TiVo’s been talking up their DVR extender over a year, since it was first introduced last February as the IP-STB. And, while we didn’t get the 2012 retail launch we were hoping for, the TiVo Mini ($100, plus service) has finally arrived. But is it everything we’d hoped for?
Instead of sprinkling a number of DVRs around the home, the TiVo Mini essentially leverages a 4-tuner TiVo Premiere as a central media hub – relaying both live and recorded content. This thin client approach features a variety of practical advantages including a lower total cost of ownership, via waived CableCARD and Additional Outlet fees, energy efficiency, and the simplicity of managing a single drive of scheduled recordings. Of course, TiVo isn’t first to this space, joining very fine satellite offerings from DISH and DirecTV on one side… with years of Windows Media Center extenders at the other end of the spectrum.
TiVo Mini Unboxing & Setup
The TiVo Mini ships with a standard Peanut remote, including batteries, and TiVo has kindly included a HDMI cable. However, in order to keep the Mini’s size under control, TiVo passed on standard component jacks and folks reliant on them may have a difficult time connecting their TVs. So, perhaps, they should have provided that rather rare breakout cable instead. Monoprice to the rescue? Speaking of connectivity, to maintain solid performance while streaming high bitrate MPEG2 around the home, the TiVo Mini and the host Premiere must be fed via Ethernet or MoCA - no WiFi welcome here. (Unless you’re partial to TiVo’s $90 802.11n bridge, which we wouldn’t actually recommend for this scenario.) Once wired up, the TiVo Mini is virtually linked to the source DVR by permanently commandeering a tuner.
TiVo Mini Guts & Performance
The TiVo Mini represents a significant processor upgrade over what’s shipping within the 3-year old Premiere line. And the Broadcom BCM7418 really delivers. Performance is so snappy, in fact, it actually feels quicker to browse remotely located content than accessing it directly via the source DVR. Although, that’s probably more an indictment of the TiVo Premiere’s insufficient processing power… which doesn’t actually meet Adobe’s minimum specs for Air on TV. Once recorded content is streaming, TiVo Mini’s transport controls respond as you’d expect with no noticeable hit in performance. However, those predisposed to channel surfing live television may find the tuning lag unacceptable – yet, as with recorded content, once the video gets rolling after 4-5 seconds the instant replay, rewind, etc functions perform well. Also worth noting, the TiVo Mini ships without a hard drive or fan – resulting in silent bedroom operation.
The Trouble With Tuners
At launch, TiVo has delivered the TiVo Mini without dynamic tuner allocation. And while not as limited as we’d initially envisioned, a TiVo Mini essentially downgrades a 4-tuner TiVo Premiere into a 3-tuner model in regards to simultaneous recordings. It’s probably not a deal breaker in most households, but it’s a detail worth contemplation. Further, TiVo has chosen to artificially restrict the TiVo Mini to TiVo Premiere 4/XL4/Elite hosts (of which investor Sam Biller estimates about 50k in circulation) – leaving 2-tuner TiVo Premiere owners out in the cold. For now? We assume this is partially a TiVo marketing strategy, encouraging folks to move up to their lesser subsidized DVR models, and also related to limitations inherent with the simplistic tuner sharing. While TiVo has alluded to a more robust tuner sharing model, we encourage potential customers to make their purchasing decision based on what the Mini does now versus what it may do down the road given TiVo’s history of delivering incomplete products.
All About Apps
When the TiVo Premiere launched in 2010, it was touted as the “One Box” to provide all our meaningful linear and over-the-top content, tying it all together with universal search functionality. It was a lofty proclamation and TiVo has indeed provided a very competitive digital cable set-top alternative. Yet, TiVo’s app platform hasn’t kept pace with those of their non-cable competitors – delivering a tiny fraction of what a fee-free $50 Roku box provides. And, unfortunately, apps on the TiVo Mini remain a bit of a mixed bag. While performance is significantly improved over the TiVo Premiere’s sluggish response, OTT options have actually decreased – with both Netflix and Amazon Instant missing in action. We understand the Amazon experience has to be reworked, given the Mini’s limited storage. But Netflix remains a head scratcher and suspect licensing considerations or technical issues may be at play. Regardless, many TiVo owners will continue to collocate Roku or Apple TV units at their television for more expansive Internet options.
Despite the TiVo Mini’s shortcomings and onerous service fees, we whole-heartedly recommend the solution to existing 4-tuner TiVo Premiere owners looking to extend the TiVo experience to additional TVs in the home. The TiVo Mini is particularly compelling for those running multiple Premiere DVRs… at a higher cost. And, despite the live TV tuning lag and absence of Netflix, we’ve decommissioned the bedroom Premiere in favor of the significantly more compact and energy efficient MoCA-fed Mini. But the situation is far more murky for 2-tuner Premiere owners or those not yet in TiVo’s warm CableCARD embrace. Are you prepared to invest in digital cable as your primary source of television content, at significant expense, for the next several years? If so, you may actually just want to wait… as we suspect TiVo has new DVR hardware in the pipeline, powered by more suitable, modern chipsets with at least one sporting an even higher tuner count.
This is a collaborative review composed by Dave Zatz, who’s been tracking TiVo Mini development over the last year, and Chad Monroe, a newly minted Mini owner.