Useful Gadgets: TiVo BOLT OTA

I’ve been a long-time fan of TiVo, going back to my first Model 1 in 1999 – almost 20 years ago. That product, manufactured by Philips, used a dial-up connection to get program guide data and recorded about 14 hours maximum of analog composite video.

How times have changed! I replaced the first model with the TiVo HD in 2006, installing (and constantly fidgeting with) a pair of CableCards so I could get everything to work with my Comcast service. Various other solutions were out into place to record over-the-air (OTA) programs over the past decade, and along the way, the TiVo HD gave way to an xFinity DVR (manufactured by Samsung), adding a satellite (slave) receiver for the master bedroom.

This is likely the only house in my neighborhood which has both cable TV service and a bevy of roof-top and attic antennas, a combination that didn’t make sense to my neighbors until Hurricane Sandy blew ashore in 2012 and the high winds it generated took down a 75’-tall oak tree nearby, cutting off not only electric power, but also landline telephone and broadband access.

No problem for me – I hauled out a truck battery and an inverter and put my TV back online, watching weather and news updates from my local off-air broadcast stations. Since then, I’ve experimented with a variety of OTA DVRs and antennas, most recently Channel Master’s DVR+ product. The DVR+ combines OTA television with selected streaming channels, so it’s attractive to cord-cutters.

But no one to date has come up with a program guide and DVR combo like TiVo had. The xFinity platform borrows a lot from TiVo (and in fact, Comcast had been sued over patent infringement by TiVo, which is why the voice control feature on xFinity boxes was disabled for a while earlier this year).

The distinctive remote, the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons, and a mix of “clicks,” “beeps,” and tympani “thuds” all added up to a product that became a verb. “Should we TiVo this show?” and “Boop it to skip those commercials!” became everyday expressions.

Way back at CES 2018, I met with TiVo executives and proposed a test of the new Bolt OTA, which was in the development stages. I also asked for the remote Mini box that would operate as a slave to the Bolt OTA and connect to the TV in my master bedroom, using Multimedia Over Coax (MoCA) connections.

Well, here it is, 9 months after that conversation, and TiVo has just announced the Bolt OTA is shipping. So, it’s as good a time as any to post my review!

The BOLT OTA continues TiVo’s off-kilter chassis design with minimalist indicators.

 

OUT OF THE BOX

In contrast to 2006 when I set up the TiVo HD, the Bolt OTA is a much simpler proposition. It comes in that funny slightly-bent chassis with a black gloss finish and only a pair of indicator lights on the front – one green to show that it’s operating and one red to indicate that either a program is being recorded or program guide information is being downloaded.

To get up and running, you need to make a few connections. The first is obvious – some sort of antenna for receiving TV broadcast signals. You can get away with an indoor antenna if you are 10-12 miles max from the TV towers and I recommend an outdoor antenna (or amplified indoor antenna) for reception over longer paths.

I use two antennas in my roof – a Channel Master 7-element highband VHF yagi and an older Channel Master 4308 UHF yagi, both feeding a CM 7777 UHF/VHF mast-mounted preamplifier. With this system, I can rotate the antennas and pull in signals from New York City (64 miles away) as well as Philadelphia, Allentown, and even Scranton, PA.

There isn’t much to connect on the rear panel – HDMI, power, Ethernet (unless you use a wireless connection), and an RF connection to your antenna.

 

You’ll also need an Internet connection. Bolt OTA supports WiFi (802.11ac channel bonding modems are highly recommended for faster streaming speeds) and wired Ethernet, which is what I use to connect to my modem. The third connection will be HDMI to your television, and I should mention that Bolt OTA supports 4K video – you’re not likely to find any 4K OTA broadcasts, but you will find 4K video online from the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

If you want to connect the audio output to an older AV receiver, there’s an optical (SPDIF) socket for plastic optical fiber cables. Newer receivers will automatically extract audio from the HDMI connection. There’s also an analog stereo audio output for REALLY old systems.

For the Bolt Mini VOX slave receiver, you must have a coaxial cable or wired Ethernet connection to operate the Bolt OTA remotely, schedule and play recordings, and stream content. Unless your house has wired Ethernet ports in all rooms (and few do), a standard coaxial connection will do the trick.

WHAT YOU GET

For starters, the well-known TiVo program guide (plus most of those beeps and boops). The Bolt OTA also comes with either a 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive or recording, along with four separate tuners. Figuring about 6.5 GB/hour as a rule-of-thumb for recording HD programs, you can get about 75 hours of recordings with the 500 GB version.

TiVo’s Home screen has changed quite a bit in the past decade.

TiVo’s APP screen is loaded with streaming services.

 

While the primary focus of this product is over-the-air reception, the Bolt ITA also supports streaming video from a variety of services. If you subscribe to Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, and also enjoy watching YouTube, those four services are available in the Apps section. You’ll also find EPIX, Vudu, MLB.TV, HSN, Yahoo!, Tubi, iHeart Radio, and Pandora (now part of Sirius) in this menu. (What you won’t find is Google Play or iTunes.)

For a dedicated cord-cutter, that’s not a bad lineup. Add those to the multiple digital channels carried by broadcasters – our local CBS and NBC affiliates each broadcast 2 different programs on their channels, while the ABC affiliate offers three – and you’ll have quite a selection of TV programs to choose from, although not any of the popular cable and satellite channels like USA, AMC, Fox News, MSNBC, Discovery, and ESPN. (You may be able to stream those on mobile devices, though.)

UNDER TEST

When you connect Bolt OTA to your television via an HDMI cable, the receiver uses your TV’s Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) to determine and automatically set the correct output resolution. For most late-model TVs, that will be 1920x1080p/60, although TiVo claims Bolt OTA will drive a TV at 4K (3840x2160p) resolution with 24Hz or 60hz frame rates.

Once you complete the TiVo boot-up process and authenticate your account, the next step is to perform a channel scan. In my area, I found 69 such channels, performing a scan while writing this review. Many of those are in HD, such as the first minor channels for KYW (CBS), WPVI (ABC), WCAU (NBC), WHYY (PBS), and WTXF (Fox).

The FCC recently auctioned off all TV channels above UHF 36, causing some local broadcasters to shut down their stand-alone transmitter operations (like WFMZ in Allentown, previously on channel 46 but now channel-sharing on VHF-9) and combine program streams in a single, lower channel – something that was against FCC rules as recently as 2009, but is now permitted and in fact encouraged. Don’t be surprised if all of your channels have been found halfway through the scan!

In the Los Angeles market, you could find well over 120 channels of programming, albeit with many of those channels in foreign languages. Even in a smaller market, you could still wind up with over 30 different channels of programming – and that would include local weather and news, which is handy in case of natural disasters or other emergencies.

Scanning for channels takes very little time. Once my antenna was connected, it took less than a minute to find all of the available local channels, which will show up in a channel list. This list matches what’s scanned with channels that TiVo’s program guide thinks you should be able to receive, showing up as a blue checked box. You may find additional channels on the list that aren’t checked because the TiVo receiver couldn’t lock up cleanly on them: Try checking those boxes and watch the channel to see if reception is consistent.

Still one of the most ergonomic remote controls available today

 

To watch TV channels, push the “Live TV” button on the remote control and go to a saved channel one of three ways: (1) Using the channel up/down button, (2) selecting the Guide button and scrolling to and selecting a channel, or (3) entering channel numbers directly using the numeric keypad. Streaming is just as easy. Click on the appropriate app and enter your login and password just once – TiVo will save them automatically – and you’re ready to stream programs.

The wizardry of TiVo comes into play with the remote. You have one-touch recording from the remote or guide, and you can fast-forward or rewind during any program you happen to be watching, up to a maximum of 30 minutes without recording. A large “Skip” button lets you instantly skip through commercial breaks during your recordings, no matter how long they are. You’ll see a notification on-screen that you can use this feature at the start of a commercial break.

For Netflix users, you’ve got a dedicated button that will take you right to the app. Just north of the Guide button is a blue button with a microphone icon for 100% voice operation of Bolt OTA. Just push and hold the button and say what you want to do, like “Watch CBS3” or “Record Sunday Night Football,” and it will happen! (What’s more, the Bolt OTA now works with Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system for complete hands-off operation.)

The voice control button works most of the time, although it did get confused when I asked to watch specific channel numbers.

 

This function works well most of the time. I had more luck asking TiVo to change to “CBS3” and “6ABC” than when I requested to “watch channel 3” or “switch to channel 10.” I could also activate the program guide and other functions, but the best use of this button is to locate programs – you don’t need to know the channel if the program listing appears in TiVo’s program guide.

The famous “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons have been retained so you can build up a list of favorite programs and channels based on viewing habits. Looking for a particular program, but don’t know if it is available from a broadcast channel or a streaming channel? TiVo’s OneSearch function will find it for you, and OnePass finds all available episodes of a program. (This works really well with voice control.)

CONCLUSION

So, what will all of this cost you? The Bolt OTA carries a retail price of $250 and the monthly program guide service is tagged at $7 per month or $70 per year. You also have the option of paying a one-time fee of $250 for a lifetime subscription to program guide information. (I opted for the lifetime subs for both of my previous TiVo systems.)

Is that too high? Just right? In my area, a loaded cable TV subscription with fast broadband, digital voice (telephone), and just about every channel you can imagine will set you back well north of $250 a month, including rental of the DVR. That’s your BOLT OTA purchase price.

Even if you opted only for fast broadband service, you’ll be spending between $80 and $100 a month anyway to access your streaming video channels. So, going all-in and dropping $500 once might be the smarter approach, especially if your monthly cable bills are going up 4 to 5% a year, as mine have. TiVo’s web site claims savings of over $800 over three years, based on a survey of different cable service packages. From that perspective, the Bolt OTA would pay for itself in a little less than two years.

As for competitive products like Channel Master’s Stream+ that I reviewed back in July, the Bolt OTA is a big step up in both price and performance. In particular, the voice control function works more reliably and smoothly on Bolt OTA, and the “skip commercials” feature is something you will get attached to very quickly. For those users who think 1 TB isn’t enough storage, TiVo has also provided an e-SATA port for an external hard drive. (Really? 150 hours of recorded shows isn’t enough?)

TiVo Bolt OTA Receiver/DVR

MSRP: $249.99

Available from TiVo, Amazon, Best Buy, and other retailers

More info:

https://www.tivo.com/products/ota-detail