TiVo Stream 4K review: Amped-up Android TV

TiVo Stream 4K
“With 4K, Dolby Vision, Atmos, and Chromecast, the Stream 4K packs a ton of value.”
  • Affordable
  • Great remote control
  • 4K, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos
  • Chromecast and Google Assistant built-in
  • Only supports Sling for live TV
  • Dolby Atmos support is inconsistent
MSRP $50.00

When TiVo announced the Stream 4K at CES 2020, we were a bit surprised. The company that built its reputation (and arguably an industry) around the invention of the DVR showed off a gadget that couldn’t record TV shows to a hard drive and couldn’t even be connected to traditional TV sources like cable, satellite, or free antenna-based broadcasts.

The Stream 4K is also a departure from TiVo’s past when it comes to price. At an introductory price of $50 and without any additional fees, the Stream 4K is easily TiVo’s most affordable product. But did the company sell its soul in order to harness the power of the streaming video revolution?

Let’s take a look.

What is the TiVo Stream 4K?

TiVo Stream 4K
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Before we dive into the full review, it’s worth discussing what the Stream 4K is — and what it isn’t.

Despite the TiVo branding, the Stream 4K has virtually nothing in common with DVR devices like the TiVo Bolt OTA and the TiVo Edge. It can’t be used in the same household as these other TiVo products to access your DVR recordings or conventional live TV (in case you were hoping it might serve as a much cheaper version of the TiVo Mini). But here’s one thing the TiVo faithful won’t miss: The fee for the TiVo service (because this isn’t a TiVo DVR).

Instead, it’s a $50 streaming media dongle powered by the Android TV operating system. TiVo has added a few software tweaks of its own, but for the most part, the Stream 4K should be considered an Android TV device.

At its highly affordable price of $50, the Stream 4K might just be the best Android TV device on the planet right now. But it’s definitely not a TiVo in the traditional sense.

Design

TiVo Stream 4K
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The Stream 4K looks like a cross between a Google Chromecast and Roku Streaming Stick+. The main dongle is a small, rectangular device that has been styled to resemble TiVo’s newest DVR, the Edge, and it sports the same offset-squares look.

TiVo knows a thing or two about remote controls. You might say it’s one of the company’s greatest strengths.

A flexible HDMI cable makes it easy to connect to the back or sides of a TV, and a fairly standard Micro USB cable powers it from the included AC adapter. Though it’s possible that an available USB port on your TV could be used for power, TiVo specifically recommends not to do so.

Around the side, you’ll find a USB-C port, but for the moment, it’s only used for adding a third-party Ethernet adapter.

What sets the Stream 4K apart from the streaming dongle competition is its remote.

TiVo knows a thing or two about remote controls. You might say it’s one of the company’s greatest strengths. The Stream 4K’s remote looks like someone took a regular TiVo remote and shrank it in the laundry.

The classic peanut shape remains, making it comfortable to hold and use. It includes most of the expected buttons like volume, channel, a dedicated number pad, and even the famous TiVo “Skip” button. Some of these buttons, like Skip and the TiVo button, work a little differently on the Stream 4K than on the PVRs, but overall it’s a very familiar experience.

One notable exception is the Google Assistant button, which takes the place of the blue voice button. You’ll use this for all voice-based commands.

The one button I wish it had was a dedicated play/pause. As with some older Android TV devices like the Nvidia Shield TV from 2017 and earlier, the central D-pad button is an “OK” function for menus, and a play/pause button while streaming, but you sometimes have to press it twice when you want to pause or play.

Setup

TiVo Stream 4K setup

Getting the Stream 4K set up is straightforward thanks to a step-by-step on-screen wizard. Ordinarily, TiVo devices require you to create a TiVo account as part of the activation process. However, because this is also an Android TV device, you’ll need a Google account to download apps from the Google Play Store, and to use the Google Assistant.

The one difference from other streaming devices is TiVo’s personalization step, which guides you through a series of “A or B” choices using popular TV shows in order to establish a benchmark for your personal tastes.

After making about a dozen of these choices, TiVo’s personalization engine offers up a series of suggested titles for your My Shows collection. If, like me, you’re not especially enthused by the suggestions, you can always add your own shows and movies to your My Shows library later.

In the final step, you’ll be asked to select the streaming services to which you have access. Options include Sling, Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Disney+, and Google Play Movies and TV.

Wondering what the difference between Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime Video is? Amazon Prime is all of the content that’s included with your Prime membership, while Amazon Prime Video is Amazon’s paid programming — shows and movies that you can only rent or buy.

In case you’re concerned that your favorite streaming service isn’t among the options, don’t be. This is simply the list of streaming services that TiVo can currently access for its personalized Stream app, which we’ll discuss next. The Google Play store lets you pick from a huge number of additional streaming services, the one notable exception being Apple TV+.

The TiVo Stream experience

TiVo Stream 4K screenshot
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The TiVo Stream 4K is incredibly affordable considering it has both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. But TiVo would argue that the Stream 4K’s biggest draw is the included TiVo Stream app, and it’s an argument with some merit.

Much like Apple’s TV app has attempted to create a curated streaming experience that gathers content from multiple streaming platforms (including its own Apple TV+, if you have a subscription), the TiVo Stream consolidates all your services into one easy-to-use interface.

All of the curated content is broken down into familiar categories like Movies, TV Shows, Sports, and Kids (though oddly, no “News” option), and each breaks down into deeper categories like “Superhero Movies.” It’s a good way to browse multiple sources of content from a single interface. Just as valuable is the Search tool, which, as the name suggests, lets you search all of the curated content.

It’s incredibly affordable considering it has both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos

The Stream app is also the home of the TiVo+ free, ad-supported live TV platform, a collection of hyperspecific channels like Unsolved Mysteries, Conde Nast Traveler, and Food52. You access these channels via the Guide button, or by switching to the Guide view in the stream app. If you have a Sling subscription, that’ll show up here as well.

TiVo considers the Stream app the true “home screen” of the Stream 4K, although you can still access the normal Android TV home screen. In fact, each of these user experiences gets its own button on the remote. The Stream app is triggered by the TiVo button, which is front and center on the remote, while the Android TV home screen is accessed via a small, circular button next to the Google Assistant button.

Will you find these dueling home screens confusing? At first, yes. You’ll likely stumble around a bit, especially if you’ve never used an Android TV device.

However, you’ll quickly realize the Stream app is just like any other app within the larger Android TV experience. It’s there if you want it, as is the dedicated button, but it’s easy to ignore if you don’t find it valuable.

How valuable you find it will depend on how many of the supported streaming services you subscribe to. If your only paid subscription is Netflix, the Stream app can only offer you suggestions from Netflix, plus whatever it can find on its own TiVo+ live TV service.

That pales by comparison to Roku’s The Roku Channel, which not only curates from among most paid streaming services, but also finds the best free streaming options from among a much wider set of services.

Made for Sling, sort of

TiVo

To get the most out of the Stream app, you’ll need a Sling TV subscription, which is currently the only live TV service (other than TiVo+) that the app supports. Sling TV effectively replaces the role that cable, satellite, or antenna TV plays on TiVo’s DVRs, by giving the Stream app access to a wide variety of broadcast channels and shows.

Without a Sling subscription, the Stream 4K is a capable Android TV device with a few nifty extras. With a Sling subscription, it gets a little closer to the TiVo experience that has made the company’s DVRs so popular, but with some important caveats.

Sling channels show up in the Guide interface where you can see what’s playing now, and what’s coming up on the schedule. But if you’re subscribed to Netflix or another streaming service that carries the same shows as a Sling channel, clicking on future scheduled episodes in the guide only offers you the ability to watch them immediately, instead of the Sling record option you might expect to see.

In some ways, this is good. Why wait to record an episode if you can watch it right now on another service? But I think the guide should offer you both options, not just one. The only way to trigger a Sling recording of a “duplicate” show is to switch to the stand-alone Sling app from the Android TV home screen and use its guide.

If you schedule a recording in the Sling app, the Sling Guide will indicate that recording has been set, but you won’t see this information reflected within the Stream app’s Guide.

There’s also no way to access your Sling recordings from within the Stream app. You must return to the Sling app to find, watch, and manage them.

Performance

TiVo Stream 4K
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Unlike Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV — all of which tightly control the software and hardware that combine to deliver their experiences — Android TV can feel a bit like the wild west, with some devices delivering snappy performance, while others feel sluggish.

Thankfully, the Stream 4K is among the former, quickly and nimbly switching from app to app, and it didn’t exhibit any noticeable delay when using the remote’s buttons.

That’s likely due to the Stream 4K’s internals. It has 2GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage, and it can stream wirelessly via 802.11 AC Wi-Fi. But what I find especially interesting is its CPU, the Amlogic S905Y2. That’s the same chip that Google uses for its Android TV developer platform, the ADT-3, and it’s likely the same chip that Google will use in its upcoming Android TV device code-named Sabrina.

If you’re an Android TV power user hoping for a cheap alternative to the Shield TV, take note. TiVo doesn’t offer some advanced options, like pass-through for Dolby Atmos or DTS HD. There’s also no way to handle app-switching and app-quitting, a fairly standard feature of most Android TV devices.

Audio and video quality

If you’ve got a 4K HDR TV, content from the Stream 4K should look superb, and all the more so if your TV also supports Dolby Vision. In a back-to-back test against an Apple TV 4K using an LG OLED TV, I found the Stream 4K produced images that were every bit as detailed and as colorful, whether I was streaming from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Plex.

I had trouble getting any of the streaming apps to deliver Dolby Atmos to my A/V receiver or T.V

It also managed to outperform my other Android TV device, a $150 2019 Nvidia Shield TV, with slightly more vibrant hues.

Oddly, there were a few instances where the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen (which happens when playing 2.35:1 ratio movies like Ford v. Ferrari) appeared gray, not black. But this was inconsistent, and might have been a glitch with the Plex app rather than a problem with the Stream 4K.

I also experienced some occasional screen blanking, where the signal from the Stream 4K would cut out momentarily, though this only happened while navigating the interface, and not while streaming video.

Audio quality is great, but Dolby Atmos fans be warned. Despite the fact that the Stream 4K supports a huge variety of audio formats, like Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS HD, and Dolby Atmos, I had trouble getting any of the streaming apps to deliver Dolby Atmos to my A/V receiver or TV.

TiVo’s representative acknowledged that the Stream 4K had yet to receive a software update to make it compatible with Netflix’s Dolby Atmos requirements, and said that this update would be coming soon. But I didn’t receive a clear reason why Disney+ and Amazon Prime were in the same boat.

In some ways, this shouldn’t be a surprise. TiVo has launched products in the past — the TiVo Bolt OTA comes to mind — that have promised features like 4K and HDR but lacked the necessary support from streaming services to make those features work, at least at launch.

Given that the Stream 4K is clearly Dolby Atmos-compatible, it’s now a waiting game to see when, or if, TiVo and the streaming services will update their apps to enable it.

Google Assistant and Chromecast built-in

TiVo Stream 4K remote
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Two key benefits of choosing Android TV as a smart TV operating system are Google Assistant and Google Chromecast. Both work well on the Stream 4K, which means that this $50 dongle outperforms Google’s own $69 Chromecast Ultra in every way imaginable.

I didn’t test the Stream 4K for its performance with Google’s Stadia gaming service, but the Chromecast feature worked like a charm for other tasks like initiating and controlling streams from YouTube or Plex.

Our take

Android TV might not be for everyone, but at $50, the TiVo Stream 4K makes a compelling argument that you should give it a try. With support for Dolby Vision and a curated watching experience that should get better over time, the Stream 4K has a lot of potential. The company will have to stay on top of its relationships with streaming providers to ensure that potential is fulfilled.

Is there a better alternative?

If you’re looking for an affordable media streamer with a remote control, you’ve got plenty of choices. The $50 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K works with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, has Alexa built-in, and boasts a library of over 8,000 apps. However, not everyone loves the Fire TV interface, and there’s no native casting option from Android or iOS devices.

The $50 Roku Streaming Stick+ has one of the best smart TV interfaces we’ve ever used, as well as tons of apps. But it doesn’t support Dolby Vision, there’s no support for Google Assistant or Alexa (though Roku has its own voice command system), and casting is limited to what you can do using the free Roku app.

Either of these devices are worthwhile alternatives, but given the Stream 4K’s unique set of features, I’ll stop short of calling them “better,” for now.

How long will it last?

This is a tricky question. The hardware is solid, but when it comes to streaming devices, software support is a much bigger consideration.

Google likes to update its software frequently and Android TV is no exception. If TiVo stays on top of these updates for the Stream 4K, you’ll be in good shape. But if the Android smartphone world is any indicator, that support may only continue for one or two major updates.

If this is a concern, Roku and Amazon have excellent track records for updates. Nvidia has also been remarkably attentive to its Shield TV devices, which it continues to update even five years after the first models launched.

Should you buy it?

Yes. At its introductory price of just $50, the TiVo Stream 4K packs a ton of value into a small package. Even if you never use its signature Stream app to manage your bingeing sessions, it’s currently the least expensive way to get into Android TV.

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