Nuvyyo Tablo review: Geek-friendly DVR for over-the-air TV
Nuyvvo's Tablo is one of the most promising over-the-air recording solutions in years, but there are just enough quirks to keep it in early-adopter territory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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+
|Total 3-year cost
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.