Nuvyyo Tablo review: Geek-friendly DVR for over-the-air TV

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.

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Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Although there aren't any options to add additional recording buffers before and after shows, Tablos adds a few extra minutes by default if a tuner is available. For examples, a "Bob's Burgers" recording ran 35 minutes and 10 seconds and an episode of "Parks and Recreation" ran 36 minutes, even though both are technically 30-minute shows. It's a nice insurance against missing the last minute of a show when it runs long.

Tablo isn't quite as clever with sports, which notoriously run longer than their allotted time slot. While TiVo prompts you to add more time to sports games, and Channel Master's DVR+ has the option to add additional time, there's no similar flexibility on Tablo, so you can only record the games in their allotted time.

The result isn't pretty: my recording of the Mets - Yankees game on May 13 ran 3 hours long, which only was enough to get me to the top of the 7th. I'd love to shorten the bloated length of baseball games as much as anyone else, but in the meantime, there's not much point in recording a game if you miss the last three innings. Tablo says it's working to add a feature to handle these cases in the coming months, but in the meantime, you'll have to remember to manually record the shows directly after the game to add in a buffer.

Image quality: Truly impressive, if you crank up the quality

As much as I've liked the simplicity of streaming-centric solutions like Aereo and the first-gen Simple.TV, I've never been satisfied with their image quality. It's OK for some programs, but with faster action, such as many sporting events, they can look particularly rough. That's especially disappointing for anyone who's become accustomed to the pristine image quality of over-the-air TV. I know how good OTA TV can look, and it's a shame to see it degraded.

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Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

That's what makes Tablo so impressive: the image quality can look great, especially if you choose the highest recording quality (1080p). It takes up more space, but I found it to be a significant step-up on more demanding content, like basketball, where the default 720p setting showed too many motion artifacts. You'll need a robust router to handle the extra bandwidth, but my Asus RT-N56U had no trouble handling dual 1080p streams without buffering errors.

On non-sports programming, it's even tougher to see the flaws in Tablo image quality from a normal seating distance. I have a pickier eye than average, and while I could sometimes notice some slight false contouring on shows like "Cosmos," Tablo's image quality is, for the most part, on par with HD from a cable or satellite company. Most people won't notice the difference.

Living with it: Not quite plug-and-play

Where people will notice a difference is in regular day-to-day use. The toughest test for any DVR is how well it holds up as the workhorse for your TV watching over a couple of weeks, and while Tablo faired well, it didn't seamlessly substitute for my TiVo Premiere.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While I found Tablo to be remarkably stable for a streaming-style DVR, there were infrequent buffering screens and other hiccups that remind you your video is being pulled wirelessly from your router. The most notable instance was when I watched the Kentucky Derby via Tablo and ran into a series of rebuffering screens that were frequent enough that I thought I was going to miss the race. The stream recovered once I exited and reloaded the app (and I was able to watch an hour-long PBS program afterward without a problem), so it's hard to say how often glitches like that would interrupt your TV. More often than with a traditional DVR, though.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

But by far the biggest drawback to Tablo is the living-room experience. I watch nearly all my TV from the couch, so the clunkiness of the Roku app was a constant annoyance, especially in contrast to the slick iPad app. Trying to get through the commercials in an episode of "Cosmos" without true 30-second skip or thumbnails to gauge my progress gets old fast.

Some of these issues won't be a problem if you plan to use an iPad with an Apple TV, or an Android tablet with Chromecast, but then you're stuck using a tablet for all your TV watching, which isn't an ideal experience. Tablo's technology is undeniably cool, but there's still work to be done.

Costs: A relatively reasonable over-the-air DVR

Tablo isn't the cheapest over-the-air solution, but it compares favorably to most of its competitors.

If you're starting from scratch, you'll need the Tablo hardware ($220), an antenna (they start around $40), a USB hard drive (around $55), and a few cables (around $10), for a total of $355. You'll also probably want a set-top box for living-room viewing, and the $50 Roku 1 or Streaming Stick are probably your best bet. Finally, you'll have to tack on the subscription fees, which runs $5 per month, $50 per year, or $150 for a lifetime subscription.

When you look at the three-year ownership costs of the major over-the-air recording solutions, it looks like this:

Channel Master DVR+ Tablo Aereo Simple.TV 2 TiVo Roamio
Hardware $250 $220 $50 $250 $200
Accessories $145 $105 $0 $136 $50
Subscription fees $0 $150 $432 $150 $500
Total 3-year cost $395 $475 $482 $536 $750

While Tablo can't match the subscription-free Channel Master DVR+ on long-term cost of ownership, it's more affordable than any other over-the-air DVR solution, including Aereo. (And Aereo only gets more expensive as time goes on, since there's no ability to "cap" monthly fees with a lifetime subscription option.) Considering Tablo has built-in premium features like out-of-home streaming, the additional cost doesn't seem so bad.

Conclusion: A solid start for a geek-friendly OTA DVR

Tablo can be dazzling at times. The image quality can look shockingly good, skipping commercials is near-instant on the iPad, and out-of-home streaming is a neat trick that even the entry-level TiVo Roamio can't pull off. For a first-generation product, Tablo is much more polished than I expected, and it continued to improve over my review period; it's encouraging to see the company is particularly active on its community forums.

But even with those accomplishments, Tablo is still in early-adopter territory. It can't properly record sporting events -- which is a major reason why cord-cutters want an OTA DVR in the first place -- and the Roku interface and experience still feels clunkier than traditional TV. Nuvyyo is aware of the shortcomings and working on fixes, so prospective buyers should realize that Tablo is still a work-in-progress.

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