Welcome to Mossberg, a new weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.
Back in 1999, when I first reviewed the original TiVo DVR, I griped that "TiVo has no commercial-skipping button" and noted that its press literature denounced such a feature on grounds that, while it "may appeal to the pirate in all of us, it just doesn’t make good business sense."
It’s taken 16 years, but TiVo has finally changed its mind. Its latest model, the radically redesigned Bolt, which goes on sale this week for a base price of $300, finally lets you ditch all the ads in a blink. By simply pressing a button once, you can skip an entire block of commercials in many recorded programs, a feature called SkipMode. No more fast-forwarding and hoping you land on the right spot, or repeatedly hitting a 30-second advance button.
And the company’s PR has changed as well. "SkipMode transports you past these annoying interruptions and back to your recorded show in an instant," TiVo now boasts.
Of course, TiVo is a hybrid box that’s for people who want both cable and streaming shows, at a time when more people are shunning cable. But it’ll be a long time before cable is truly abandoned, and lots of people will be happy that the company is making it easier to watch.
In my tests, over the past week, SkipMode invariably made all the commercials disappear and returned me exactly to where programming resumed. The box even prompted me when it was time to skip the ads. But it doesn’t work on every recorded show.
And that’s not the only way the Bolt can save you time when watching TV.
The latest TiVo also boasts another new feature, called QuickMode. It speeds up any recorded show by 30 percent, without making the dialogue sound like it’s being delivered by chipmunks. It’s a timesaver, to be sure — perfect for, say, golf or baseball or talk shows. But you won’t want to watch every show this way. In my tests, QuickMode worked as promised, though shows looked more or less watchable at faster speeds, depending on their nature. 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."
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.
Is that thing really a TiVo?
The Bolt is an odd-looking, white box with an angled top and bottom, which replaces the current low-end, and most popular, model of TiVo’s current Roamio line, the Roamio-S. (The other Roamio models will remain on the market.) It’s much smaller than the Roamios, and the tapered top surface makes it much harder to stack things on top of it.
Like the Roamio-S, the Bolt has four tuners, which means you can record four shows at once. It also has the same 500 gigabytes of storage as the Roamio-S, though you can double that for another $100.
But it improves on the older model by supporting 4K video, gigabit ethernet, the faster AC version of Wi-Fi, and streaming of shows to mobile devices and computers on the same network. (It lacks the costlier Roamio’s out-of-home streaming feature, but the company says it plans to add that next year.)
Unlike some TiVos I’ve tested over the years, I found setting up the Bolt to be a breeze, including the transfer of the cable card from my personal, older TiVo.
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.
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. After the first year, you’ll be billed $149 a year for the service. By comparison, the older model it’s replacing sold for $200 and had a $15 monthly fee, or $180 a year.
Um, there are some limitations
So what are the limitations of the new commercial-skipping feature?
Well, for one thing, it only works on recorded shows, even though after a day I was dying to use it on live TV as well. 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. So far, only 20 channels are included, but they include popular ones like the four major broadcast networks, USA, TNT and Comedy Central.
It also doesn’t work with sports or local programming — even when they are recorded. And it only works for other shows between 4pm and midnight, because TiVo figures that’s when most viewing occurs, and it wanted to put some limits on its manual tagging process to start with. Also, it can take a few minutes for a show to become commercial-skippable and gain a tag in its listing that says "Skip."
Still, I loved using the feature.
One box to rule them all?
One of the most important features of the Bolt isn’t new, but it’s improved: it combines old-fashioned cable TV with popular online streaming services in one box. 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.
Now, with the Bolt, TiVo is ready to proclaim itself the One Box To Rule Them All. Or, in the company’s words, a "Unified Entertainment System".
Not only does the new Bolt call itself the only TV box you’ll need, it actually has new features to make that claim stronger. 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.
In fact, the whole product is faster and smoother, due to a faster processor and triple the memory, when compared to the base Roamio. Also, the user interface is now almost entirely HD, except for two subsections of the settings menu. And the platform for apps like Netflix is now HTML5 only. The company junked Flash.
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. Even if a show is on hiatus, older episodes available on these services are offered up.
In my tests, Netflix and Amazon Prime and YouTube looked as good as they do on Apple TV and Roku. And, if I had a 4K TV, Netflix and YouTube could have looked even better, since the Bolt supports their 4K programming.
What’s wrong with it?
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. It doesn’t include Hulu, which is on the Roamio, but TiVo says it expects Hulu to return once its app has been reconfigured for HTML5.
Also, there’s a bug in the Bolt’s Netflix app which can cause the service to freeze. TiVo says it’s infrequent and will be fixed soon, but I ran into it and had to reboot the unit.
While TiVo’s search is reasonably fast and cross-platform, it still requires you to peck out characters on an onscreen keyboard. Meanwhile, Amazon, Roku, Apple and even Comcast have gone to searching by voice. TiVo says it’s actively exploring doing the same.
I have owned a TiVo for years, and appreciate it. Despite the odd look of the Bolt, I found its new features attractive and reliable.
But the fusion of linear cable and streaming internet video in one box is a big deal, even if it’s been around — quietly — for awhile. TiVo has finally got this right.
Sure, a lot of what’s on cable is already available in streaming form on many devices. And, eventually, all of it will be. But that will take awhile. Meanwhile, unless you’ve cut the cord, you’re going to want some mix of cable and streaming services. And this product pulls that off, while making old-fashioned TV much better, with commercial skipping and the occasional speed-viewing.
I wouldn’t say that the Bolt should make non-cable users suddenly buy cable. But, if you already have it, this is a good solution.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.