TiVo’s 4K-ready, commercial skipping Bolt hints at the future

30 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Can the New Bolt DVR Box Make TiVo King of TV Again?.

Slimmer and smaller than the current Roamio set-top boxes, the new Ultra HD 4K-ready Bolt boasts an improved advertisement skipping SkipMode features and QuickMode playback for watching content faster than in real-time.The BOLT is a uniquely designed, all-white player offering 4K support as well as a revamped user interface that introduces new features like the ability to skip commercial breaks on recorded content as well as the ability to speed up playback 30 percent faster while listening to pitch-corrected audio.This new Bolt DVR may not totally remake the recording technology TiVo is famous for, but it introduces a sharp departure in design and adds features customers have asked for since it started in the late 90s.

The Bolt handles current cable services and Verizon Fios — but not satellite TV or AT&T U-verse — and has inputs for an over-the-air antenna and Ethernet connection (it also has built-in Wi-Fi). The player also includes TiVo’s popular features like OnePass subscriptions, OneSearch and support for the more recently launched web portal, TiVo Online.

At the beginning of last month, your options for streaming 4K video were limited to the Nvidia Shield and the Nuvola NP-1 set-top box—and, of course, the services built into the latest generation of Ultra HD TVs. Now, the A-listers in the set-top box game are releasing 4K streaming boxes in droves: Amazon unveiled its 4K-capable Fire TV a few weeks ago, Roku is rumored to have its first 4K box waiting in the wings, and TiVo just jumped into the 4K streaming landscape as well. Despite being smaller than TiVo’s older DVRs — or whatever cable box you probably have — it’s eye-catching enough for visitors to stop and ask what you’re watching TV on. Instead of a standard black box as TiVo has offered in the past, the new player is white, with a somewhat odd curve to it that initially takes some getting used to.

But as TiVo refines some of the little annoyances of watching TV, it remains deeply tied to cable subscriptions and recording live TV at a time when how—and what—we watch is shifting online. Gone, too, are the hardware buttons in favor of integrated lights which makes the player feel more modern than the cable company DVRs it competes with. Currently, the TiVo service costs $14.99 monthly. “From a hardware perspective, it’s about changing and future-proofing the platform, getting 4K and speeding up the speed,” said TiVo’s vice president of product management and strategy Jim Denney in an interview. “From the user standpoint, it’s about getting you through your content more quickly and then really being that one-stop shop for all of your content, letting you organize easily as you navigate to it and through it.” TiVo’s new SkipMode lets you bypass all the advertisements between segments of a program on 20 major channels with one button push. The design itself is not only an aesthetic choice – the company says the gentle curve that lifts part of the player up also helps with heat dissipation. The UI has also received a big overhaul, with colorful icons that make it a bit easier to find what you’re looking for in a sea of cable channels: In the channel guide, the logos for each station jump out a bit more than the old plain-text treatment.

That’s actually an old trick, and while it’s appreciated, where I see evidence of TiVo looking towards the future is the way it’s connecting the DVR to Amazon’s Fire TV. For $300, which includes one year of TiVo service and a 500GB drive to store your shows, the Bolt organizes your whole TV life in a dashboard that’s faster and more powerful than any DVR that’s come before it. That’s useful given the hardware’s upgraded internals, which include a CPU that’s three and half times as fast as the older Roamio model and three times the memory. Universal search allows a viewer to search for content regardless of the source — bringing in shows from cable, on-demand services like Netflix and apps, if they’re supported.

For those who prefer six tuners and a larger built-in hard drive, the Roamio Pro will stick around, but it doesn’t have the Bolt’s 4K or new features. Bolt loses the old analog video outputs and offers only an HDMI port — no breakout cable either — which shouldn’t be a problem in 2015, but is worth knowing. That’s because TiVo has people watching popular shows, too, and individually marking their important moments, like the return from a commercial break.

The other Roamio models, including the Plus (the 6-tuner, 1 TB Roamio model) and Pro (the 6-tuner, 3 TB model) won’t immediately disappear, however. The Bolt box supports the HDMI 2.0 spec and HDCP 2.2 copy protection, which means it should be able to dole out 4K video at 60fps from the next generation of sources. 4K video at 60fps isn’t exactly commonplace yet, but there are a few good-looking options on YouTube.

It has the same integrated TiVo Stream features we dug on the Roamio, and it will work with the existing TiVo Mini boxes to extend the setup beyond your living room. TiVo Bolt will also provide more personalization features, including recommendations from friends, selections of content from critics, and video related to your interests. By early November, TiVo will also update its iOS mobile app with easier ways to find programs to watch and record by genres, hobbies, interests and curated collections. The way it works is if you watch a SkipMode-enabled channel (around 20 or so at launch) between busy primetime hours (around 4pm to 12pm ET), TiVo will create a SkipMode of your recorded content.

Of course, although TiVo wouldn’t confirm this, it seems likely that the Pro will also be phased out further down the road, as having a somewhat fractured product lineup could cause consumer confusion. That makes it possible to watch a 30-minute program in 20 minutes, and TiVo says the sped-up video was engineered to be just on the brink of watchable without everybody sounding like the Chipmunks. Competitors, including the Amazon Fire TV, the forthcoming Apple TV and even some cable-company DVRs offer voice now, but the TiVo Bolt’s remote remains little changed. In SkipMode, TiVo has tagged the exact in- and out-points for recorded shows cutting in and out of commercials, so you can jump past ads with more accuracy. It still has the Roamio Pro’s tiny Remote Finder button on the back, perfect for times when the RF-connected control has slipped between couch cushions somewhere.

In general, things are the same as they ever were, including stuff like CableCARD setups, and transferring your Series Recordings via TiVo’s sometimes-frustrating website. In the brief demo I saw, the audio wasn’t the real problem with QuickMode—it was the awkward blocking as people moved just slightly faster than they should. This is a powerful feature: TiVo does the work for us of finding a show wherever it can, be it a live recording, cable provider video-on-demand, paid download or online streaming service like Netflix. It works just like it sounds, when you’re watching a recorded program, a green icon will pop up and prompt you to hit the “D” button to skip commercials.

All this newness, along with added customization benefits to TiVo’s companion Android and iOS apps, and Bolt puts the company in a solid battle stance against whatever set tops Google, Apple, or Amazon might dream up—or at least until Tim Cook’s vision of television comes true. Hulu’s initial absence speaks to a problem that may continue to bedevil TiVo: Without the heft of an Apple, Amazon, or even Roku, can TiVo continue to lure developers to bring it the streaming video apps I want? At launch, the transcoded feed will allow for one in-home stream, jump up to two in-home streams in November, and allow for out-of-home streams to mobile devices in early 2016.

There are some different colors used for certain on-screen navigational elements, flatter icons that complement the more modern design of the new unit, and channel logos now appear in the guide, for example. What’s more notable about the BOLT’s software is its support for 4K, including in Netflix and YouTube apps, faster application launch times, and the new QuickMode and SkipMode features. SkipMode is not being ported back to older DVRs, but it should work on the Mini (as long as it’s connected to a Bolt.) We tried it out and everything worked without a hitch. TiVo’s scheme covers the lions share of our primetime TV programming, and being able to easily skip commercials can make it easier to blow through shows quickly. Many of you told us you listened to the old HD Podcast that way, and we can confirm, if you’re bingeing on a series to catch up before the finale, it makes things go by faster without seriously compromising the experience.

TiVo continues to focus on its larger strategy of allowing viewers to find, subscribe and watch content across a variety of sources, whether that’s DVR recordings, programs on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, or videos on YouTube. (Unfortunately, Hulu is absent from the collection of apps while TiVo waits for the company to transition to HTML5 from Flash.) BOLT also still offers TiVo’s “OnePass” technology that lets you instantly subscribe to shows, no matter where all those episodes are located. What we didn’t get a chance to try was the Bolt’s Ultra HD chops, but according to TiVo it will have two 4K-ready apps at launch: YouTube and Amazon Netflix. It’s even improving this experience for new users with a “OnePass QuickSelect” feature that will point new subscribers via their welcome email to a page of popular shows they can subscribe to with a click. The menu has been tweaked slightly, and while that change won’t be copied onto older hardware, Premiere and Roamio users can expect a guide update that adds more channel logos. Other software tweaks coming in a fall update will bring a personalized “What to Watch” section on iOS, better social sharing on Facebook and Twitter, and a slicker OnePass experience for TiVo Online — but those aren’t the features that piqued my interest.

This feature is live on 20 popular channels, but currently only for primetime programming (4 PM to midnight, including repeats and late-night talk shows.) Using SkipMode doesn’t interfere with the option to use other playback functions like fast forward or rewind. Web streaming and in-home downloads work at launch as well, but out of home downloads and streaming won’t ship until 2016 (the latter will only offer one stream, and arrives in the first half of next year). Instead of configuring user profiles, like on Netflix, customizations are per device and now include the ability for users to track their hobbies and interests in addition to genres and an expanded list of collections.

When a friend clicks a shared link, they’ll go to the TiVo portal where they can choose to record the show (if they’re a TiVo user) or be directed to the content itself (e.g. a list of episodes on the TV channel’s own website). Perhaps the most dramatic change to TiVo BOLT is the company’s implicit acknowledgement that its current business model could be an issue going forward as more TV viewers cut the cord and turn to low-cost streaming services as their source for TV and movie entertainment. Bolt pre-orders start today online — check the usual sources like Amazon (500GB/1TB) and Best Buy — with shipments on October 4th, and units should reach retail shelves in the next week or so. With the BOLT, TiVo isn’t going so far as to ditch subscriptions, but is instead is deferring them in a way – a move that the company likely hopes will hook new users so they’ll be willing to pay the fees when the time comes. That’s pricier upfront than the $199.99 Roamio, which requires a subscription fee of $14.99 per month, but that’s because the first year of service is bundled in.

TiVo, of course, wouldn’t exactly admit that the TV market’s shift is potentially bad for its business, but the new product and pricing does indicate the company understands it’s not enough to just be an upgraded DVR for the cable TV viewer.

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