Diary Of A Cord Cutter In 2015 (Part 5: Upgrading To The TiVo Roamio OTA DVR)

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In late 2014, I finally took the plunge and cut the cord with cable TV, reducing my monthly bill from a big TV, phone and internet bundle to one which now only includes broadband. My “TV” subscription, meanwhile, includes just a handful of services: Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime Instant Video.

That latter item is actually included with the annual subscription to Amazon Prime, so it doesn’t feel like it’s an entirely new expense, to be honest. I’d pay for it anyway because I love Prime’s free, two-day shipping. Streaming video is just icing on the cake.

I’ve been documenting my cord-cutting journey here on TechCrunch, so those of you contemplating make a similar move can learn from my experiences (and my mistakes!), while I can also learn from my fellow cord cutters about how they’ve been handling their own transitions.

Note: This is part 5 of an ongoing series of articles about cord-cutting in 2015. You can read Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 here. 

Moving On From Tablo

In part two of this series, I took a look at one of the options for cord cutters – an over-the-air DVR called Tablo which competes with offerings from TiVo, Simple.TV, and others, and utilizes your own USB hard drive to store your shows, giving you more flexibility in storage capacity.

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These sorts of DVRs are handy for those making the switch from cable or satellite TV subscriptions to antennas, as they allow you to access and record streams from those free, over-the-air broadcasts. While I liked Tablo’s diminutive size and I appreciated the ability to add on more storage as need be, having to buy a standalone USB hard drive to even get started was a bit of a downside in my book. I would have liked the option to buy the device with some amount of storage included right out of the box (especially given the price point of ~$200), and then increase the storage if needed.

In addition, while the mobile interface for interacting with Tablo was easy enough to use, I found that it lagged in performing certain tasks, like downloading updates to the guide, for example.

But worst of all was when Tablo’s Roku app ending up failing on Oscar night – one of the few times a year I actually want to watch live TV. One of the problems cord cutters face, as you know, is not having the ability to watch special events live unless they invest in an antenna. And there wasn’t a way to stream the Oscars live on demand (though Hulu later rounded up some clips).

When I initially accessed the “Live TV” section in Tablo’s Roku app, I was happy to find I could tune to the channel and watch the action as it occurred. But then the stream oddly cut out on me, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the live program to return. Instead, it kept replaying the red carpet moment I had just seen – and I hadn’t even asked Tablo’s software to record the program! It was very buggy.

In any event, the problem was not with my antenna or my signal, as you may be thinking. I pulled the antenna cord out of Tablo, plugged it directly into my TV, and was then able to watch the live event yet again. Go figure.

The experience, however, left me feeling a little uncomfortable with Tablo’s stability, so instead I turned to a company who has a longer history in the DVR space: TiVo.

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Upgrading To A TiVo Roamio OTA DVR

A number of readers have emailed to recommend TiVo DVRs. I’ve now tried the TiVo Roamio OTA DVR, the company’s option for cord cutters specifically. For $49.99, this device offers you 500 GB of storage space (up to 75 hours of HD programming) for recording TV from your antenna. This is basically the same thing as the TiVo Roamio, but it lacks a cable card slot. Instead, the under 4-pound box offers Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, plus USB, coax, optical and analog audio out.

The TiVo was easy to hook up – perhaps even more so than the Tablo, because you don’t have to mess around with an additional hard drive. Instead, you just plug in your antenna and connect TiVo to your TV via an HDMI cable. The remaining setup, which includes letting TiVo scan your channels, is not complicated either, as the device steps you through the process with an onscreen guide.

Once complete, you’re taken to the TiVo Central screen which you can also access at any time by pressing the TiVo button on your remote.

For those of you familiar with TiVo’s interface, you’ll note that the OTA DVR offers a nearly identical feature set when it comes to the way you search and navigate through its content selections.

The box is capable of recording up to four shows simultaneously, which is actually better than the Verizon DVR I recently ditched. Which networks you can access will depend on your location and the signal strength of your antenna, among other things, but most users can at least access the major networks like ABC, CBS, NBS, and PBS over-the-air using an antenna.

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There are a few features that make the TiVo DVR useful when it comes to content discovery. These are worth noting because, as a cord cutter, you sometimes lose touch with “what’s on TV,” as you tend to spend more time streaming from services like Netflix rather than channel surfing and serendipitously happening upon new shows.

With TiVo’s “Collections” feature under the “Browse TV & Movies” heading, the DVR offers a number of editorial selections which are based on current events or categories. That way, you won’t miss out on things like the Academy Awards or the ever-popular Shark Week, for example. However, in this same area, there’s a “New & Notable” subsection, too, which also seems to feature current programming collections. For instance, this week, there’s a “Spring Break” section with a plethora of high school movies, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Revenge of the Nerds.

I feel like these two sections could just be combined for a more simplified experience. And the “Box Sets” section should just be relocated under the “Movies” area, as well.

These are minor quibbles, really, but it’s this sort of interface clutter that makes me feel that the TiVo Roamio OTA DVR is a closer relative to the cable company DVR than it is to a more modern set-top box like the (DVR-less, but still quite awesome) Roku.

I mean, just look at the remotes for these things! Roku has under a dozen buttons. TiVo’s has nearly 40. Talk about clutter!

(And can I also complain about the fact that TiVo’s database of TV codes didn’t include the one that could control my Samsung TV? Or that the remote can’t just “learn” the code either, as some others can?)

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Another tool for finding things to watch on the TiVo OTA DVR is the “What to Watch Now” dashboard will show you recommendations of programs airing now or soon to air. This section breaks down its recommendations by “Popular TV,” “Movies,” “Sports,” and “Kids.” I found this was an easier way to quickly tune to a given channel rather than scrolling through a big TV guide, like I used to on Verizon’s DVR.

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TiVo’s OTA DVR also smartly combines the world of over-the-air programming and online services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and more, in a couple of key places. When searching for a program, for example, the guide will display both over-the-air and streaming services in its search results.

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And with TiVo’s “OnePass” recording option, which organizes your shows by season, if a given show can’t be recorded via your antenna, it will display the streaming services you can use to view the program instead.

You can also tap into additional content with TiVo’s “Explore” feature, which is somewhat like Amazon’s X-Ray for Movies & TV, as it lets you learn more about your favorite show or actor. You can even do a search for that show on YouTube.

And to complement its service, TiVo OTA DVR owners can manage their recordings from an accompanying mobile app, or use their mobile device as the remote. If you choose to pay for TiVo Stream, the app will also allow you to watch your shows on mobile when you’re outside the home. (I have not tested this myself, I should note.)

Deal Breaker? TiVo’s Monthly Fee (And No Lifetime Subscription Option)

Overall, the TiVo Roamio OTA DVR is a decent enough option for cord cutters who rely heavily on their antennas, and only somewhat on streaming services, in order to access TV programming and movies. If you’re worrying about losing the luxury of being able to record favorite shows when you ditch your pay TV subscription, losing access to live sports, or if you just can’t stomach paying for Hulu Plus and then having to watch its ads, TiVo can fill that void.

However, there’s one thing about the TiVo Roamio OTA DVR that makes the device a deal breaker for me, and that’s its monthly subscription fee. TiVo charges $14.99 per month (with a minimum one-year commitment required) for access to its feature set, including its two-week programming guide, universal search, app lineup, mobile access, recommendations, and more. The service fee also covers TVs across the home with the optional purchase of more TiVo Minis. And the fee is not an optional upgrade.

Granted, this is generally less than what most people pay for their cable or satellite TV subscriptions, but it seems to run in counter to larger cord cutting trend. For many, cord cutting is about choosing not to pay for something you can get for free: television.

And do you know what you can buy instead with an extra $14.99/month? HBO NOW, the network’s new over-the-top option for cord cutters, arriving first on Apple devices. Or you could almost buy both a Netflix ($8.99/mo) and Hulu Plus ($7.99/mo) subscription combined!

TiVo tells us that while the TiVo Roamio DVR doesn’t include the option to buy a lifetime subscription, the company is soon going to offer Annual Pricing for OTA. At $149 per year, that will work out to $12.50 per month. That’s better, but committed TiVo owners would generally argue that if you’re going to invest in this kind of device, the lifetime subscription is how to extract the best value.

Is This Where You Want To Spend Your Cable TV Savings?

As industry analyst Horace Dediu smartly pointed out this week, cable TV’s value to consumers has declined over the years. We were once promised better picture quality, more channels, and fewer or no commercials. But today, we have access to digital over-the-air signals and our cable channels are overrun with ads. And while there are hundreds of channels to choose from, it’s more than anyone can absorb, he says, and the channels increasingly became less differentiated from each other over time.

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As we’re freeing up those additional dollars by cutting ties with cable, we’re able to afford to pay for more over-the-top services that provide better experiences – including, in many cases, a return to commercial-free programming, like on Amazon and Netflix.

But the question is, where do we want to spend that money we saved by cutting the cord with cable? There are a growing number of streaming services available to choose from today, including not only the “big three,” but also things like CBS’s All Access package, a new kids’ service called Noggin from Nickelodeon, HBO’s over-the-top option HBO NOW, Sling TV, and just this week, PlayStation’s Vue.

TiVo is essentially competing for those same saved cable TV dollars, but in the case of its OTA DVR, is only offering the software interface for searching, accessing and recording over-the-air (you know, free) streams. It’s not the content business itself.

I could personally see paying for TiVo’s subscription if it cost maybe about a third of what it is today – that is, if I watched a lot of broadcast TV, live sports, or just couldn’t stand Hulu’s commercials. However, over half of what I watch are older shows, or those with many seasons already under their belt, which I’m just now getting around to viewing. After all, television’s renaissance, which came about due to another technology disruption, means there’s plenty to watch without being overly dependent on “live” programming.

You may have a different set of needs, of course, and you’ll have to weigh TiVo’s advantages and disadvantages for yourself.

But for $7.99 per month for Hulu Plus, I can access most of the current network programming I’d otherwise miss – I don’t need TiVo’s OTA DVR for that. Meanwhile, on the occasion I want to watch a live show, an antenna plugged into the TV is all I need.

Email me your cord-cutting story, or your Netflix recommendations: sarahp@techcrunch.com

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