TiVo Roamio OTA—Cord Cutters Will Love It

By James W. Harris, Monday, July 27, 2015

Thinking about giving up cable TV but can’t imagine living without a DVR? Well, TiVo has a DVR specifically designed for over-the-air (OTA) antenna users. The TiVo Roamio OTA is cheap to buy at $49, but seems expensive to use, $15-per-month for the TiVo service. Considering that other dedicated OTA DVRs cost $300-400, it’s a wash for the first couple years. After that, the value of spending $180 a year for TiVo’s TV guide service will be determined by how much you like the TiVo. I’m quite impressed.

TiVo-Roamio-OTA 

For the last several years I’ve been using an old computer with Windows Media Center as my OTA DVR. It worked well until Microsoft changed companies that supply their online TV guide. Since Microsoft won’t support Windows Media Center in Windows 10 I decided to give the Roamio OTA a try. I’ve got to say the TiVo is far superior to Windows Media Center, and better than any cable box DVR I’ve used. The Roamio OTA is a deluxe way to be a broadcast TV user.

The Roamio OTA can record up to four TV shows at once, and can store 75 hours of HD television (more if you plug in external drive). Plus the recorded image is uncompressed, looking the same as the broadcast image. Windows Media Center heavily compresses the recorded video. And the TiVo TV tuners are far better than the computer TV tuners I was using with my PC. In fact, the TiVo tuners appear equal or better than the one in my Samsung TV.

Setup was straightforward and easy. Buy the unit. Go to TiVo’s website and register online by it’s unique serial number. Connect the Roamio OTA to power, HDMI, antenna and in my case Ethernet cable, and start using. The machine will download the TiVo guide and do updates to the software the first time you use it. Windows Media Center and all the cable box DVR’s I’ve used worked with a grid. TiVo uses a split window. On the left side is all the channels for a specific time and date, and on the right is a window showing all the future shows on a specific channel for whichever channel you have highlighted in left window. This is a different approach, but a game changer, making using the guide much easier.

Internet services

The Roamio OTA also has smart TV features built into it, much like Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV streaming boxes. Here’s where I was somewhat let down. TiVo’s interface for these services is not as easy and intuitive to use as my Roku. At first I thought I could live without my Roku most of the time and use just one box and remote for all my TV viewing. This didn’t work out. It’s a shame that TiVo didn’t contract with Roku to do their streaming services. TiVo’s implementation of these services aren’t bad, much better than my Sony Blu-Ray player. So if you don’t have a Roku box then TiVo’s streaming services will be a huge plus.

I was especially glad to see Spotify, but sadly TiVo’s implementation is clunky. The reason I switched from Rdio to Spotify is because Roku’s Spotify interface is outstanding. If the streaming TV interface was superior in TiVo, I’d consider switching from Roku to TiVo.

The Roamio OTA will also work with TiVo extender boxes (TiVo Mini) to access content on bedroom TVs. TiVo also has an app to work with your mobile devices. And it has intelligent features to search content across the guide and all the streaming services you use. TiVo promotes OnePass, a sophisticated programming/search service with a lot of intelligence to help you find and routinely record your favorite shows, actors and genres. Roamio OTA will even scan for shows it thinks you might like and record them in dynamic hard drive space not being used by your planned recordings.

Several years ago “convergence” was a hot buzzword in the computer industry. TiVo is converging OTA TV, DVR and streaming TV box. This allowed me to replace my big PC in my entertainment center with a tiny box. I still have a Roku and a Sony BD/DVD/CD player. It would be great if those three devices were one.

My TV is hooked up to a Denon AV receiver. I’ve configured the Roamio OTA to use the default HDMI pass through port, so I can turn on my TV with one button on the Roamio OTA remote using the TV’s own sound. For superior sound I can turn on the Denon for special shows. I used to have to use a wireless keyboard/trackpad to control my Windows Media Center PC, and always turn on the receiver to hear recorded TV. The Roamio OTA has simplified by setup greatly. I now can watch live TV, recorded TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus with just one remote and one on/off button. It’s a shame the Roamio OTA doesn’t have a BD/DVD/CD drive. Someday we might even see a stereo receiver combined with all these other functions, so we’ll only have one box to connect to our television sets.

Roku and TiVo should consider merging. But that’s another story. For now, the Roamio OTA is best way I’ve found to enjoy over-the-air broadcast TV.

JWH

Rethinking Cord Cutting

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 4, 2015

Because Microsoft has decided to kill off Windows Media Center starting with Windows 10, and I plan to upgrade to Windows 10 on all my machines because it will be free the first year, I will lose my homemade DVR. Using a PC to record TV shows from over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts takes a good deal more work than using the DVR that comes with a cable box. But if you want to give up paying for cable and still record TV shows to watch later, you need something like Windows Media Center to do the job.

antenna

Microsoft’s decision is forcing me to rethink my whole cord cutting approach to television, because I don’t want to go back to Xfinity or U-verse. Basically there are two modes for watching TV:

  • Live – by the schedule
  • Recorded – on demand

Cord cutter means getting TV from the internet or over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone accustomed to using a DVR will feel imprisoned by watching TV live again. Living around the TV schedule is so 20th century. That’s why I had to build my own DVR with Windows Media Center. DVRs let us save TV shows to watch later, skip commercials, pause, and scroll back to replay.

If I give up Windows Media Center I will have to learn to live without a DVR or find another solution.

I hate commercials, so I love skipping over them with a DVR. I could bypass commercials altogether if I gave up broadcast TV and got all my shows from the Roku. Without a DVR I wouldn’t watch broadcast TV. That’s not a possible solution for my wife though. She works out of town, but when she comes home for the weekend she loves TV. She splits her viewing between Netflix and tuning into AntennaTVMeTV, and Movies! – local channels targeted to cheap-ass baby-boomer cord cutters. I should confess I’ve become addicted to watching the old westerns on Grit TV. OTA broadcast channels seem to be popping up all the time, and strangely enough I find more to watch now than when I had cable. Sort of sad, to be stuck in a retro-TV-land, but it reminds me of how TV was when I were growing up.

Yet we can’t live without that modern doohickey, the DVR.

There are other media center software programs I could install and learn to record TV shows, but I’m through with being a do-it-yourselfer. Luckily, since I built my first DVR, several OTA DVRs have come onto the market. The market leader is TiVo, with it’s Roamio OTA, but there’s also ChannelMaster’s DVR+, Simple.TV and the multi-room networked Tablo. Until yesterday I was considering all of them except the Roamio OTA because TiVo charges $15 a month for its on-screen guide. It’s free for the DVR+, and just $4-5 a month for the other two. However, I just read that TiVo was selling it’s heavily subsidized $49 machine for $300 with unlimited access to their guide. That made me rethink the TiVo. Sadly, the $300 deal is over.The Roamio OTA is a 4-tuner device – meaning your can record up to four shows at once – and is considered the nicest to use by most reviewers. The TiVo has slick search features, as well as pause and replay controls. Those same reviewers all said they wouldn’t consider the TiVo with a $15 monthly fee. Obviously TiVo should listen, and since the other devices are already in the $300 ballpark, this could be a no-brainer decision if they offer the $300 deal again. TiVo could sell millions because their product is a broadcast TV watcher dream come true. Cord cutters are cheap, and a $15 monthly fee is too much for us cheapskates. Yet, my wife wants us to think about the TiVo because it’s DVR is equal to one you get with cable.

My current antenna is a RCA outdoor one, but it’s not great. It’s flaky in bad weather, and some channels come in much better than others. I should get a stronger antenna and put it up higher. However, I’m too old for working on my roof. I’ve been searching around Angie’s List and The Yellow Pages looking for TV antenna installers, but can’t find any. That’s annoying. With all this cord cutting going on, there’s good opportunity now for people to start a small business selling and installing antennas and OTA DVRs.

Investing in a great outdoor antenna and buying the Roamio OTA should solve my problem. I’ll be able to take the computer out of the den, and reduce the clutter in my entertainment center. Yet, there is something that urges me to cut the cord to the antenna too. We live in a TCP/IP world, so why not go completely Internet only TV?

$50, plus $15 a month will give us a deluxe broadcast TV setup. Susan and I have to think what we’re actually spending our money for though. To record the NBC Nightly News, CBS Sunday Morning, a few network TV shows we still watch, and to record a bunch of old nostalgic TV shows and movies. I would have included a long list of PBS shows I love, but I can now get them on my Roku through the PBS channel there. I could do all my TV watching through the Roku, but not Susan.

Cord cutters have given up on cable TV, but could they also  give up antenna television? Are we ready for a world with no live television? That’s weird to think about. Television is seldom truly live except for sports, news announcers showing prerecorded news and a rare live broadcast. Sport fans keep the cable companies in business. If live sports came over the Internet they’d be in real trouble. Current TCP/IP networking isn’t really suited for live broadcasting to billions, so they are safe for now. OTA TV does have a fair amount of sports. Enough for millions of cord cutters.

In ten years, maybe even five, things could be very different indeed. Think of how different our technological lives have changed since the year 2000. Should we be watching television like we did in the 1950s – with an antenna on the roof? I have to admit though, broadcast TV is still a viable solution for watching live TV, and it’s free.

JWH

Toshiba DR570 DVD Recorder

I bought a Toshiba DR570 DVD Recorder to be my poor man’s DVR.  After theorizing about saving money by giving up cable TV, I quickly learned that I missed having a DVR after living without cable.  I love  having fewer channels, but I do miss the on-screen guide and being able to record one show while I watch another, or to record a show when I’m not home. 

DVD Recorders aren’t popular like the old VCRs once were, but they function in the same way – the media you record on, the DVD, is just different, but the setup and operation is the same.  You have to program the timer to record a future show, or go to the show and hit record to snag what’s showing on screen now.  It’s no where near as convenient as a DVR – but if the DR570 had an electronic programming guide, it would be close.

A DVD recorder works just like the old VHS machines, and the switch to digital TV has affected them too.  You can no longer use old VHS or DVD recorders with analog tuners.  I had a perfectly good Samsung DVD recorder that worked with analog signals and my Comcast DVR, but doesn’t work with over-the-air digital TV – and that’s why I had to buy the DR570 – it has a tuner to receive over the air digital signals.

Because the DR570 has a digital tuner and my Samsung DLP TV has a digital tuner, I can record one show and watch another.  One antenna works for both.  The indoor HDTV antenna plugs into the DR570 DVD Recorder, and then a second coax cable goes from the DR570 to the Samsung TV.  This pass-through arrangement doesn’t interfere with the reception on the TV when the DR570 is off or while recording.  The DVD Recorder has a HDMI output, so switching to it just means pressing the Source button on my TV remote.

There is a picture quality difference between the two tuners which makes me think there might be a lot of variation in the electronics to digital tuning of over-the-air signals.  The DR570 picture seems softer than what I get from the Samsung TV, but quite nice.  The recorded quality varies greatly between the 5 recording modes (1, 2, 4, 6 and 8 hours).  Two hour mode is OK, but one hour mode is so impressive that I try to use it exclusively.  I can accept two hour mode, but four, six and eight hour modes are unacceptable by my picky standards.  Now my wife wouldn’t complain about four hour mode, but at the four hour mode I see  artifacts from fast moving elements of the picture – even people’s lips moving when they are talking, I find this annoying. 

I’ve also learned that turning on progressive mode within the DR570 settings menu greatly improves the recorded results.  One hour mode is as good as a DVD on a high definition TV, but not Blu-Ray quality, about equal to HD DVR output.  The output fills the wide screen HDTV and looks like high definition TV. 

Neither of my two digital TV tuners comes with the over-the-air TV Guide.  My friend Mike just got a new digital HDTV with a TV Guide brand on-screen guide built in.  I wonder why neither of my digital tuners has this feature because it would make living with over-the-air TV so more of a luxury.  It would also make recording a show on a DVD Recorder a snap, like using a DVR.  The David Pogue article I link to above suggests that manufacturers don’t want to compete with the cable TV industry, and this might be true.  The broadcast of a electronic program guide is required by the FCC, but the display of the guide by TV makers is not.  Bummer. 

If free over the air TV came with an electronic program guide that worked with a cheap hard-disk recorder I wouldn’t miss cable TV at all.  A TiVo would be the perfect over-the-air DVR solution, except TiVo wants $12.95 a month for their program guide, which jinxes the deal for me.   Many people make their own TiVo by building a Home Theater PC and using one of the many Internet program guides.  I might do this in the future, but for now want to avoid complexity and cost.  My goal is to stay on the path to simplicity – if you can call our high tech world simple.

The DR570 has turned out to be a good solution as my poor man’s DVR, but if it had come with the TV Guide On Screen feature it would have been fantastic.  DVD disks clutter my TV stand and are annoying to keep up with, but they do the job – I don’t miss my TV shows, and I can record now and watch latter (and skip commercials).   The TV purist in me wishes I’d only watched TV in real time and just let go of the anguish of missing TV shows.  My Zen mind tells me to let go, and let time flow naturally, but I’m still a grasshopper.

DVR +R or –R discs are dirt cheap.  Recording isn’t as convenient as a DVR, but if you don’t do a lot of recording it’s no big deal.  Recording three or four shows from one evening on one disk in four hour mode is possible, but it’s work, and the quality of the results is poor.  An electronic programming guide would reduce the work, but not improve the video quality.  Four-hour quality is OK if you don’t want to miss your shows, but not to save them or show off high definition TV to your low definition TV friends.

The DR570 cost me $159.95, or ten months of DVR service on Comcast.  I selected this Toshiba unit at Amazon sight unseen because many customers gave it positive reviews.  However, I agree completely with all the complaints about the terrible remote.  The buttons are small, oddly arranged, with hard to see labels.  Engineers working on the next model should overhaul the remote and add TV Guide On Screen.  A killer device would be to add a DVR drive to the mix with a dual digital tuner.  That way you could record to disk for convenience, and burn to DVD when you want to save a show or make sure your friends didn’t miss something cool.  Content creators will be horrified at this idea.  A DVD Recorder/DVR combination designed to work with over-the-air broadcasts and over-the-air TV Guide would probably convince a lot of people they really don’t need  their cable/satellite services.  I have no desire to see these businesses go under, but there’s a lot of people out there that don’t want or need the fire hose blast of hundreds of TV channels.

One nice side-effect of the DVD Recorder is if I record a show and want someone else to watch it, I can just give them the disc.  That’s better than a DVR.  Or I can save it to watch again in the future.  I keep a Sharpie by the TV and mark my discs as I record them and store them on an empty DVD spindle.  The DVD Recorder can use DVD-RW discs if you want to watch, erase and record again, and I have some of those, but I’ve found in my quest for watch less TV, to also try and record less.  The DVR made TV watch too easy, encouraging the bad habit of cramming huge amounts of TV into my life.  Moderation is now my goal.  I like to think before I record any show:  Is it DVD worthy.

 

JWH – 9/26/9

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