Despite the plethora of services and devices dedicated to satisfying your binge-watching need, veteran company TiVo hasn’t been completely pushed out yet. The company has made an effort to modernize over the past few years, elevating its DVR boxes with features like voice commands and access to third-party streaming apps.
Now, TiVo is going after a specific group of cord-cutters—those who haven’t made the commitment yet but want to put their toes in the cable-free water.
The company’s new $249 TiVo Bolt OTA box axes the cable card slot so it can only receive antenna-based channels. The company believes some users who haven’t gone full cord-cutter yet may be willing to take the plunge if some channels remain available to them at first.
The Bolt OTA lets users connect an antenna as well as stream content from services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. As someone who still pays for cable but would love to leave that life behind some day, I was intrigued by the Bolt OTA. I spent about two weeks testing the device, and, while it has a number of features I never had access to on other set-top boxes, I’m not convinced that it’s the best option for most wannabe cord-cutters.
Design and setup
The Bolt OTA takes the shape of existing TiVo devices, a curved rectangle that takes up more space on your dresser or TV unit than most other set-top boxes. It’s a handsome box, though, featuring a glossy black finish and a single indicator light on the front edge. The back edge contains all of its connectivity options: the power port, a port for additional E-SATA storage, two USB-A ports, an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a standard audio in/out port, a digital optical audio port, and the antenna connector. The box also has 1TB of internal storage for DVR content, and it can play 4K and HDR content.
I didn’t have an antenna already, so I purchased an HDTV model for about $25. You can find antennas for anywhere between $10 and $80, making it a fairly affordable addition to your TV setup if you don’t have a cable provider or don’t want to pay for additional cable boxes to place in different rooms throughout your home.
The user’s part in setting up the Bolt OTA takes little time: just plug the device into your TV using the included HDMI cable and connect your antenna to the device via a coaxial cable. Then, you just need to turn on the TV and follow the on-screen instructions—the longest part is when you have to wait for TiVo to activate the box’s service and fetch all the local channels available through the antenna.
As soon as I plugged in the Bolt OTA, I noticed how noisy it was. The box emits a constant hum or buzz that you can’t hear while a show is playing, but you can definitely hear it if the room is silent and you’re within ten feet of the box. It wasn’t loud enough to keep me up at night, but it provided subtle background noise during the day when the room is almost always unoccupied.
The Bolt OTA comes with the Vox remote that accompanies the newest Bolt boxes, and boy is it a honker. Compared to the remotes for Roku and Apple TV devices, TiVo’s remote is mammoth and more akin to a cable box remote that you’d get when you set up service. Its design didn’t bother me, but it was starkly different from the minimalist, rectangular accessories that I’m used to using on other set-top boxes. Aside from the voice commands (which we’ll discuss later), I liked the remote’s number buttons because they could be assigned a shortcut to open a particular app such as YouTube or Netflix.
TiVo service explained
The Bolt OTA is more than just a box, because it’s a TiVo device. Unlike other set-top boxes, most TiVo devices require that you pay a monthly or one-time fee for the company’s service. Since the Bolt OTA is limited in that it cannot take a cable card, TiVo lowered the price of its service for Bolt OTA users to $6.99 per month (down from $14.99 per month). Users can also opt to pay a one-time fee of $249 to get TiVo services for the life of the Bolt OTA that they purchased, which also costs $249. Here’s what that TiVo service gets you:
Interface and apps
The newest version of the TiVo interface is uninspired, but finding content sources is easy enough. From live TV, press the round TiVo button at the top of the remote to access the main menu. This is where content funnels live, including My Shows, What to Watch, Search, and Apps. My Shows and What to Watch aggregate suggested and favorite content across live TV channels and streaming services. What To Watch relies heavily on TV listings, so that’s where to go if you want to check out what’s on at the moment.
TiVo pulls suggested content from TV listings, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have access to all the shows in the What to Watch tab. Some of my suggested shows were airing on channels that my antenna couldn’t pick up—TiVo recognized the channel number, the network name, and the show that was scheduled to air, but tuning to that channel brought me to a black screen.
It didn’t take long for that to become one of my biggest gripes with the TiVo Bolt OTA—the device doesn’t make it easy to isolate the channels that your antenna can actually pick up. While the device recognized around 120 channels in my area, I had to flip through them all to see which ones actually worked on my TV screen.