. So if you have a coax cable but no ethernet, you’re still good. If you have neither, you’re stuck, as the TiVo Mini cannot be used via Wi-Fi. That’s a huge bummer for those who like the wireless options from Dish or AT&T. But we were able to get one working using a pair of 500MB Powerline Ethernet adapters without issue. We still can’t tell the difference between the direct wired Mini and the powerline wired Mini. So we found a way to get TV to a location without wired Ethernet or Coax for an additional $35.

Most cable and satellite companies charge a monthly fee for the extender boxes. Dish calls them Joeys, and they can run from $8 to $12 per month. With the Mini there is no additional monthly cost at all. Using $10 per month as an average, you break even on the Mini after about 14 months. Keep in mind that the Bolt only has four tuners, so you have an upper bound on the number of Minis you can functionally add. Supposedly you can get two Bolts working at the same time to get 8 tuners in the home, but right now they manage recordings totally independently. Internet rumors claim Tivo is working on a unified view for multiple Bolts, but we don’t have any information to corroborate that claim.

Our local Amazon Prime Now fulfillment house happens to stock both the Tivo Mini and powerline ethernet adapters. We were able to add a new video zone in less than three hours from “can we watch TV here?” to “we’re watching TV here!” No installer required. No phone calls to tech support. It was pretty cool.

tivo stream

TiVo Stream ($130) gives you worldwide access to your Bolt recordings and tuners. Let’s be honest, this is a TiVo version of the Slingbox. If you have one, you really don’t need the other. But if you don’t have a Slingbox and want to watch TV from outside the home, TiVo Stream gets you that. There are some limitations, though. According to a Q&A at Amazon, “it allows out of home streaming, but only if the content provider allows it.” The major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox), Viacom (Comedy Central, MTV), and Discovery (TLC, Science) all BLOCK streaming, so the TiVo Stream does not stream or allow the transfer of shows to another device.”

Conclusion

TiVo is pretty freaking great. For those who want to cut and or slim the cord, it is a tremendous option – and you aren’t giving up anything in usability or user experience. There is a fairly decent upfront cost to acquire the gear, but in the long run you save a lot of money on your monthly service bills. It’s probably a year or so to break even, but after that, it’s all gravy. Image all the home theater gear you could buy with that extra money!

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