Simple.Tv and Tablo – Showdown of Free Over the Air TV DVRs
Utilizing over the Air (OTA) broadcast television has been growing in popularity recently as the move towards “cord cutting” and lowering utility bills has increased in importance. For Home Theater PC (HTPC) users, the options were always plentiful and simple—toss an ATSC or SiliconDust networked tuner card into your computer, connect it to an antenna, and voila—free high definition television. OTA provides plenty of free content with channels such as NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and more depending on how close to the antennas the home is in your city. For users without an HTPC however, the choices have been somewhat limited to a select few costly DVR’s such as TiVo, the now extinct Boxee OTA cloud based DVR, or connecting just their televisions directly but not having the ability to record or timeshift. Simple.TV’s Simple.TV 2 powered by SiliconDust and Nuvyyo’s Tablo hope to change this ecosystem by providing dual tuner DVR capabilities with a different pricing technique. When we received both units within a week of each other so it seemed natural to pit them against each other in a head to head evaluation—may the best network enabled OTA DVR win.
Perhaps we should begin with an introduction to what Over The Air (OTA) television entails. In its simplest form, OTA is the free to air television broadcast which some of the major network stations broadcast in most cities which allows consumers to view for free. These channels are not encrypted and open to anyone within range. For users, all that’s required is a VHF & UHF antenna connected to their television (assuming it has a built-in ATSC digital tuner as most modern HDTV’s do), search antennaweb.org for the direction they should face the antenna for best reception, and then scan for all the channels within range. There are a number of antennas available for this task, although an external antenna attached outside on your roof will certainly net you the best results. For those of us renting or limited to internal antennas, the recent trend of flat antennas such as the Winguard or Mohu provide powered antennas without the unsightly “rabbit ears” of past years.
Now that we have the basics covered, let’s take a moment to cover briefly the technologies behind the Simple.TV and TabloTV devices and how they play into this environment—of course continue reading for the in-depth look. These tuners are network capable boxes—similar to a TiVo—which you connect to your home network. This is a critical piece—these boxes do NOT have a video or HDMI out like a TiVo, so there is no way to view directly from the box on your television. Instead, the tuners are networked so they can be placed anywhere within your home in wireless or wired range (depending on the unit) and then any/all compatible players or mobile devices will be capable of viewing the content from the tuners—obviously the antenna needs to be in close vicinity. They are both dual tuners, meaning that you can record or watch two shows simultaneously—on different devices. In addition, you can schedule show recordings and record future series as well, just as you would on your cable company’s set top box (STB).
Winner: Simple.TV 2
First up in the face off is the actual cost of ownership for each.
Simple.TV 2 is offered in three flavors – basic, premier and premier lifetime. Starting at $199.99, the Basic provides the Simple.TV 2 standalone dual tuner with just the basic service which allows for watching and recording shows and viewing show information. For $249.99 the Premier offering provides the Simple.TV 2 tuner and one year of the premier subscription—note, this will auto-renew after the year—which allows remote access of the Simple.TV 2 device and its content, automatic series recordings, and a few other things shown in the table below. The Premier combo is $349.99 and offers the unit and premier subscription for life. If you purchase the Basic and wish to add the Premier to your account, the cost is $59.99 for one year, or $149.99 for the lifetime. Note that the subscriptions are tied to your account and not to a single device, so if more devices are added down the future you would not need to purchase another subscription. This is great, and our most frugal readers will probably time their purchase along with a Woot sale where we’ve seen the previous generation Simple.TV unit for only $89.99 WITH LIFETIME subscription—a nice workaround if you’re patient enough to find one or wait.
Device and subscription aside, the Simple.TV 2 device does not include any internal storage, and as a result an external USB hard drive is required to setup your device, as well as an OTA antenna.
Nuvyyo’s Tablo device comes in two flavors—a dual tuner version (like the Simple.TV 2) and costs $219.99, or a four tuner Tablo for $299.99. The subscription fee provides users with 14 days of guide data, rich cover art, series and episode synopses, various ways to schedule recordings or series, and then Tablo Connect to watch live and recorded TV from anywhere in the world. Costs for the subscription are $4.99 monthly, $49.99 per year, or $149.99 for a lifetime subscription, and they are tied to the account purchaser not the device. It is possible to own the Tablo without a subscription, and the differences are shown clearly in the table below from Nuvyyo.
Just like the Simple.TV 2, Tablo requires an external USB hard drive as well as an OTA antenna, neither of which is included for the cost discussed above.
Both units are comparably priced, but since this section is exclusively about cost of ownership, the winner by a slight margin is the Simple.TV 2. It costs less to buy by $20, and if you can snag the lifetime membership older generation units for $90 you can have the unit and lifetime service for less than $300.
The Nuvyyo Tablo is an attractive little box, weighing just 14.5oz and measuring 6.85” wide, 4.57” deep and 1.42” tall. The front of the Tablo contains a thin blue LED light which notifies users of the status of the box, and can be disabled in the settings if preferred. The rear includes an Ethernet port, reset button, two USB ports and the coax for the antenna. Specs inside include RAM of 512MB (for the Dual tuner. The quad tuner has 1GB), built-in wireless capabilities up to 802.11n dual band 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz with MIMO, as well as Bluetooth 4.0 (no current uses). Of course the most important part is the tuners, where it has two OTA only ATSC tuners. Tablo is 100% passively cooled and does not have any audible noise coming from it, and it’s available in black only.
Simple.TV’s Simple.TV 2 unit is manufactured by SiliconDust, leveraging the HDHomeRun hardware. SiliconDust is very familiar to Missing Remote and its readers as they have been one of the major HTPC tuner manufacturers for years, and were the first to release a network accessible television tuner in that space. Note the original SimpleTV was not powered by SiliconDust, so it’s good to see the company leveraging their expertise in the space to improve things for Simple.TV. The unit is very compact, measuring at 4” wide by 4” deep and 1” tall, but there’s a trade off to the unit being so small—inside it is actively cooled with a fan which is clearly audible in the room the unit is. The fan is on the top of the unit, which is ventilated as a result, so nothing should be placed atop. This isn’t an issue if the Simple.TV 2 unit is placed in a closet or isolated room, but is very noticeable when in the same room as your television. The unit contains two tuners, of which both ATSC and/or ClearQAM are supported. On the back there is a single coax connector for your cable/antenna, a single USB port and an Ethernet port. Note that the Simple.TV 2 unit does not include support for Wi-Fi. And it’s also available in just black, and does not include any LED lights.
Setup and installation was similarly simple on both devices, where the software or browser detected the tuner, scanned for channels and configured only those with strong signal to view in the guide. Both devices allow users to easily de-select any channels they so wish during setup, or afterwards as well.
Both devices also require users to fully format their hard drive upon setup and configuration, and unfortunately the files are not playable on a computer but are proprietary to be controlled through the devices. Although we’ve read reports that software to convert or edit recordings may be coming in the future, there is nothing available as of this time.
Power Consumption Table:
On the one hand the flexibility to tune to both ATSC or ClearQAM signals is a nice option offered by SimpleTV that’s not offered in the Tablo. However, the inclusion of a very audible fan paired with the lack of Wi-Fi and only one USB port tilts the scale in the favor of the Tablo.
Usage – Big Screen
First up from a usability standpoint is the tried and true big screen. In this section we will evaluate both units from the perspective of the options available to users for using the device on their home televisions, as well as how the experience was for each.
SimpleTV 2 by SiliconDust supports viewing on televisions via a Roku, Google Chromecast, Plex or AppleTV (via Airplay only). For this review, we used a very low powered Roku LT and a Chromecast to test the features. The Roku was very responsive and maintained a similar look and feel to other Roku apps. From the Live TV section users can record an episode, series or watch the program. Tuning to the channel took approximately 10-12 seconds, enough time for the device to build a viewing buffer. There is no traditional guide option, instead the app offers an “upcoming” view which shows graphically the upcoming programming separated by category. Overall the Roku app piece was great and reliable.
The same cannot be said for the quirky experience with the Google Chromecast. The app seems buggy, for example when clicking on a channel and watching via an Android smartphone, then clicking the Chromecast app, and nothing happens. Instead, you need to connect to the Chromecast app via the guide view on the phone, then click the program and you will be prompted to play on “Device” or “big screen,” and then it will work. I would expect SimpleTV to address this in future firmwares, but for now it’s an annoying bug. Also note that there is no ability to send to Chromecast via your laptop, so this option is limited to smartphone or tablet users.
Nuvvyo Tablo offers identical support for big screen viewing, with support for Roku, Google Chromecast, Plex (recently added) and AppleTV (via Airplay only). The Roku experience is very similar in experience with two exceptions—there is no ability to record from the LiveTV section, and then the Guide section offers viewing by date, but still in a graphical content similar to the SimpleTV. Chromecast support is available only on Android smartphones and ironically went much smoother than the SimpleTV experience; I say ironically since there is no Android phone app for it and it was done via the browser, but I’ll touch on that bit later. It functioned exactly as you would anticipate and quality was great. Tuning also took around 10-12 seconds per channel, and sped up if we flipped between the same two channels.
These units are nearly identical from a big screen features capabilities standpoint. While Tablo’s Chromecast experience was great, it was frustrating not being able to record programs from the LiveTV standpoint. I look forward to seeing both companies continue to try to outdo one another in this category, hopefully with DLNA or XBOX support—or both!
Mobile Devices/On the Go
Winner: Simple.TV 2
Let me get this out of the way quick—Tablo does not offer an app for iOS or Android devices, smartphone or tablets which are less than 7” in size. The company –for now at least—has opted to only offer HTML5 browser based support for any devices under 7”. While shocking at first, the browser experience using Chrome on IOS or Android was fairly smooth. The browser page is very responsive, fluid, and actually feels like an app. Tablo has an FAQ dedicated to smartphones where they cover how to include a shortcut on the homescreen if you desire faster access to the webpage. The webpage is the same for all devices—iOS, Android or desktop browsers—and is very intuitive and is nearly identical to the tablet app. The app for tablets looks the same as the browser but feels a bit faster.
From either the Table app or browser the software/page launches on the Prime Time view with thumbnails for almost all programs. Clicking on an image brings up the program information and allows you to view upcoming schedule, and then record particular episodes or the entire series. And of course, you can play the program directly on your device. The top menu offers various categorical menus on how to sort the content available, such as New, Genres, or by Channel. On the pop out menu on the left side there is a LiveTV option—which takes users to a familiar and slick looking television guide (EPG) where the list of shows and titles is shown in time and date fashion. Additionally the menu groupings allow thumbnail views by TV Shows, Movies, Sports, upcoming Scheduled and past Recordings.
SimpleTV on the other hand does offer an app for iOS, Windows Phone 8, Windows Desktop 8.1 and Android devices, both tablets and phones alike. App functionality is similar, with the home screen landing on “Popular” content in a thumbnail view (note, you can change it to list view), and then a similar left side menu that pops up and allows sorting by TV Guide EPG view or recorded shows, or by TV Shows, Movies, Kids, News, and many more categories to help filter to content desired. The TV guide is smooth and quick, and the view can be changed from the familiar EPG time/channel view, to a list view by Title, to another thumbnail view. Clicking on a program name brings up a quick synopsis allowing users to play, record, see more episodes, or record the series. If you wish to view the channel immediately, just click on the channel name/number itself, and not on the program—a silly but useful trick I found online!
The app was not without its faults as was previously mentioned, particularly in regards to Chromecast support. If you click play on a program, and then while watching click the Chromecast icon, then nothing happens. Zip. Nada. Instead, what you must do is go back to the guide, click the Chromecast icon from there to connect, and then click on the program to play. The app then prompts, asking if you wish to play the content on device or the big screen. Clicking on the big screen then works and the content played very smoothly on the television.
For both companies, the feature of finding upcoming programming for programs is quite beneficial if you are new to the OTA world. Coming from Satellite or Cable, you may find it challenging to remember what show is on what channel—my girlfriend definitely has no idea—so being able to find an upcoming show by the thumbnail makes it easy to know what’s available.
Remote access and viewing is available on both devices, and is a key selling point to their premium subscription services (aside from the obvious EPG support). SimpleTV allows the options to stream a program recorded (or actively recording) or LiveTV—via their apps, not through web browser. In addition to that, the software allows users to “download” programs to be viewed offline (in mobile, tablet, or full size)—incredibly valuable if you’re stuck with terrible Wi-Fi or on an airplane. Preparing the files to download was quick as well—an hour program took less than ten minutes. Tablo offers similar functionality with the exception that you must have an active internet connection to stream programming, as there’s no way currently to download the program to view separately—but their website does note it’s high on their priority list.
Again we find ourselves having a hard time picking a winner. For a device so focused on mobile users to not offer iOS or Android app by Tablo is a fairly big negative. Although they do a great job with their HTML5 browser program usage, there’s an extra layer involved which having a native app would benefit. It’s for that reason that comparing directly to the SimpleTV application is slightly unfair, since they have put the effort and time into developing the apps, although they are clearly having some slight growing pains we’re sure they will resolve in future revisions. Added to the app support the ability to download programs to watch off-line, and we have to give the slight edge to SimpleTV.
This is where we are supposed to be ready to wrap things up and issue you a clear cut winner. Going by the scorecard, there are two wins for SimpleTV two by SiliconDust, one win for the Nuvyyo Tablo TV, and one draw. Not exactly a clear cut winner, and honestly who picks which will depend entirely upon the type of viewer purchasing the device. Where for some the noise factor of the Simple.TV 2 would be a killer, but then for others the lack of iOS or Android apps for phones on the Tablo would be a bigger deal.
The key takeaway I want to leave all our readers with is to be informed when choosing either of these, or any other similar device, and to take into consideration exactly what is required and supported by each, and the overall total cost of ownership. Since cost is such a large reason for why people are cutting the cord these days, it’s important to know the totals for going this type of route, and then weighing those fees with the overall benefits available. As long as customers are informed and aware of the features, benefits and most importantly, limitations of each, then they will be quite pleased with what both companies have to offer.
Thanks to Nuvyyo and Simple.TV for providing review units.