LAS VEGAS--It's hard to imagine a DVR without a hard drive or a video output, but that's exactly what the new Simple.TV box is.
Designed with cable-cutters in mind, the Simple.TV ($150, available in the spring) is capable of recording over-the-air HDTV and Clear QAM cable, along with traditional DVR functionality like pausing live TV.
What makes Simple.TV's solution interesting, compared with more-traditional DVRs capable of recording over-the-air content (like TiVo and Channel Master TV), is that the Simple.TV box itself doesn't have an HDMI or any kind of video output. Instead, it relies on streaming video to a box you may already have on your home network; supported devices at launch will include Roku, iPad, Boxee, and Google TV. It's not quite clear from the initial press release, but presumably Simple.TV will have an app for each of the supported boxes that allows you to access not only your recorded programs, but live TV as well.
There's also no built-in hard drive, instead requiring you to connect a USB drive for storage. That pushes the total cost of the Simple.TV system up around $100, although it makes it easy to upgrade as larger drives continue to get cheaper.
Like most DVRs, most of Simple.TV's good features require a $5 monthly fee for "premier service." Your five bucks a month gets you "season pass"-like automated recordings, an extensive EPG with detailed metadata, plus Slingbox-like capability to stream to the device off your home network for up to five users. A $5 monthly fee is a lot less than TiVo charges, but it still may be a turnoff to budget-conscious cable-cutters who are trying to avoid monthly fees altogether.
As cool as the Simple.TV box sounds, there are some significant limitations. It's a single-tuner device, so you'll need to stack two boxes to do a basic DVR task like recording two programs at once. There's also no mention of built-in Wi-Fi on the device, which means you'll need an Ethernet connection in your living room. (Or you can use one of several Ethernet alternatives, but again, that ends up driving up the overall cost of the device.)
Even with the drawbacks, Simple.TV is one of the few bright spots for in a CES that has largely felt like a bust for cable-cutters. Streaming-video services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant are great, but cable-cutters really need some kind of of live TV solution unless they're ready to give up local sports and live events like the Academy Awards. We're looking forward to seeing if Simple.TV can fill that gap when it comes out in the spring.