As cord-cutting continues to grow, more people are looking for ways to record the free over-the-air (OTA) TV signals that offer up sports, news and award show programming that's tougher to get from Internet sources like Netflix and Amazon Video.
Nuvyyo's Tablo ($220) is the most exciting over-the-air (OTA) recording solution to come out in years. It uses the same concept Simple.TV debuted at CES 2012, but Tablo implements it better. Most impressively, its image quality looks excellent, even with sports, which has been a sore spot for other streaming solutions such as Aereo and Simple.TV. The box feels responsive and can stream to a growing list of supported products, including iOS and Android devices, Roku boxes, Apple TV (using AirPlay), and Chromecast. Sure, Tablo comes with a $5 monthly fee for program guide data, but it still ends up being relatively affordable compared to other OTA DVRs.
But Tablo isn't quite ready for mainstream adoption. There's no reminder to add recording time to sporting events, so games can get cut off when you care the most: the final minutes. The best way to watch Tablo in the living room is by using a Roku box, but the Roku interface is clunky and lacks essentials such as an easy way to fast-forward through commercials.
Those flaws are enough to keep me from wholeheartedly recommending Tablo; more traditional products like the Channel Master DVR+ and TiVo Roamio are currently better solutions for the average buyer. But there's no denying that Tablo is a thrilling device, especially for a newly-launched product. If you're an early adopter willing to live with some growing pains, Tablo is well worth your $220.
The hardware: A small hub for streaming over-the-air TV
The Tablo hardware may just be another "black box" piece of electronics, but the utilitarian design feels right. The sides have a glossy finish, while the top is matte and sports the Tablo logo. There's a small blue LED on the front that's easy to turn off the in the settings. Since you don't actually need the Tablo to be anywhere near your TV (more on that later), the generic styling works fine.
Flip around to the back to reveal just a few connections: Ethernet, two USB ports, and an antenna input. There's also built-in Wi-Fi, so you don't need to have an Ethernet port nearby, which a nice step-up over competitors like the Channel Master DVR+ and Simple.TV 2.
There's no HDMI output, nor even an included remote, and that's entirely by design. Tablo doesn't work like a standard cable-box-style DVR.
How it works: Some accessories required (and not included)
Instead of connecting directly to your TV via HDMI, like a traditional DVR, Tablo is built to stream to devices that you presumably already have. You set up Tablo, an antenna, and a USB hard drive on your home network, and stream live TV and recorded programs to your smartphone, tablet, living room devices, and computer. (Tablo can even stream to devices outside your home network, although I found that feature worked only half the times I tried.) The advantage is that you can place Tablo anywhere that gets Wi-Fi reception, instead of being tethered to the TV.
The slight catch is that you'll have provide your own antenna, USB hard drive, and the device you want to stream to. If you're starting from scratch, that adds about $145 (roughly $40 for an antenna; $55 for a 500GB hard drive; $50 for a Roku) to the cost. That model is no different than what competitors like the Channel Master DVR+ and Simple.TV are doing, but be aware that you'll need more hardware than just the box.
The list of supported devices is solid for a launch product. There are tablet apps for Android and iPad, although smartphones need to use a slightly clunkier Web interface. There's a dedicated app for Roku devices, while the Apple TV and Chromecast are supported if you're "casting" from a mobile device. It's a good initial launch lineup, but it would be nice to see Fire TV and native phone apps in the future.
User interface: Good start, but Roku app needs work
The Tablo user interface depends on what device you're using, but they all share a similar design language. Content is broken down into a few categories: Live TV, PrimeTime, TV Shows, Movies, Sports, and Recordings. It's straightforward enough, with PrimeTime giving you an easy way to browse the most popular upcoming shows.
The best Tablo experience is on the iPad. That's largely due to the traditional channel grid for browsing live TV and upcoming programs, and the iPad's generous screen real estate that makes browsing easy. Selecting the channel directly tunes to live TV (which takes a few seconds), while selecting a program gives you the option to record or get more information. Not every program has cover art, which gives it a bit of a ragtag feel, but overall the layout is nice and easy enough to navigate.
Select a recorded program and it starts playing back in just a second or two. You get both 30-second skip and 20-second skip back buttons, and they work nearly instantly -- surprising for video that's being streamed over your network.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance on both native and Web apps is the semifrequent need to sync data with the Tablo box. This won't happen as often if you're using your Tablo frequently, but for a more occasional TV viewers, you'll often boot up the app only to have to wait around a minute while it syncs new program guide and recordings info.
The Roku interface needs the most work, which is unfortunate since it's the best way to get the traditional TV experience with Tablo. You can view what programs are currently playing, but there's no standard program guide to see what's coming up later. Most frustrating is that there's no good way to skip past commercials. Skipping forward only jumps 10 seconds, and fast-forwarding doesn't actually show the program advancing -- only the progress bar on the bottom -- so you have to guess when the commercials might end. Nuvyyo says 30-second skip is coming, which will be a big help, but you'll still have to struggle with the lack of visual feedback.
Recordings: Dual tuner, recurring recordings, but trouble with sports
Tablo has dual-tuner functionality, which means you can watch live TV while recording another program on another channel, or even record two live programs while watching something else off the DVR -- all from a single antenna. Nuvyyo is also planning to offer a four-tuner model in the future for $290.
Like "Season Passes" on TiVo, Tablo has the ability to record every episode of a particular show, and you can tell it to record only new episodes of a series, so you're not stuck recording a bunch of repeats.