Before the era of streaming, the only way to watch television shows on your time was to tape it in real-time.
By today’s standards, that practice involved a complicated web of buying expensive equipment (a VCR), learning how to program it (by reading the manual), then purchasing accessories (blank tapes) based on how much you wanted to record.
Then in the late 1990s, a scrappy San Francisco startup changed everything. When it launched, TiVo had just one mission in mind: Dominate the living room.
For the better part of two decades, TiVo did just that: Its line of digital video recorders (DVRs) offered Americans the ability to record live broadcast, cable and satellite channels without videotapes for the first time. You weren’t a real TV lover unless you had a TiVo box, and TiVo customers made themselves more than known.
But then, around 2010, things started to change. Cable and satellite companies began improving their set-top boxes, upgrading their DVR offerings to match — and sometimes, best — TiVos boxes that started to come across as stagnant. Netflix introduced customers to the idea of streaming entire series of TV shows and full-length movies over the Internet. TiVo’s operating system was user-friendly — and, even better, the box intelligently recommended new shows and movies to watch based solely on what you liked already, and would even automatically record them if customers wanted.
Fast forward just a few years, and it became clear that the days of traditional television were on life support. Customers still paid for cable and satellite, but they were also buying streaming devices that allowed them to plug in to Netflix and many more streaming apps that were allowing them to watch what they wanted, when they wanted. And many of these streaming apps offered really good content — stuff that rivaled, and in some cases, eclipsed what could be found on cable.
TiVo tried to improve: The company introduced a new line of cable-compatible devices that allowed customers to record four, then six, channels at a time — more than any other consumer cable box on the market. It offered customers access to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime straight from their boxes, and even released miniature forms of their namesake box that allowed viewers to watch TVs in other parts of their home without having to shell out tons of money for another TiVo box or extra installation.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Customers ditched their cable and satellite subscriptions at a breakneck pace, trading the prestige of owning a TiVo box for the convenience of a streaming device. With its cable-focused strategy not yielding much in the way of results and customers largely ignoring its DVR hardware, the company knew it needed to do something — and fast.
This year, we got their answer in the form of the TiVo Stream 4K, a $50 Android TV-powered streaming dongle that represents the company’s first attempt at bridging the gap between the streaming TV market and what was arguably the best part of TiVo’s hardware to begin with: The recommendation software that introduced people to new movies and TV shows.
At first glance, the TiVo Stream 4K looks nothing like the rest of its hardware siblings: It’s a small, Android TV-powered dongle that plugs straight into the back of a TV set or soundbar, then remains inconspicuously out of sight. And yet, it has some of the hallmarks of what made TiVo unique: A mini version of the company’s peanut-shaped remote, with nearly all of the same buttons you’d expect to find on a TiVo DVR, but mapped for the functions of a streaming device. And the cute little TiVo mascot is basically everywhere — from the packaging to the remote, and even stamped on the device itself.
But none of that matters if the TiVo Stream 4K doesn’t actually live up to its legacy. So, does it? And should you get one?
…if you want an Android TV-powered device with a full-feature remote.
Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at it, the TiVo Stream 4K is powered by Android TV, which means it’s got access to the Google Play Store with its thousands of TV and other apps. That means, right out of the box, you’ll be able to install all the usual apps — Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Showtime, Starz, Philo, YouTube TV, Fubo TV, Sling TV, etc. — as well as some that are missing from other platforms, including HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock.
And since it’s powered by Android TV, it also comes with Google Cast, which lets users cast content from compatible smartphone and tablet apps to their TV sets. It also supports the Google Assistant, with a dedicated button found on the peanut-shape remote control, and comparability with Google’s line of smart speakers and other devices.
Speaking of the remote, the TiVo Stream 4K will comes with one familiar to anyone who has ever used a TiVo DVR: Yes, the peanut remote makes its debut as a streaming TV accessory. And unlike other streaming remotes, this one has more than enough native controls for TV sets and soundbars — you’ve got your run-of-the-mill volume and power controls, but you also have a mute and input button, which can be hard to find on other streamers.
…if you like being recommended new TV shows and movies to watch.
One of the best things about the old TiVo DVRs was its ability to gauge what you watched, recorded and liked or disliked (via the “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down” buttons — remember those?), then recommend other TV shows and movies that you might want to watch or record. Even better, if you wanted it to, the TiVo would record these recommendations automatically for you and store them off in a separate part of the TiVo’s recording menu.
The TiVo Stream 4K has a very similar feature: The Stream app, which can be pulled up by pressing the dedicated TiVo button on the remote control. Within the app, users can select which streaming apps they use the most (Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, etc.) and then receive recommendations on movies and TV shows that might be of interest to them. There’s no “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” button on the remote, but there’s a similar feature within the Stream app, which works about the same when sorting through recommended TV shows and movies.
…if you use Sling TV.
Within the Stream app is a live TV guide and cloud DVR feature that, like the recommendation service, will come across as familiar to long-time TiVo DVR users.
Unlike the TiVo DVRs, though, the live TV guide and cloud DVR feature works with just one service: Sling TV.
If you have Sling TV, that’s great — you’re going to love the TiVo Stream 4K and its ability to search and recommend programs from across Sling TV’s channel lineup. You’ll also love that many of the buttons on the peanut remote, including the Guide button, are programmed with Sling TV in mind.
If you’ve never used Sling TV before, that’s okay — out of the box, TiVo offers customers one week to try Sling TV for free, which should be more than enough time for streamers to decide if Sling TV is something they want to continue paying for. (If you have a streaming pay TV service that isn’t sling, that’s fine — as long as it’s got support for Android TV, it’ll work, but some of the buttons on the remote won’t).
Ready to buy? Get the TiVo Stream 4K at Amazon ($49).
…if you’re a hardcore videophile or streamer.
For the average user, the TiVo Stream 4K packs enough power to reliably stream from top-name apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Hulu and others. But it’s not the TV device hardcore streamers should buy — and it’s probably not the device ordinary folks will want in their living rooms, either.
Without getting too technical, the internal components used in the TiVo Stream 4K are not great — not even compared to other cheap Android TV devices on the market. What that means is viewers won’t get the best experience when it comes to things like High Dynamic Range and wide color gamuts. Put another way, similarly-priced devices, like the Chromecast with Google TV, offer many of the same core features as the TiVo Stream 4K but with better hardware that packs more of a punch.
The average user might not notice, or even care, especially if the TiVo Stream 4K is installed on a secondary TV like one found in a bedroom, kid’s room, home office or garage. But those who decide on the TiVo Stream 4K for their living room setup will notice the shortcomings eventually — and hardcore videophiles and streamers will almost certainly recognize them immediately.
…if you want to stream content in ultra high-definition (4K).
This might come as a shock since the TiVo Stream 4K literally has 4K in its name, but there are better, more-powerful 4K streamers out there.
The same reasons that make the TiVo Stream 4K a bad option for videophiles and people who are debating which device to put in their living room applies equally here, too: The internals just aren’t powerful enough to deliver the type of picture that a nice ultra high-definition TV deserves — not when compared to other contenders in the space, like the Chromecast with Google TV, Roku Streaming Stick Plus and Apple TV 4K, all of which would be a much-better choice.
…if you want the best Android TV-powered device on the market.
The TiVo Stream 4K is a good Android TV device, but it’s not great — and it certainly isn’t the best.
The best Android TV-powered device for videophiles remains the NVIDIA Shield Android TV, which costs a whopping $150 but delivers everything a hardcore TV and movie watcher could want, especially those with a home theater setup worthy of the word “theater.” The NVIDIA Shield TV has been the top Android TV choice of streamers for years, and there’s a good reason for this: It delivers the customization and flexibility of an Android TV device with the power of a top-tier computer in its class.
That said, even the NVIDIA Shield is not the best Android TT device for the average person: That honor falls to the Chromecast with Google TV, which costs the same $50 as the TiVo Stream 4K but offers better internal hardware, an upgraded user interface and a simpler voice-enabled remote control powered by the Google Assistant.
Like the TiVo Stream 4K, both the NVIDIA Shield and the Chromecast with Google TV offer access to the Google Play Store, allow users to send movies and TV shows from their phones and tablets using Google Cast and feature the Google Assistant. Unlike the TiVo Stream 4K, those who buy the NVIDIA Shield or Chromecast with Google TV will be more than satisfied with the device as their daily driver of streaming entertainment.
The TiVo Stream 4K represents the idea of where the company should have gone next: Offering a great device with all of the best features of a TiVo DVR but with streaming in mind.
What the company actually brought to market is somewhat of a disappointment: A device that feels half-baked, one that pushes users toward one streaming cable-like service if they want to experience all of what the TiVo Stream 4K has to offer, and one that ultimately feels underwhelming when you start to examine what’s under the hood.
Long-time TiVo users will be disappointed: This is not a premium product, but at $50, should anyone have expected it to be? To be fair, $50 gets customers a lot here — a full-featured, peanut-shape remote control; a content recommendation app that is second to none; and the ability to stream content from a wide variety of sources.
For that money and with those features, the dongle does fine on a secondary TV set in a bedroom, kid’s room or garage. But for a primary TV set, there are better options, like the Chromecast with Google TV that costs the same $50. That said, hardcore streamers who want the absolute best should be prepared to pay for it.