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Do you still need to buy a TiVo?

TiVo shook up the TV viewing world in 1999 by releasing a digital video recorder (DVR) that would eventually become a fixture in many people's living rooms. Fast forward to 2013, and TiVo is still at it with their new Roamio devices, but now major cable operators also offer their own DVR-capable units to consumers. With your local provider lending you a DVR, does it make sense to still invest in a TiVo?

TiVo has had some ups and downs with their products, be it with the hardware or with the software. But their recent Roamio lineup is pleasing critics, with Engadget saying the new Roamio models "address every major gripe we had," and "speed improvements alone makes this a must-upgrade for any Premiere owner." Beyond the new hardware, TiVo Roamio can support multi-room usage (though it will require paying for extra hardware every month), and also has apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.tv, and more. The new software even supports the ability to stream your shows to your mobile devices, but that's still in beta for now.

One thing that still hasn't changed much though is the cost of entry. Even TiVo's lowest-end Roamio model is $199, and requires a one year commitment to the service at $14.99 per month. If you choose to roll out a multi-room solution with TiVo's Mini hardware, it will cost you an additional $99 for the hardware, and another $5.99 per month for a year -- per TV. TiVo still offers lifetime plans but they will cost you $499 for a Roamio or Premiere, and $149 for the Mini.

Even though the monthly costs are low compared to most cable operators, there is still a high price just to obtain the hardware. With cable providers there is no device cost, you just have to put up with a monthly fee.

  • FiOS: $16.99/month
  • Comcast: $17.95/month
  • DirecTV: $10/month
  • Dish: $10/month

Additionally, the only agreement you will make with a cable operator is to just maintain service. This means if you find you're not using the DVR, simply change your plan; with TiVo there's an early termination fee.

At one point TiVo also provided a much better software experience; the guides on cable-provided hardware were simply terrible. However, in recent years companies have been upgrading their guides, and now they're either on par with, or better than what TiVo can offer.

TiVo devices also require the use of your local operator's CableCard. These cards give you access to the content and programming information from your provider, and more recently, they now grant you permission to view on-demand programs as well. However, browse the TiVo forums and you'll see that just getting a card can be a problem. Some users have been able to obtain one without a tech coming to their homes, but then have headaches trying to activate it. Others have less luck and end up at the mercy of a cable technician, who may charge a fee just to install the card.

If you've been unhappy with your provider's DVR box and its features, then perhaps a TiVo is best suited for you. It has a high entry cost but if you think you will keep the device for more than three years, the lifetime plan may save you some money in the long run. However, most consumers will find using a DVR a luxury, and the hardware cost of a TiVo makes that luxury a bit harder to justify. If you don't want to fork over the $199 or more upfront, then stick with your local provider's DVR.