New Roku and TiVo Devices Make Cutting the Cable Cord Plausible
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- September 3rd, 2014
CUTTING the cable television cord has always sounded nicer than it really is.
Get out from under that ugly cable bill by watching movies and television shows streamed over the Internet straight to your TV? Gladly. Deal with a tangle of tricky technology and give up a few programs that are on the personal must-watch list? No thanks.
But I recently tested some promising new devices — two Roku smart televisions and a specialized TiVo made specifically for cord-cutters — that make life without cable possible and even easy. After years of complex Internet-to-TV setups and multiple streaming boxes, it seems the technology has finally caught up with the dream.
Roku already makes popular and convenient streaming Internet video devices that you can plug into your TV. Now, it’s teaming up with two little-known TV makers — TCL and Hisense — to make low-priced smart TVs that use the Roku interface for browsing.
Most modern TVs already offer smart features that include streaming from sites like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. But many people either don’t connect these televisions to the Internet or find their interfaces unintuitive.
Roku’s smart TVs include a secret weapon: Instead of browsing one streaming service at a time for something to watch, these TVs let you search for a show, actor or director across its most popular program sources.
The search works across 13 providers, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus. In addition Roku offers some 1,700 channels, connecting to YouTube, Showtime Anytime, HBO Go (depending on your cable provider — it won’t work with Comcast), live streaming sports like WatchESPN and MLB.TV, plus Disney Channel and PBS.
Some of that content requires separate subscriptions or cable authentication. And you’ll need subscriptions to services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus. But there’s still plenty of content available, much of it free.
The TVs are simple to set up and operate. I tried a 48-inch model from TCL and a 40-inch Hisense that will be available this month.
Both televisions have built-in Wi-Fi, so you just plug them in and connect them to your home network to get started. Roku smart TVs include simple remote controls that dispense with numeric keypads and input buttons in favor of a navigation pad, home and back buttons, playback controls and a few custom buttons for services like Netflix and Amazon, plus streaming services Rdio and Vudu.
Navigation is easy, although I wish there were a search button on the remote. Instead, you must navigate back to the home screen and click down several menu items to reach the search option.
Over all, Roku is a great interface for navigating streaming video, and pairing it with a TV is a smart move. If you’ve already gotten rid of cable or you’re thinking of cutting the cord, these TVs are easy to set up, and they immediately start delivering an abundance of TV programs, movies and online video.
Unfortunately, the TVs themselves have middling picture quality. That’s O.K., since they’re also inexpensive: The 48-inch TCL TV is just $499. The price of the 40-inch Hisense TV hasn’t been announced, but is expected to be similarly low. And there’s no charge for the Roku service, other than the streaming subscriptions of your choice.
I wouldn’t get one as my primary television just yet. But Roku TVs make excellent bedroom or kitchen TVs, where you might not have a cable hookup, and you’ll appreciate being able to watch movies and shows on-demand.
If you’re looking to cut the cord and keep the TV you have, consider TiVo’s new Roamio OTA ($50). It’s a TiVo that’s built solely for cord-cutters. It has no slot for a CableCard, and the OTA stands for “over the air.”
It’s meant to be used with an external HD antenna, not included, that can grab free network channels and a few others, like PBS or whatever your local area delivers over the air.
A Roku TV can also be used with an antenna, of course, and the Roamio OTA could be used without one to browse popular streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
But the TiVo — plus an antenna — can then record network television, so that even if you’re cutting the cord, you don’t have to miss episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance” on your DVR. The result is an experience that feels close to having cable — and adds streaming — all in one nice interface.
Installing an HD antenna requires a little more tinkering than the plug-and-watch Roku TV, and households in some areas will be more successful than others at grabbing channels out of the sky. I used a Mohu Leaf indoor antenna (about $70) and was able to get CBS, NBC and Fox over the air, although it wasn’t always a clean signal.
And the Leaf, while unobtrusive, still isn’t the most attractive device to have hanging off the wall.
However, the TiVo interface has always been my favorite for navigating and recording television. Like the Roku smart TVs, the TiVo Roamio can search for shows across multiple sources. Existing TiVos also have this ability — a long underrated feature that even includes on-demand shows if your cable provider supports it.
I find TiVo’s search more appealing than Roku’s, because TiVo filters its results according to what’s currently new or popular and also according to what you’ve watched in the past. Even cord-cutters probably just want to watch popular TV, so I appreciate being directed to relevant results.
One downside to the TiVo is its $15 a month service cost. Unlike some other TiVo models, there’s no option with the Roamio OTA to pay for a lifetime subscription up front, so you’ll definitely be trading one subscription for another.
However, $15 a month, even including the cost of subscriptions like Netflix or Hulu Plus and Internet access, is still cheaper than most cable packages.
TiVo seems to consider the Roamio OTA a bit of a test. It’s doing a limited introduction of the device at a few Best Buy stores this month, and online in October. That makes sense, since dealing with an HD antenna isn’t for everyone and might not work in every home.
But I’ve long thought TiVo’s integrated search makes it a great smart TV replacement, and a small, inexpensive box that can record live TV is a good buy for many would-be cord-cutters.
The big drawback with both the Roku and TiVo options remains the content. I’m impressed with the variety of shows on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and Hulu Plus, but you still have to pay à la carte for some shows and for most good movies.
Sports are tricky, too, but not impossible. Roku does offer live sports streaming, and you can get stand-alone streaming subscriptions for professional football, baseball and basketball. Unfortunately, local team games are often blacked out if they’re televised. But that’s what the pub is for, right?
The final hurdle, for many, is their beloved HBO subscription and HBO Go streaming service. But if the rumors are true that it could be offered as a stand-alone subscription, that could change.
There are more reasons than not to get rid of cable, especially as the tech to do it becomes more approachable. I’d recommend the Roku smart TVs to almost anyone in my life, and the Roamio OTA to many others. I can hardly say the same for cable.