Lets try this again, shall we?
If you caught my first look at the dual tuner Simple TV, you’ll know that the product fell short of my expectations. A combination of fan issues and software instability led me to question if the dual tuner was actually ready for release. The idea for a networked DVR is sound, but the execution simply failed. In the end, I returned the Simple.TV hoping future updates might resolve the open issues.
Last week, a startup out of Canada entered the same playing field. Tablo TV has made similar promises as Simple TV, an easy way to record Over-The-Air (OTA) TV signals with playback to multiple devices. And the setup is essentially the same for Tablo TV: One part Slingbox, one part DVR. Like rolling your own Aereo with a better UI and higher video quality, without those pesky regional restrictions.
You connect an antenna and hard drive (or two) to the Tablo TV box, scan for OTA channels, and then start watching TV. There is no HDMI connection from the Tablo to your TV. Everything is done over a network connection and within the apps Tablo provides. Why no HDMI? You can read about that decision here.
Hardware, Features, Pricing
First, let’s talk about the hardware. Depending on the number of channels you want to simultaneously record and watch, Tablo offers two options, a dual tuner or quad tuner unit. The unit we purchased is the dual tuner model. Tablo will be releasing the four tuner model later this spring. Pricing for the dual tuner is $219, and the four tuner runs $289.
Both units have the same basic hardware specs:
- 2 or 4 OTA ATSC Tuners
- Dual band 5 and 2.4Ghz wireless with MIMO
- 2 USB ports for USB hard drive storage
With wireless support, you can place the Tablo TV in another part of the house that might have better OTA reception, rather than having to connect it directly to your router. The ability to connect to the 5Ghz wireless band also allows for less interference than the usually congested 2.4Ghz band.
Moving on to software features, Tablo offers the following:
- Watch, pause, record live TV
- 14 days of guide data
- Commercial Skip (30 second skip, 20 second rewind buttons on iPad/Android app)
- Scheduled recordings (By time/date/series)
- Stream to 6 devices simultaneously (iPad/Android app, HTML5 browser, Roku, Chromecast)
- Remote streaming while away from home
Tablo does require a subscription for these features. Without the subscription fee, you will only be able to stream live TV and manually schedule recordings by channel, date and time. Subscriptions run $4.99 a month, $49.99 a year, or $149.99 for lifetime service. The lifetime service is based on account, not on the device. That means that if you choose the lifetime fee, you can add as many Tablo devices as you want. This differs from TiVo’s service offering, which is device-specific. Tablo breaks down the subscription benefits here.
Tablo TV comes in a nicely packaged box and includes the Tablo unit, network cable, power supply, small antenna, and setup instructions. Initial setup can be completed in a couple ways, either via a tablet app (iOS/Android) or through the web browser (http://my.tablotv.com). Connection wise, you are also able to choose Ethernet or wifi. My setup was done over Ethernet to ensure I did it correctly the first time. Once unpacked, I attached my antenna, hard drive and then connected it to my router. It was go time!
Upon powering up, my mind flashed back to the horrible fan noise that came from the Simple TV unit. Would this be the same? Like others, would I be destined to rip the thing open and try figure out how to make it silent?! Thankfully, no! Tablo does not use any kind of fan for cooling and uses passive heat sinks. The only sound I could really hear was the powering up of the connected hard drive. Hey, it passed my first test.
The boot sequence on the device is very fast (under a minute). The blue LED on the front of the device pulses and the pulses become faster until it’s solid blue. This means the device is ready for setup.
I grabbed my iPad, and launched the Tablo TV app. Being on the same local network, the iPad app easily found the Tablo unit. The initial setup page also allows for wifi setup if you do not have your Tablo connected directly to your router. If you choose this route, your Tablo basically becomes a wifi hotspot for the setup period. You’ll need to go into your device’s wifi settings, connect to the Tablo local wifi, then continue on with the setup in the app.
Once you begin setup, Tablo asks that you have your antenna connected. Setup will then ask you for location information. With the iPad app, you can either manually enter your zip code, or have the app determine your location.
Next up is channel scanning. Hands down, I have never seen a device scan so fast for channels while providing visual feedback of the signal strength. As your channel scan progresses, it dynamically shows which channels are coming in and the signal strength for each. Once the scan is done, Tablo TV will select the best channels for you automatically. Usually it will skip the dash 2 or dash 3 channels it finds as those are typically supplemental to the main TV station. Tablo TV was able to find all the normal channels in my area. You can also select any channel it finds that was no automatically checked. For my setup, I’m currently about 15 miles from the broadcast towers and Tablo TV easily selected the correct channels for me.
After the channel scan, Tablo TV asked to be updated (to version 2.1.4). This is nice as it ensures you have the latest update. Tablo also includes the changes made for the update (go communication go!). Tablo will then begin to download 14 days worth of channel guide data.
The last step is formatting the hard drive. Depending on the size of the drive, formatting will take a few minutes. I used a portable Western Digital Elements drive for my review. Tablo has a nice post outlining the drives they used for testing and their recommendations.
Using the Tablo TV
Tablo TV allows playback and management from multiple devices. These devices include:
- iPad and iPad mini
- Android tablets (7 inches or larger with Android 4.2 or greater)
- Compatible HTML5 browsers (Chrome, iOS Safari, Firfox, etc)
Although you are able to access Tablo from different devices, the user experience mostly stays the same (exception being the Roku channel). I’ll try to summarize the how the Tablo works in general, and then spend discuss any specifics within each app section below.
When launching the Tablo app, the main display defaults to Prime Time TV and offers a visually rich interface that is heavy on graphics. Instead of the typical guide view, you are presented with a grid of pictures that represents each show/movie. Tapping on any of the pictures will bring up a nice description, background photo, and options to record or playback shows depending on the section you are in. Another nice addition to the description screen is that Tablo will also split out the show details by season. So if you have multiple instances for a show, it will break apart which season it belonged to. That was a nice touch.
On the left hand side menu, Tablo TV offers up main categories for Live TV, Prime Time TV, TV Shows, Movies, Sports. Within each category, you can even filter depending on how you want to view shows. For instance, you are able to select the Prime Time category which only shows you TV that will be on during prime time. You can then sort shows by whether or not they are new, or are by a certain genre, or even specifically by channel. Each of the main sections allows for this kind of second filtering. Although this sort of manipulation of views was jarring at first, I eventually came to appreciate how easy it is narrow down shows. Tablo TV also provides the “normal” Live TV guide view if you are more comfortable viewing shows this way.
The other two sections of Tablo are Scheduled and Recordings. The Scheduled section allows you to view all shows waiting to be recorded at a glance. Selecting any of the shows will pull up the familiar show description screen and at the bottom will be the upcoming shows. There is also a Conflict section that can be used to show any potential conflicts of shows. Fixing conflicts is as easy as selecting the show that is in conflict, and then determine the action you want to take. Tablo provides an easy visual for the choice.
The Recordings section displays all shows that have been recorded. Selecting a show again pulls ups the show description screen along with any available recordings for playback.
Let’s look specifically at the different ways to use your Tablo TV:
HTML5 Browser (Google Chrome)
On any HTML5 compatible browser, you are able to browse your recordings, change your schedules, watch live TV and change some settings of the Tablo TV. Depending on the size of screen you are using, Tablo will adjust the user experience. So if you are using a Chromebook to browse and watch TV, you’ll get a different experience than watching on an iPhone. Did I just mention Chromebooks? Oh yeah, Tablo has no problems serving up live and recorded shows. The web app looks very similar to native iPad and Android app, especially at the Chromebook size. On an iPhone, the display is shrunk and not as much information is shown. Navigation still works well. You can even save the Tablo address to your iPhone home screen. It will save the Tablo icon so it looks like a regular app. Tablo also just put in a change to take advantage of the full screen view of Safari. That means there is no more address bar at the top and the web app feels more or less like a real iOS app. The browser experience lets you view live tv and recorded shows. It’s easy to select the correct view you want, select the show and begin watching.
To be truthful, the Android app felt a bit rough around the edges. Visually it looked similar to the iPad app, and all the features seemed to match, but performance seemed to lag. With my short time with the device, the Nexus 7 worked okay if you wanted to catch up on a recorded show, but trying to use it to watch Live TV was slow. Changing channels took quite a bit of time as the device tried to load the stream. Hopefully Tablo will address some of the performance of the Android app in the near future. As for Chromecast support, the Android app does support it, but it was almost unusable in my setup (more on that below).
The Roku channel provided the most straightforward way to use the Tablo TV. The channel itself has the same look and feel as the other channels in the Roku store. When launched, the Roku searches for a Tablo on your local network. Once found, it presents a simple set of icons for Live TV, Recordings, TV Shows, Movies, Schedule and Disconnect. Within each section you have some sorting ability. Each time the Roku screen needs to refresh the page to show the new sorted view. Playback for recorded shows was almost instantaneous and the quality of streams was excellent. There was never a time that a stream degraded or changed to a lower resolution. When a show is recording, you can start to watch a show and continue watching all the way through without having to go stop the stream and replaying from the beginning. Thumbs up for that!
To me, the iPad app provided the best combination of management, playback, and streaming. You can tell that Tablo spent a lot of time making sure the iPad quickly responded to every touch. You can swiftly move through the interface to make any changes or start any stream needed. The ability to use AirPlay to hand off any stream to an Apple TV provides a way to watch any OTA TV on the big screen. There isn’t much else to say in regards to the iPad app that wasn’t said above concerning UI. I have been enjoying using both the app and AirPlay for stream.
A word on Chromecast
From my testing, there are two ways to currently use Tablo TV with the Chromecast. You can either use the Android app or cast an entire Chrome tab in the browser. Both options did not really stand up to using AirPlay or the Roku app. I do not think Chromecast is ready for prime time just yet. After flinging a stream (whether live or recorded) to the TV, the stream eventually deteriorated with audio sync issues and overall non responsiveness, especially from the Android app.
The API for Chromecast was just released, so I expect there to be updates that might help fix these issues. But for now, if you want to rely solely on a Chromecast to stream to a TV, I would recommend against it. As for the iPad app, Tablo has stated that it will also be receiving Chromecast support. Once it does, I will update this post.
Here are a few odds and ends that I thought were interesting, and wanted to call out separately:
- Blue led can be turned off in the settings page. Don’t forget to hit save when you’ve toggled the setting!
- Harmony remote can control an AirPlay stream to the Apple TV. While a show was paused on the Apple TV, I walked away to another room. My wife decided to sit down and start watching TV. She thought it was just our TiVo paused. To my surprise, the remote actually controlled the AirPlay stream! This included play/pause and also fast forward and rewind abilities. This isn’t necessarily unique to the Tablo app, but AirPlay in general. Just thought it was cool to be able to do this. Makes it easier to control a Tablo stream to the Apple TV with a remote rather than the iPad app.
- Upon re-scanning channels, it may appear as if schedule recordings or shows disappear. This is just the guide updating the data. Eventually the channels will reappear and your previous recordings will still be in place.
- The iPad and Android apps do a great job of syncing and providing feedback on syncing with the Tablo device. When using the web browser, it can take some time for changes to show up. If you clear your browser cache and log back in, the sync usually is fixed.
- Tablo is very socially active. They are always answering questions on Twitter / Google Plus / Facebook and their Community site. If you have a specific feature request, submit one to their Tablo community
- You can stream the same live channel to multiple devices. So if you have more than one person that needs access to a live channel, it’s possible with multiple devices. I tested this with one live channel streaming to four devices. Playback was perfect.
- When looking at the Live Guide view, the channel indicator will pulse orange when the tuner is in use. It gives you a quick glance how many tuners are active.
If you are looking to cut your cable/satellite subscriptions and replace with an OTA tuner, you need to give a serious look at Tablo TV. To me, it is the best unit out there in terms of features, cost, and speed. The device over the past week has been rock solid and I’m continually impressed by the speed of the device, especially when streaming to an iPad or Roku. The device is responsive when you need it to be, and otherwise hides in the background waiting for the next command. For my final setup, I moved the Tablo upstairs for the best reception. The Tablo is connected via a powerline adapter back to the router. This gives me the best flexibility to stream OTA and recorded shows anywhere in the house. I have loved using Tablo so far, and I look forward to additional features they may provide in the future!