We can now stop guessing what the TiVo Bolt is about: It’s here and it’s …

30 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

New TiVo Bolt touts 4K, improved ad skipping and speed watching features.

Until the Apple TV announcement, I was never fully aware just how heated the set-top box market actually is. TiVo has launched a new way for TV viewers to skip through entire commercial breaks on the top 20 cable and broadcast networks with the push of one button.Slimmer and smaller than the current Roamio set-top boxes, the new Ultra HD 4K-ready Bolt boasts an improved advertisement skipping SkipMode feature and QuickMode playback for watching content faster than in real-time. The player also includes TiVo’s popular features like OnePass subscriptions, OneSearch and support for the more recently launched web portal, TiVo Online. 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).

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. One of the veterans of this battle is TiVo, the San Jose, Calif.-based company that was so pervasive in pushing the DVR revolution that we don’t record shows; we “TiVo” them. The company’s Bolt DVR family, launched Wednesday, includes a “SkipMode” feature for instantly fast-forwarding past ad pods in certain programs. When an electronics manufacturer elects a white case with rounded edges, I can’t help but imagine some product designer being pushed to make something look more “Apple-like.” And that’s what this unit, visually, is telling me.

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. 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. I don’t know whether this is an effort to meet Apple head on for stepping onto its turf – or a sign that TiVo is giving Apple’s visual aesthetic too much respect. 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.

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. 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. 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 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.

Compared with previous-generation TiVos, the Bolt’s interface has a similar feel, but a significantly faster processor and more memory, which it uses to speed up menus, launch apps and play 4K video (if you’ve got it, or might in the future). 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. However, the SkipMode feature comes more than three years after Dish Network launched the Hopper DVR, which includes an ad-break-skipping feature for the big broadcast nets’ primetime lineups.

These upgrades don’t just make the TiVo BOLT perform better, but also aid with the newly added support for 4K video as well as the player’s now built-in transcoding functionality – another improvement over the Roamio-S. However, the new Bolt DVRs can lay claim to be the first to support recording of 4K Ultra HD video content — although it’s obviously just for bragging rights, given that no U.S. That’s because TiVo has people watching popular shows, too, and individually marking their important moments, like the return from a commercial break. For instance, I noticed no problems with “The Big Bang Theory,” where the characters talk fast anyway; but found I missed some nuances when watching “Sherlock”. 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. Still, you can save a lot of time with these QuickMode and SkipMode — even more if you combine them, which you can for those recorded shows compatible with both. 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. And, for what it’s worth, the Bolt has a new design with a smaller (11.4-by-7.3-by-1.8 inches) and lighter (1.9 pounds) form factor than previous generation TiVos. 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.

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. 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. The company is selecting popular programs off of certain high-traffic channels and adding tags to the content, which act like jump markers, allowing users to skip commercials on recorded shows without accidentally leaping too far ahead and having to perform the fast forward/rewind dance. 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.

TiVo has not only drastically overhauled the appearance of its product, it has taken steps to hide the monthly $15 fee it charges over and above what your cable service costs. The company has long justified this fee on grounds that cable companies also charge for boxes and DVR service, but it has always seemed excessive to me for what should be an all-inclusive tech device.

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. On the back (and bottom) of the unit are a variety of inputs, including a CableCARD slot, Coax port, optical audio out, audio L/R (analog) port, an HDMI 2.0 slot (4K, 1080p, 24/60), Ethernet, 2 USB 2.0 ports, external storage port (eSATA) and power adapter port. To make the price more palatable, TiVo has trimmed it some and bundled the first-year service fee with the hardware to arrive at a $300 base price, with no additional service charge for the first year.

While it still feels cluttered with buttons like the remotes that often come with cable companies’ DVRs, it now has a white design and buttons for new features like “SkipMode,” a commercial skipping feature that’s activated by pressing the green “D” button, and “QuickMode,” the sped-up playback which is engaged by pressing the “Play” button followed by the “Select” button. I could see this being incredibly useful for catching up on sports or local newscasts, or perhaps whatever terrible TV show friends and colleagues insist I watch.

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? For another, it only works with shows where the start and end points of the commercial blocks have been tagged, a process TiVo says is done by actual people.

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. One Pass allows users to subscribe to a specific set of content, like, let’s say, The Walking Dead, and will search out episodes from all services available on the Bolt.

So if I have seasons 1-3 sporadically recorded on the device, and seasons 1-3 happen to be on Netflix, it will make all episodes available for me as if they are seamless. 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. Another feature, Collections, will also play into the One Pass concept by organizing content and recording schedules based off of a specific interest. That means you can go from cable to Netflix without the common hassle of changing your TV’s input to switch from your cable box to, say, your Apple TV or Roku. For years now, TiVo has been quietly (and clumsily) integrating services like Netflix and YouTube and Amazon Prime into its boxes, but it hasn’t boasted much about it.

It switches between cable and streaming video more smoothly than past TiVos, and it has a faster version of its previous integrated search, which brings up results from both cable and internet video and lets you watch or record from the source of your choice. It was also pointed out that my cable provider would have HBO available anyways, which the Bolt could record off of, if I had paid for the subscription and really needed my Game of Thrones (which is tied to HBO Go). 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. And, when you set up a season-long recording (called a OnePass), the Bolt fetches episodes from every available source, including streaming services and my cable company’s On Demand service.

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. Although TiVo doesn’t have an official stance one way or the other on people cracking the unit open and putting in their own, larger, hard drives — they do provide a hard drive extension port in the back. Well, the Bolt only offers a handful of the many, many online streaming services available from Roku or even the more-limited Apple TV: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Yahoo, and popular music services including Pandora and Spotify.

There’s also an interesting little detail about the Bolt that seems to get glossed over: It’s possible for end users to develop apps for this hardware. 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). TiVo is positioning this product to mainly focus on television and movie content offerings, but this obviously leaves an opening available if they want to start crossing into a wider suite of services. TiVo Inc. incorporated in August 1997, a developer and provider of software and technology that enables the search, navigation, and access of content across sources, including linear television, on-demand television, and broadband vide… read more » 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.

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. And TiVo’s subscription-based model can be hard to stomach for those who are looking for cost savings by signing up for cheaper services like the under-$10-per-month options from Netflix or Hulu, for example. 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.

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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