Simple.TV review: Cheap, innovative, but limited cord-cutter's DVR

If you opt for the free Basic subscription, you're more or less getting a glorified VCR. I wasn't able to directly test the Basic tier using my reviewer's account, but photos provided by Simple.TV make it clear that if you want to do anything more than watch live TV and schedule recordings for "Thursday at 8 p.m. on Fox", you need to step up to the Premium service. Aside from better DVR features like season pass recordings and better guide data, you also gain the Slingbox-like ability to access your DVR from outside your home network. If I were relying on Simple.TV as my main TV source, there's no doubt I'd go for the Premier monthly subscription.

Premier service currently costs $50 per year or $150 for a "lifetime" subscription. The math is pretty simple; you'll make out better with a lifetime subscription if you keep your Simple.TV for over three years. Personally, I'd say that's too long to be locked in to a new company that may not be around three years from now. Simple.TV also says a monthly fee option will eventually be offered.

The DVR experience: Less than a TiVo, but sometimes more
DVRs have been around since 1999, but newcomers to the category tend to miss the nuances that make the timeshifting experience so satisfying. A great DVR needs, at a minimum, excellent EPG data, extensive season pass options, and snappy response time. Simple.TV gets about half of this right.

Simple.TV Roku interface
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Simple.TV Roku interface
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Simple.TV's guide data is largely spot-on, assuming you get the Premier subscription. I found guide data to be accurate, although with occasional missing art. My season passes recorded dutifully, ensuring that my DVR regularly filled up with my favorite shows without having to set any recordings. Navigating live TV and recordings on the Roku is certainly a stripped-down experience, but it works pretty well overall.

Actually watching shows via Simple.TV is less satisfying, especially as a self-described DVR power user. I eschew live TV whenever I can, recording virtually everything (including sports) so I can blast through commercials with the 30-second skip button. Heck, I even use 30-sec skip to blast through the huddles in NFL games. (It's an art.)

Simple.TV through the Roku box doesn't quite allow for that kind of control. Press right on the Roku's directional pad and it skips forward and automatically pauses, so you'll need to hit play to start up the video again. The skip forward is also inconsistent. Sometimes it seems to skip forward about 30 seconds, sometimes not at all, and sometimes it splits the difference.

Simple.TV Roku interface
When you fast-forward, the show you're watching is paused, so it's tough to gauge where to stop.

Making commercial-skipping even tougher is the fact that when you fast-forward and skip, the video stays paused in the background, rather than following your progress like a typical DVR. You get a scrub bar at the bottom, but there aren't even Netflix-style thumbnails to guide you as you go. You're essentially in the dark as you fast-forward, skip, and rewind. I ended up pressing skip-forward about 10 times when I got to commercial breaks, hoping for the best and adjusting afterward.

Not everyone is as hands-on about their TV watching, and if you don't mind sitting through commercials, the experience is a lot better. Simple.TV has done a decent job at providing a traditional TV experience on the Roku box, complete with a basic guide for Live TV and list of recordings. That's a big plus over competitors like Aereo that virtually require an iPad to watch on a TV.

Simple.TV really shines when you're not on your living-room couch. The ability to stream to multiple devices is nice, especially if you have an iPad, and Slingbox-esque access to your DVR from anywhere is a nice bonus. Image quality outside your home network depends on how fast your broadband upload speed is (often not great), but it's still worth it to catch, say, some playoff baseball on the go. It's an experience you can't get even on TiVo, without ponying up for accessories like a TiVo Stream and Slingbox.

Image quality: Passable, with notable exceptions
The biggest question I had going into this review was how good Simple.TV's image quality would be. Because the Simple.TV box lacks an HDMI output, it needs to compress and send all your video signals over your home network. Part of the attraction of over-the-air TV is its pristine image quality -- typically better than what HD cable offers -- and it was hard to imagine Simple.TV could preserve that.

The short version is that while Simple.TV's image quality is noticeably softer than uncompressed over-the-air TV, it likely meets the "good enough" test for most people. Shows like "Parks and Recreation," "Nova," and "Go On" didn't suffer much from compressed image quality, although videophiles (read: me) will certainly notice the difference. As with Netflix and other streaming-video services, image quality typically starts out poor, then quickly improves in a few seconds. While that's not a problem on Netflix, you do notice it more on a DVR where you'll be fast-forwarding past commercials regularly.

Simple.TV Roku interface
The NFL just isn't as enjoyable with Simple.TV's video compression. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

While I generally found Simple.TV to be plenty watchable, there was a major exception: football. The most-watched sport in America suffers quite a bit from Simple.TV's compression, especially on the long passing plays that are quite common in a modern NFL game. It's hard to track the ball's flight on Simple.TV and even on less-demanding footage you get a sense that there are frames missing -- something's off. Switching between a TiVo Premiere and Simple.TV was an eye-opener, and even less critical viewers noticed Simple.TV looked different. I didn't have the opportunity to test with other sports like hockey or basketball, but I wouldn't be surprised if other fast-action content suffered from the same issues.

All that being said, I watched an entire recent football game on Simple.TV and you do get used to its image quality after a while. But it's a compromise I personally wouldn't want to make on a regular basis, especially knowing how good over-the-air HD can look.

Bugs and stability
Simple.TV made a lot of improvements over my testing period, so it's fair to say that some of the bugginess I experienced was due to the fact that the software wasn't fully baked yet. (To be fair, my testing started a month before the product shipped to buyers.) Still, even as late as last week there were bugs to be fixed, some of which Simple.TV has already addressed. The bottom line is that you shouldn't expect a perfectly smooth ride at this stage.

The worst experience occurred when I tried to catch up on the vice presidential debate I had been recording on Simple.TV. The recording didn't show up in the list of recorded programs on my Roku, and when I went to the Live TV guide, the guide wouldn't load at all. Switching over to my laptop, I found it correctly showed that the VP debate was being recorded, but I still couldn't access the program via the live tuner or the recorded program. After at least 15 minutes of frustration, I gave up and had to settle for post-debate analysis via the live TV, using my TV's built-in tuner.

That snapshot overstates my overall frustration using Simple.TV, although it's not the only time I ran into difficulties when I sat down to watch TV. Simple.TV is still something of a work in progress and buyers should know that going in.

What are the alternatives?
The TiVo Premiere is the flat-out best over-the-air DVR. TiVo's software is rock-solid and easy to use, plus it offers up pristine image quality and dual-tuner capability. The catch is that TiVo's service costs $15 per month with a one-year commitment, on top of the $150 cost of the TiVo Premiere hardware. That $15 per month subscription adds up, making it significantly pricier than Simple.TV.

Costs TiVo Premiere Simple.TV
Hardware $150 $150
1-year subscription $180 $50
2-year subscription $360 $100
Lifetime subsciption $500 $150
Total cost of ownership
1-year $330 $200
Lifetime $650 $300

Aside from TiVo, there haven't been many compelling over-the-air DVR options over the years, but that's starting to change. Boxee recently announced the Boxee TV, a relatively radical take on the over-the-air DVR concept that uploads, stores, and retrieves all your recordings via the cloud -- there's no local storage at all. It's an enticing idea, but I'm skeptical about how well it works in practice, especially given some of the image quality and responsiveness issues with Simple.TV. Still, if you're looking for an over-the-air DVR, it wouldn't hurt to wait a few weeks and read the early reviews.

Aereo's no-hardware, entirely cloud-based service also seems nice from the outside, but in my testing , it just didn't work as a living-room experience. I'll be taking a second look at the Aereo service soon to see if the service has improved since launch, but in any event it continues to be a New York-only option.

Conclusion: Inexpensive, but lots of limitations
For Simple.TV fans that have waited since CES 2012 to check out this next-gen DVR, this product launch has to feel bittersweet. While it's true that Simple.TV is the best non-TiVo over-the-air DVR I've tested -- especially considering its price -- there are too many quirks and limitations for me to give it much more than a cautious recommendation. This is early adopter territory and you shouldn't expect the convenience and functionality that a more mature DVR offers. That being said, the cost savings are significant if you can live with Simple.TV's limitations.

If you're on the fence about Simple.TV, the best advice may be to wait. It seems like manufacturers are finally giving some attention to the over-the-air DVR market, and CES 2013 is just around the corner.

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Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.