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Simple.TV 2 review: Great cord-cutting OTA DVR for PCs, not so much for TVs

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MSRP: $199.99
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The Good The Simple.TV 2 streams live and recorded over-the-air TV signals to other devices in your home, including iOS and Android devices, Roku boxes, and Chromecast. Image quality is perfectly acceptable for streaming to small screens across your network or the Internet. The Android and iOS apps are powerful and relatively easy to use, and the content sharing feature is very handy.

The Bad Stand-alone DVRs offer a simpler experience; mediocre image quality on big screens; inconsistency among the different apps; distracting fan noise; need to add the cost of an antenna and a hard drive, as well as another device (like Roku) if you want a TV connection; monthly service fee of $5 required for many features.

The Bottom Line As a streaming-based DVR the Simple.TV offers a lot of functionality including a novel sharing feature, but if you just want to watch on your TV, instead of a tablet or phone, there are better alternatives.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Ecosystem 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Value 8

Review Sections

The hunger for TV "placeshifting" -- watching your shows from somewhere other than your living room couch -- is arguably greater than ever, only now it's all delivered via the cloud. While legal cloud TV is some way off thanks to the recent Aereo decision, there are several devices which enable you to stream live and recorded TV to mobile devices in addition to your flatscreen.

The trend began with the Slingbox in the mid-Noughties, a peripheral that attached symbiotically to your cable box or DVR and streamed to the web. The latest iteration is devices like the Simple.TV and Nuvyyo Tablo , so-called "network DVRs" that don't need a separate cable box or DVR, instead streaming over-the-air (OTA) TV signals. They appeal primarily to people who have cut the cable TV cord.

The Simple.TV is a box to which you can connect the Internet, a hard drive and an antenna. It then streams recorded and live OTA TV shows to a device of your choosing, typically a phone or tablet, through a variety of apps. There's also an app for Roku, and the ability to work with Chromecast, both of which allow Simple.TV to "stream" to any TV.

Before you consider buying a device like the Simple.TV you should ask yourself what you'll be using it for. If you want to watch primarily on a TV as opposed to a mobile device, I'd instead recommend a standalone DVR, like TiVo Roamio or Channel Master DVR+ . But if you intend to watch a lot of OTA TV shows on a tablet or phone, and especially if you want to share those shows with friends or download them to a tablet for offline viewing, the innovative Simple.TV deserves a look.

Design

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While the original Simple.TV resembled an Apple device with its white finish and organic curves, the new version is more compact and looks more like a standard streaming box. This is a small device, a little larger than a Roku , with a friendly television logo and a vented top.

Through the grille you can plainly see what is unfortunately the noisiest part of this device: the cooling fan. On startup it makes the unit sound like a PC, and at other times when it activates intermittently. While Simple.TV has issued various firmware updates it is still audible in a quiet room.

Features

This second iteration of the Simple.TV also costs a little bit more: $200 versus $150. The biggest change is dual-tuner support which introduces the ability to record two shows at once or watch one live show while another is recording.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Simple.TV has software for a variety of platforms including Roku, iOS, Android, Windows 8 (app) and most browsers. Its makers recommend the Android app as the most feature-rich and stable.

Simple.TV says that 50 percent of users watch via Roku or Chromecast ( added earlier this year) -- that is, they watch on a television. Yet, despite its main usage case, this is a "cloud" DVR and cannot be plugged into a TV directly. The only connections you'll find are Ethernet, coaxial antenna and a USB port for connecting external storage. You'll need to supply your own hard drive, and there's no Wi-Fi for networking -- probably a good thing since wired is typically more stable.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You can choose not to pay a $5 monthly/$150 lifetime fee with Simple.TV, but you'll miss out on the ability to stream shows outside the home (called "Whole-planet Remote Access"), access the program guide, the ability to set up TiVo-like "season passes" to shows, and sharing recordings and offline downloads. I think it's well worth the fee to subscribe.

One of Simple.TV's newest and perhaps more "controversial" features in this post-Aereo world is the ability to share your recordings with five other non-Simple.TV users. Once you to add a person's email address they can set up an account and log in to the app or web site themselves. They'll be able to see and watch your recorded shows, but they won't have access to live TV, the program guide or other advanced features.

The DVR enables offline downloads, but you can't simply plug your HDD into your PC to get them. Instead you need to hit the little download icon by your recorded show and the system will upload it to its servers, convert it, and then send it back to you.

As you can imagine for a long recording this can take a long time in the best quality, and though I didn't use a stopwatch it took many hours to render a 2-hour movie in full quality. If your needs are more modest, downloading a 30-minute HD program to "tablet" (640x480) took about 3 minutes and resulted in a 330MB file on the local network. It's still a nice feature though, especially for road trips and plane flights with kids and a tablet away from an Internet connection.

Be aware that you can't archive recordings when on a different network, otherwise you'll get an error message saying "You can only download MP4 files when the Simple.TV is on your local network".

The Nuvyyo Tablo offers neither sharing nor offline downloads, although its web site says the latter feature "is high on our priority list."

Price Comparison

Cord-cutters mainly do so to save money, so it's worth comparing the various OTA DVRs, most of which charge a subscription fee, for long-term as well as initial costs.

TiVo recently announced a new $50 model for the cord-cutting crowd , but the Simple.TV attracts a much more modest cost in the long term. A yearly subscription is $60 while a "lifetime" is $150. As the table below demonstrates, Simple.TV sits in the middle of the OTA DVR pack in terms of total cost.

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