In June, the U.S. Supreme Court killed the Aereo service—which used banks of tiny antennas and a cloud-based DVR to let people redirect over-the-air TV to all their Net-connected devices—by ruling that it violated Federal copyright law. Now TiVo, the company which popularized DVRs in the first place, is swooping in to seize what it sees as a market opportunity, with a new version of its TV box aimed at folks who get their TV via antenna rather than cable or satellite.
Unlike Aereo, TiVo's new product, the TiVo Roamio OTA, isn't based on radical new technology. It's a near-twin of the most basic model of the TiVo Roamio, with the ability to record four shows at once and enough hard-disk space for 75 hours of HD video. The company simply ditched the CableCard slot which was required to hook up the box to cable TV—and it slashed the price from $200 to $50.
You can only record TV that you can pull in with an antenna. But there's a lot of it out there—around 90 stations in the Bay Area, for instance—and plenty of HD, all for free.
This new antenna-only TiVo—which competes with Simple TV and Tablo, two DVRs from startups—is a bit of an experiment. It'll only be available at 430 Best Buy stores beginning in September, and from BestBuy.com starting in October. As always with TiVo, there's also a charge for the service that provides the TV schedule and otherwise manages the box: $15 a month, with a one-year commitment.
Tom Rogers, TiVo's CEO, says that he was struck by how big a story Aereo's legal battle and ultimate downfall turned out to be: "I was surprised how much non-legal press, broad consumer press, that story was getting in terms of over-the-air channels and having some recording ability for them." About 30% of TiVo customers already used it only with an antenna; the company figured that even more cord cutters might be interested in a low-priced TiVo designed especially for them.
The Roamio OTA isn't an exact counterpart to Aereo. On its own, it's meant for TV watching on an actual TV; for $130 extra, you can buy a complementary box called TiVo Stream which lets you stream live and recorded video to iPhones and iPads or download entire shows for offline viewing. (In my tests with an earlier-model TiVo, it worked well.) Aereo's base service cost $8 a month and only let you record one show at a time; the Roamio OTA can record up to three shows while you're watching live TV.
Unlike Aereo, TiVo also melds broadcast TV with Net-based services including Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus, and wraps everything up in its famously approachable user interface, with the iconic peanut-shaped remote control, a universal search engine for shows and performers, and a guide to stuff that's on at the moment called "What to Watch Now."
"People viewed Aereo as such a technology advance," Rogers says, "but from the consumer's point of view, [the Roamio OTA] ends up a at a better place." That may be true, although the TiVo versions of streaming services sometimes have holes: Amazon, for instance, doesn't give Prime subscribers access to the video library they get on other devices.
At $50, the TiVo Roamio OTA plays in the same rock-bottom price category as Roku and Google's Chromecast. It's the $15 a month fee that's meaningful over time—and rather than giving you content, all it provides is the convenience of the TiVo service. Which does indeed remain possibly the best way ever invented to find programming you care about and watch it on your own schedule.
For me, it's worth it: I've been a TiVo user for years, and recently upgraded to a Roamio model. (I paid for the service for my box using a one-time, lump-sum option, which isn't available with the Roamio OTA.) But the Roamio OTA will only succeed if there's a critical mass of people who prefer free TV to cable or satellite—but are still willing to pay a significant monthly fee to get more out of the TV they do watch.