TiVo Goes Over The Top with Roamio OTA

Aug 27

Written by: Michael Heiss
8/27/2014 10:35 AM  RssIcon

 TiVo Roamio OTA
Much has changed for TiVo since it was launched 15 years ago. But with the company’s new stripped down Roamio OTA product, the company also has come full circle back to its roots, as well.
When TiVo shipped its first DVR back in 1999 the competition was mostly limited to VCRs, and the input source was either direct connection to an off-air antenna or analog audio/video to an external cable box. TiVo later competed with Microsoft’s ill-fated UltimateTV as well as fellow PVR startup Replay TV, whose founder Anthony Wood went on to greater success when he created Roku. The company also went head-to-head with cable and satellite set-tops with DVR capability, managed the transition to HD and multiple tuners, and in more recent models added streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, and more.

Thanks to the use of Cable Card technology, newer TiVo models are able to handle digital and encrypted channels from cable companies, and Verizon FiOS and models with up to six tuners and HD recording capability up to 450 hours. With TiVo’s Stream capability you can even stream content around the home or across the globe to smartphones and tablets. These units seem to have everything, so what more could you ask for in a DVR?

But, sometimes “less is more,” particularly in the world of “Over The Top” where some consumers no longer have the desire to subscribe to traditional cable TV services. Yes, they still may want to view and time-shift free, over-the-air (“OTA”) TV, but movies and everything else comes in “over the top” via streaming services such as . Seeing that need, TiVo will soon be stepping up their game by cutting back cable TV connectivity with a new product called “TiVo Roamio OTA.”

This new product is similar to the previous base-model TiVo Roamio unit, but with four ATSC tuners replacing the choice of either four ATSC or four QAM tuners (one or the other, but you can’t mix OTA and QAM). The new model retains the RF remote, built-in WiFi connectivity, and all the streaming services. Dropping the tuners has led to a major reduction in the price from $199 for the regular Roamio to $49 for the OTA model. (Note that TiVo offers step-up models with additional features and storage capacity, but they are QAM only).

If you have clients who have gone OTA this price sounds great, right?

Perhaps. At $49, the price is great for a full-featured DVR, but there are some behind-the-headlines aspects of this that those in the residential design and installation community need to consider.

Limited Distribution for Now
Most importantly, the OTA model is currently a “limited edition” that is not nationally available. Beyond that, when it goes on sale on September 14, it will only be available through select Best Buy stores and it will not be available direct from TiVo or through the distribution channels from which most in the custom world would source this type of product. Yes, you can simply buy it at retail and pass the cost through as you might do with something such as an Xbox, but that is something to remember. TiVo's press spokesperson told us that plans for broader distribution and availability are not set at this time.

Monthly Subscription Required
Second on the list, as with all TiVo products it requires a subscription to their listings service. In this case it is a monthly fee of $14.99. Unlike other TiVo products, there is no option for the $499 “Lifetime” service subscription and the discounted service prices of $12.95/mo or $399 “Lifetime” that are normally available to those who already own another TiVo are not available. One can only suspect that given the cost of the components in a product such as this the $49.99 retail price is a loss leader and TiVo has to make up some of the cost through the subscription fee.

Looking deeper, some in the popular press are touting the OTA model as an answer to the demise of Aereo. As delivered, however, the new TiVo does not allow for viewing on any device other than the one that it is directly connected to via HDMI. For that, a TiVo Mini at $99 (and a $5.99/mo or $149 “Lifetime” service fee) is needed for in-home multi-viewing, or you’ll need a TiVo Stream at $129 to watch content stored on the TiVo on a broadband connected smartphone or tablet.

TiVo’s product, service, and streaming options can create a very desirable feature package but caution is in order when someone reacts impulsively to the $49.99 unit price. Indeed, for the sake of transparency I have five TiVo products of various generations in my home, and I am clearly a fan of the interface and UI, but it would be unfair not to mention the economics.

The costs involved make it appropriate to examine two other alternatives for OTA/OTT time-shifting that will help you gauge the value of the TiVo OTA.
Non-TiVo Alternatives
Sporting two tuners instead of four, but not requiring a monthly service fee, Channel Master’s DVR+ is $399 with 1TB of storage, which is equal to 160 hours of HD recording compared with the TiVo OTA’s 45 hours. There is also a “driveless” model at $249 to which you add your own external hard drive with about $60 getting you a 500Gb drive to equal or slightly exceed the TiVo’s storage capacity.

In either case, before doing the math on the ROI of a “fee-less” unit against the TiVo, don’t forget to add $39 if you need WiFi to access the EPG listings; WiFi is built-in to the TiVo. With that network connection the Channel Master offers only Vudu as a streaming service at this time, while TiVo has a considerably broader spectrum of services as noted above.

Do the math and taking into account TiVo’s monthly fee vs. Channel Master’s higher initial cost the payback for the latter is about two years. If the OTT customer is cost-conscious, then that is a factor, but remember that the feature set is not a direct comparison to TiVo. If you want the “watch it anywhere” feature with Channel Master, then you’ll need to add something along the line of a Slingbox 500, which adds another $299 compared with the TiVo Stream for less than half that. That might well break the cost equation if remote play is a client requirement.

SimpleTV’s dual-tuner model is another interesting OTT option that is similar in some ways and close in cost to TiVo OTA. This product has two tuners, as well, but uniquely they can be set to either ATSC (for off-air) or Clear QAM (for unencrypted digital cable), but not one of each. It is also unique in that the connection is not via a direct HDMI link to a display, but via internet connection on the SimpleTV side and a smartphone, tablet, or Amazon Fire for device-direct play. For viewing on a standard display you’ll need to connect the smartphone or table to the display, but I suspect most will use a Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon FireTV/ (Our single-tuner SimpleTV’s content is viewed on a standard HDTV through the Roku “SimpleTV Channel”.

SimpleTV is an interesting, almost hybrid animal, combining elements of a DVR, a “play anywhere” device and IPTV. I’ve found it to be a bit quirky, but it did allow viewing of the local Los Angeles morning news shows on a recent trip to China when the broadband speed was sufficient. (A reminder that with any of these devices where the delivery is via IP, be it SimpleTV, Sling, or TiVo Stream you should make sure that the client installation doesn’t skimp on broadband speed and in-home bandwidth capacity).

SimpleTV doesn’t let you change channels as easily as TiVo or Channel Master, as there is currently no direct access and many of the programming features anyone with a standard DVR is accustomed to will be missed. On the other hand, at $249 for the unit with a one-year subscription or $399 for a “Lifetime” subscription , plus the same $60 or so for a hard drive, the payback against the cost of either of the other two units as equipped for remote viewing becomes very palatable. Even better, once you’ve bought a “Lifetime” subscription, it is good for as many SimpleTV units you own without paying anything additional.

Cautionary notes include the fact that the SimpleTV is equipped for wired Ethernet only, so wireless applications require the use of an external “bridge.” In addition, there is no remote control, as everything needs to be run via a PC, laptop, smartphone, tablet or the Roku’s remote. You get used to it, but if you try SimpleTV you need to remember that everyone who uses it needs the app on their devices. Interestingly, it is also the only one of our trio with an app for Windows phones.

With all of this, where does the TiVo Roamio OTA fit in to the grand scheme of things once the excitement of the $49 price quiets down? All three have their merits and down side points. If long-term total cost of ownership is critical, then the long-term commitment to $14.99 a month may make the Channel Master a good bet for in-home user and the SimpleTV a good bet for “view anywhere” requirements.

However, if the on-going cost is not a problem, even with the addition of the TiVo Stream, the four-tuner capability and access to streaming services, all controlled via what, in my personal opinion is the best-in-class interface and user experience, makes the TiVo Roamio OTA something to keep on your radar for some system applications.

You might even consider it not only for cord-cutters, but for systems where FiOS, U-Verse, or satellite is the main source of video programming and there is a need for access to all off-air stations, not just those on the system. This is particularly an issue even with traditional cable for homes where there is a desire to view and time-shift one of the many “digital sub channels” available in many markets that the major providers often do not carry. In my home market of Los Angeles, for example, many of the ethnic, foreign language, “nostalgia TV,” religious, and educational channels that cannot be recorded via a cable feed are great fodder the Roamio OTA.

Figuring out the OTA world isn’t as easy as low price, but TiVo’s Roamio OTA not only provides a new alternative to consider, it awakens interest in “good ol’ fashioned off-air TV.” You’d be wise to suggest OTA time shift from any of these devices when the client demand requires.
CEDIA Fellow Michael Heiss is a contributing editor to Residential Systems out of Sherman Oaks, CA. 
will be presenting his annual “New Technology Update at CEDIA EXPO. In addition, this year he will also be moderating two panel discussions with leading industry experts on hot topics Ultra HD/4K and object-based audio technologies.
Michael Heiss, TV test pattern

Tags: TiVo , audiovisual , Microsoft , Verizon , Cable , TV , DVR , HD , FiOS

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