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TiVo’s new $50 streaming player targets first-time cord-cutters

tivo stream 4k
(Image credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide)

LAS VEGAS – Everyone knows that streaming TV is big. But what you may not know is that traditional cable and satellite subscriptions are also still very big. As the streaming market grows, more and more people are taking the cord-cutting plunge for the first time, and TiVo thinks that a familiar brand might help them along. 

As such, TiVo has announced the TiVo Stream 4K ($50 at launch; $70 thereafter, coming out in April 2020): an HDMI dongle with an interface that brings all your content together from a variety of different streaming platforms.

I saw a live demo of the TiVo Stream 4K at CES 2020. On the one hand, TiVo’s inclusive interface is very similar to existing services on other platforms, such as Apple’s TV app, Android TV’s algorithm-driven home screen and Roku’s broad, inclusive search. But the TiVo Stream 4K also puts personalization first and foremost in a way that the other streaming devices can’t touch (at the moment, anyway).

With the new gadget and an expanded selection of free special-interest channels known as TiVo Plus, TiVo hopes to make streaming more accessible for newcomers. On the other hand, that means that the tech is not necessarily something that veteran streamers will need to run out and buy.

TiVo Stream 4K

tivo stream 4k

(Image credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide)

First, let’s discuss the streaming player itself. The TiVo Stream 4K, as the name suggests, is a 4K streaming device that plugs into an HDMI port via a flexible cord. This little black rectangle resembles nothing so much as a miniature PS4 with a TiVo logo stamped on the front. It has an Ethernet port on the bottom, although you can connect it to your network via Wi-Fi as well.

When you turn it on, you can navigate to a standard Android TV home screen, although this is not really where TiVo reps expect new users to spend most of their time. Instead, there’s a specialized TiVo app that acts as a gateway to some of the most popular streaming services on the market: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Vudu, CBS All Access and Sling TV, to start.

Like Apple TV or Android TV, the TiVo app shows users aggregated content from a variety of sources. Unlike other services, however, the TiVo app also offers robust personalization options. When you first start up the app, it will ask which services interest you (in theory, which ones you subscribe to). After that, it will recommend content only from those apps, until you change your settings. In other words, TiVo won’t direct you to HBO content if you subscribe only to Netflix.

Still, Apple TV and Android TV can do that, too, at least to some extent. The bigger innovation is that TiVo will run a series of A/B tests to zero in on the shows you enjoy, before you ever choose a program to watch. When you launch the app for the first time, TiVo will ask you to choose between two shows: The Flash and The Masked Singer, for instance, or Hell’s Kitchen and Black Mirror. TiVo reps explained that even if a user answers only five of these questions, the algorithm will have a much, much better idea of the content that he or she will likely want to watch.

Live TV and remote

tivo stream 4k

(Image credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide)

TiVo reps also explained that one of the biggest pain points for new cord-cutters is losing live TV, which is why the TiVo app will incorporate Sling TV right from the start. Users will be able to scroll through a guide of live programming, set up DVR protocols and so forth. At first, Sling TV will be the only live content provider available, but that could change in the future.

The remote control, at least, looks like something optimized for a traditional cable setup, complete with a full num pad. The peripheral resembles a traditional TiVo remote, but shrunk down to a size more typical for streaming gadgets. You’ll still get all the navigation buttons, including a circular TiVo button that will take you directly into the TiVo app. But the number buttons are what take up most of the space on the device.

For the moment, these buttons won’t do a whole lot – just activate some secondary remote features. But in the future, they could help users navigate directly to channels, if TiVo ever integrates cable or satellite content directly into the app. Time will tell, but in the meantime, the remote looks rather crowded and inefficient, compared to what some of the competition has put out.

tivo stream 4k

(Image credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide)

TiVo Plus

The last thing TiVo announced for CES 2020 was an extension of its TiVo Plus program. This service comprises a variety of special-interest live channels, from Food 52, to MMA Junkie, to TMZ and so forth. TiVo Plus covers a lot of different genres, including news, sports and kids’ programming, but it’s largely the kind of Internet video that’s a step up from YouTube, and not usually the thing you’d make time to watch for its own sake.

Putting premium content front and center isn’t necessarily what TiVo Plus is all about, though. TiVo Plus is more of a “turn on the TV and see what’s on” proposition, making it good for watching in short bursts or filling a room with some background noise while performing other tasks. And, combined with Sling TV, TiVo Plus could be a perfect way to ease new cord-cutters into a streaming world that’s largely on-demand.

At CES 2020, TiVo revealed that TiVo Plus would be getting 23 new channels, including Cheddar, Sportswire and Mr. Bean & friends. This brings the total number of TiVo Plus channels up to 49. It’s not necessarily all first-rate content, but it’s plenty of stuff to watch without paying any extra money.

A mass market audience

tivo stream 4k

(Image credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide)

Having spent some time with it, TiVo’s new hardware and app both seem solid. The dongle doesn’t cost too much, and delivers Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos in addition to 4K resolution, meaning that content should look and sound pretty sharp. The app has a clean, navigable interface, and the personalization options seem robust.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem radically different from what other platforms already offer. And if you already have a decent smart TV or streaming device, the TiVo app isn’t going to offer you anything that you haven’t already figured out how to do.

Still, for new users who want to ease into the world of streaming rather than jump in with both feet, the TiVo Stream 4K and app have some potential. Tom’s Guide will provide a more comprehensive review once the device launches later this year.

Be sure to check out our CES 2020 hub for the latest news and hands-on impressions out of Las Vegas.