TiVo Bolt Lets You Completely Skip Ads, Streams 4K

The future of TV includes a lot more 4K and a lot fewer commercials, at least if TiVo's latest DVR manages to win over couch potatoes. Unveiled today (September 30), the new TiVo Bolt adds the ability to stream 4K programming as well as jump past commercials with the press of a button to TiVo's bag of home entertainment tricks.

Like its predecessor, the TiVo Roamio, TiVo Bolt comes in a 500GB capacity that costs $299. But, anticipating that storage-hogging 4K programming you'll want to time-shift, TiVo is also offering a $399 1TB configuration. Both versions of the Bolt will come with a year's worth of service; after that, TiVo's monthly service costs $15. Pre-orders start this morning; the Bolt hits retail shelves this Sunday, Oct. 4.

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As if to signal the dawn of a new era for TiVo, the Bolt does away with the black, square design that not only typifies past TiVo products but also the DVRs available from your local cable provider. Instead, the Bolt is all white with a wavy arc in the middle and only a silhouetted TiVo logo on the front to let you know who made the DVR. Despite the curvy footprint, TiVo says the 11.4 x 7.3 x 1.8-inch Bolt is 33 percent smaller than the Roamio.

Gearing Up for 4K

Your eye won't linger very long on the new look for the TiVo Bolt, if the DVR happens to be hooked up to a 4K TV set. The Bolt supports both VP9 and HVEC (High Efficiency Video Coding), allowing you to view 4K Ultra HD streams. Apps from both Netflix and YouTube appear on the TiVo Bolt, giving you access to 4K content from both services.

Adding 4K support has forced TiVo to beef up some of the internal components of its DVR. TiVo executives say the processing power of the Bolt is 3.5 times that of the Roamio S. TiVo has also bulked up the RAM to 3GB; the previous model featured just 1GB of DDR RAM. The additional memory helps apps like Netflix launch faster and pick up immediately where you left off, courtesy of an Instant Resume feature.

The added horsepower inside the TiVo Bolt seemed to help it handle 4K streaming in my brief time watching Ultra HD through TiVo's new DVR. Even on a hotel room's Wi-Fi network with bandwidth limited to 15 Mbps — just about the bare minimum you need for 4K streaming — video appeared on a 4K monitor without any hiccups or stutters.

Multiple Modes for Bolt

As attractive as 4K streams may look with TiVo Bolt's help, the fact remains that many households haven't yet upgraded to the higher-definition TV sets. TiVo's DVR still has something to offer people watching 1080p TVs in the form of its SkipMode and QuickMode features.

SkipMode will draw the most attention. It will allow TiVO Bolt users to press the D button on the Bolt's remote to jump ahead in a program, skipping entire blocks of commercials on recorded shows.

SkipMode relies on tags created by TiVo that denote where programs stop and resume. TiVo plans to create these tags for 20 popular channels and the programming they air during prime time and midnight local time. (The exceptions: Local programming and live sports won't be tagged.) When ads start airing during a tagged show, an on-screen prompt will appear, inviting you to push the green D button to jump to the end of the ad break. Additionally, users will be able to use the channel up and down buttons to navigate from tag to tag.

That's unlikely to win TiVo many friends among broadcasters. But TiVo executives point out that SkipMode isn't stripping out any ads — they're still present in the recording. And viewers who will be able to seamlessly leap over ad breaks (as I did during a brief demo of the feature) will be unlikely to share broadcasters' qualms about SkipMode.

A second mode, QuickMode, speeds up playback just like you can with many audiobook and podcasting apps. The difference with TiVo's approach, though, is that while video plays back 1.3 times faster than before, audio is pitch-corrected, so that sped-up program you're watching doesn't sound like it's being dubbed by Alvin & the Chipmunks.

TiVo demonstrated QuickMode with an episode of The Tonight Show, making Jimmy Fallon move around the stage with a little more pep in his step than usual while he continued to speak in a normal voice. That's all well and good, but where QuickMode really figures to shine will be with sports programming, where a press of the Play and Select buttons on the remote can speed up the lulls between the action.

How Bolt Compares

TiVo introduces the Bolt at a time of stepped-up competition for set-top boxes, with 4K being the way many device makers are looking to distinguish their products. Two weeks ago, Amazon took the wraps off its latest Fire TV, which adds the ability to play 4K content to a $199 device. The next Apple TV, which arrives later in October, won't feature 4K support -- a concession Apple likely made to keep the starting price down to $149 on the updated set-top box. But the new Apple TV stands out for its voice-powered controls and ability to search for content across multiple apps.

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TiVo Bolt lacks the former feature -- it still uses the traditional RF TiVo remote, though this version has support for Bluetooth should TiVo adapt such a feature down the road -- but excels at the latter. In addition to searching through your own recordings, TiVo Bolt looks for content from support apps such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Yahoo Screen, and Plex; it also supports on-demand programming from cable providers Comcast and Cox in select markets.

TiVo executives describe that as a unified entertainment system that makes it easy to track down the shows you want to watch. Say you're a latecomer to The Walking Dead. You can record new episodes once the show returns to AMC in October. But you can also find episodes from previous seasons on Netflix and your cable provider's on-demand service. All those episodes, regardless of where they air, show up in the OnePass you've set up for The Walking Dead, making everything instantly available from one place.

TiVo also plans to speed up the process of setting up OnePasses for shows with a new feature called OnePass Quick Select. When you set up your TiVo, you'll get an email directing you to a website listing the 100 most popular OnePasses. You can select the shows you want to record, creating a series of OnePasses that will automatically sync with your TiVo.

In addition to announcing the new Bolt DVR, TiVo has also updated its iOS app. You'll be able to specify hobbies and interests, which will help TiVo create a personalized YouTube channel filled with video geared toward your selections. That joins other search and discovery features like TiVo's collections of curated show selections. The iOS app also features new ways of sharing TV show recommendations with other users. Look for those features to make their way into TiVo's Android app later this year.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.