U.S. Markets close in 6 hrs 25 mins

TiVo Bolt: Speed, More Speed, and Instant Ad Skipping

In the beginning, the TiVo set-top box was just a digital video recorder. You’d look over a list of upcoming TV shows and movies on the channels you get, and click Record for each one you want to capture. You didn’t know or care what time or channel they’ll be on. 

Then, on playback, you’d skip 30 seconds at a time, fast-forward, and so on, using the world’s best-designed remote. Virtually overnight, TiVo made old-school VCRs obsolete.

There’s a new TiVo model now, called the Bolt. It still does all of that. But you’re probably thinking what everyone’s thinking: “Nobody watches TV anymore! Everything’s available online; who needs a TV box?”

Ah, but TiVo’s been thinking that, too. So the Bolt is conceived as a clever hub for the whole universe of video. It searches and browses both Web services and what’s on TV, treating them identically.

Right now, the Bolt can search and play back shows from Netflix, Vudu, Amazon, Comcast or Cox on demand (if you have it), and, of course, whatever TV channels you get. It can also play music from Spotify, Pandora, Plex, and IHeartRadio. There are apps for YouTube, AOL On, Yahoo Screen, and others.

Hulu is coming soon, says TiVo, and it’s working to get the on-demand services of other cable companies. Don’t count in seeing the online movie stores from Apple or Google showing up, though.

The point is, if you search for a certain movie, the Bolt shows you everywhere you can get it. Similarly, if you select a series, the Bolt assembles a playlist of all episodes, all seasons, ready to play, regardless of which services they come from.

It can list, record, and play back 4K (ultra HD) shows, too, like the ones available from Netflix and Amazon.

Plenty of boxes attempt to consolidate all online movie services: Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, Chromecast. But the TiVo Bolt also incorporates actual TV, the kind most Americans are still paying a cable service to receive.

Partway Folded

The least likeable thing about the TiVo Bolt, if you ask me, is its design. It’s a tiny white plastic rectangle—that part’s fine—that’s bent in the middle.

TiVo says that that design is partly for ventilation, but mostly to look striking. Well, it’s striking, all right—but it means that you can’t put any other components on top of it. Or you can, but they’re tilted, which could mean vague psychological distress every time you sit down on your couch and see it.

As with other TiVos, this one requires that you replace your cable box with a CableCard. It looks like a metal credit card and goes into a slot in a compartment under the TiVo. You have to request one from your cable company, but there’s a nice payoff: You get rid of a remote control, you eliminate a box and its associated cords, and you may save a couple bucks a month in box rental.

Speed and speed

If you’re not bent out of shape by the Bolt’s being bent out of shape, the next pill to swallow is the TiVo Bolt’s price: $300 for the box with a 500-GB hard drive, or $400 for a 1-terabyte drive. Plus, starting in the second year, you have to pay a monthly $15 fee. (You can also pay $150 a year—a $30 annual savings. Or you can pay a one-time $600 and be done with it.)

You do get a lot for that money, however. This is a premium box for premium couch potatoes.

For one thing, this puppy is fast. It doesn’t heave and sigh and think every time you press a button on the remote. Apps like Netflix open in the time it takes you to pour a can of soda, not the time it takes to make popcorn.

All the guts are better than on the last model, the Roamio: 3 times the memory, gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac WiFi, the ability to stream video to other TiVos in the house using its built-in wiring, and so on.

The on-screen design is improved and streamlined, too. The remote uses RF (radio frequency) waves instead of infrared, so it doesn’t need be line of sight with the box. And if you’ve lost the remote, a button on the Bolt itself makes the remote play a little tune so you can find it.

You can now play back shows at 1.3 times their actual speed, too, without affecting the pitch of the audio. (You hit the Play and then Select buttons on the remote to turn this Quick Mode on or off.) 

1.3X is a good choice. It gets you through a 60-minute show in 46 minutes without turning the TV characters into chipmunks. The musical tempos are a little faster, and there’s a certain overcaffeinated quality to people who already talk fast. But for sports, awards shows, and Kubrick movies, it’s fantastic.

A semi-automatic weapon against ads

And then there’s the Big Ticket Item: You get the ability to skip entire blocks of ads with a single button press.

It’s a spectacular feature. You’re watching a show; the first ad comes on; you press the D button; and boom—you’re back into the show, at the exact spot where it fades in after the last of the six commercials. (If you want to see the ads, the channel up/down buttons jump to the beginning or end of each ad block.)

TiVo is wading into dangerous, network-baiting waters. Ad-skipping technology is part of what killed off TiVo’s onetime rival, ReplayTV. And this TiVo feature sounds almost identical to the Autohop feature of Dish satellite boxes, which quickly ran into legal challenges from ABC/Disney, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

Both ad-skipping services (Dish and TiVo) are available only for national, primetime shows. In TiVo’s case, the ad-skipping works only on shows recorded from 4pm to midnight, on the 20 top channels. In your list of recordings, a SKIP logo appears on the names of shows for which ad-skipping is available.

So why not all shows, all the time? Because—get this—like Dish, TiVo has employees who watch these shows and manually tag every block of ads. In essence, they’re skipping the ads for you. That’s why the ad-skipping feature isn’t available until shortly after a show has been broadcast; it isn’t in place yet if, for example, you’re watching the beginning of a show while the end is still recording.

Dish semi-lost its legal battle with CBS, agreeing to make ad-skipping available only a week after the show’s broadcast; for ABC/Disney, three days after.

But TiVo argues that its ad-skipping feature should be more palatable to the networks, because it’s not automatic. You have to press that D button each time a block of ads comes up. Therefore, TiVo says, it’s basically just a streamlined version of fast-forwarding, which is perfectly legal.

TiVo has another weapon, too: Dish was forced into its ad-skipping compromises because it’s also a broadcaster, which TiVo is not. The networks threatened to withdraw Dish’s permission to broadcast their shows—leverage they don’t have against TiVo.

But we’ll let the lawyers straighten all that out. For now, the TiVo Bolt’s Skip technology works fantastically. The only heartbreaker is that it’s not available on all shows. It’s never available for news or sports; sometimes, it’s even missing from the national primetime ones that are supposed to work. (On my Bolt review unit, ad skipping works great on Fallon, but Colbert’s show isn’t ad-skippable.)

Watch anywhere

If you have a TiVo in one room, you can multiply it to other rooms with the addition of a TiVo Mini ($150, no monthly fee). A Mini connects to a second TV, but shows the contents of the main TiVo elsewhere in the house.

But that’s only the beginning.

There’s a cluttered but powerful app for TiVo for your iPhone, iPad, or Android gadget. It lets you (1) schedule and manage TiVo recordings from afar, (2) operate as a remote control for the TiVo, (3) view detailed dossiers about actors and movies, (4) play live TV anywhere in the house, (5) play anything your TiVo has recorded anywhere in the house, and (6) download TiVo recordings to your phone or tablet.

That downloading business is great for times when you’ll be without fast Internet (a plane, a raft in the middle of the ocean), or when you’d rather not eat up your cellular data plan. And why shouldn’t you be allowed to carry some shows and movies from your cable subscription with you? You’ve paid to watch them, haven’t you?

In November, TiVo says, the Bolt will be able to stream two shows simultaneously within the house, so you and a loved one can watch different things simultaneously on your phones or tablets.

Then early next year, you’ll be able to watch your TiVo recordings on the road, from across the Internet. And by the middle of next year, you’ll be able to watch any of your live TV channels from the road. In other words, the Bolt will become like the Slingbox.

Life with Bolt

I’m a hardcore, long-time TiVophile, and I want this thing. Its speed, its software layout, its consolidation of both cable and Web services, its playback stunts, its ad skipping, its ability to set your recordings free from the box in the living room…Now more than ever, TiVo is the closest thing we’ll get to a time machine.

But I also wish the Bolt didn’t have so many footnotes: features coming soon, features that work only on Comcast or Cox, features that work only on 20 channels.

TiVo is working on most of those limitations, of course. Here’s wishing good luck to its engineers, its dealmakers, and its lawyers.

Because you know what? This machine will be awesome, once a few of its quirks get—you know—straightened out.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.