First Thoughts: Tivo Stream 4K

I’ve owned a Tivo of some flavor since 2005, because I enjoy TV (and hate most commercials). I’ve done Tivo’s marketing surveys, and run their beta/pre-release software. You might say I’m a fan. Let’s see how Tivo’s latest product, the “Tivo Stream 4K” streaming gizmo, fares.

Picture of the Tivo Stream 4K package.

Fifteen years ago, many cable providers didn’t offer any sort of set-top box, and the ones that did had atrocious interfaces, no recording capability, and were generally just not pleasant to use.

Between then and now, TV has changed, and so has Tivo itself. Tivo has gone from making primarily cool gadgets for TV nerds, to largely being an IP holding company that licenses its patents (and occasionally its UI/UX) to cable companies. After they were bought out in 2016, many feel they went rapidly downhill. Things like pre-roll ads, and removing their iconic thumbs-up/thumbs-down buttons from remotes, have changed a lot of the Tivo experience. Every cable company has a DVR, some of them in fact using that licensed Tivo technology. And of course now there are cable-cutters, those who stream live TV online, or even don’t do live TV at all. Even with some of these mis-steps, though, the Tivo user interface is still the best off-the-shelf option for managing your cable TV experience.

Here we are in mid-2020, and Tivo has released their new Tivo Stream 4K, first announced in January to a non-trivial amount of hoopla. Let’s take a look at their new toy.

Tivo describes this as a way to combine all your streaming services into a single (Tivo, of course) interface, and names several of the heavy hitters as being explicitly supported in some fashion (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sling, Disney Plus). Plus, it’s ultimately an Android device, so other services should be available via the Google Play app store.

I’ve wanted to be a cord-cutter for years now, but the Tivo interface is just so darn simple to use. By comparison, most streaming services’ native GUIs are absolutely horrible. I’ve used most of them on a Roku, and a lot of the problems are because the Roku remotes have so few buttons, making things hard to navigate. None of the big ones have a way to jump down the channel guide more than one channel at a time, for instance. If you have several dozen channels, just seeing what’s on is going to give you a George Jetson style broken finger.

In the past, I’ve also tried using an antenna (plugged into my Tivo, of course) for local channels, and Sling for cable channels, but switching back and forth between the two was suitably irritating that I dropped that after a few weeks.

Setting up the Stream 4K is as simple as setitng up most contemporary streaming devices — plug it into the TV through any open HDMI port, plug the micro-USB cord into a power outlet, switch the TV over, and the device walks you through the rest of the process.

Photo showing a traditional Tivo remote, the Tivo Stream 4K remote, and a Roku remote
The Tivo Stream 4K remote (center) is about the same size as a Roku remote (right), and a bit smaller than the “traditional” Tivo remote control (left).

Some notes on the initial setup:

  • The box included a USB power supply, USB cord, and — gasp! — batteries for the Tivo peanut-style remote.
  •  Thumbs-up and thumbs-down are no more. Long-time Tivo users knew they had been deprecating this for a long time, and the buttons are basically vestigial on older devices today, but it’s still kinda sad to see a Tivo device without them.
  • As you might expect from what is technically an Android device, a Google sign-in is apparently mandatory.
  • There’s a day-one update. They’re not just for games anymore.

The initial setup will bounce you back and forth between the device itself, and a tablet or laptop, several times as you sign into all your favorite streaming services. In the middle of this, of course, Tivo takes the opportunity to try to upsell you on Sling, their preferred TV streaming partner. I knew Sling was going to be pushed, but their lack of local channels in my market (and in fact in most markets) made it a non-starter for me.

After about twenty minutes of setup, I’m looking at something that looks a lot like a Tivo programming guide… except the only thing there are all the weird Tivo Plus channels. (Tivo Plus is a motley collection of linear streaming channels, like the “nothing but reruns of Kitchen Nightmares” channel, the “random stuff from Funny Or Die” channel, and a news channel called “Cheddar” that has yet to show a single news story about cheese.) There’s no apparent way to hide or disable any of these channels, either individually or collectively, which already is a disappointment.

I assume that if I were using Sling, their channels would show up in this guide here too.

If you use any TV streaming service besides Sling, you’re pretty much on your own here. Tivo’s search interface will only search the half-dozen or so services with which they’ve specifically integrated (i.e. signed hopefully-lucrative contracts). For traditional cable TV, that’s Sling, of course. Their single search interface also includes Google Play, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu (but not the Hulu live TV service), Disney, and HBO Now.

The remote does have a button that pulls up all of the Android TV apps you’ve installed on your own, but each of them has their own interface, and most of them don’t take advantage of the extra buttons on the Tivo Stream remote. Example: I’m currently trying out YouTube TV, as it includes most of my local broadcast channels. The Stream remote has a dedicated “Skip” button to jump forward 30 seconds, the length of a typical commercial, and a “Live” button to jump to the live part of a program in progress. Neither of these function in the YouTube TV app.

Can you use this to replace your cable TV and your old Tivo? That depends a lot on what channels and services you watch.

If you’re not into broadcast channels, Tivo’s preferred streaming-TV partner Sling is a good choice for a lot of users. I’m one of those weird old folks that still likes broadcast TV. The CW is where all the DC Arrowverse shows live, and I have a “thing” for local news. Since Sling doesn’t offer a complete set of local channels anywhere, and in many markets offers NO local channels, it’s not the right choice for me.

And since I’m not a Sling user, and other TV services are unsupported in the “Tivo Stream” interface/guide app, the Tivo Stream 4K device is pretty much Just Another Streaming Widget. It’s a nice one, maybe a bit expensive as compared to some of the Roku devices, but perfectly mediocre and blah.

If Tivo later extends support for Hulu Live TV, or YouTube TV, or basically anyone besides Sling, I’ll probably revisit this device. Right now, though, I think it might just be going back in the box for a bit.

First Thoughts: Tivo Stream 4K