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TIVO BOLT UNIFIED ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM REVIEW

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PRICE $300 (500 GB), $400 (1 TB)AT A GLANCE
Plus
One-touch leapfrogging of any size commercial block
Four tuners
Can play shows 30 percent faster
Mobile device transfer
Integrated search functions
4K UHD compatible
Minus
On-demand cable may not be available
No component video output
No clock on front panel

THE VERDICT
TiVo Bolt is an indispensable tool for TV-obsessed viewers who hate commercials and value the ease of managing all their cable, online, and local-network-stored entertainment from one smartly designed receiver/recorder.

With 412 scripted TV series originating on broadcast, cable, and online channels last year, viewers face the twin challenges of finding shows that appeal to them and having enough waking hours to watch them. TiVo’s new flagship digital video recorder, Bolt, purports to help solve both problems. An admitted TV addict, I bolted for a Bolt to see if it could rekindle the excitement I felt when TiVo debuted in 1999.

Hump Day
White and bent, Bolt is an unusual- looking component. Because of its hump, it needs to be topmost in a stack. Included in the box are an HDMI cable and a remote with two AA batteries (also white) that operates in either RF or IR modes (it defaults to RF with the guided setup). As an accessory, I highly recommend the TiVo Slide Pro RF remote ($50) and its slide-out QWERTY keypad that’s used for setting up accounts and inputting search terms. Both remotes work with the Bolt’s Remote Finder function, which activates an audible signal from the remote via a button on the rear panel.

Bolt is smaller than past TiVo DVRs, partially a result of making the power supply external and removing most legacy ports. A single RF input accommodates a coaxial cable or antenna for watching cable or over-the-air broadcasts, though you can’t have both sources hooked up at the same time, as you could on past models with two RF inputs. With component video gone, one HDMI output is the only way to connect the picture to your A/V receiver or TV. Audio also can be output through an optical digital or one- pin stereo jack.

Bolt embeds Wi-Fi (AC Dual band, N, G, B, A), but I chose to plug into the Ethernet port (10/100/1,000 megabits per second). I installed a CableCARD on my own that had been supplied by my cable service, Verizon FiOS.

 

1464585015-8060-516bolt.bac-Along with a pair of USB 2.0 ports, there’s an eSATA port on the back panel that should appeal to video hoarders. It hooks up to the Western Digital My Book AV DVR Expander ($130 from TiVo), a 1-terabyte external drive. According to TiVo, each terabyte lodges 150 hours of high-def programs.

I powered on Bolt and went through the prompts for activating TiVo service and downloading my cable system’s program guide. Within 30 minutes, I was setting up OnePass recordings for series I regularly watch. You can opt to include reruns, episodes that are new, or ones streamed from online services.

Skip It
Due to the usual legal concerns, TiVo has had a tortured history regarding its intrinsic ability to skip commercials. It once shied away from shipping units with a 30-second quick-skip function, leaving it to user groups to disseminate a code you could input to assign a skip interval to a button. If your TiVo lost power, you had to do it again. Meanwhile, the company’s original competitor, ReplayTV, embedded a Commercial Advance function that skipped over ads without requiring you to touch the remote. Broadcasters sued, and ReplayTV was driven out of business.

More recently, Dish Network’s Hopper hardware became the subject of lawsuits filed by broad- casters who questioned the legality of its AutoHop function, which allows the option of commercial-free playback of certain recordings made with the Hopper’s PrimeTime Anytime feature. Though Dish prevailed in court, it later agreed during negotiation of retransmission rights with some networks to disable the AutoHop function for the first few days following a show’s premiere.

TiVo’s new compromise is SkipMode, available for shows recorded during prime time that encompass the top 20 cable channels as gauged by TiVo users. It employs human operators to input markers that ghettoize blocks of commercials that now regularly drain 3 to 5 minutes of our lives four to five times an hour. You have to wait at least 15 minutes after a broadcast ends before a “Skip” label appears alongside the program title in the Now Playing menu. Then, whenever the show breaks, you’re prompted to press the remote’s D button. The program then picks up instantly. Although you’re required to touch the remote at each commercial break, doing so is way more efficient than fast-forwarding or pressing a 30-second advance button eight or nine times, then backtracking if you overshoot. Clearly, the technology is in place if TiVo chooses to further automate SkipMode.

TiVo offers another trick that lets you watch more TV in less time. QuickMode, compatible with any recorded or delayed show, plays video 30 percent faster without altering the audio pitch. Actors walk and talk faster, but they don’t sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and captions are readable. Using SkipMode to vault commercials and QuickMode to hasten play, I was able to watch 60 Minutes in 33. With both in play, a chime supplements the SkipMode prompt. Getting time back on every hour is something you’ll cherish the older you get.

QuickMode isn’t suitable for every show, though. While it picked up Scott Pelley’s sluggish pace, it made it more difficult to understand a Swiss official with a thick accent as he talked about FIFA. The tempo of Bruce Springsteen music in another 60 Minutes segment wasn’t natural. As for the timepiece that opens and closes the program, the ticker sounded like it was heading for a heart attack. There are high-quality programs (like The Good Wife and anything written by Aaron Sorkin) where you should savor the dialogue, not dash through it. I’d reserve QuickMode for watching news reports and golf matches—or for getting some comic relief as manic contestants flap their arms on The Price Is Right.

Bolt has the potential to let you down due to a limitation of Cable- CARD, the conditional access card for watching cable channels. Two days after a new episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired, I watched it on TiVo—only to discover that the story and characters crossed over to the following broadcast, Chicago P.D., which I hadn’t recorded. I was unable to access the network on-demand channels through TiVo. Luckily, I had the FiOS DVR hooked up to the same TV, and I was able to play the show on-demand without budging from the couch. Although the episode was free to watch, fast-forwarding was disabled, so I had to wait out the commercials. Both shows were billed as one-hour dramas, but it took 59 minutes to watch Chicago P.D. on-demand via the cable box compared with just 32 minutes for SVU with SkipMode and QuickMode deployed on Bolt.

1464585015-3229-516bolt.rem-According to TiVo, the on-demand workaround for viewers blocked by CableCARD is Internet Protocol delivery. However, that requires various contractual agreements specific to the network, cable system, and device. Unlike my experience with NBC on-demand, I had better luck watching HBO on-demand through my Bolt box. I found HBO Go listed under TiVo’s menu for Find TV, Movies & Video. Once I authenticated my FiOS HBO subscription from a code displayed by TiVo on my TV screen (which I then entered into a browser on my iPad), I could use Bolt to choose from the HBO catalog and stream the poignant documentary Becoming Mike Nichols at will.

Unified Theory
TiVo appropriately uses the phrase “unified entertainment system” to indicate that Bolt is much more than a hard disk recorder. As an Internet video and music receiver, it allows you to watch lots of top-notch online video content. The Bolt systems are the only TiVo models compatible with 4K/UHD. Currently, 4K programming can be streamed from Netflix and YouTube. Music choices include Pandora and Spotify. An account is required to access most online services.

Being able to search across cable and Internet video sources is helpful since you’ll know—thanks to TiVo’s two-weeks-out program guide—whether to record an upcoming movie from cable, save a title to a watch list, or stream it instantly from an online service. Besides titles and names, you can put in keywords. As soon as I typed in glut, seeking cooking shows featuring gluten-free food, TiVo returned an America’s Test Kitchen episode included with my Amazon Prime subscription.

As a media receiver capable of streaming content stored on a computer in another room, Bolt includes the (belatedly added) ability to show your photos and play music at the same time. And it can stream home videos from your computer, too, which wasn’t even an option in the past. It accomplishes these tasks by ditching its own TiVo Desktop utility and outsourcing home network streaming to the Plex Media Server you install on your computer.

If you’re a new TiVo user, the company won’t be giving you its TiVo Desktop computer software. This had enabled owners of older models to copy non-protected recorded shows to a PC via their home network and to designate photos and music stored on the PC for streaming back to TiVo. Still, TiVo vets may be interested to know that I was able to use the six-year-old version on my PC to copy most recordings from Bolt over my network.

In any event, TiVo now has better ways for Bolt users to share content to other screens. Using the browser on a Windows or Mac computer on your network and signing onto your TiVo Online account, you can watch a live or recorded show and set recordings. While I streamed Join or Die with Craig Ferguson from the History Channel to the 23-inch high-def computer screen in my home office, my wife watched Chopped from the Food Network on the 50-inch screen in our living room.

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I also installed TiVo’s Android and iOS apps on my phone and tablet and had the same full access to Bolt as I did from my PC. Since we’re a one-TV household with two people sometimes fighting over what to watch, the ability to extend TiVo to mobile screens and a PC through multiple rooms was a blessing. Bolt supports two simultaneous streams to other devices. (Alas, SkipMode and QuickMode are unavailable on other devices.) Using a remote screen to watch a live program triggers Bolt to record the show. You can also use the mobile app as a remote, with a touch- sensitive program guide.

Commuters and parents determined to keep kids entertained on trips should be glad to hear that Bolt supports the ability to transfer shows to a tablet or phone for viewing offline. Disappointment ensued, however, when I tried to watch Bolt programs on my tablet and phone from afar. Tapping into free Wi-Fi at the public library, I was met by this message: “Your TiVo DVR does not support out-of-home streaming.” According to TiVo, a Bolt software update that was expected in March supports out-of-home download of content, and a further update before summer will support out-of-home streaming of content.

The first year of TiVo service is included in the Bolt purchase price. Subsequently, users can choose a subscription of $15/month or $150/year (the latter equaling $12.50/month) or a one-time payment of $600. By owning a Bolt, you can save the cost of leasing a cable box, but your cable operator will charge $2 to $5 each month to lease a CableCARD.

With Bolt, TiVo seamlessly integrates a vast array of cable and online offerings, makes it easy to obliterate ad glut, and embraces our mobile screens. In so doing, TiVo has managed to reawaken the thrill I felt at the mil- lennium when the DVR rendered the VCR obsolete and empowered viewers like never before

Specs
Storage: 500 GB or 1 TB internal; expandable by 1 TB
Inputs: Coax cable or antenna, Ethernet, USB (2), CableCARD slot
Outputs: HDMI, optical digital audio, stereo analog audio, eSATA
Dimensions (WxHxD, Inches): 11.4 x 1.8 x 7.3
Weight (Pounds): 1.9
Price: $300 (500 GB), $400 (1 TB); includes one year of TiVo service

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